As the debate about firearms and the Second Amendment heats up, you will likely hear this line repeated frequently: “The authors of the Second Amendment were writing about muskets, not assault rifles.” Muskets are single-shot guns. They aren’t fast. They certainly aren’t repeaters, or machine guns. This point becomes the central argument for abolishing the Second Amendment.
The argument is completely wrong, on so many levels. When the Second Amendment was written, it guaranteed that civilians could own the same weapons as armies. The amendment was put in place, at least in part, to ensure that any totalitarian government would not win an arms race with American civilians.
By this logic, we should have unfettered access to the same weaponry used by the United States military. We don’t. We haven’t for well over a century.
But there are other problems with the “musket” rational. The most obvious is that there were many rifles in use at the time. While armies relied on smooth-bore muskets, American gunsmiths were making exquisite rifles.
The second is that there were repeating guns. To say that the authors of the Second Amendment couldn’t see the path of firearms development seems somewhat reductive. They would have been aware of significant advances.
Check out the Cookson Repeater. “Dating to about the 1750s,” Guns.com writes, “the Cookson Volitional repeating flintlock shown above from the collection of the National Firearms Museum was crafted by London gunsmith John Shaw. This particular breechloader has a two-chambered magazine that holds a dozen .55 caliber lead balls in one part and a dozen 60-grain powder charges in the second, with each coming together when the crank is worked by the user.”
Repeaters were cutting edge in the 16th Century. The Kalthoffs, a family of Danish gunsmiths, had a repeater that was rumored to fire up to 30 shots before it needed to be reloaded.
Italian gunsmith Michele Lorenzoni made a successful 7-shot repeating pistol around the same time.
The term machine gun was in use as far back as 1722. The Puckle Gun was an early adopter of the term.
It is essentially a cross between a small cannon and a revolver and was meant to fight small, fast moving boats.
Even the Girandoni air rifle, a 20 shot air gun that was a favorite of the hunters on Lewis and Clark’s expedition, was much more than the simple smooth-bore musket. It could kill game animals out past 100 yards, and didn’t even require gun powder.
All of this is to say that trying to understand the context of the Second Amendment is complicated. Those who know very little about the guns of today tend to know even less about the guns of the past.