In 1863, upon being directed by the president to conduct experiments with a new type of firearm, the head of the Union’s Ordnance Dept. sneered, “What does Lincoln know about a gun?” Little did the functionary know that the president, in fact, knew quite a lot.
In December 1816, Lincoln’s family left Kentucky for Indiana’s greener pastures—not that they found them. Instead they encountered “a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods,” Lincoln later wrote. For protection and sustenance, the Lincolns owned an old smoothbore musket and two rifles. When, a few months later, the boy saw a flock of wild turkeys gingerly approach the family’s new cabin, he selected “a rifle gun,” and, “standing inside, shot through a crack and killed one of them.”
Modestly explaining that his hunting skills “never much improved afterwards,” Lincoln preferred to leave deer and bears to his friends. Instead, contenting himself with turkeys and raccoons, Lincoln and his kinsman Dennis Hanks hunted “pretty much all the time especially so when we got tired of work, which was very often I will assure you,” Hanks recalled. As he got older, Lincoln cut back on the hunting to spend more time with his beloved books, which was presumably the reason he and another friend once walked into town to buy a rifle and agreed to share it.
For a short time in 1832, Lincoln served in the militia during the Blackhawk War. Considering his later role as a warlord, Lincoln’s inept turn as an officer is entertainingly ironic. Placed in charge of a company composed of, in the words of Maj. William Miller, “the hardest men he ever saw,” poor Capt. Lincoln was neither feared nor respected. To his first order to drill, one man replied, “Go to hell,” and he soon gained a reputation for incompetence. Another time, his men “liberated” the officers’ whisky supplies. Early the next day, as their brother companies formed up and marched away, Lincoln’s boys were too sodden to even stand. At his subsequent court-martial, Lincoln was ordered to carry a wooden sword. Soon afterward, the militia, with no little sense of relief, mustered him out. Although Lincoln’s soldiering career could not be described as stellar, the experience did extend and expand his acquaintance with various forms of military arms.
Henceforth, he kept abreast of ordnance developments. In the 1850s he knew, from his copies of the Annual of Scientific Discovery, of the roiling debate between advocates of the new breechloaders and those of the more traditional muzzleloading rifle-muskets. Indeed, later that decade, when Lincoln discovered that his business acquaintance George McClellan had recently been part of an influential military commission to Europe, he quizzed him mercilessly about modern armaments. And as a voracious reader, Lincoln devoured the many in-depth reports in The New York Times and Scientific American covering arms trials and Ordnance competitions to determine the best method of converting muzzleloading firearms into breechloaders.
Underlying Lincoln’s interest in gun technology was his insatiable curiosity about all things mechanical. Indeed, he remains the only president to have a patent—for a device to buoy vessels over sandbars—in his name. According to William Herndon, his longtime law partner, Lincoln wanted to know every machine “inside and outside, upside and downside.” Another of Lincoln’s colleagues, Henry Clay Whitney, recalled his friend’s inquisitiveness. While traveling together, whenever they stopped at a local farmhouse for dinner, Lincoln would obtain some “machine or tool, and he would carefully examine it all over, first generally and then critically; he would ‘sight’ it to determine if it was straight or warped; if he could make a practical test of it, he would do that; he would turn it over or around and stoop down, or lie down, if necessary, to look under it; he would examine it closely, then stand off and examine it at a little distance; he would shake it, lift it, roll it about, up-end it, overset it, and thus ascertain every quality and utility which inhered in it.”...