If there was ever a symbol to rival the eagle in America, it would surely be the gun. Fashioned by the early settlers for sustenance, survival and conquest, firearms have defined the American spirit prior to any constitutional declaration.
Perhaps no other weapon can lay claim to this esteemed role better than the eponymous American Longrifle. Predating the formation of the United States by several generations, this rifle forged its reputation as the tool of expert sharpshooters decades before the first shot was fired at Lexington and Concord.
It would fight alongside newly christened Americans on King’s Mountain, fall discharged with Davy Crockett at the Alamo, shed brotherly blood in the Civil War and ultimately imbue a martial culture to a people who would one day claim dominion over the world.
In the early 1700s, the New World was a vast frontier of forests, savannah and competing occupational powers. Much of what is now the Continental United States was a series of revolving border disputes between England, France, Spain and deeply entrenched Indian tribes. Control over territory and the immense wealth of resources was settled in brutal skirmishes that ranged from lone individuals engaged in shootouts to the organization of armies thousands-strong.
Before the advent of a native gunsmithing industry most firearms in North America were imported under heavy scrutiny from British or French ships, intended for military outposts and the lucrative fur trade.  Smooth bore muskets could be purchased by early colonists for hunting and self-defense, but with an effective maximum range of less than 100 yards they never truly popularized amongst the citizenry. 
In the early 18th century, German homesteaders in the Appalachians developed a new style of gun boring that improved upon early Jaeger rifle designs. It was a natural fitting for the environment. Jaeger, the German word for hunter, specifically referred to huntsmen drafted into military service who were adept at reconnaissance, tracking and rapid ambushes that required a high degree of accuracy.  From felling roebucks to Redcoats, the Jaeger rifle evolved into a tactical lynchpin when it was first cast on American soil.
Originally known as the Pennsylvanian Rifle after one of its supposed birthplaces, it would take on many epitaphs including the Kentucky Rifle, Dickert Rifle, Widow-Maker, and American Longrifle. While the materials were similar to other firearms available at the time, what set this weapon apart was its novel rifling system. Instead of a smooth bore, gunsmiths would etch spirals down along the interior barrel of the rifle to cause the lead shot to spin upon firing. The spin would stabilize the projectile from veering in any particular direction, allowing for more accuracy at a greater distance: over 200 yards at two shots per minute. 
As the sarissa to the Macedonians or the longbow to the British, so too did the American Longrifle fundamentally change the way its practitioners operated on the battlefield.
Every aspect of the rifle was adapted to frontier life. Wood for the frame was hewn from indigenous curly maple; iron mined from local quarries was milled into longer barrels that increased muzzle velocity; even the caliber was shrunk to .32 caliber to maximize the limited lead ammunition that could be carried out to the backcountry. 
For gamesmen these technological advancements meant they could extend their hunting excursions and go after larger prey from safer vantage points. The impact this had on the colonies cannot be understated. Taming the land of natural predators and arming homesteads with accurate, easy-to-use rifles led to an influx of settlers moving into once-dangerous regions outside the realm of port cities. This eventually allowed them to develop a bustling network of communities with economic and political independence.
With every household now a potential snipers nest, it became harder for the British occupational forces governing the 13 Colonies to enforce their rule. Gun control and seizures were met with violent resistance until the powder keg burst into the American Revolution, a movement only possible thanks to a dedicated minority of armed patriots.
It became integral to the survival of this new nation to ensure that its citizens were well-practiced in the maintenance and operation of their weapons. Regular training exercises augmented the difficult living environment, quickly earning Americans a reputation as sharpshooters. 
Ambushes and constant harassment from guerrilla forces severely impacted British supply lines, while Continental regulars could plot and simultaneously avoid traps due to their familiarity with the region's geography.
One of the most famous examples of these new tactics was the march and subsequent Battle of Kings Mountain.
In 1880, following a series of defeats at the hands of the British, including the devastating Siege of Charleston and the Waxhaws Massacre, American forces in Appalachia were scattered and on the run. The British appointed Major Patrick Ferguson to recruit Loyalist militias and crack down on dissent rising across the Carolinas. This was a task he reveled in, proclaiming he would “march over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay their country to waste with fire and sword.” 
This warning stirred the locals to action, who mustered their forces and began organizing scouting parties to track the movements of the growing Loyalist militia. “Overmountain Men,” Appalachian frontiersmen so-called for their rugged endurance and mastery of the surrounding hill country, joined with the Patriot forces and began harrying the Loyalists camping in the area.
They soon learned that Ferguson was gathering his troops in South Carolina on Kings Mountain, a natural fortress that rose up out of the forests and would provide any heavily provisioned company difficulty to ascend. Luckily, these Overmountain Men and accompanying Patriots were equipped with American Longrifles and other light arms. The combined force of over 900 would make a heroic march of 330 miles in only 13 days in the lead up to the conflict on October 7th.
Not expecting a force of this magnitude to reach them so soon, Ferguson had neglected to set up fortifications and was caught unawares when American snipers began firing from their forested positions. Deployed into a Pincer Movement on both sides of the mountain, the Overmountain Men had been instructed by Col. Isaac Shelby, “Don’t wait for the word of command. Let each one of you be your own officer and do the very best you can.” 
The level of trust to carry out such a complicated maneuver when outnumbered by a foe on superior terrain is almost unimaginable. However, the level of autonomy that Patriot commanders expected of their troops proved to be deserved as every man fought independently to unhouse the Loyalist encampment.
Loyalist casualties reached 90% and Major Ferguson himself was killed in action with seven bullet holes placed deliberately upon his body by the Overmountain Men. Among them was John Crockett, father of the famed Davy Crockett, who would no doubt share with his son the experience of tracking and overwhelming the enemy using his intimate knowledge of the Appalachia countryside.
The Battle of Kings Mountain was an important turning point for the war, boosting American morale and striking fear into the hearts of the British forces remaining in the Carolinas. Future President Herbert Hoover would remark, “Here less than a thousand men, inspired by the urge of freedom, defeated a superior force entrenched in this strategic position...It was a little army and a little battle, but it was of mighty portent.” 
Later campaigns would see the Americans transformed into well-equipped armies of capable marksmen with an ardent desire for independence. Decisive victories such as the Battle of New Orleans under the command of Andrew Jackson would inspire folk songs like “The Hunters of Kentucky,” pointing to the already legendary skill of American riflemen.
It’s important to note that unlike the British regulars, American forces were not generally career soldiers but ordinary volunteers whose supplies were reinforced through hunting and subsisting off of the land.  Integral to the success of their early guerrilla strategy was their ability to provide for themselves using only their own kit: A task made easier with a longrifle that could be forged, maintained and supplied from nearly every small town in the colonies.
One of the most famous proponents of the longrifle was the folk hero Davy Crockett. Known for his larger-than-life adventures in the American wilderness, Crockett first rose to renown under the command of Andrew Jackson in the Creek War of 1813 where he enlisted as a scout and spent much of his time hunting game for the army. 
Much has been told, retold and exaggerated about Crockett’s life, nevertheless what is clear is that he was an expert sharpshooter and spent much of his life on lengthy expeditions carrying American Longrifles. Eventually rising to the U.S. House of Representatives, this “Coonskin Congressman” was gifted an ornate longrifle upon his departure from politics due to his professed love for the firearm that had already shaped much of America.  Little did he know that its greatest role had yet to arrive, nor that it would be memorialized in his own hands.
Political disagreements with President Jackson over government overreach led Crockett westward to the emerging Republic of Texas. His youngest daughter, Matilda, would later recall of him, “He was dressed in his hunting suit, wearing a coonskin cap, and carried a fine rifle presented to him by friends in Philadelphia. ... He seemed very confident the morning he went away that he would soon have us all to join him in Texas.” 
For several decades preceding this, American settlers had been flowing into the badlands of northern Mexico, and would often find themselves targeted by authorities and bandits alike. By 1836 the Texas breakaway movement had begun in earnest, driving out many of the troops stationed in the area before Mexico decided to retaliate with unmitigated force.
Crockett arrived at the Alamo Mission near modern-day San Antonio in early February 1836, where a small garrison of roughly 200 men were stationed under the command of James Bowie and William B. Travis.  Supplies were already low when scouts reported an army 1,500 strong were arriving to place the mission under siege. It was expected the outpost would last no longer than four days.
On March 5th, a full twelve days after the siege began, it is said that Travis unsheathed his saber to draw a line in the sand. The garrison had kept the Mexican army at bay longer than anyone had expected thanks to their deadly sniping of encroaching forces. Now he offered every man a choice between survival and dying for the cause. There are no verified accounts of any man deserting his post: they would die with their rifles in hand.
The legendary battle came the following dawn in what has become part of the foundational ethos of Texas and the defiant American spirit. Songs, books, and movies have immortalized Davy Crockett’s last stand: Of him firing until ammunition ran out, and going down swinging his American Longrifle until the very end. It is said his body was found surrounded by 16 dead Mexican soldiers. 
The garrison would be avenged soon after in the Battle of San Jacinto where Texians under the command of Sam Houston would decimate the Mexican army in fewer than 20 minutes with the infamous rallying cry, “Remember the Alamo!”
Annexation of Texas and the ensuing Mexican-American War would result in a total victory for the United States and deliver them more than half of the Mexican territory on the continent. This land would later form the states of Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, California, Utah, as well as Colorado and Wyoming. 
The cultural memory of the Alamo and the riflemen who fought there helped to justify the expansionist agenda of the United States. Here we can see the first signs that America was not accepting of half measures, but a master of its lands from the capital to the frontier.
The arc of the American Longrifle was destined to be a short one, as the people who championed it would be unable to adapt to the changes that arrived a single generation later.
Less than 100 years after the Declaration of Independence, America would fracture in the wake of aggressive statesmanship between the Union in the North and the Confederacy in the South. The fallout of the Mexican-American War and the dramatic increase in available territory inflamed hostilities. Principally, proslavery and antislavery groups were bitterly divided over whether the practice would be permitted in the newly formed states.
Tensions exploded following the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and in February 1861 the secession of the Confederate States of America and ensuing seizures of forts and armories escalated into an all-out war. 
Initially the states on each side of the conflict mobilized their existing militias. Like the adsidui of Rome, new recruits were asked to supply their own personal armaments.  Many of them brought the American Longrifles that they had grown proficient with throughout years of hunting and soldiering in the War of Independence.
The Union would swell its ranks with new immigrants and recently freed slaves and form a blockade of southern ports, crippling the Confederacy’s cotton-based economy. With a bountiful war chest Lincoln ordered the production of new rifles to equip his Yankee army, including the Springfield Model 1861. At a cost of $15 per rifle, the Model 1861s were mass produced with over 1,000,000 making their way into the theater. 
Cheap to make, quick to reload and easily accurate at 500 yards, the Model 1861 surpassed the American Longrifle in almost every capacity. By the time the Confederates eventually rearmed themselves with modernized arms like the Enfield, their inability to fund their forces coupled with several disastrous defeats had already ensured their ultimate demise.  There was nowhere left in America to hide.
Use of the American Longrifle declined after the Civil War, though the American gun industry would continue to grow. The Thompson Machine gun, or “Tommy Gun,” found notoriety in the hands of Great Depression-era gangsters like Al Capone who would use the rapid-fire weapon in ambushes and bank robberies. The loud, devastating blast of a Tommy Gun made such an impression on reporters and movie producers alike that to this day it’s still known as “the gun that made the twenties roar.” 
During the Cold War, the foundations of a shared American identity collapsed under rising social tensions between racial groups and the loss of trust in governmental institutions. In the background of this period of disillusionment was the Vietnam War, which would have a devastating impact on American youth and create a rift between them and their forefathers.
The ubiquitous weapon of this Asian theater was the M16, an improved version of the ArmaLite AR-15 rifle that appears in many artistic representations of the war from the late 20th century.  Cheaply produced, the metal was stamped out as opposed to hand-machined and partially made of plastic, with a weight of less than 10 pounds. With a rate of fire of over 600 rounds per minute, the M16 was a tool beyond the fantasy of frontiersmen that came before.
Soldiers who had become well acquainted with this rifle in Vietnam returned home to a changed political landscape where their constitutional rights were beginning to be stripped away. In 1986, Congress granted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) expansive new powers to regulate the possession of machine guns and other firearms in the US. 
The battle for gun rights has only intensified in recent years, becoming representative of the increasingly strained relationship between citizens and their governments. The Second Amendment reads, “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.”  There are many who dispute that this right has been upheld in good faith in the present day.
When the American Longrifle was first produced it was an unspoken law that every man was responsible for the safety of his person, family, and property. An occupational government bent on oppression strove to deprive them of this security and soon became embroiled in a hotly contested war that left countless dead.
The survivors of this conflict depended on the longrifle for sustenance, self defense and armed liberation. Suited to guerrilla warfare, Americans settled themselves in the hills, woodlands and bayous and refused to be expunged without a fight. They rallied to leaders who asked only that they defend what they hold dear, and reared a culture that prided itself on autonomy.
In the end, the artisans that crafted dependable longrifles couldn’t outpace the mass production of cheap arms that allowed newly arrived soldiers to stamp their citizenship with the blood of patriots. It took less than 250 years for the descendants of the first Americans to be convinced to disarm themselves of their rifles, as well as their martial spirit.
Where does this leave the American Longrifle, this symbol of the frontier? Was its soul extinguished at the Alamo? Does it lie buried in a shallow grave at Gettysburg? Or is there another icon rising that can guide the hands of a once-noble nation?
Let us learn from the lessons of the past: a weapon of the people must be equally suited to their current state of affairs while also capable of adapting them for the coming battles they are to face.
In America today, most gun violence occurs between gang members with innocent bystanders either mistakenly struck or targeted for their perceived weakness. Faced with economic uncertainty, this weapon should be affordable, require low maintenance, use accessible ammunition, and be easy to gain a basic proficiency for. With these factors in mind, one armament has already found its way into the hands of many gun-owning Americans: the AR-15.
AR-15-style rifles closely resemble the M16 and its ArmaLite predecessor with the notable hallmark of a modular design, allowing owners to easily customize and upgrade their rifles for whatever purpose they require. Interchangeable parts and a healthy aftermarket industry for the AR-15 has provided it with a versatility for hunting, sport shooting, self-defense and more. 
While ammunition for AR-15-style rifles is plentiful, prices surged after mass shootings began to feature prominently in the media. However, thanks to its modular construction and growing popularity, this rifle can chamber a variety of calibers which are widely available in every major city and small town.
Despite intense propaganda from overreaching political forces, the AR-15 has consistently been proclaimed the most popular rifle in America with more than 5% of the population reporting ownership.  While more expensive than other rifles, it remains dependable and offers a plethora of personalizable options. Its light weight and low recoil makes the AR-15 especially suited for new gun owners to grow familiar with shooting. In short, there’s a strong case for claiming the AR-15 as the spiritual successor to the American Longrifle.
The question that remains to be answered is if there is still a people worthy of arming themselves with not just a gun, but a symbol of independence. Besieged on all sides by enemies foreign and domestic, a nation has never been in such need of a citizenry willing to defend itself and its foundational values.
If they can prove themselves as capable, disciplined and fervent as their ancestors wielding the American Longrifle, then I believe the martial spirit of these United States will reawaken once more.
1. “Long Rifles.” The Buckskinners, March 2020. https://thebuckskinners.com/long-rifles/.2. Ibid.
3. York, Neil L. “Pennsylvania Rifle: Revolutionary Weapon in a Conventional War?” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 103, no. 3 (1979): 302–24. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20091374.
5. York, “Pennsylvania Rifle,” 305.
6. Orrison, Rob. “Militia, Minutemen, and Continentals: The American Military Force in the American Revolution.” American Battlefield Trust, December 15, 2021.
7. Horn, Joshua. “The Battle of King's Mountain.” Horn Herald, May 20, 2010.
9. Hoover, Herbert. “Address on the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Kings Mountain.” The American Presidency Project, October 7, 1930.
10. Backus, Paige Gibbons. “Getting Food in the Continental Army.” American Battlefield Trust, October 18, 2021. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/getting-food-continental-army.
11. Wallis, Michael. David Crockett: The Lion of the West. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012.
13. Cobia, Manley F. Journey into the Land of Trials: The Story of Davy Crockett's Expedition to the Alamo. Hillsboro Press, 2003.
14. Todish, Timothy J, Terry Todish, and Ted Spring. Alamo Sourcebook, 1836 : A Comprehensive Guide to the Alamo and the Texas Revolution. Austin, Tex.: Eakin Press, 1998.
15. Stiff, Edward. 1840. The Texan Emigrant: Being a Narration of the Adventures of the Author in Texas, and a Description of That Country, Together with the Principal Incidents of Fifteen Years Revolution in Mexico, Etc. Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2009.
16. Gray, Tom. “The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.” National Archives, April 25, 2018.
17. Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. Vintage, 1986.
18. “Kentucky Rifle, USA 18th and 19th Century” Irongate Armory, January 9, 2011. https://irongatearmory.com/product/kentucky-rifle-usa-18th-and-19th-century.
19. Brown, Jerold E. Historical Dictionary of the U.S. Army. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001.
20. “Small Arms of the Civil War.” American Battlefield Trust, October 17, 2018. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/small-arms-civil-war.
21. Helmer, William J. The Gun That Made the Twenties Roar. MacMillan Publishing Company, 1969.
22. "M16 rifle." Encyclopedia Britannica, May 25, 2022.
23. "S.49 - 99th Congress (1985-1986): Firearms Owners' Protection Act." Congress.gov, May 19, 1986.
24. U.S. Constitution. Amend. II.
25. “How Interchangeable Are AR 15 Accessories?” Bootleg Inc., May 10, 2017.
26. Guskin, Emily, Aadit Tambe, and Jon Gerberg. “Why Do Americans Own AR-15s?” Washington Post, March 27, 2023.
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LV is one of those most dreadful of stenographers: an essayist. Writing at the crossroads of humanities, obscurities and politics, he inquires into the values and customs that have raised the greatest civilizations to their zenith.
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