A Quick History of “Assault Weapons”

California politician Kevin de Leon has a long history of making up facts especially about AR-15s. He has perpetuated lies about ‘ghost guns,’ helped pass the California ‘bullet button’ legislation, and legislation against the bullet button.

The AR-15 has been a long-time enemy of the Left. When politicians need a few points ahead of a vote or some time on TV to look like they mean business, they will imagine a new capability for the gun. Some politicians just do not like that a rifle is readily available that seems to be a near-peer to a military firearm. So should civilians own a “military-style” rifle? Let us walk through the history of “military-style” and “assault rifle.”

The “Assault” Muzzleloaders

Our first terrifying AR is the Assault Musket, the Brown Bess. The Brown Bess musket was standard issue in the British Army. American Colonists were expected to have one in case the government called them up for militia duty. The Brown Bess was not military-style; it was a military firearm. The Army model had a slightly shorter barrel compared to the militia rifle. Colonials needed a gun with precision at longer ranges, whereas military units needed something more wieldy with a higher rate of fire.

In the Revolution, the Continental Army rarely stood a chance in open battle against the British. George Washington, Nathanael Greene, and “Mad” Anthony Wayne all knew they needed to out-maneuver the British outside the battlefield.

Overmountain Men at King's Mountain assault British positions
At King’s Mountain, South Carolina, frontiersmen from East Tennessee and the Western Carolinas used their hunting rifles to rout loyalists and British soldiers on the heavily wooded mountain.

Enter the Pennsylvania Rifle. It was not a military rifle; it was designed for frontiersmen. But it is our first “Assault Rifle” and “military-style” firearm. This rifle was longer and slower to reload than the Army Brown Bess, but it was more accurate at long range. Skirmishers and militiamen used the Pennsylvania Rifle to great effect. The Overmountain Men brought them to the Battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina; Dan Morgan’s riflemen used it effectively at Cowpens and Saratoga; Francis Marion’s South Carolina militiamen depended on it to harass British supply trains.

The Spencer and Henry “Assault” Repeaters

For the next several decades, the Pennsylvania Rifle was the baseline firearm for American military rifles. Percussion caps replaced flint, bullets replaced musket balls, and breechloaders replaced muzzleloaders. This brings us to the cowboy (and my) favorite: the lever action carbine.

In the 1850s, Christopher Miner Spencer invented the Spencer Repeating Rifle. It was a 7-shot rifle, superior to muzzleloaders in many ways. At the onset of the Civil War, he presented it to the Union Army and Navy. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, immediately saw the value and bought them up. But the Army’s Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, James Ripley, thought the tried-and-true muzzleloader was good enough.

During the war, Spencer’s competition, Benjamin Henry produced his own level action repeater. The rifles were not issued to soldiers, so they bought them off the civilian market with reenlistment bonuses. Read that sentence twice. They bought a weapon with a higher rate of fire off the civilian market.

assault rifle
Abe Lincoln himself tested Spencer’s Repeating Rifle at 40 feet on the National Mall, using this board as the target. He was Commander in Chief, not Sharpshooter in Chief.

Spencer’s rifle finally made its way into the Army in 1863 because Christopher Spencer carried the rifle into the White House and presented it to Abraham Lincoln. Together, they took some targets to the National Mall and Abe tested it out. Shortly thereafter, Abe replaced Ripley and the Army signed a contract for the Spencer Rifle. It took a man walking his rifle straight into the White House.

When Union soldiers used these repeaters in battle, they tended to win them. Historians credit the Spencer Rifle for shifting the odds in battle at Franklin, Nashville, Chickamauga, and Hoover’s Gap. A Michigan mounted infantry even earned the title “the Lightning Brigade” because they were among the first to be armed with the Spencer Carbine and turned tides in battles with them.

The Modern “Assault Rifle”

The Springfield Armory, Winchester, and Remington all started producing semi-automatic firearms at the turn of the 20th century. The Winchester Model 1903 was a semi-automatic rifle. It was sold as either “normal” or “fancy,” depending on the quality of the wood furniture.

Gunmakers designed automatic weapons for militaries. That is just a fact. John Browning made the BAR, and John Thompson designed the Thompson Submachine Gun specifically to outgun the Germans in the trenches of France. Both guns were available in the civilian market following the war.

assault rifle
Inventor John Thompson sports the legend itself, the Tommy Gun, the Chicago Typewriter, the Street Sweeper, the Thompson Submachine Gun

So what initiated gun control? People control. In 1919, Congress wrote the first amendment to the Constitution that restricted the people: the Volstead Act, Prohibition. With Prohibition, organized crime helped get people the drinks they wanted. Organized crime competed for power, so they bought up adequate firepower like the Tommy Gun.

Gun Control and the “Assault Rifle”

When the government repealed the Volstead Act in 1933, it followed Prohibition with the National Firearms Act of 1934. The NFA imposed a tax and required registration for short-barreled shotguns and rifles, automatic weapons, silencers, and destructive devices (hand grenades). The $200 tax, equivalent to $3,995 today, made buying these firearms too expensive for ordinary Americans. The concurrent registration of NFA firearms provided the government with prosecutable information against people who bought those weapons.

The government operated a gun registration for NFA weapon parameters until 1968. That year, the Supreme Court decided that the NFA registration was unconstitutional and violated people’s fifth amendment rights against self-incrimination.

The federal government never restricted guns until after the government decided it had the authority to restrict people. For 150 years, civilians were able to buy the same firearms as the military. Nobody thought anything of it.

Today the government has entitled itself to regulate the country every which way it can. Since modern military-style weapons look far more intimidating than the Pennsylvania Rifle, the Spencer Repeating Rifle, or the Winchester Model 1903, politicians who believe they should control people think they should remove those scary weapons from the public. So that is where we are today: a modern era of government that believes it knows what is best for you and has the right to regulate you.

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Featured screenshot: California politician Kevin de Leon has a long history of making up facts especially about AR-15s. He has perpetuated lies about ‘ghost guns,’ helped pass the California ‘bullet button’ legislation, and legislation against the bullet button.

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