Synopses & Reviews
Americans have always loved guns. That love was forged early on, with its roots in the Revolution and the Second Amendment. Or so we assume.
It is thought that America is the most heavily civilian-armed nation today because of its “exceptional relationship” to guns. But in truth, American gun culture developed not because the gun was exceptional, but precisely because it was not: it was perceived in crucial years as an unexceptional commodity, whose production and sales followed ordinary business trends.
In The Gunning of America, historian Pamela Haag fundamentally revises the history of guns in the United States, by focusing on the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Delving into the obscure archives of the gun industry and setting western myths aside, Haag challenges basic assumptions of how and when America became a gun culture. She shows how gun industrialists worked their sales savvy over the decades to find and create new markets for their product, debunking the idea that guns just “sell themselves.” She reveals how they survived in the 1800s through international sales, and not the on American frontier. And she demonstrates how the mystique of the American gun that we associate with the colonial era actually deepened in the 1900s.
While Oliver Winchester had no apparent qualms about his life’s work of arming America, his daughter-in-law Sarah Winchester was a different story. Legend holds that Sarah was haunted by what she considered a vast blood fortune, and became convinced that the ghosts of rifle victims had cursed her. She channeled much of her inheritance, and her conflicted conscience, into a monstrous estate now known as the Winchester Mystery House—at its height, the most bizarre private residence in the world.
In this revelatory and exciting narrative, Haag upends our traditional understanding of the American gun culture. In so doing, she explodes the clichés of our stalemated gun politics today.
"Pamela Haag has accomplished a rare feat. She combines wonderful storytelling with a serious analysis of the firearms business to reveal how the Winchester Repeating Arms Company taught Americans to love guns." Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, Stanford University
"Pamela Haag has written a very smart book, deeply researched, original, provocative. The compelling narrative makes a powerful argument about the origins of America’s gun culture." John Mack Faragher, Howard R. Lamar Professor of History, Yale University
"In her masterful The Gunning of America, Pamela Haag furnishes a salutary corrective to the perception of the gun’s inevitability in American life by showing its history as a commodity invented and then deliberately marketed and distributed like any other widget or household appliance. Backed by vast research in the company archives of Winchester, Colt, and other manufacturers, her book is a mixture of analysis and close-focus biography of the many sturdy and sometimes strange early Americans who rode to wealth on the back of firearms… [A] beautifully composed and meticulously researched volume." New Republic
"[A] fascinating exploration of the major businesses and families that have manufactured firearms—and manufactured the seductiveness of firearms—in this country over the past 150 years...Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders sparred over [the repeal of the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act] in March...[They] could do no better than to read The Gunning of America to understand the history behind this argument and, as Haag puts it, to “ponder the virtue, and the terror, of feeling more conscientiously or spiritually complicit than is required by contract, economy, law, or society." Carlos Lozada, Washington Post
Americans have always loved guns. This special bond was forged during the American Revolution and sanctified by the Second Amendment. It is because of this exceptional relationship that American civilians are more heavily armed than the citizens of any other nation.
Or so we're told.
In The Gunning of America, historian Pamela Haag overturns this conventional wisdom. American gun culture, she argues, developed not because the gun was exceptional, but precisely because it was not: guns proliferated in America because throughout most of the nation's history, they were perceived as an unexceptional commodity, no different than buttons or typewriters.
Focusing on the history of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, one of the most iconic arms manufacturers in America, Haag challenges many basic assumptions of how and when America became a gun culture. Under the leadership of Oliver Winchester and his heirs, the company used aggressive, sometimes ingenious sales and marketing techniques to create new markets for their product. Guns have never sold themselves; rather, through advertising and innovative distribution campaigns, the gun industry did. Through the meticulous examination of gun industry archives, Haag challenges the myth of a primal bond between Americans and their firearms.
Over the course of its 150 year history, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company sold over 8 million guns. But Oliver Winchestera shirtmaker in his previous careerhad no apparent qualms about a life spent arming America. His daughter-in-law Sarah Winchester was a different story. Legend holds that Sarah was haunted by what she considered a vast blood fortune, and became convinced that the ghosts of rifle victims were haunting her. She channeled much of her inheritance, and her conflicted conscience, into a monstrous estate now known as the Winchester Mystery House, where she sought refuge from this ever-expanding army of phantoms.
In this provocative and deeply-researched work of narrative history, Haag fundamentally revises the history of arms in America, and in so doing explodes the cliches that have created and sustained our lethal gun culture.
About the Author
Pamela Haag holds a Ph.D. in history from Yale University. Her work on a diverse range of topics has appeared in many venues such as American Scholar, NPR, Slate, and the Times (London).