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A World of Weapons: Historians Shape Scholarship on Arms Trading

The early history of American arms trading is missing from most of the scholarship on guns.
Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images

Emerging work, by DeLay and others, seeks to lay to rest the idea that large-scale arms trading in the United States and elsewhere is a recent phenomenon, originating in the post–World War II military-industrial complex. The trade in small arms and ammunition, these historians argue, has been a key feature of domestic and international commerce and politics since at least the early 17th century. Although military production and trading would soar with World War II and the Cold War, the sale of complicated air and naval systems isn’t where this history begins.

Long before early 19th-century industrialization trans­formed arms manufacturing in the United States, the continent was flush with guns. According to David Silverman (George Washington Univ.), the earliest trade in firearms developed between European colonial powers and indigenous nations. His book Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America (2016) shows that once the Dutch flintlock musket was introduced in the 1630s, Iroquois League nations began trading for them, becoming “the preeminent military power of the Northeast and Great Lakes regions.” The threat posed by armed Iroquois peoples set off an arms race that spread to the Pacific Northwest by the 18th century. A great deal of weapons trading and stockpiling, Silverman writes, took place in Quebec, Jamestown, and Plymouth, before settlers even arrived in other colonies, such as Pennsylvania and Georgia.

The fact that indigenous nations had steady access to firearms markets and used guns in warfare contradicts a major tenet of Jared Diamond’s “guns, germs, and steel” theory: that disease and technological superiority were behind the European conquest of the Americas. “There’s a widespread assumption that Native people were subjugated by European Americans because of a disadvantage in arms, and that’s just not true,” says Silverman. “They routinely got the very best of firearms technology and used those guns more effectively than white settlers. And white governments routinely struggled to control the trade in arms to Native people.” In his book, Silverman points to Crazy Horse’s surrender of more than 200 firearms to US troops in 1877 and notes, “Clearly, a lack of weapons had nothing to do with the Lakotas’ capitulation to the Americans.”