January 2009

D. Richard Scannell


American Rifle: A Biography by Alexander Rose

Despite appearances, American Rifle: A Biography will have appeal beyond the old men huddled in the military section of your local bookstore. A more accurate subtitle would have been “American History and the Rifle.” Like it or not, rifles and the decisions regarding their use and development have been inextricably entwined in the nation’s short past. With solid, well-paced prose, Alexander Rose traces that history from the colonial era through the current situation in the Middle-East. Inventors, businessmen, soldiers and politicians drive a narrative of this particular facet of the science of killing.

Without submitting to romanticization or over-simplification, Rose organizes his book by constructing a mythology of American marksmanship. A broad foundation of research evokes the forces behind the image of the lone American sharpshooter. The book charts its conception in the eighteenth century as a matter of economy, its rise during the nineteenth century as a point of pride, and its reluctant submission in the twentieth century to small caliber, automatic weapons. In support of this narrative, it is always along the axes of innovation vs tradition, volume vs precision and reality vs idealism that the personalities of Rose’s history unite or conflict.

And it is these historical figures who, without overstepping their service to the theme, drive the book forward. George Washington appears as a young soldier in the British army, augmenting British discipline with the backwoods tactics of frontiersmen and Native Americans. Abraham Lincoln, intensely interested in the rifles being considered for the Union army, tests them in the White House’s backyard to the alarm of nearby authorities. Alongside the names from textbook American history are the less well-known military and technical figures such as John C. Hall, the motivator of interchangeability in the production of rifle parts, and John D. Pedersen, the repeatedly frustrated inventor whose mysterious “Pedersen device,” capable of transforming the American Springfield rifle into a rapid-fire semi-automatic weapon, was cancelled due to the untimely (for Pedersen) end of WWI.

As for technical issues, American Rifle will serve as a satisfactory introduction. Rose is careful to present concise discussions that, without encumbering the text, heighten the reader’s awareness of the finer points of firearms. Bullets evolve over the course of the book from a lead ball to a ready-to-fire, mass-produced, aerodynamic cartridge through many eras of innovation, political maneuvering, and field experience. During the battle of San Juan Hill, Theodore Roosevelt and his fellow users of the new small caliber smokeless cartridges discover that most of their bullets are passing straight through muscle and tissue without causing major injury. Several decades later, the early users of the M16 at Vietnam find that the erratic ballistics of their small caliber bullets are, against expectations, dismembering and mutilating their victims. The casual manner in which the effects of these weapons are discussed can be disconcerting but certainly important to understanding the perspective that Rose is conveying.

Particularly gratifying are the technical discussions of the M16 and the AK-47. It’s something of an armchair commonplace to cite both the jamming problems of the M16 and the ease with which an AK-47 can be used and maintained by soldiers and guerillas with little or no training. Without taking sides, Rose brings the issue into perspective. On the one hand, he acknowledges the reports of clusters of dead soldiers found with jammed rifles. Conversely, he points out the precision of the M16 and its cousin, the M4, in the hands of professional soldiers. Guerillas with AK-47s don’t stand a chance in direct engagements, hence the use of improvised explosive devices. As always, Rose supports his discussion with insightful notes, encouraging the careful reader to delve further.

It is for these pursuers of knowledge that American Rifle will prove most profitable. Covering roughly 250 years in about 400 pages, it’s a fast-paced book of biography, technical discussion and political and military drama. Interpretations, authorial and reported, consistently solidify and focus the facts presented. A certain playfulness, presenting itself most often in the form of amusing trivia (such as the skating rink that inventor John C. Garand made in his rented house), adds flavor to an already inviting book. Give it a read before it disappears into one of the more obscure sections of your local bookstore.

American Rifle by Alexander Rose
Delacorte Press
ISBN: 0553805177
512 pages