From the Braver Institute
I own a Kentucky rifle. You may ask “What’s a Kentucky rifle?” Well, what is now widely known as a Kentucky rifle would generically be called a muzzleloader. Firearm aficionados and historians would correct me and say that a Kentucky rifle is actually a long rifle. The lay person would call it a musket.
Sure, at one time it was the firearm of choice of citizen and soldier alike. It was the modern, high-tech rifle of its day, but things change, improvements are made.
The Springfield breech loading rifle was introduced and it quickly supplanted the muzzleloader as the modern rifle. The rate of fire of a breechloader was two to three times as fast as that of a muzzleloader.
Shortly after the introduction of the breechloader, Sharps rifles were introduced and they were very popular with the military and with settlers who were heading west. The Sharps was a very accurate rifle, and accuracy could mean the difference between life and death. It only made sense to have the best that modern technology had to offer.
The Spencer repeating rifle was a major breakthrough in firearm development. The Spencer was a lever-action gun that could be loaded with seven rounds and fired repeatedly without reloading. Around the same time the Henry rifle was placed on the market, marking a major advancement in modern firearm technology.
The Henry was a lever-action rifle that could hold sixteen rounds in its tube style magazine, was highly prized by its owners, and rightly so. During the Civil War the government didn’t issue Henry rifles. Union soldiers purchased these modern rifles personally because many of them believed that the capacity of the magazine would help them survive. Confederate soldiers called it “that damned Yankee rifle that they load on Sunday and shoot all week.” Although nearly impossible to get in the Civil War south, the Henry was the firearm of choice for the bodyguards of Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
After the Civil War, the Henry rifle was improved and modified to become what was perhaps the most iconic firearm of the American west, the Winchester lever-action rifle. So highly regarded in the world of firearms, the Winchester and countless clones are still available to this day.
Around the turn of the century, Springfield once again made the modern firearm of choice for the military with the M1903, a bolt action model that used a five round magazine that could be reloaded very quickly using stripper clips.
This high-tech bolt action rifle was what the civilian bolt action sporting rifle was based on. The efficiency of this design made it highly practical for the shooting sports. The M1903 itself is still popular with shooters.
The Springfield M1903 remained a standard military issue firearm into World War II due to the shortage of M1 Garands. The M1 Garand was the latest hightech firearm to be introduced. It was similar to the M1903 in that it used clips that could be pre-loaded, but unlike the stripper-clip, the Garand’s clip dropped into the magazine complete. Garands were also semi-automatic—every time the trigger was pulled, the gun fired a round, without the need to operate a bolt or a lever.
After the war, these modern firearms were (and still are) highly prized by sportsman and target shooters, and the semi-automatic design was incorporated into civilian rifles by most firearm manufacturers.
While fully automatic rifles (machine guns) had been used in the military for most of the 20th century to this point, they had never been part of the standard military issue firearm lineup. The Garand remained the standard service rifle until it was replaced by the M14 in the early 1960’s. The M14 was the first fully automatic rifle to be the standard issue. Unlike a semiautomatic, a fully automatic rifle will fire continuously as long as the trigger is pulled and there is ammunition in the magazine.
In the late 1960’s the M14 was replaced with the M16, another fully automatic rifle. Perhaps the most obvious difference between the M14 and the M16 is that the M14 had a wooden stock, and the M16 stock was made of a lightweight a composite material making it easier to carry. The stock also featured a pistol-style rear hand grip which did much to provide greater comfort and accuracy for the user.
For what was perhaps the first time in firearm history, a civilian version of a standard issue military firearm never went into production, at least in terms of function. The National Firearms act of 1934 made it very difficult for the average citizen to own fully automatic firearms, so civilian models still functioned like the previous generation of firearms, they were semi-automatic, essentially the same gun as before, with a more ergonomic exterior.
The civilian, semi-automatic version of the M16 is known as the AR15. Contrary to popular belief the AR does not stand for “automatic rifle,” or “assault rifle.” AR stands for Armalite Rifle, named after the company that first produced it.
The current issue military rifle is the modern version of the M16 known as the M4. It looks and functions similarly to the M16, but the stock of the M4 is adjustable for a better fit. The civilian version is still built on the AR platform and features the same adjustability, yet continues to lack fully automatic operation of its military counterpart.
Today’s modern civilian rifle looks like a modern military rifle, but then again so did the Kentucky rifle in its day, and every rifle from then until now. Military and civilian firearms have always looked and functioned alike until fifty years ago when the fully automatic rifle replaced the semi-automatic.
The only thing that has not changed with civilian firearms since World War II is the way they operate. All that has really changed is the way that they look.
Things that seemed so cutting edge at one time, are eventually relegated to curios of antiquity. The modern firearm of today will eventually be as obsolete as my Kentucky rifle.
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Waye Braver can be contacted on Facebook or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org