Saturday, September 19, 2015

One in a Thousand

The American Civil War occurred at an unfortunate point in technological development: quite simply, we had just gotten very good at killing each other. 

In the first few battles, generals were shocked by the large number of casualties—and those who were wounded had devastating wounds.  This new lethality was the result of recent improvements in rifled barrels, consistently performing gunpowder, and bullet designs.  Suddenly, the average rifleman could reliably kill at 400 yards, reload quickly and do it again.

This was the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and improved technology would make this the deadliest war in American history.  Railroads, steamships, improved metallurgy, better metal casting—all of these contributed to making the war a bloodbath.

Even so, it could have been worse:  the war stimulated innovation and rewarded creativity, particularly in the field of weapons, which improved dramatically. 
Note:  It is a sad commentary on the human race that we show our best creativity while trying to murder each other.  Look, for example, at the Second World War:  at the start, we were flying fabric-covered biplanes, but by the end of the war, sleek metallic darts were creeping close to the speed of sound, powered by jet and rocket motors.  If you were to chart the progress of wartime technology (and had the war lasted another ten years), the Big Red One would have established a beachhead on the moon.

The casualties of the Civil War could have climbed dramatically if overly conservative generals had adopted repeating rifles when they had the chance.  Two rifles in particular—the Spencer and the Henry—could have dramatically changed the course of the war if they had been widely adopted.  (I have already written about the Spencer, Lincoln's favorite rifle.)

The Henry is a 16-shot, lever-action rifle that utilizes the (then) new metallic cartridges that were so popular with the soldiers.  Operating the lever ejects the spent cartridge casing, loads a new round, and cocks the weapon's hammer so quickly and smoothly that in the hands of an experienced marksman, the rifle sounds like a slow-firing machine gun.  Impervious to weather, easy to load, and rapid-firing, the rifles, while more expensive than the commonly used Springfield muskets, were a dramatic improvement in technology and lethality when introduced.

Despite the proven effectiveness of the rifle, the Federal Ordnance Department purchased only 1,731 Henry rifles, but thousands more were sold directly to the men.  Over 200 men in the Illinois 7th, dissatisfied with the single-shot rifles they had been issued, purchased their own Henry rifles, despite the astronomical cost of $50 per rifle. 

It wasn't long before the rifle was known in the south as "that tarnation Yankee rifle they load on Sunday and shoot all week."

Ironically, the very companies that had profited from the war, went bankrupt because of the peace that followed it.  The federal government no longer had a need for so many weapons, and sold off the surplus arms—including the Spencer and Henry lever action rifles—for as little as $2 each.  Effectively, the arms companies were priced out of the market by their former best customer, who was selling their own products below cost.

Oliver Winchester was a businessman who had become rich manufacturing and selling shirts, and had used some of his earnings to invest in industries manufacturing war goods for the government.  When the firearms companies began failing, Winchester bought up the company manufacturing the Henry and renamed it the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.  Within a short time, he also bought the rights to the Spencer rifle. 

By 1866, a new improved version of the rifle had been produced, the Winchester 1866, commonly called the "Yellow Boy" because of the brass receiver.  This rifle had two important improvements;  a wooden forearm was added (the previous rifles were painfully hot to hold after a few rounds were fired) and the tubular magazine under the barrel was sealed and a loading gate was added to the receiver, facilitating reloading.

In the years following the Civil War, two events changed the Winchester:  the first was the rise of the metallic cartridge—the day of the paper cartridge was over.  The second, was the advent of the efficient revolver using those metal cartridges.  The Colt Firearm Company introduced the Colt Single Action Army, a six-shot, reliable revolver—the famous Colt Peacemaker—in 1873.  That same year, The Winchester Repeating Arms Company released the Model 1873, changing the world of firearms forever.

The new Winchester rifle was much stronger, manufactured from steel rather than brass, and was chambered in a new more powerful cartridge, the .44 WCF (Winchester Centerfire).  The new rifle/cartridge combination was reliable and powerful, and quickly became the most popular firearm in America—so popular that Colt was forced to offer its revolver using the same cartridge.

This combination made both guns far more popular than the addition of either would have by itself.  Cowboys liked the convenience of having a rifle and a pistol that both used the same powerful cartridge.  The general store in almost any settlement in the West might not have a lot of inventory, but it certainly had a box of .44 ammo on the shelf.

This rifle was, and still is, used by almost everyone.  Outlaws and peace officers, Indians and settlers—everyone used it except the military, that is until Colonel Custer and and his men were wiped out by Lakota armed with rapid-firing Winchesters, causing the military to finally change its mind about using the Winchester.  It did not take long for the rifle to be used all over the world.  Even today, the .44 Winchester has killed more game—and people—than any other rifle.  Within a few years, the Winchester became the rifle known as the "Gun That Won the West."

By 1875, Winchester began making a limited edition of the 1873 Winchester, the "One of One Thousand."  Hand-crafted and fitted, the rifle had special stocks and case-hardened blueing.  The highly sought after rifles originally cost roughly $100, and if you have one of the 136 that were manufactured, it will bring over $500,000 at auction. 

In 1950, James Stewart starred in Winchester '73, a movie about one of the rare One in One Thousand rifles.  If you watch it, you can actually see one of the rare rifles.  The movie, set in the year 1876, also inexplicably features a Winchester Model 1892. 

The 1879 Winchester made Oliver Winchester incredibly rich.  When he died, the company passed to his son, William Wirt Winchester, who died less than a year later.  The wealth and almost half of the company stock passed to his wife, Sarah Winchester.  Sarah, unfortunately, believed that the ghosts of the people killed with the various Winchester rifles were haunting her.

Fleeing the spirits of fallen soldiers from around the world, Indians, outlaws and rustlers, Sarah moved from New Haven, Connecticut to San Jose, California.  Somehow, the ghosts of the slain still found her, so Sarah began construction of a home that could trap and confuse the spirits that chased her.  Beginning in 1884 and continuing until her death in 1922, the Winchester Mystery House (pictured at right) was under continuous construction.  Almost 5 acres in size, the house had over 160 rooms, three elevators, and two ballrooms.  The house featured stairs to nowhere, false doors, and a labyrinthine floor plan that changed so often that even the number of floors in the house changed over time.

Did Sarah really believe that she would perish if the house was completed?  Was she really trying to trap the lost souls killed by Winchester rifles?  The answer is one in a thousand.



  1. I think one of the reasons we're so creative during wartime is that imminent death and destruction is such a powerful inspiration. I believe in evil, having seen enough examples of human evil in my 40 years on the nonprofit front lines. I spent 40 years busying myself trying to help rescue the victims of that kind of human evil. I've seen the wreckage left behind by people who can be described in no other way than simply evil. There's no other word for it. The battle-scarred children who manage to survive their own tiny personal wars with evil are simply heart-breaking. I used to sit in my office during a lull in the horror and dream about marvelously creative ways to stop these human monsters from hurting "my" kids. They become your children when you care for them. I have a couple of 30 to 40 year-old "kids", who think of me as the only father they ever had, which is horribly sad when you think about it. One of them lists me as her father on Facebook.

    So when you have Nazis and Japanese shock troops slaughtering their way across Europe and the Pacific, you tend to get inspired, looking for ways to make them stop.

    In the days of the migration to the Old West, people with ADHD headed for the wide open spaces, desperate once again to escape the legion of anal retentive bookkeepers who had risen up to rule along the American East Coast as civilization matured there. Eager not to be pigeon-holed and boxed in by rules and regulations and laws, these restless souls had escaped the increasingly restrictive Old World brand of "civilization" in the East, looking for freedom and opportunity.

    These poor souls and their ancestors had come to America looking for freedom and opportunity in the first place. My own Irish ancestors landed in places like Boston, hoping it would get better, but by the time they got there, the anal retentive bookkeepers had already seized control. So like any restless souls would, they headed West, working their way across the plains and mountains building railroads and such.

    The Native American tribes - ADHD to a man - resented these new settlers' settling on what they viewed as their own land. Now the tribes at the time were not exactly the "noble savages" of popular literature. In fact, compared to modern cultural groups, many of the Indians exhibited almost gangbanger-like behavior, stealing women, horses and anything not nailed down from one another. Settlers were simply treated the way they already treated each other. These ignoble savages conducted warfare largely with a lot of chest-beating and counting coup, but they did throw in the occasional horrific mass murder of their fellow Native Americans or lightly defended settler families just to mix things up a bit.

    So, the settlers brought in repeating rifles and pistols to defend themselves against gangs of braves looking for a new hat or some sturdy ponies and not caring much about whether or not they killed a few stray white folks in the process. Eventually unscrupulous white folk figured out that selling arms to the Indians could be profitable and voila' - ARMS RACE!

    Unfortunately for the Native Americans, you can't make .44 caliber shells out of tree branches and chicken feathers and the settlers could afford more bullets and by making their cabins into little mini-fortresses, they managed to stave off the gangbangers among the tribes. Then there was that whole cavalry thing and they too had a lot more bullets, so as is too often the case, aggressors in the tribes, like Nazis, samurai warriors and Philistine raiders, managed to get even the peaceful members of their nations driven back and badly shot up, bombed and struck by lightning in retaliation for their predatory behavior. Sadly, while bad people often get shot up, they tend also to get their families and communities caught in the cross-fire.

  2. One hopes Sarah Winchester, at some point counted the lives her company's rifles saved over the years. Otherwise her ghost might still be wandering around that goofy old house looking for peace about it.

    As hotter heads prevailed out on the prairies, the idiots on both sides escalated the horror with repeated massacres on both sides, giving weapons makers more reason than ever to develop better, faster shooting weapons for self-defense.

    Meanwhile in Europe the nobility kept flinging armies at one another, armor had become useless at protecting all the best people from armed peasants. Automatic weapons arose and the slaughter became even more bloody and less respectful of the upper classes. The generals moved farther back from the front lines where they would be safer and blithely moved troops around on plotting boards like the toy soldiers they played with on the nursery room floor. And everybody blamed the weapons makers for starting the whole thing. I'm not sure that attacking defenseless people was the prime mover in weapons maker creativity. More likely the inspiration was defending defenseless people. Look at the Winchester for instance.

    While many people were actually killed by Winchester rifles I am sure, one wonders how many of them were "innocent" victims. It's interesting that no one bothers to count up how many people were SAVED because they had Winchester rifles to defend themselves with. While it's not the sort of statistic anyone keeps, historians, eager to prove what bastards people who owned Winchesters were, have not been shy about coming up with estimates of how many were actually slaughtered by the evil repeating rifle. So why not estimate how many people were saved by Winchesters. I'm sure we could come up with some kind of formula based on a close examination of a sample group using newspaper accounts and such. Has anyone ever tried. Such a statistic would no doubt have given Sarah Winchester a little peace of mind.

    I maintain that the initial impulse to build weapons is more often to defend house and home and nation than it is as a way to oppress the innocent. The bad guys will be bad guys and usually use the weapons at hand to do so. If the weaker come up with more powerful weapons to hold off the invading hordes, the invading hordes simply co-opt those weapons for their own evil purposes.

    Look at the atomic bomb. The United States (apart from a couple of lunatics in the Pentagon) had no desire to conquer the world. We stayed out of the war, to our credit, until we were attacked (in a sneaky and unmannerly fashion) by the Axis powers. We even gave back the territory we conquered to the people who attacked us in the first place. That was kind of unprecedented in history up until then.

    Even an old peacenik like Albert Einstein, faced with the prospect of a nuclear armed Hitler, wrote a letter to Roosevelt encouraging him to get "creative" in defense of our nation. He being Jewish had a pretty good idea what would happen to his house and home if Hitler were to kow the world into submission with an atomic weapon and the means to fire them across the sea to America.

    When people blame arms makers for profiteering, I think we sometimes forget that there is a very good reason why we develop these powerful weapons in the first place. It's because there are actual evil men out there who will not hesitate to kill, maim and destroy to accumulate power for themselves and peaceful people tend not to be well-armed. If throughout American history, we had failed to defend ourselves from the ravening hordes, there wouldn't be anyone with such delicate sensibilities about killing as Sarah Winchester left to be upset about the ghosts of those people Oliver's and William's guns had killed.

  3. Perhaps someone should have reminded Sarah that those guns also saved the lives of many good people who weren't dead because they had a Winchester rifle and managed to drive off the naughty people who were trying to kill, rape and kidnap them. I suspect there were probably more in the "naughty people" category who died at the wrong end of a Winchester than not. As to Colt's "Peacemaker", I suspect a drawn Colt in the hands of a farmer with family to defend or a sheriff with a town to defend, would probably inspire a lot of tough guys to become more "peaceful".

    Some progressive socialist out there will likely tell me that we should get rid of our guns and join the collective utopia. Unfortunately, collective utopias have a very nasty reputation where mass killing is concerned with hundreds of millions of fiendishly creative deaths to their credit just in the 20th century.

    Perhaps if more peaceful German, Russian, Cambodian and Chinese citizens had owned Winchesters, the death toll might have been rather lower.

    Like the sword, all weapons have two edges. Sadly, until Jesus comes, nice people are probably going to have to defend themselves with some pretty deadly weapons. It's interesting that in Scripture, the Second Coming is described, not as an invasion or an occupation, but as a rescue mission. I shudder to think what sort of mischief the bad guys will be up to by then or what sort of weapons they'll be using against nice people that will necessitate such a drastic intervention as picking up the nice folk and leaving the Earth a smoking ruin afterward. I suspect, if you remove all the good folk, the bad folk won't last long before they turn the Earth to ashes all on their own.

    In the meantime, I wouldn't mind having a Winchester of any sort in my gun safe. I have family members with bipolar in the house, so I can't leave a gun lying around where they could get at it in a moment of deep depression. Two-edged sword if you remember.