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 – of all kinds, in the minds of some – but what kind of weapons were they talking about when they wrote it?
America was a wildly different place 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 than the weapons of today; they would be unrecognizable to the folks who founded the United States.
In 1790s America, we were still just starting out – the population of the whole country was only 3.9 million, which is closer to the population of Los Angeles alone than it is to the entire nation nowadays. To top if off, there was still a very clear and present threat of danger after the Revolutionary War had ended.
Native American tribes were known to attack settlements (and vice versa), and since there was no police force or army, there were times when the law needed to be taken into the hands of the citizens. There were also no grocery stores – the colonists would have needed guns to hunt and feed themselves.
Oh, and white people owned slaves, and they really didn't want to have an uprising they couldn't defeat. The right to bear arms covered protecting that, too.
The types of guns available at that time were very different from the AR-15s and other semi- and fully-automatic weapons we see on the news these days. 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 it could fire around three effective rounds per minute – in the hands of the most skilled wielder. It's maximum accuracy range had to be within 50 meters. Compare this to a "Typical modern-day AR-15," which has a magazine capacity of 30 rounds, has an effective fire of 45 rounds a minute, and an accuracy range of 550 meters.
These are vastly different weapons.
Besides only holding one round at a time, the guns of the 1790s had a very low level of accuracy and incredibly short ranges. Not only that either – 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.
"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 than those fired from modern rifles.
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 in order to keep it from rolling out of the weapon.