Guns Of The Founding Fathers

The other night I had just gone to bed a little after midnight and was lying there about to drop off when I heard an automatic weapon firing just down the hill from my house. There was no mistaking it. The shooter fired off a burst of about 20 shots in two or three seconds. It’s impossible to pull the trigger on a semi-automatic rifle in that brief period.

It didn’t surprise me. I know gun enthusiasts where I live have automatic rifles, though they’re supposedly illegal. It doesn’t take a lot of expertise to convert a perfectly legal semi-automatic rifle like an M16 or a Bushmaster into an automatic weapon, because they were designed to be used as automatic weapons in military situations. Rifles like the Bushmaster have a modular design which makes it fairly easy to adapt them to automatic operation.

Just a few nights after first hearing the automatic fire, I happened to be awake in the wee hours, about two in the morning. Again, I heard someone not far away firing an automatic weapon. This can mean only one thing, one of my neighbors has an illegal automatic rifle and is going out in the middle of the night spraying the countryside with bullets.


This is a painting of the founding fathers at the Constitutional Convention. They wrote the Second Amendment:


Note that the Second Amendment tied the right to bear arms to the right to organize a miltia. The Second Amendment never mentions the right to bear arms for hunting,  personal protection or collecting. But the courts have expanded the rights of gun owners to include these uses.

But there’s no question that gun ownership was important to the founding fathers because private gun ownership had been pivotal in the Revolutionary War. The British not only had to contend with the rebel army, they were horrified to find that many farmers were armed and willing to take potshots at the Redcoats. The British were accustomed to fighting rival armies, but they were discouraged to find they were also under attack by an armed populace sniping at them. They had never before encountered that kind of guerilla warfare and it was demoralizing.

Every farmer owned a firearm, but not because they anticipated a war with English soldiers. Farmers had armed themselves to protect themselves from Indians during the colonial era. However, this profusion of arms turned out to be a huge advantage for the revolutionary forces, and it set the stage and tradition for Americans to routinely own guns.


When the founding fathers penned the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing citizens the right to bear arms, the primary weapon in use by the military was the flintlock musket. After being fired, a soldier was expected to be able to reload the musket in 15 seconds, so a trained solider could get off four rounds per minute. After about four minutes, the musket would become so fouled with black powder, it was no longer safe to fire.

Muskets also had no rifling, and the musket balls used were slightly smaller than the bore of the barrel. The result was that the ball usually came out spinning, and traveled in a curve, much like a golfer hitting a slice. Hitting a target at any distance with a musket was difficult. Muskets were so inaccurate, they didn’t even have any sights on them.


During the 1800s, advances in gun manufacturing produced weapons that could fire more rounds more quickly and were more accurate. For example, this is the Colt .45 Peacemaker, called the gun that won the west. It was first manufactured in 1873. When it first came out, it was a single-action revolver, meaning that you had to cock the revolver before firing each shot. It held six bullets, after which you had to pull out the spent brass and reload. So a gunman could fire six rounds in the same 15 seconds it took a Revolutionary War soldier to fire one shot. It had a rifled barrel and sights and would shoot straight. Still, after six shots, it would take you probably about 15 seconds at least to reload.


This is the AR15 Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle, the weapon used in the killing of 20 school children and 6 school staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Originally designed for military use, it’s a deadly, accurate rifle, capable of hitting targets at up to 600 meters. The automatic version, supposedly unavailable to civilians, is capable of firing 800 rounds per minute. The semi-automatic version is supplied with a clip that holds either 20 or 30 rounds, but clips are available that hold up to 100 rounds. The firing rate of the semi-automatic depends only on how fast you can pull the trigger, but experienced shooters can empty a 30-round clip in the same 15 seconds it took a Revoutionary War solider to reload one round, and still have time left to insert a new clip, meaning the semi-automatic rifle can fire more than 100 rounds per minute if extra clips are available.

Time and again I hear gun proponents citing the Second Amendment and the fact that the founding fathers put the right to private gun ownership in the Constitution. But the founding fathers were thinking of muskets when they included the amendment. And it’s also clear that they were thinking that local militias would provide a check on the power of the federal government. Both of those issues have shifted radically. Militia groups are no longer viewed favorably by the government or the public. Not long ago, the leader of my local militia was sent to jail for buying a machine gun.

The main point is this, it’s impossible to know what the founding fathers would think about private citizens owning the kind of deadly weapons available to them today. The firearms technology of their time was light years from where it has evolved today. So when the NRA cites the founding fathers, they’re claiming the endorsement of a group which only approved of the ownership of single-shot muskets.

And if the founding fathers had been able to magically envision the future and see that crazed killers would be going into shopping malls, movie theaters, and schools to kill innocent men, women and children, it’s hard to believe they would support the profusion of military-style weapons like the one I heard being fired recently in my neighborhood in the middle of the night.

11 responses to “Guns Of The Founding Fathers

  1. You know Someone with an illegal Weapon and you blog??? FBI or ATF have an office in your state? Maybe you can get the Bastards Arrested? or maybe its a carpenter Shooting 22 Cal nail gun charge??? Home Depo. – – 2nd Amendment? did you know: First mass production Repeating Rifle was 1780 or so. Pre Amendment II. it will Put a 40 cal through a 2×4 at 100 yds. has 20 round capacity. Congress II chose NOT to spend the $$$ just after the War. But, Framers were Richest 1% and certainly one of them owned one.

  2. Two points:

    1) It is not illegal to own or shoot a fully automatic weapon. It just requires you to get a $200 license and agree to allow the BATF to come search and seize anything on your property any time they want to without probably cause and without a search warrant. But you can own own, and many people do. It’s just that they are very expensive. M16’s that civilians can buy run in the $15,000 range or so. The liberals who passed this limitation just wanted to makes sure that poor people would be disarmed of automatics. The wealthy still have them. Wealthy liberal elites have bodyguards who carry them.

    2) The author’s entire premise that the founding fathers could not have imagined an AR-15 is patently absurd. The statement that the founding fathers “only approved of the ownership of single-shot muskets” is a fabrication.

    The first multi-shot weapons were produced in 1339AD (it was called the ribauldequin if you want to look it up). In 1457AD, a Venetian general employed a multi-shot weapon at the Battle of Pciccardini (it was an organ rifle designed by Leonardo da Vinci). In 1625 during the reign of Charles I, William Drumond was granted a patent for an organ gun that he claimed would allow 2 men to be at even odds with 100 musketeers.

    In 1663, British inventor Palmer presented a paper at the Royal Society that described the first semi-automatic weapon using the very same blowback design used in the AR15, AK47, and numerous other semi-automatic weapons.

    In 1718, Englishman James Puckle invented the “Defence Gun” which could fire a 16-ball volley 9 times per minute (144 rounds per minute). One of these still exists in the Tower of London Armoury.

    Around the time of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, Jacob Perkins began work on a steam-powered weapon that would fire 60 rounds per minute, and was capable of penetrating a 12″ block of wood, or 1/8″ of steel plating. He perfected this in 1826. In 1813, Joseph Chambers created a rifle that would fire 224 rounds in 90 seconds before a reload was required.

    All of these were created before or during the lives of the founding fathers, who didn’t rush back puling out their hair to say they had made a mistake about that 2nd Amendment when they saw Chambers fire 224 rounds in 90 seconds.

    The AR-15 fires about 40 rounds per minute. That had already been surpassed by an order of magnitude by other inventors before the Bill of Rights was ratified.

    The single-shot musket argument is a load of tripe.

  3. The implication that the Founding Fathers limited gun ownership to militias is absurd. “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” This is two guarantees. “Well regulated militias are necessary to the security of a free state.” “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” If you think that militias do not nor can not exist today, you would be mistaken.

    Twisting it into being a lessor protection of “Hunting and personal protection being kind of important, the right to bear arms can be limited and controlled, but not completely banned,” is simply you trying to read into it what you would like it to say. If you don’t like what it says, then amend the Constitution. And if you do, don’t whine when the 10th Amendment is no longer protecting your First Amendment rights.

  4. My dear fellow, if you wish to disarm yourself of the most effective weapons ever devised for personal defense, that is your right. But if you wish to disarm me, that is entirely a different matter. Your thinking threatens my security, and that is unwise because I and others like me who own more than 300,000,000 of them that we know of will certainly react “negatively”.

    You cannot legislate violent mental illness away, which is the actual “assault weapon”, nor will any law prevent one person from killing others…but I will, if allowed. I have used my Modern Sporting Rifles and other weapons for personal defense a number of times and always obtained excellent cooperation from miscreants who were only too happy to be arrested as opposed to being shot.

    Pathetic protestations aside, if confronted, you would become a victim, a statistic, your spouse raped, your children abused and there would be nothing YOU could do about that. I, on the other hand, will make whoever attempts that one of your statistics. Save your tears for those internet cat videos…either one acts like a human being or there is no harm in treating them like predatory animals.

    In conclusion: A person who does not own defensive firearms is either a coward or a fool, without exception, so stand and be counted along with your kind. No one should trust a coward or listen to a fool…so please find your courage and stop expecting others to protect you.

    • Mr. Kent, I never proposed taking away the guns. What I was trying to say was that the weapons available today are far more deadly than the muskets in use when the Second Amendment was written. So unless you have an assault rifle, I have no problem with you having a gun to defend yourself. I can relate to your wanting a weapon to defend your home and family. I never said I didn’t have a gun. Actually, I do, an old .22 pistol, so I’m not for seizing your gun and neither is either of the two major political parties in the U.S. I don’t understand why gun owners are worried about this because U.S. politicians are overwhelmingly pro-gun. That being said, stats show the most likely person to die from a gun is a member of your family, so your sense of safety from gun ownership may be overshadowed by the risk of an accident. I hope your are taking the proper precautions. Otherwise, the victim could be you or someone close to you. I get what you’re saying about nut jobs, and agree we need far better mental health care. But how do you explain the fact that murder rates are staggeringly lower in countries that are not awash in guns? Would you accept banning automatic
      , and closing the gun show loophole, for example? My main point is the founding fathers couldn’t forsee the state of weapons or modern society hundreds of years ago. Jefferson thought each generation should rewrite all the rules to fit its situation. Unfortunately, that has not happened and we’re stuck with ideas that are centuries old and may no longer apply. So keep your powder dry, and try not to shoot from the hip.

      • And my reply is there is no such thing as an assault weapon for sale to civilians since 1986, except those that previously existed.

        You are clearly a neophyte regarding combat, but that is not my concern. Your weapon is less than useless for defense, and the multiple attacker scenario means they will beat you to death with it. A .22 can kill, but it will not stop a determined opponent. A large, muscular friend of mine was shot in the neck with a .380 pistol and first beat up the attacker, took his weapon and ID, then walked to the hospital. They removed the bullet, bandaged his thigh-like neck and he was at work the next day.

        In the revolutionary period, the Army had inferior muskets while the civilians had superior rifles. By the civil war period, the Army had rifled muskets while civilians had Henry rifles. Currently, civilian semi-automatics are available that are superior to the automatics the Army has in accuracy and reliability.

        We will always be ahead of them, because we lack institutional inertia, spend our own money and produce what we want if unavailable. You foolishly resist the power of invention and human ingenuity. I am better armed than the “Kings & Criminals” who might bother me. My weapons will be equal or superior to those I face…

        Yet it does not bother you that you are only adequately prepared to fight off squirrels? No, because you think the problem is weapons, when it is actually too many Cowards and Fools who refuse to be a victim. To hell with Jefferson, no man can foretell the future and one must be prepared for anything.

        Besides, if you persist in your efforts, those who want weapons will throw them on the mountains of Cocaine they import and you will then face things that shoot faster on the black market. I find that people like you think “Checkers” when they should think “Chess”…never thinking several steps ahead means the law of unintended consequences rules your existence.

        Find another topic, my dear brave Fool, so named by revealing your weapon of choice, but at least there is a chance you are not a Coward as you plan to use it.

        I am finished being concerned that others may listen from here on!

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