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8. A Long Rifle

By Nicolas Bell-Romero (@NicoBellRomero)

‘So, as we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: ‘From my cold, dead hands!’[1]

In the 2000 presidential election that brought George W. Bush to the White House, the famous actor (and President of the National Rifle Association), Charlton Heston, made this incendiary comment while brandishing a long rifle above his head in response to a perceived threat against the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Why a rifle, and what was the significance of tying this weapon to a cause for liberty and individual rights?

Made of walnut and iron by German immigrants, the Pennsylvania Rifle – later known as the Kentucky Rifle – and the riflemen who wielded it were steeped in colonial folklore that began, in large part, during the American Revolution. In the late eighteenth century, a time when the colonists imported most of their firearms from Britain, the revolutionaries transformed the rifle into a symbol of freedom, as it was made within the thirteen colonies and largely wielded by the “riflemen”, a unit of soldiers who were celebrated for their marksmanship and birth on the western borderlands of North America.[2]

The frontiersmen Daniel Boone and Daniel Morgan entered the American pantheon because of their service and leadership of these rifle companies in the war against Britain. Yet there was a far darker side to the rifle. Before, during, and after the Revolution, the American colonists wielded this weapon against Native Americans in their struggle to colonise the continent. In the process, the rifle became a symbol of the rugged individualist striving to expand America’s empire in the face of Indian resistance.

[1] Charlton Heston, ‘From My Cold Dead Hands. Long Version.,’ YouTube. 26 April 2008. Retrieved 19 November 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ju4Gla2odw.

[2] Pennsylvania Packet, 28 August 1775.

Image: Southern long rifle. Source: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. https://emuseum.history.org/objects/70012/southern-american-long-rifle?ctx=f44ef231d96fb23d33f63e58a7b282a4e439dd5a&idx=2.

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