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Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture Paperback – December 3, 2003

1.7 out of 5 stars 179 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

While gun supporters use the nation's gun-toting history in defense of their way of life, and revolutionary enthusiasts replay skirmishes on historic battlefields, it now turns out that America has not always had a gun culture, and wide-scale gun ownership is much newer than we think. After a 10-year search for "a world that isn't there," professor and scholar Michael Bellesiles discovered that Americans not only rarely owned guns prior to the Civil War, they wouldn't even take them for free from a government that wanted to arm its reluctant public. No sharpshooters, no gun in every home, no children learning to hunt beside their fathers. Bellesiles--whose research methods have generated a great deal of controversy and even a subsequent investigation by Emory University--searched legal, probate, military, and business records; fiction and personal letters; hunting magazines; and legislation in his quest for the legendary gun-wielding frontiersman, only to discover that he is a myth. There are other revelations: gun ownership and storage was strictly legislated in colonial days, and frivolous shooting of a musket was backed by the death penalty; men rarely died in duels because the guns were far too inaccurate (duels were about honor, not murder); pioneers didn't hunt (they trapped and farmed); frontier folk loved books, not guns; and the militia never won a war (it was too inept). In fact, prior to the Civil War, when mass production of higher quality guns became a reality, the republic's greatest problem was a dearth of guns, and a public that was too peaceable to care about civil defense. As Bellesiles writes, "Probably the major reason why the American Revolution lasted eight years, longer than any war in American history before Vietnam, was that when that brave patriot reached above the mantel, he pulled down a rusty, decaying, unusable musket (not a rifle), or found no gun there at all." Strangely, the eagle-eye frontiersman was created by East Coast fiction writers, while the idea of a gun as a household necessity was an advertising ploy of gun maker Samuel Colt (both just prior to the Civil War). The former group fabricated a historic and heroic past while Colt preyed on overblown fears of Indians and blacks.

Bellesiles, who is highly knowledgeable about weapons and military history, never comes out against guns. He is more interested in discovering the truth than in taking sides. Nevertheless, his work shatters some time-honored myths and icons--including the usual reading of the Second Amendment--and will be hard to refute. This fascinating, eye-opening account is sure to both inform and inflame the already highly charged debate about guns in America. --Lesly Reed --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Like most students of U.S. history, Bellesiles (Emory University) believed gun-related violence was inextricably woven into the American past from its earliest days. Then he started studying county probate records as part of a project about the early American frontier. To his surprise, he found that for the years 1765 to 1770, only 14 percent of probate inventories listed a gun. Further study convinced Bellesiles that American gun culture began only with the Civil War. Sickened by the carnage associated with guns today, Bellesiles, in his second book (following Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier), is agenda driven. If U.S. society has, as he contends, been largely free of gun-related violence in the past, then it could be again. This agenda, however, does not taint Bellesiles's scholarship. Through examination of "[l]egal, probate, military and business records, travel accounts, personal letters" and other primary sources, he painstakingly documents the relative absence of guns before the Civil WarAand the rise of the gun culture in its wake, due to an increasingly urban populace now accustomed to shooting and newly industrialized gun manufacturers tooled up to mass-produce firearms. This combination of factors, he argues, led to the violence-prone American ethos, one that fetishizes guns. Bellesiles's approachable writing style makes easily digestible this revision of the historiographical record. "The question is one of cultural primacy," Bellesiles contends. "What lies at the core of national identity?" His answer is bound to inflame today's impassioned controversy over gun control.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 604 pages
  • Publisher: Soft Skull Press; Second Edition edition (December 3, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1932360077
  • ISBN-13: 978-1932360073
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.2 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 1.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (179 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,199,296 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Amazon Customer on October 5, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I was intrigued by this book. I don't live in either camp--rabidly pro- or anti-gun. I shot on a rifle and pistol team throughout high school and college (lo, these 25 years past), and since have fired a black powder flintlock and percussion cap pistol a few times because I wanted to see what they were like; but I own no firearms today. However, the fact that both camps are so unalterably polarized makes anything that purports to be a scholarly, unbiased investigation captures the attention.
It looked both promising--extensive reference section and appendices--and as if it might offer a startling revelation. But as I read, I found disconcerting inconsistencies just within the context of his own text. (For instance, at one point he claimed that the cost of a musket was two months' wages for an early colonist; shortly thereafter, for a period of time not much later than that earlier mentioned, he affirms it cost the equivalent of 1-1 1/2 years wages for an artisan. This bothered me; as I continued to read, I started to notice some missing items--such as giving us a count for the evidence that he proffers--often--that probate records show that guns are rare. How many records? What percentage of the population submitted information to probate? Statistical information that without which his charts and graphs are meaningless.
Furthermore, he asserts--more than once--that it took "3 minutes" to load and fire a muzzle-loading rifle. It would have to be the dead of night, and the shooter blind drunk, to take that long. Never having fired a flintlock before, I tried to load and fire 10 times in succession, and was able to average 50 seconds per load. (The smoke was horrible, and near the end fouling was slowing me down--but NOT to 3 minutes).
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Format: Paperback
Before you buy this book, please take note of the problems which have come from it.

1. The Bancroft Prize which this book won in 2001 was withdrawn in 2002 due to the fact that Bellesiles "had violated basic norms of acceptable scholarly conduct" during the time when he researched and wrote the book.

2. Bellesiles was employed as a professor of history at Emory University until he was forced to resign due to "unprofessional and misleading work" that he put into this book.

3.Bellesiles said in an interview with a National Review reporter that he used "San Fransisco records from 1849-50 and 1858-59", but when the reporter confronted him with the fact that those documents were destroyed during the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, he claimed that his memory was bad and told the reporter to check some libraries, when she did, they did not have the documents either.

In conclusion, this book is a fabrication, and anyone who has studied the history of the United States military from The Revolution to The War of 1812 to The Civil War knows that the majority of units were militia, made up of citizen soldiers who armed themselfs, due to the culture that didn't love guns, but saw them as useful tools, and quite often at that. But Mr. Bellesiles does not want you to know that, so that he may infleuence political opinions.
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Format: Hardcover
I found Michael Bellesiles' book "Arming America" to be most amusing. I have to be amused, otherwise I would be outraged that such drivel could come from an alleged historian. Let me start at the beginning:
His survey of probate records covers only those who had wills and probate proceedings. These people were typically rich urbanites who had no need to hunt and could rely on neighbors for help if attacked. Since there was usually at least one person in the house at all times, the risk was slim. This survey does NOT represent the typical American at the time, but the typical elite snob. And most of them STILL had guns, based on the VERY PROBATE RECORDS HE CLAIMS TO HAVE USED.
American settlers, as he notes and then contradicts, used rifles for hunting. Muskets, which were military weapons, were inaccurate other than in volley fire, so were not desirable for frontier use, hence the lack of interest in buying surplus ones after the War of Independence. It did not take "two days" to find game, "luck" was not needed, and the typical game would be rabbit or squirrel, which are far more plentiful than deer. One would be unlikely to slaughter chickens regularly for meat, as he suggests, unless one had a sufficient breeding population to replace those slaughtered. It would actually be far easier, despite his amusing theories on hunting, to bag a woodchuck, squirrel, or rabbit. And they all taste like chicken.
Gunpowder is merely charcoal, sulfur, and saltpetre. Sulfur occurs naturally, charcoal is readily made, and saltpetre takes little effort to distill from cow manure. As late as 1873, the Zulus were using stones as projectiles in their muskets.
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Format: Paperback
I don't care about the gun control debate. ARMING AMERICA is an example of what happens when an author writes without a shred of intellectual honesty. Bellesiles lifts quotes out of context with such care and regularity that I can only conclude it was deliberate. On multiple occasions the text he cites bears no resemblance to the interpretive statements he makes. These are not errors, it is fraud. Eighteenth century military history in general, and how armies fought in particular, is so little understood in academic history that interpretations so obviously wrong (to scholars in military history) are actually praised in academic journals.
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