To Understand The 2nd Amendment, You Have To Understand What Guns Were Like In 1792

The Approval Of The 2nd Amend. Was Based On The Nature Of 1792 Guns & 1792 Gun Owners

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David Grace (

Let’s go back to January of 1792, shortly after the Second Amendment was ratified.

Guns Were An Important Tool In Daily Life

In 1792 a majority of the population were farmers and/or hunters.

Guns were expensive. A new rifle cost about a month’s wages for a skilled worker, (about $2,500 in 2016 dollars), but if you were living in a rural area a gun was an important tool that you would use dozens or hundreds of times a year, so it was worth it.

In 1792 people spent a lot of money to buy a gun because they needed it on a weekly if not a daily basis to protect their livestock and to feed their family.

So, number one, guns were as important to their 1792 owners as refrigerators and washing machines are to us today. They were tools — not toys, virility symbols, or seldom or never used emergency equipment.

Guns Were Complicated To Use & Required Training

In order to fire your 1792 gun you:

  • Poured a measured amount of black powder down the barrel
  • Wrapped a lead ball with either a piece of cloth or paper
  • Used a ramrod to jam the ball down to the bottom of the approximately three and a half-foot-long barrel
  • Poured a small amount of primer powder into the firing mechanism
  • Aimed and pulled the trigger

To retain accuracy, after every five to ten shots you had to clean the barrel before resuming shooting.

You couldn’t just pick up a 1792 gun and pull the trigger. In order to use the gun, you had to be trained .

1792 rifles were used so often and so regularly that experience constantly taught and reinforced the habits of safe and responsible gun use.

So, number two, everyone who used a gun in 1792 was trained by necessity and by constant use to handle it correctly because no one was able to load, accurately aim and fire a 1792 gun without training and experience.

Guns Were Slow So You Had To Make Every Shot Count

Firing a 1792 gun was a slow process. An experienced shooter could fire one round about every twenty seconds. A supremely-trained Prussian soldier might halve that time down to one round every ten seconds.

Because it took so long to fire the gun, you had to aim very carefully and make every shot count. You couldn’t just randomly blaze away because if you missed, it would take you another twenty seconds to reload.

Because each shot was precious, the need for careful use and careful aiming was ingrained into gun owners. You couldn’t successfully use a 1792-era gun without learning to use it carefully and aim it deliberately.

So, third, everyone who used a gun in 1792, by necessity, learned to be careful where they pointed it, how they aimed it and when they pulled the trigger.

The complexity of loading and the slow pace of fire meant that experience forced people to learn not to

  • play with a 1792 gun,
  • treat it like a toy,
  • wave it randomly at people, or
  • just blast away.

Guns Weren’t Very Accurate

In 1792, gun barrels had no rifling that would impart a stabilizing spin to the lead ball, so accuracy was relatively poor.

In battle, the average militiaman would be expected to hit a man-sized target 300 yards away only one time out of every five shots.

Of course, accuracy improved the closer the target got, up to a point. The overall length of a rifle was between four and a half feet and about five and a half feet, and it weighed between seven and ten pounds.

Picture a man with an eight-pound, five-foot-long gun that could fire one and only one round who wanted to shoot something in motion ten or fifteen feet away.

The odds that he would hit it were not good, and if he missed, it was going to take him at least twenty seconds to reload and try again.

A person owning this 1792 gun was taught by experience that he had to be extremely careful where he pointed his gun and very certain of his target before he pulled the trigger.

So, fourth, everyone who used a 1792 gun was trained by the nature of the weapon to be careful, cautious and deliberate with where they aimed the gun and when they pulled the trigger.

Summary — The Unique Characteristics Of 1792 Guns Made Their Owners Trained & Careful Shooters

In 1792

  • Guns were expensive tools and thus were only purchased by hard-working people who used them regularly for serious purposes
  • The complicated nature of firing the gun meant that gun owners had to be well trained in the proper operation of their guns in order to be able to use them at all
  • The slow rate of fire and limited accuracy meant that gun owners were forced by the nature of the device to be careful, deliberate and thoughtful about where and how they aimed their guns
  • The slow rate of fire and limited accuracy meant that the human damage that a single gun-owner could do was severely limited no matter how nefarious his intentions might be.

What Madison & Hamilton Wanted

Madison and Hamilton were Federalists who advocated the adoption of the new constitution in order to create a stronger federal government than the old and relatively weak central government that existed under the Articles of Confederation.

They wanted the new federal government to have the military power to protect itself from invasion and revolts, but they did not have the money nor the desire to create a large, standing federal army.

Their solution to this problem — how to protect the federal government from attack without creating a large standing army — was for the Federal government to have control of the existing state militias and to be able to use them to put down any invasion, rebellion or armed threat to the Federal government’s authority.

This solution was set out in Article I, Section 8 (The Powers Of Congress) of the new Constitution, which provided:

The Congress shall have Power . . .

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress; [emphasis added]

The federalists’ opponents who feared a strong federal government were concerned about this language and Hamilton responded to their objections in Federalist Paper 29 (Concerning The Militia) which he wrote in support of Article I, Section 8's authorizing Federal control of state militias.

But, of course, state militias couldn’t protect the federal government from insurrection if they weren’t armed. How could the federal government guarantee that the members of the militias would always have the guns they needed to protect the federal government from invasion and insurrection?

Answer: By including in the Bill of Rights a provision guaranteeing that the members of the militia could not be separated from the guns they would need to protect the federal government from invasion and insurrection — “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State. . . .” Second Amendment begins.

And, in fact, Hamilton’s and Madison’s fear that the federal government might need armed soldiers to defend it against a rebellion proved well founded when in 1794 Washington used the powers granted under Article I, Section 8 to call up the militias of six states to put down the Whiskey Rebellion.

What Did Madison & Hamilton Know About Guns?

Did Madison have any concerns that guaranteeing the right to own a gun might cause some problems?

In late 1791, what did Madison know about guns?

He knew that

  • Guns were expensive, which meant that riffraff, common criminals, and the like would not have them because they could not afford them
  • Because the hard-working people who did have guns used them all the time, gun owners were, by experience, well trained in their proper use and accurate firing
  • Because guns were big, hard to aim, and could only be fired two or three times a minute they were not hugely dangerous in the hands of a person with bad intentions.

In short, Madison knew that there wasn’t a major downside to every adult having the right to buy a gun if he could afford one.

And for a long time all this remained true. It took over sixty years for technology to change everything that Madison thought he knew about guns.

The Nature Of Guns Changed

One of the first weapons in general circulation that used metal cartridges to fire multiple rounds was the Smith & Wesson revolver that went into production in late 1857.

The first rifles in general circulation that used metal cartridges to fire multiple rounds were the Henry rifle and the Spencer rifle, both of which went into limited production during the Civil War.

But once manufacturing technology caught up to the idea of metal cartridges being fired one after the other from a magazine, firearms rapidly became cheaper and faster.

Instead of a huge, single-fire, once every twenty seconds gun that cost a month’s wages in 1792, today we’ve got three rounds-per-second (not per minute) rifles with twenty shot magazines that cost about 1/8th as much as the 1792 rifles($300 2016 dollars vs. $2,500 2016 dollars).

Today you can buy a new twelve-shot, semi-automatic pistol for $250, 1/10th cost of a 1792 muzzle loader in 2016 dollars.

Used firearms can, of course, be purchased for much less.

The Very Different Characteristics Of Guns Today Makes Many Of Today’s Gun Owners Inherently More Dangerous Than 1792 Gun Owners

  • Today’s semi-automatic, large magazine firearms are so inexpensive that almost anyone can afford one, which means that they are often purchased by people who have no regular need for them, are untrained in their proper use, and who rarely use them.
  • Today’s guns are often purchased by people who use them as recreational devices, essentially toys, shooting at things because it’s fun, or who buy them to be stuck in a drawer and used only in the event of an emergency.
  • Today’s guns are so simple to operate that even children can fire them multiple times without any training whatsoever.
  • Today’s guns have such large magazines and can fire so rapidly that careless, reckless, crazy or criminal users can maim and kill dozens of people in only a few seconds.

The very rare or occasional use of their weapon by many of today’s gun owners does not teach these 2019 gun owners what every 1792 gun owner learned from their almost daily use of their firearms, namely, how to almost instinctively, safely and responsibly store, carry, aim and fire their gun.

While the long load times and slow rate of fire of 1792 rifles encouraged deliberate aiming and firing, today’s large magazines and rapid fire operation have the opposite effect of encouraging reckless blasting away of a dozen or more shots in the space of a few seconds.

Gun Ownership Today Is Much More Dangerous To The Public Than It Was In 1792

  • In 1792 school children could not fire a rifle and if they could, it would be a single-shot weapon. Today, school children have access to firearms that can fire a dozen or more rounds in a few seconds.
  • In 1792 there were no organized criminal gangs using firearms. Today there are.
  • In 1792 there were few armed psychopaths, schizophrenics and other seriously mentally-ill people. Today there are tens of thousands of such people who have access to rapid-fire weapons.
  • In 1792 there were no such things as terrorist organizations whose goal was indiscriminate mass murder. Today there are many terrorist organizations who wish to use modern weapons to kill as many random people as possible as quickly as possible.

What Would Madison Think If He Knew Then What We Know Today?

If you could go back in time and tell Madison that in the future

  • guns would be eight to ten times cheaper
  • easily available, cheap guns could fire between twelve and fifty rounds without reloading
  • guns in the hands of untrained people could fire three rounds per second
  • guns would be small enough and simple enough to be aimed and fired by ten-year-old children
  • terrorist organizations exist whose sole purpose is to kill as many civilians as possible
  • criminal organizations exist who regularly murder people
  • there are material numbers of seriously crazy people at large
  • 1.5% of the adult population is either in jail or on parole from jail
  • all weapons used by state militias (now called the National Guard) are solely supplied by the federal government and that it is illegal for any militia member to use his/her own gun while on militia duty

do you think that he would have changed the wording of the Second Amendment or even written it at all?

If the public knew all this, would the Second Amendment in its original form have been ratified?

How Madison Might Have Written The 2nd Amendment If He Could Have Seen Our World Today

Knowing all this, instead of: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” I think Madison might have written something like:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of any currently enrolled members of a well-regulated militia to keep and bear such personally-owned Arms as they are allowed to bring with them and use while on active duty in the militia shall not be infringed.”

Or. maybe it would be more like:

“The right of the People to keep and bear Arms shall not be unreasonably infringed but such ownership and use shall be subject to reasonable governmental regulation.”

Responsible, Trained Gun Owners, Yes, Otherwise, No Thanks

I’m not against guns. I believe in trained, responsible people being able to own a gun if they want to. I’ve been shooting guns since I was thirteen years old. I am a gun owner.

Specifically, I’m all for

  • non-criminal
  • mentally healthy
  • trained
  • adults


  • registered
  • not-fully-automatic
  • eight-shot or less magazine


But if you’re

  • a convicted felon
  • have serious anger issues
  • a psychopath
  • a schizophrenic
  • under age 21
  • someone who failed to pass a gun-safety class, or
  • someone who wants to own a high-rate-of-fire, large-magazine firearm for possible use in an armed rebellion against the state or federal government

then as far as I’m concerned, you can just keep on walking.

If you want to use a gun to protect the country from whatever, please, join the National Guard.

They will give you a gun for free.

— David Grace (

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David Grace

David Grace

Graduate of Stanford University & U.C. Berkeley Law School. Author of 16 novels and over 400 Medium columns on Economics, Politics, Law, Humor & Satire.