Archive for the ‘Navigation Acts’ Category

The problem of probate

Or is it really a problem? It was for Michael Bellesiles who lost his career because it was assumed that Arming America was solely based upon that information.purdey

The problem is that “common items” such as hoes don’t show up, but firearms do. Which is “proof positive” that firearms were somehow common.

This neglects the expense that firearms most likely were in pre-industrial revolution, colonial America.  On the off chance that there were gunsmiths cranking out firearms, let alone rifles, we have to address the issue of coming up with metal that would withstand being used as a firearm.  That means any steel would have to be hand forged given the Navigation Acts, in particular the Iron Act of 1750, ban on colonial industry (and Birmingham’s monopoly on firearm manufacture).

My previous post comes up with a budget bespoke firearm going for £2,500 (US$3,115.03 at today’s rate). I would post the top end of the firearm range, and some used Purdeys selling in the range of US$65,000. Now, wouldn’t it make sense for something which would cost roughly US$3,000 to 65,000+ to be listed in probate record over something which might have cost anywhere from a couple of dollars to maybe 100 in modern funds?

Also, which would be more valuable? Obviously, the more expensive firearm.

If we are going to say that gunsmith were common, we have to address the cost of tools on top of the cost of producing metal which could be used in firearm production. I seriously doubt that a rifling lathe could have been produced on the frontier.  That would mean that such a device would have had to have been imported from Europe: those pesky Navigation Acts might have been a factor.

It is common knowledge that rifles were being produced on the frontier, which might have had something to do with a prohibition on industry more than societal factors. While muskets may have been inaccurate, early muzzleloading rifles had more problems than they were worth.

I’m sure expense would have been one of them.

While rifles were the more complex firearm to build, they still were like building clockworks. And we are talking about hand making clockwork in a pre-industrial society.

Which leads to two issues:

  1. Were firearms really common, or luxury items that would have been contested after death?
  2. Were colonial gunsmiths actual full blown firearms manufacturers, or just somebody who fixed broken weapons?

I am under the impression that firearms are one of the great American founding myths since it doesn’t look too good when one realises that independence really came because of a grudge match based upon the Seven Years/French and Indian War (e.g., most firearms used were European manufactured): not colonial superiority of any kind. We have documentation of a lack of firearms and firearms manufacturing capability in colonial North America, which I have mentioned before and in this.

The need to make firearms a common item at the time of the founding is a fundamental key to any attempt to portray the Second Amendment as somehow not relating to the common defence.  The problem is that it is painfully obvious  that firearms were luxury items in preindustrial societies, as anyone familiar with hand made firearms will attest.

I would bet the farm that firearms would be as expensive as a Purdey, if not more so, back then.

That’s why probate records are not reliable.

A thought

Part of this is something I am working on for my Michael Bellesiles vindication which is there is a technological and political argument for there not being many firearms manufacturers in Colonial North America.

One is that the Navigation Acts. These acts were a limitation on trade with the Colonies. The acts demanded that most raw materials be imported into England from the colonies in order to support British manufacturing. Particularly saliently to this matter, Iron was found in all the colonies, and forges and furnaces were established in many places (e.g., Batso, NJ). In 1750, Parliament enacted a law declaring that “no mill or other engine for rolling or slitting iron,” “nor any furnace for making steel shall be erected in the colonies”. After this only pig and bar iron could be made.

That would rule out one possibility for local North American firearm production since they lacked the technology to do so. Additionally, Britain wanted to make sure any manufacturing of ANYTHING took place in England: that wasn’t just firearms.

The War for American Independence provided some impetus for North American Firearm production, but a fair amout of muskets used were either the British Brown Bess or the French Charleville Musket. Major North American firearms production didn’t begin in strength until after 1794.

In 1794, the new Federal government decided to manufacture its own muskets so that the United States would not be dependent on foreign arms (got that “dependent on foreign arms”). President Washington selected Springfield as the site for one of the two Federal Armories, the other being the Harpers Ferry Armory at Harpers Ferry), Virginia (now part of West Virginia). Production of weaponry at the Armory began in 1795 when 220 flintlock muskets were produced.

Wow, in case you missed it, the first target of Shays’ rebels was the Springfield Armoury! Now, shouldn’t a bunch of Revolutionary War vets just pull their muskets from the mantle? Somehow, this crew felt the need for firearms.

I happen to believe that private ownership of firearms up until the early 1800 was pretty rare. That would point to a lack of concern with private firearm ownership at the time of the ratification of the Constitution and the drafting of the Second Amendment. This is even more important when we think of the civic aspect of the “right to bear arms”.

Personally, I think this is something for a historian who is much more prepared for the fallout such a revelation will have on the US mindset than I am or Michael Bellesiles was.