What Firearms Looked Like In 1791

In conversations surrounding gun control in the US, the Second Amendment to the Constitution is often brought up as proof that the Founding Fathers wanted US citizens to have the right to bear arms, but what kind of weapons were they talking about when they wrote it?

In 1791, when the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution, there were no police stations; skirmishes with Native Americans were commonplace; and the colonists had just defeated the British Army in the Revolutionary War. 

Because of this, firearms were a huge part of everyday life - from hunting down dinner to forming one of the many citizen soldier militia groups that kept the peace in the newly formed country. Even dueling with pistols had its place in society. 

So what guns existed when the Second Amendment was written, and how has weapon technology and history changed the meaning of what constitutes "arms?" The guns from the past look and function much differently from the weapons of today, which would be unrecognizable to the folks who founded the United States.

Photo: National Museum of American History / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

  • When The Second Amendment Was Written, There Was No Such Thing As A Standing Army
    Photo: Domenick D'Andrea / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    When The Second Amendment Was Written, There Was No Such Thing As A Standing Army

    In 1790s America, the population of the whole country was around 3.9 million, which is closer to the population of present-day Los Angeles alone than it is to the entire nation. Also, a very clear and present threat of danger existed after the Revolutionary War ended.

    Native American tribes were known to defend themselves from colonists (and vice versa), and because the colonists didn't have a police force or army, at times citizens felt they needed to take the law into their own hands. Also, without grocery stores, the colonists needed guns to hunt and feed themselves.

  • Muskets Were Common
    Photo: Michael E. Cumpston / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Muskets Were Common

    In 1791, common guns included muskets and flintlock pistols.

    According to the Washington Post, a "typical Revolutionary-era musket" had a one-round magazine capacity, and could fire around three effective rounds per minute - in the hands of the most skilled wielder. Its maximum accuracy range had to be within 50 meters. 

  • Firearms In 1791 Were Wildly Inaccurate
    Photo: Tookapic / Pexels / Public domain

    Firearms In 1791 Were Wildly Inaccurate

    Besides holding only one round at a time, the guns of the 1790s had a very low level of accuracy and incredibly short ranges. Plus, muskets of the period, including the Brown Bess and Charleville, had no sights at all, aside from an affixed bayonet that one could look down while preparing to shoot. 

    As Hugh T. Harrington explained in the Journal of the American Revolution

    Normally, the shooter would look down the barrel and align his rear sight (the sight closest to his face) with the front sight and with the target. This cannot be done with the musket since there is no rear sight. Without a rear sight the shooter’s eyeball acts as the rear sight. That would not be a problem if the eyeball could always be placed exactly in the same place each time the musket was fired. But, it cannot be done.

    On top of not having sights, muskets had smooth bore barrels, which made their projectiles less stable in flight.

  • Guns Could Shoot One Round At A Time, Up To 3 Or 4 Per Minute
    Video: YouTube

    Guns Could Shoot One Round At A Time, Up To 3 Or 4 Per Minute

    The firearms at the time of the Revolution were loaded one round at a time, and the average rate of fire was three or four rounds per minute. The process of loading and reloading the gun involved adding gunpowder, using a ramrod to insert the bullet and make sure it was in place, and reattaching the ramrod before taking aim and firing the single bullet.

    The cartridge paper had to be shoved in after the ball to keep it from rolling out of the weapon.

  • Musket Balls Were The Original Bullets, But Were More Like Lead Marbles That Couldn't Fight Gravity

    Musket balls are generally much larger and heavier than modern bullets. They came in different sizes, but were all made of lead. They were made using a process of melting the lead and pouring it into a round, two-part mold. Because lead was in short supply during the Revolution, some musket balls were made using an alloy of either lead and tin, or lead and pewter.

    The weight of the musket balls often had a negative effect on range: Because they were so heavy, gravity began pulling them downward somewhat quickly as soon as they were fired. 

  • Battles That Started With Shooting Often Ended In Hand-To-Hand Combat

    The muskets used in the Revolutionary War came with a nasty surprise: bayonets. According to author and independent researcher Hugh T. Harrington in the Journal of the American Revolution, shooting was only the beginning of a battle. Because the guns were so inaccurate, the goal wasn't to aim for a soldier and kill them. The idea was to fire as many times as possible at the wall of approaching soldiers - without really aiming - as fast as possible. Then, once the enemy was close enough, the bayonets were put on and the real combat began. 

    "As it has been said, the musket is a good handle for the bayonet," Harrington said.