By Joe Engesser
Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and M16s. Firearms are an undeniable part of the American identity thanks to the Second Amendment and the nation’s spirit of independence and self-sufficiency. The United States was forged in steel and gunpowder, and from the Colonial Era onward the history of America has been tied to the history of the gun.
Which guns are most American? Sure, that’s a big question to tackle, but Independence Day is all about celebrating the grand sweep of the American story, so let’s take a look at seven firearms that decisively shaped America and shaped the perception of the United States around the world.
The Kentucky Rifle
The first uniquely American firearm was born in the backcountry of 18th Century Pennsylvania. Popularly known as the Kentucky Rifle, or Pennsylvania Rifle, the American Long Rifle became a symbol of frontier self-reliance and rugged American individualism, and the gun went on to be a decisive force-multiplier in the Revolutionary War. Wielded by famed frontiersmen like Daniel Boone and Davy Crocket, the Kentucky Rifle was the original defender of Old Glory.
Pioneered by German and Swiss gunsmiths who immigrated to the Colonies, the American Long Rifle combined numerous features from the Germanic Jäger rifle and English hunting designs that dramatically increased accuracy, including full rifling, greater barrel length, and a snug-fitting, smaller caliber ball. The first firearm to be regularly fitted with an open rear sight, these elegant flintlocks were favored by American frontiersmen who required the ability to shoot accurately up to 200 yards when hunting in the Virginia wilderness. It turned out that range also worked well for picking off British officers, and General George Washington was quick to take advantage.
The Kentucky Rifle was the first distinctly American firearm.
Most Yankee soldiers during the War of Independence carried smoothbore long arms like their British counterparts, but small groups of riflemen were deployed to harass the British from outside effective musket range. Washington recruited as many long rifle hunters as he could, and the 1,400 or so patriots who answered his call were a deciding factor in winning the Revolution and ensuring the spirit of ’76 lived on. The Kentucky Rifle went on to repel the Red Coats again in 1812, in grand American fashion.
“But Jackson he was wide awake, and wasn’t scared at trifles, for well he knew what aim we take with our Kentucky rifles.” – from “The Hunters of Kentucky”, a song celebrating Jackson’s 1815 victory at New Orleans.
The Colt Single Action Army
Possibly the most famous firearm ever made, the Colt SAA, or M1873, is the steel embodiment of the Old West. Dime novels and newspapers of the period helped popularize the iconic revolver, and Hollywood made it a legend. “Judge Colt and His Jury of Six” became a symbol of justice and lawlessness on the American frontier, adopted by cowboys, gamblers, lawmen, and desperados as the Land of Stars and Stripes pushed ever westward.
The Peacemaker. The six shooter. “The great equalizer.” The American Army adopted the Colt SAA in July 1873, and a few months later it was offered to the public. The revolver was relatively light, durable, easy to shoot and maintain, and the new .44–40 brass cartridge made loading Colts faster than ever. It’s no wonder that the Single Action Army was the official sidearm for the U.S Cavalry for 20 years, and even saw limited service well into the 20th century, including being General George S. Patton’s favored handgun
The Colt SAA, “The World’s Right Arm,” was favored by Old West legends like Bat Masterson.
The lore surrounding the Colt SAA revolver grew along with the legend of the American West, and the famous six shooter has been featured in nearly every Hollywood Western film. Presidents like Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan carried it. Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and Doc Holliday forged their reputations with it. The Single Action Army has been in production on and off for nearly 150 years, and it’s still manufactured today. Now that’s the definition of an American success story.
The Winchester 1873
While the Colt revolver ruled the frontier streets, the Winchester rifle was king of the open range. Dubbed “the gun that won the West”, the Winchester ’73 is the embodiment of American made, and the rugged rifle is prominently featured in many Westerns alongside the Colt SAA. The Model 1873’s tough frame, stronger chambering, and wide-scale availability as the railroad brought a new wave of settlers out west seeking the American dream helped transform the rifle into the legend it is today.
Oliver Winchester’s steel framed 1873 was a distinct improvement over the Model 1866 and the 1860 Henry and their bronze receivers. The Model 1873 was also chambered in .44-40, a hefty upgrade for the time, and the same ammo used by the Colt SAA. Carrying only one type of bullet in the saddlebag was a huge advantage out on the frontier, and the sturdy lever action rifle became one of the bestselling guns of the era.
Rock Island Auction Company offers some of the finest publically available Winchester rifles.
A well-armed frontiersman carried a Colt on his hip and a Winchester over his shoulder. Hollywood seized on that image with movies like Winchester ’73 starring Jimmy Stewart and Rock Hudson, and today the rifle is one of the most popular collector guns around. From movie sets to modern-day Cowboy action shooting competitions, the Model 1873 has stood the test of time like few other firearms and represents the enduring spirit of the American West.
The Colt 1911
Speaking of timeless guns, the Colt Model 1911 is one of the most popular pistols in history. The M1911 was the brainchild of John Moses Browning, a brilliant inventor in an era of unprecedented American invention, and his .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol set a new design standard that is still emulated today. It’s no surprise that the greatest fighting force on Earth carried the world’s greatest handgun.
Often called “Old Slab Sides,” or sometimes just “Forty-Five” for its .45 ACP cartridge, Browning’s magazine-fed design was simple and reliable. Faster to load and carrying a higher capacity than the standard revolver, this legendary handgun was eventually adopted by the U.S. Army and has gone on to be the longest-serving sidearm in American military history, only being replaced a few decades ago by the 9mm Beretta. Even still, the M1911 is carried by numerous American officers to this day.
Rare 1911s are frequently offered at Rock Island Auction Company.
Created by one of America’s greatest inventors and carried on the hips of thousands of G.I.s throughout both World Wars, the M1911 not only deserves a leading spot on any list of greatest American guns, but is a top contender for the definitive firearm of the 20th Century. The features that made Browning’s pistol popular over one hundred years ago are what still attract collectors and shooters today, and the design continues to be produced by dozens of manufactures across the globe.
“The 1911 was the design given by God to us through John M. Browning that represents the epitome of what a killing tool needs to be.” – Col. Robert J. Coates, USMC
The Thompson Submachine Gun
Recognized around the world for its portrayal in gangster films and its service in WWII, the Tommy Gun is one of the most defining weapons in American history. Designed by John Thompson, the Thompson submachine gun was originally conceived as a WWI trench weapon, but was completed too late to see service in France. As it turned out, the Thompson’s function as a close-quarters shock weapon with knock-down firepower was also well suited for the streets of Prohibition Era America.
The United States is another name for opportunity, and John Thompson left no stone unturned as he marketed his fully automatic Model 1921A to everyone from law enforcement to ranchers to everyday homeowners, but the deadly submachinegun found an unexpected niche with organized crime. “The Chicago Typewriter”. “The Street Sweeper”. “The rat-tat-tat”. The Thompson gained dozens of colorful names as it earned its reputation in the Melting Pot of South Side Chicago, favored by motorized bandits and the lawmen on their tail.
Hollywood’s favorite gangster gun, and one of history’s greatest firearms.
In 1938, as America braced for war, the Thompson submachine gun was adopted by the U.S. military and employed by the British as well. The 50 and 100 round drums favored by gangsters were largely dropped for a 20 round stick mag, and over 1.5 million of the new military variation M1928A1 and M1A1 were produced. From mafia to military to Hollywood, few firearms are more widely recognized than the Thompson, and few guns have impacted America more dramatically both at home and abroad.
The M1 Garand
Another member of the iconic American gun club, the M1 Garand rifle was dubbed by General George S. Patton as “the greatest battle implement ever devised.” Americans have a knack for engineering, especially when it comes to firearms, and the M1’s signature power, speed, “ping,” and spectacular service history have made the Garand a clear contender for the quintessential U.S. military long arm.
Designed by John Garand, the .30-caliber M1 replaced the 1903 Springfield in 1936 as the standard infantry rifle of the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps. War loomed on the horizon, and Uncle Sam answered the call. The semi-automatic M1 Garand is a red-blooded American gun, delivering high-volume fire that helped lead the United States to victory on the battlefields of Europe and the Islands of the South Pacific by eclipsing Axis bolt-action rifles like the German 98k and the Japanese Arisaka. When it came to defending the freedom, safety, and security that America celebrates every July 4th, few guns were more instrumental than the M1 Garand.
M1 Garands are one of the popular WW2 collector guns.
From Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers to the Call of Duty video game series, few weapons can symbolize America’s valor in WWII better than the M1 Garand. The durable rifle remained in service through the end of the Korean War and became known as the U.S. military’s most successful infantry weapon. While not the first semi-automatic battle rifle issued as a major military standard, the M1 Garand was by far one of the most influential.
What’s more American than the M16? The longest-serving infantry rifle in U.S. military history, the M16 was an answer to the need for a versatile weapon that could excel at both distance combat and the close-quarter fighting frequently encountered during the Korean War. In short, an all-in-one battle rifle. Though the refinement of the M16 was not without its hurdles, it certainly stepped up to the new challenges of modern warfare.
The first M16 variant was adapted from the famous ArmaLite AR-15, which needs no introduction here. If the 1911 is America’s pistol, then the AR-15 is America’s rifle, and its M16 cousin represents the 20th Century American infantry post Korean War. The M16’s 5.56x45mm cartridge allowed for greater range and accuracy than the M14 and AK-47, as well as lower recoil. We’re talking higher ammo loads and faster rounds, not to mention a lighter rifle that’s easily modded and can be equipped with a 40mm grenade launcher for the ultimate 4th of July fireworks.
The M16 was adapted from the AR-15, the media’s favorite target when it comes to critiquing American gun culture.
With more than 8 million produced and counting, the M16 is a strong candidate for one of America’s greatest guns. The M16A2 corrected some of the rifle’s shortcomings that surfaced in the harsh jungles of Vietnam, and a well-maintained M16A2 has an impressive service life compared to other modern battle rifles. The M16s successor, the M4, continues to use many of the same parts and design concepts.
Gun History is American History
Each gun has its own story to tell, its own connection not just to the past, but the American spirit. – Chris Kyle
The seven guns featured here, while undeniably American icons, have only just scratched the surface when it comes to firearms that helped make our country the land of the free and home of the brave. Independence Day seems a fitting time to reflect on the history guns played in helping thirteen separate colonies defeat the greatest empire on Earth, form one nation, span a continent, and defend Western Civilization in the 20th Century’s two greatest wars.
Rock Island Auction Company’s May Premier event covered the full breadth of American history, from guns owned by Founding Father Alexander Hamilton to Wild West lawman Bat Masterson, to Thompson Submachine Guns and Colt 1911s carried by Prohibition-era crime fighters. September’s Premier Firearms Auction is shaping up to be just as monumental, so keep an eye out for the online catalog in the days ahead and get ready to celebrate another outstanding lineup of the rarest firearms around!
As always, if there are any questions regarding consignment, registration, or future auctions, please contact Rock Island Auction Company today. Our upcoming auction schedule is updated frequently on our website, so be sure to go through the listing and start making your plans to visit. All our events adhere to the latest COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions. We can’t wait to see you here!