How Did Guns Get So Powerful?Decade by decade, firearms have become deadlier—and tightened their grip on our collective imagination.
By Phil Klay
June 11, 2022
Like automobiles, firearms now possess a cultural and symbolic magnetism that makes them, for many Americans, the cornerstone of a way of life.Photograph by Mark Peterson / Redux
Samuel Walker and fifteen other Texas Rangers rode into the countryside to hunt for Comanches in June of 1844. The Lords of the South Plains, as the Comanches were known, had ruled the American Southwest for a century; by displacing other Native American nations, raiding colonial outposts, enslaving people, and extracting tribute, they enacted what the historian Pekka Hämäläinen, in his book “The Comanche Empire,” called a story of role reversal, “in which Indians expand, dictate, and prosper, and European colonists resist, retreat, and struggle to survive.” About a week into Walker’s expedition, dozens of Comanche horsemen appeared behind the Rangers, armed and shouting taunts in Spanish. More were almost certainly hidden nearby.
That day, the Rangers carried rifles—their usual weapons. But each man also wore a pair of Colt Paterson revolvers, new and mostly untested. The guns used rotating cylinders; by drawing back a hammer, a shooter turned the cylinder, putting one of five chambers in position to fire. Intellectually, the Rangers understood the value of these weapons: there’d be no need to reload until all five rounds had been expended. Still, the guns were small and inaccurate, and so the Texans reached for their rifles first. The Comanches rode back and forth, goading them into taking shots. As the Rangers used up their ammunition, more Comanches emerged—sixty or seventy all told.
Eventually, the Rangers ran out of bullets, and the Comanches closed in. As the riders rushed across the prairie, the Rangers drew their pistols. The men fired a volley—and then, without pause, another and another. Comanches tumbled from their saddles. The Rangers “had a shot for every finger on the hand,” a surviving Comanche recalled. The Native Americans fled, and the Rangers followed; by the end of the day, sixteen Rangers had killed twenty Comanches and wounded thirty more, dealing most of the damage with their Colts. “These daring Indians had always supposed themselves superior to us, man to man, on horse,” Walker later wrote. “The result of this engagement was such as to intimidate them and enable us to treat with them.” This seemed to promise the decline of the Comanche empire and the security of Texas as a burgeoning slave state.
After the battle, Walker wrote to Samuel Colt, the inventor of the revolver, to inquire about buying more guns. But he discovered that Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company had gone out of business. Colt had been making money by supplying his “repeating rifles” to soldiers during the so-called second Seminole War, but “by exterminating the Indians, and bringing the war rapidly to an end, the market for the arms was destroyed,” he later wrote. (“The thing was so good it ruined itself,” his lawyer complained.) As the historian Pamela Haag writes, in “The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture,” there was no mass market for firearms in nineteenth-century America. In fact, since before the country was founded, its appetite for guns had been so low as to be considered a security liability. A report from 1756 on the military preparedness of the colonies found that no more than half of militia members were armed, often with broken, ungainly, outdated, badly designed, or poorly maintained weapons; in 1776, the governor of Rhode Island told George Washington that the colonists had almost entirely “disposed of their arms,” because they believed themselves to be in “a perfect state of security.” When the Revolutionary War began, the scarcity of gunsmiths and guns forced the colonies to purchase tens of thousands of muskets from France.
Colt’s fast-firing revolvers were a significant innovation in gun design. But the generals who awarded firearms contracts weren’t impressed—they tended to focus on the accuracy of guns while undervaluing their speed. General James Wolfe Ripley, the Union Army’s chief of ordnance during the Civil War, saw repeating weapons as a “great evil” that wasted ammunition, and preferred rifles that a shooter could carefully and accurately aim. Walker and Colt lived in what now looks to us like a prehistoric ballistic world. Guns were slow and inaccurate. Innovation was possible but stymied by dogma. And the market for guns was too small to sustain large gun manufacturers.
Before starting his weapons company, Colt had travelled America as “Dr. Coult of New York, London, and Calcutta,” administering nitrous oxide to spectators, promising that the gas would help them laugh, dance, sing, and perform startling feats of “muscular exertion.” He decided to use his flair for advertising to restart his company on a new basis, removed from the boom and bust of wartime gun sales. He began selling abroad, attempting to smuggle guns into Russia in bales of cotton, supplying guns to soldiers of fortune in Cuba, and equipping the British in South Africa and “men of brains” in Mexico. At the same time, he worked at building up the U.S. civilian market. (“The Government may go to the Devil and I will go my own way,” Colt said.) He pioneered the use of celebrity endorsements, commissioning the well-known painter George Catlin to create absurd portraits in which Colt appeared shooting buffalo and jaguar with Colt revolvers. A native of Hartford, he persuaded the governor of Connecticut to make him a lieutenant colonel in that state’s militia; using that honorific, he introduced himself at foreign courts, presenting European royalty with lavishly engraved Colts. When a Hartford clergyman’s home was burglarized, Colt sent over a revolver along with a message declaring the gun “my latest work on ‘Moral Reform.’ ”
Colt used the phrase “new and improved” to entice buyers, and published advertorials about his guns in magazines. To stoke sales, he suggested dangers around every corner; he wrote to the Mormon leader Brigham Young, advising him to buy Colt revolvers as a defense against “raids of savages” and “white marauders.” Later, he named several streets in Coltsville, his factory town, after prominent Native Americans—Sequassen, Wawarme, Masseek, Curcombe, and Weehassat—the names conjuring the images of Indian-fighting that had burnished his weapons’ reputation.
“What Colt invented was a system of myths, symbols, stagecraft, and distribution,” the historian William Hosley writes, in “Colt: The Making of an American Legend.” His guns were sold not just as tools but as a way to access “the celebrity, glamour and dreams of its namesake.” As Haag shows, other gun manufacturers soon picked up on the strategy. The Winchester Repeating Arms Company, which was also trying to grow its civilian market by adopting a policy of “scattering” its guns—rejecting higher-volume orders in favor of smaller buyers who might disperse its weaponry more broadly—began advertising its products as ideal for “single individuals, traveling through a wild country.” Gun manufacturers, Haag writes, began to employ “predicament” advertising, in which lone travellers were portrayed facing bears or outlaws. The only way out was through violence.