How Did Guns Get So Powerful?

Compared with Billington’s gun—or Walker’s—a modern firearm is like a monster truck alongside a horse and cart. The anthropologist Thomas McDade has observed that, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the axe was “no less lethal a weapon” than the gun, but today otherwise ordinary Americans can unleash devastating firepower—as happened on May 14th, when…

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Compared with Billington’s gun—or Walker’s—a modern firearm is like a monster truck alongside a horse and cart. The anthropologist Thomas McDade has observed that, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the axe was “no less lethal a weapon” than the gun, but today otherwise ordinary Americans can unleash devastating firepower—as happened on May 14th, when a white supremacist killed ten people in a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York, and again on May 24th, when an eighteen-year-old gunman killed twenty-one people in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, nineteen of them children.

We wonder how we got here. How did guns grow so powerful—both technically and culturally? Like automobiles, firearms have grown increasingly advanced while becoming more than machines; they are both devices and symbols, possessing a cultural magnetism that makes them, for many people, the cornerstone of a way of life. They’re tools that kill efficiently while also promising power, respect, and equality—liberation from tyranny, from crime, from weakness. They’re a heritage from an imagined past, and a fantasy about protecting our future. It’s taken nearly two hundred years for guns to become the problem they are today. The story of how they acquired their power explains why, now, they are so hard to stop.

On July 3, 1863, line after line of Confederate soldiers, dressed in gray, marched forward as soldiers had done in decades past, charging toward a weak point in the Union line at Gettysburg. But weaponry had changed. Men fell “like wheat before the garner,” as one veteran would later describe it. Two years earlier, when the Civil War had begun, both armies primarily carried muzzle-loading smoothbore muskets. They’d rapidly switched, however, to .58-calibre rifles that fired a groundbreaking conical bullet called the minié ball. The bullet was easier to load and more aerodynamic than previous designs. It allowed soldiers to fire farther and more accurately upon rushing enemy troops, making massed charges deadly and Napoleonic infantry tactics obsolete.

In white Southerners’ popular memory, Pickett’s Charge, as the attack became known, would be seen as a gallant act of doomed bravery—the high-water mark of the Confederacy, marking the northernmost point that the rebels reached. But, in fact, it was a technologically aided slaughter, in which accurate, long-flying bullets insured a casualty rate of more than fifty per cent for the charging men. During the course of the war, the minié ball would kill tens of thousands; relatively few Civil War soldiers died of bayonet wounds, in part because they rarely got close enough to their enemies to receive them. As a result, tactics changed. Soldiers stopped firing at one another from close ranks; instead, they began arranging themselves into dispersed lines and firing from behind covered positions, such as walls, trees, rocks, fences, or elaborate fortifications. Slowly, this defensive style turned into an offensive one. One group of attacking soldiers could provide “covering fire” by shooting at an enemy position, forcing its soldiers to keep their heads down while another attacking unit moved forward safely.

Soldiers providing covering fire didn’t depend on accuracy. They often shot blindly, not even bothering to put the gunsights to their eyes. In theory, the units maneuvering into position would use precision fire to kill. But in practice this was rarely the case. Eventually, studies conducted during the Second World War would confirm that most battlefield bullet wounds occur randomly, and at close range. War movies often depict heroic point-target aiming and killing, and yet soldiers are often terrified; as their hearts surge with adrenaline, blood flows away from their extremities, impairing their fine-motor control as they spray gunfire toward their foes.

During the First World War, the use of machine guns epitomized this approach. The area fire created by such weapons removed the human element in aiming altogether. A machine gunner, whom the military historian John Keegan has characterized less as a soldier than a “machine-minder,” traversed his target area by applying a “two-inch tap” to the breeches of his weapon, sending it two inches to the right or left on a set of tracks; he tapped repeatedly until the gun reached a stop at one end, then tapped in the opposite direction. In this way, the area in front of the gun could be blanketed with bullets without the gunner having eyes on any particular target. Since each round had a slightly different trajectory, the target zone would be saturated with fire, creating a deadly area known as “the beaten zone.” As one Japanese officer put it, during the Russo-Japanese War, the machine gun could “be made to sprinkle its shot as roads are watered with a hose.” Kenneth Koch, the poet and Second World War veteran, would later recall how, “As machines make ice, / we made dead enemy soldiers”; writing in the Times, Brian Van Reet, a combat veteran of the Iraq War, has described how he and the men he served with often “fired nearly blindly, under the influence of a strange and numbing feeling of terror, rage and exhilaration. . . . Few of us really knew whom, if anyone, we had hit.”

The unromantic reality of increasingly industrialized war wasn’t likely to capture the public imagination, and so, in ads, dime-store novels, and movies, gun companies proposed a self-serving alternative history. Though Southern Plains tribes like the Comanches had been decimated less by firearms than by disease, Winchester described its Model 73 repeating rifle—a specially promoted gun that had been used by Billy the Kid and Buffalo Bill—as “the gun that won the West”; this legend helped the company to sell almost thirty times as many guns in 1914 as it had in 1875. Blending the military and civilian domains, Winchester advertised its weapons as “For Military and Sporting Purposes”; Colt marketed its Single Action Army model as “the Peacemaker,” a weapon “for all who travel among dangerous communities.” The Thompson machine gun, developed as a trench-clearing tool during the First World War, was advertised through images showing cowboys defending their ranches against marauders; ads proclaimed the machine gun “the ideal weapon for the protection of large estates, ranches, plantations, etc.” A deadly but inaccurate weapon of industrialized war was recast as a precision instrument for taming the supposedly savage frontier.

On a deeper level, the ads were political, recasting the American ideals of freedom and equality in martial terms. In gun marketing, self-reliance, respect, and freedom of movement were tied to the capacity to kill: “Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal,” one advertisement read. The mythology of the hyper-violent West became so embedded in American consciousness that Teddy Roosevelt could construct a notion of American identity around it. In “The Winning of the West,” he painted a portrait of hard life on the frontier marked by continual violence; the effect of this continual hardship was to “weld together into one people the representatives of these numerous and widely different races.” According to this view of history, American identity was in large part a product of violence.

During the Second World War, Solomon Zuckerman, a scientist advising the Allies, made a surprising discovery. While examining an X-ray of a wounded soldier evacuated from Dunkirk, Zuckerman noticed that there was something odd about the way in which he’d been hurt: a grievous injury had resulted from a small metal fragment, barely larger than a pinhead, lodged in the man’s kidney. Other soldiers Zuckerman examined had similar injuries. At the time, experts usually considered fragments from exploding shells and grenades dangerous only if they weighed more than a twenty-fifth of an ounce—and yet one soldier had been severely hurt by a far lighter shard, one weighing less than ten milligrams. Another’s forearm had been shattered by a minute metal splinter. According to the science of ballistics, such injuries made no sense.

Zuckerman, who was born in South Africa, had trained as an anatomist and a zoologist. During the war, he’d learned to see horrific violence scientifically. He had studied the accuracy of bombing raids and the lethal effects of bomb blasts; his goal was to learn how much force living bodies could take, and where they were most vulnerable. His work had helped the Royal Air Force maximize the casualties caused by its bombs. At the same time, his steel “Zuckerman helmet,” worn by civilians and civil-defense organizations, protected British heads from falling debris during enemy raids.

Now, working alongside Paul Libessart, a French engineer who had fled to England after the fall of France, Zuckerman turned to the science of wound ballistics—the study of the manner in which projectiles damage human bodies. In the mid-nineteenth century, the deadliness of a firearm had often been judged by how deeply its bullets penetrated into wood; in the eighteen-eighties, the metric had shifted to whether a bullet could kill a cavalry horse. It was obvious that some bullets and weapons had more “stopping power” than others, but it wasn’t clear exactly how that power worked. Zuckerman wanted to solve the mystery.

Soldiers tended to assume that stopping a rush required heavier, more powerful bullets. In the first half of the twentieth century, American researchers conducted experiments of dubious value designed to prove this point. They hung cadavers in the air and shot them while onlookers estimated how far the corpses swung; they shot cows and observed the effects. Eventually, the U.S. Army concluded that kinetic energy—a combination of bullet weight and speed—was the crucial factor in bullet lethality.

The Dunkirk injuries convinced Zuckerman that something was missing from this story. He began to think that the over-all kinetic energy of a bullet might be less important than how much of that energy was transferred to a body during impact. He and his team tried firing a steel ball into a phone book, then repeating the shot with the book placed behind a block of gelatin, which could serve as a proxy for a human body. By measuring how much the gelatin slowed the bullet, they could guess at how much energy it transferred. They found that some varieties of bullets slowed down more than others, transferring more energy. Later, the team shot small metal balls through the bodies of unfortunate rabbits. By means of a technique called shadowgraphy—the analysis of shadows cast by bodies in rapid motion—they captured the moment of energy transfer. In the split second after impact, Zuckerman wrote, the limbs “ballooned due to the formation of an internal cavity.”

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