Published after his tragic death, Chris Kyle’s American Gun gives everyone a chance to find out what it would have been like to hang out with the American Sniper, shoot guns and shoot the… breeze.
Kyle picks 10 American firearms that won wars, shaped law enforcement methods and, of course, won the West. Then he tells stories about them, and the guys who—like him—used them effectively.
But beyond that, the book tells us a lot about Kyle that even his great bio, or the movie made from it, never quite got around to revealing. This is a relaxed Kyle, content with being home, with an easy sense of humor, and a deep, deep respect for the sharpshooters and gunman who came before him, and were the “sheepdogs” of their time.
Taken in order, the guns Kyle chooses also provide a surprisingly good backdrop for a quick overview of American history.
The stories are not all about badass Texas Rangers or Continentals picking off Redcoats, Kyle also takes some telling potshots at military procurement types who stood in the way of soldiers getting the latest weapons technology in the name of saving a few bucks, and at those who don’t get it that American gun culture is what makes American warriors what they are.
As each story unfolds, anyone who has seen American Sniper or any of Kyle’s television interviews, can just imagine him hunching up to a campfire with a beer in one hand, and starting out, “I bet you didn’t know…”
A Penny-Pinching General in Procurement Almost Lost the Civil War
You’ve probably never heard of General James Ripley, but this “backward looking . . . wizard of red tape, delay and obfuscation” probably cost more American lives than any military officer in the history of our nation.
Lincoln had ordered immediate purchase of the Spenser repeating rifle for the Union Army in the spring of 1861. The Spenser repeater was a huge leap forward in firearm technology, a way for soldiers to fire multiple shots without reloading.
Ripley, believe it or not, thought muskets were good enough for the Army—after all, they cost half as much.
Besides, he reasoned, soldiers armed with these “newfangled gimcracks” would “only waste ammunition with a multi-shot gun.”
So, for nearly a year, to the frustration of the Commander in Chief, a general with powerful friends in Congress kept Union soldiers from weapons that almost certainly would have led to swift victory, no matter how talented the Confederate Generals opposite them.
It’s a lesser-known fact of the battle of Gettysburg that General Custer may have saved the day. Lee had dispatched Jeb Stuart’s cavalry to attack the rear of the Union lines while Pickett charged the front. Today, had Custer not stood firm, Pickett’s Charge would not be considered as historically futile as the Charge of the Light Brigade.
Kyle points out that one reason Custer was successful in repelling Stuart was that his 7th Michigan Wolverines were outfitted with Spenser repeaters who inflicted heavy casualties on Stuart before the somewhat better known “most dramatic, largest man-to-man, horse-to-horse, saber-to-saber galloping cavalry engagement ever fought in the Western Hemisphere” ensued.
So, while “the untalented Mr. Ripley” may have delayed the Spenser’s effect on the Civil War, it still arrived in time, arguably, to save the Union.
I bet you didn’t know that…
Abe Lincoln Was a Gun Buff
Before he ordered the Spenser Repeater for the military, Abraham Lincoln tested it extensively—personally.
Lincoln, Kyle says with admiration, not only loved shooting and using the latest technology, he even once improved a gun he was test firing by whittling an improvised sight.
One can only imagine the New York Times story that would have been written about a meddling President who was pushing “an expensive weapons platform that even the Pentagon says it does not want or need,” had Pinch Sulzberger been publisher at the time.
But, as Kyle points out, even though Lincoln took his familiarity with weapons to a “whole new level,” most American Presidents before him did not panic at the thought of rifles in the hands of citizenry—because it wasn’t an alien concept to them.
Which brings us to another point that you might know but that the modern media sure doesn’t…
American Civilians Have Often had Better Guns than the Military
One of the hoariest clichés of the anti-second Amendment crowd goes something like, “When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they were thinking of muskets, not military weapons.”
Well tell that to Redcoat General Simon Fraser, cut down by a young Rebel named Timothy Murphy with his “Kentucky Rifle,” thus depriving General Burgoyne of his best commander at the crucial Battle of Saratoga.
Murphy was not issued his weapon by Congress, unlike the “Brown Bess” carried by British infantry. The British military issue weapon could not begin to match that of the American Long Rifle, even if the marksmanship of the troops had been equal—which it wasn’t.
Not that this never has a downside, Kyle makes passing mention of the infamous North Hollywood bank robbery where outgunned police turned to local gun-store owners so they could match the firepower of the bad guys. Something similar also happened during one of the most famous defeats of American soldiers in history.
Kyle recounts that after the Civil War a penny-pinching military denied American soldiers the latest technology in guns. While civilians understood the need for protecting themselves on the plains and not skimping on their firearms, the Army supposed that muskets re-engineered to fire a cartridge would be sufficient against bows and arrows. (Sound anything like today’s we-don’t-need-the-F-35 argument?)
Unfortunately, enough Winchester and Henry repeaters were on the open market by then, so about 25% of Sitting Bull’s force (that outnumbered Custer in the first place), were better armed than the average member of the United States Cavalry.
Betcha didn’t know that– or that…
Sergeant York Did His Best Work with a Pistol
When Michael Moore implied Chris Kyle was a coward, a lot of people (including me) brought up Sergeant Alvin York, the famed sharpshooting Quaker of WWI; probably remembering the iconic image of Gary Cooper in the biopic, licking his thumb and sighting his rifle on a distant target.
While, Kyle says, York was a crack shot who honed his skills with his Kentucky hills friends by having to hit a turkey in the head with the first shot, he “surrounded” the Germans in his famed one-man assault, mostly using his M1911 Colt .45 automatic. (Another reason this may be a surprise to you is that in the movie, York seems to be using a Luger.)
The M1911 Colt is most famous for its roots as a gun designed to knock down the drugged-up Muslim Filipino terrorists called the Moro. It became the standard sidearm for GIs through two World Wars and the favorite of some branches of law enforcement as well.
And over a century later, with few modifications, this gun is still going strong and a version of it is still a preferred weapon for Navy SEALs in their fight against modern Islamist extremists.
But wait, there’s more!
So, thrill to stories of Texas Jack Hayes and his sixteen dozen Rangers holding off 300 Comanche with their Colt Peacemakers; bankers and bakers getting their Winchester 73s out and decimating the James Gang; former bootlegger and Medal of Honor recipient Sergeant Leonard A. Funk who takes down a Nazi patrol with his Tommy Gun; Secret Service Agents protecting Harry Truman from Puerto Rican terrorists with their .38 Specials; and MP Leigh Ann Hester who fights off Iraqi insurgents with her trusty M-4 (which is basically an update of the M-16).
American Gun is one of the most enjoyable history books you are likely to pick up. Yes, gun buffs will quibble, either with details or the choice; as I’m sure history professors might debate the significance of some of the weapons and the events Kyle chooses.
But the singular point of view and the distinctive voice of Chris Kyle are as much a central part of the book as the information it contains. Seeing what someone cares about is often more revealing than hearing them talk about themselves.
So, read American Gun and celebrate what Chris Kyle brought to his country — and place him in the pantheon of the men (and women) he celebrates.
Kyle closes the book by saying, “Pick up a pistol, a rifle or a shotgun and you’re handling a piece of American history… an object that connects you to people who fought for their freedom. . .”
You can say the same about this book.
image illustration via Wikipedia