Firearms have been a part of this nation since, well, long before it was a nation. The right to bear them was endowed by the Creator; they secured our Freedom as Americans, they helped expand the Nation, and then they became the basis of the manufacturing ascendancy of the United States for more than a century.
Listed here are some guns that actually changed the course of history or were an instrumental part of it. There are guns emblematic of a changing nation, guns that represent America’s place in the world, but guns without people are mere objects.
To tell the story of Americans and their guns, I have paired them with men who used them to string together a 10 point narrative of how these guns changed America—and the world.
1. John Alden’s Wheellock
Said to have come over in the possession of John Alden, a 20-year cooper on the Mayflower—yes, that Mayflower—this is the only known gun thought to have landed with a settler in North America in 1620.
Really, I would have preferred to have a matchlock brought over to Jamestown in 1609, but odds are its original owner died of dysentery or scurvy his first winter in what would become Virginia without taking time to carve his name into the stock. As far as I know, there is no other firearm with solid pre-1620 North American provenance.
The Mayflower Gun, as it is known, is a wheellock carbine (think of it as a muzzleloader with a complicated Zippo for a lockplate) that has virtually no traces of rifling. It may be Italian or German, depending on who you ask. Regardless, Alden signed the Mayflower Compact and was in Miles Standish’s militia company.
A true national treasure, this gun resides in its own case at the entrance to NRA’s National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Va.
2. Captain John Parker’s Musket
On April 19, 1775, Capt. John Parker, along with 77 other militiamen formed on up on Lexington Green in anticipation of British Maj. John Pitcairn’s force of British regulars on their way to Concord to “seize and destroy all the Artillery, Ammunition, Provisions, Tents, Small Arms, and all Military stores whatever.”
The American Revolution didn’t start over tea or taxes. Pitcairn was coming for their guns; that’s when unrest and dissatisfaction turned into a shooting war. Parker is attributed with telling his men “Stand your ground. Don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”
While it is likely not the gun that fired the “shot heard ‘round the world,” it is the only known gun thought to been there. Parker’ fowler is a .62-cal. musket, 59 ¾” long with a 44” barrel, no bayonet lug and British and Dutch influenced components.
It was donated to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1861 by his grandson, the Rev. Theodore Parker, and now hangs in the State House with a plaque that reads: “This firearm was used by Captain John Parker at the Battle of Lexington April 19, 1775.”
Due to the state’s draconian gun control laws, some genius decided the more-than 200-year-old unloaded musket (that appears to be missing its flint), and is accessible only via a stepladder, was such a threat to public safety it needed to have a trigger lock installed. In a moment of lucidity, someone removed the trigger lock.
3. Timothy Murphy’s Pennsylvania Longrifle
So, why did the battles of the American Revolution end in 1781? In a word, the French. Why did the French come in on the side of the upstart colonists? Well, they hated the British, but that wasn’t quite enough. No, it was the Battle of Saratoga, and in particular, the unlikely American victory there. For that victory, you can thank a Pennsylvania rifleman by the name of Timothy Murphy.
British Gen. John Burgoyne was leading a campaign to cut New York and the other colonies off from New England when he ran into a rebel army near Saratoga in October 1777. American Gen. Benedict Arnold was having trouble due to Brig. Gen. Simon Fraser rallying his redcoats, stalling the rebel attack.
Arnold called over Daniel Morgan (my favorite Founding Father) and told him: “That man on the grey horse is a host unto himself and must be disposed of.” Morgan then turned to Timothy Murphy who, at distance of 300 yards, mortally wounded Fraser. (It took him three shots).
Without Fraser’s leadership, the American pressed forward and the day was won, and the French came into the war. There is some dispute about whether Murphy used his over-under flintlock double rifle that day, but whatever gun he used, it was instrumental in its role at Saratoga and, thus, the founding of our nation.
4. Meriwether Lewis’ Girandoni Air Rifle
So it seems a repeating Austrian air rifle with an Italian-sounding name allowed Lewis & Clark and the Corps of Discovery to explore the American West. That whole “sea-to-shining-sea" thing? It probably would not have happened without one very special air gun.
When meeting new groups of Native Americans, Lewis had a particular routine worked out. He showed them the air gun, because it amazed them to great wonderment. It was Lewis’s parlor trick—his sleight of hand to intimidate the Indians into thinking that the explorers were even more powerful than they seemed.
The Indians, to whom Lewis never exposed the full contents of his boat or any of his supplies, never knew if the expedition had one or 40 airguns. To think that 30 or so explorers could lay down 22 shots with great accuracy within seconds must have impressed the Native Americans into a state of cooperation.
Lewis traveled the west with an ace up his sleeve in the form of the repeating airgun. Only the Girandoni air rifle is capable of obtaining the results that Lewis got from the Indians. The party was never molested in force, and all but one man returned to St. Louis in 1806.
Today, the gun belongs to a private collector who, for decades, didn’t even know he had Lewis' actual gun.
5. Samuel Walker’s Walkers
When Samuel Colt finally scored the big government contract that had eluded him for his revolvers, he was traveling around as Dr. Colt and selling laughing gas. Hits of nitrous, as the kids call it these days.
His uncle had taken over the business Sam had started in 1836. Colt had nothing, no guns, no factory. But he had an order from the government to build a massive, 4-lb. 9-oz., .44 cal. revolver based on the ideas of Capt. Samuel Walker, a Texas Ranger who had used Colt Paterson’s to good effect against the Comanches.
Walker was a captain in the then-new U.S. Mounted Rifles and wanted a brace of the big guns, designed with input from him, for each trooper. Colt went to Eli Whitney, Jr. (the cotton gin guy’s son) and in 1847, Whitney built the guns, kept the money and gave the tooling to Sam Colt. The rest, they say, is history.
There were 1,000 military and 100 commercial Walkers made, and the two that actually belonged to Walker are now in a private collection. The Walker is one of the most collectible guns in the world today, and that means there are many fakes out there. In its collection, the NRA National Firearms Museum has one of the nicest fakes I have ever seen.
6. Abraham Lincoln’s Henry Rifle
Really, you could pick his Henry or his Spencer. Although they didn’t see any combat use, I think any gun a sitting U.S. president shot on the White House lawn merits a place on this list. In this case. I am talking about Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States.
Inventors sought to get around the moribund U.S. Ordnance Dept. (“Repeaters? We don’t need no stinkin' repeaters!”) by slipping guns to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln and his secretary, William Stoddard, turned the White House grounds into a range when they shot a Spencer in August 1863. Honest Abe, always interested in mechanical things, wanted to try it out personally. Turns out, he was pretty good shot.
While the U.S. Army made considerable use of Spencers, relatively few Henry rifles were purchased by the government. The 1860 Henry, forerunner of all Winchesters, did see some use during the Civil War, but Winchester’s ascendancy would start with the Model 1866 made under the name of the vaunted shirt maker.
The Lincoln Henry is currently at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
7. John Parker’s Gatling Gun
OK, this is really four guns made by Colt, serial numbers 1040, 1041, 1042 and 1043. These Gatling guns were chambered in .30-40 Krag and under the command of Lt. John Parker, a recent West Point grad, in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.
Without these Model 1985 Gatlings, Roosevelt and his Rough Riders may not have survived what TR called “his “crowded hour,” and I think TR was the last U.S. president who personally used a revolver to shoot our nation’s enemies. “They folded like jackrabbits,” he remarked of the event.
The Gatlings helped support the attack of the Rough Riders and Buffalo Soldiers up Kettle Hill and then San Juan Hill. Parker’s guns fired 18,000 rounds in a short period of time on July 2, 1898, plunging fire into the Spanish defensive positions.
Without Parker’s guns, there may not have been a Governor Roosevelt, let alone President Roosevelt. The beginning of the "American Century" could well have belonged to someone else.
One of the guns is in NRA’s National Firearms Museum, two are in private collections (I’ve had the honor to shoot one of them), and one went missing in the Philippines.
8. Alvin York’s U.S. Pistol, Caliber .45, Model of 1911
OK, I had to pick someone. Why not Sgt. Alvin C. York? I could have selected his rifle (the York family insists it was an ’03 Springfield) he used to shoot German machine gunners in the head with precision rifle fire, but York also used his M1911 on Oct. 18, 1918, in the Argonne Forest.
Running low on rifle ammunition (he had already shot a lot of Germans), York, then a corporal, drew his M1911 when charged by five bayonet-wielding Germans. The Tennessean shot four of them down, “ticking them off back to front” until only the officer leading them remained. According to York’s son, Andrew, that was the “way Daddy hunted ducks with his Remington Model 11 automatic shotgun and that he never missed.”
He didn’t miss that day with his M1911. Smartly, the remaining German surrendered to York, and he was followed by 131 more of his comrades into captivity in what French Commanding General Ferdinand Foch called the “greatest thing accomplished by any private soldier of all the armies in Europe.”
York turned his Colt-made M1911 in before he left the service, but its serial number is recorded in his personal documents examined by the Rifleman staff in 2004. Its whereabouts today are unknown.
9. Day G. Turner’s M1 Garand
The “U.S. Rifle, Caliber .30, M1” was adopted on Jan. 9, 1936, and by World War II, it was the only standard-issue semi-automatic infantry rifle in the world. Iconic and emblematic, the M1 is in a class by itself. It was the right rifle at the right time, and it is unlikely any other nation could have produced the rifle known as simply, "the Garand.”
To pick one serviceman who used it is difficult, but a few years ago, I visited S/Sgt. Day G. Turner at the Luxembourg American Military Cemetery and Memorial, so I chose him. On Jan. 8, 1945, Turner and his nine men of the 394th Infantry held a flanking post at Am Aastert, Luxembourg. They were repeatedly attacked by more than a company of Germans, and Turner and his men used their M1s to put effective rifle on the enemy from 300 yds. to—literally—bayonet point.
His story is one of incredible bravery, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Sadly, it was posthumous. Turner was killed one month to the day after his heroic action. A generation of young Americans, men like Day G. Turner, did nothing less than save the world from unspeakable evil with their M1s, one eight-round en bloc clip at a time.
We don’t know the serial number of Turner's rifle, and it may well have been used to mark the spot he drew his last breath, stuck bayonet down in the soil of a land he came to liberate.
10. Curtiss LeMay’s AR-15: The “Watermelon and Coconut” Rifle
Watermelons and coconuts played a role in the adoption of Eugene Stoner’s direct-gas-impingement AR-15/M16 rifle by the U.S. Military. On July 4, 1960, Gen. Curtiss LeMay was at—I’m not making this up—MacDonald’s farm, at a picnic and was invited to shoot watermelons with an AR-15 built by Colt in 1959—the year the design was sold to Colt by Fairchild.
The rifle, serial number 106, was also shot by President (and NRA Life Member) John F. Kennedy at another demonstration. It was used at demos in Southeast Asia where coconuts were employed in lieu of watermelons. For those reasons, serial number 106 has come to be called the “watermelon and coconut rifle.”
The picnic organizers placed watermelons at 50, 75 and 100 yards and invited the general to shoot them with the then-new .223 Remington cartridge. The general obliterated the first three then reportedly said of the fourth “Let's eat the son of a bitch.” General Lemay, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force placed an order for 8,500 rifles then and there. The "Black Rifle’s" road to service to the United States Military had begun.
Two years later, it would see combat in Vietnam. The U.S. M16 family is the longest serving rifle in American history, and its civilian semi-automatic-only variant is the top-selling rifle in America today. It all started with watermelons and coconuts.
Serial number 106 sold to a private collector at a James Julia auction in October 2011 for more than $100,000. (Image courtesy of James D. Julia)
Honorable Mention: The Hall Rifle
If you have anything made from interchangeable parts, you need to thank John Hall. In 1816, Hall sold the U.S. government on not only his breechloading rifle, but on the idea that all the parts from one gun would fit another without hand-fitting.
This was a revolutionary concept. Guns, especially military ones, were made to a pattern, but still required individual parts to be fitted. Hall battled Jacksonian cronyism, corruption, an entrenched labor force and other demons, but eventually got it done, introducing into the American armory system what was known as the “American System of Manufacture.”
This helped jump-start the Industrial Revolution. But it cost him. Hall died a penniless and broken man. We don’t even have a portrait of him. Eli Whitney often gets the credit for interchangeable parts, but John Hall got it done.