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Reviewed by:
  • A Cultural History of Firearms in the Age of Empire ed. by Karen Jones, Giacomo Macola, David Welch
  • Barton C. Hacker (bio)
A Cultural History of Firearms in the Age of Empire.
Edited by Karen Jones, Giacomo Macola, and David Welch. Aldershot, Hants, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013. Pp. xii+317. $134.95.

A Cultural History of Firearms in the Age of Empire derives from an international conference held at the University of Kent in May 2011. As is often true of conference-based books, the result is a distinctly mixed bag. In their introduction, the editors offer a useful, brief survey emphasizing recent attempts to study the cultural and symbolic history of firearms, consigning their material and utilitarian aspects to antiquarians and military historians. More importantly, but less successfully, they strive to tie the book’s diverse contributions together. Because the articles vary so widely, the best course seems to be to look at each one.

The book divides into four parts. Part 1 has four disparate chapters. Matthew C. Ward tackles the growing significance of the Kentucky rifle as a symbol of citizenship and masculinity through the eighteenth-century American West. Next, Karen Jones claims that the sporadic gun-fighting figuring so prominently in perceptions of the late-nineteenth-century American West was less significant than the more persistent firearms culture associated with big-game hunting. Big-game hunting is also the topic of Jason Bruner’s search for links between the calling of evangelical Christian missionaries and their avid pursuit of the British outdoor sporting tradition. Chapter 4 finds Matthew Cragoe tracing the nineteenth-century decline of a stock English comic figure, the “Cockney sportsman,” as urban and rural sport-shooting patterns gradually converged.

The second part examines three instances of resistance to adoption of firearms, or, perhaps better, commitment to the use of edged weapons. In chapter 5, Giacomo Macola attributes resistance by the Ngoni of eastern Zambia to the conflict between firearms and traditional notions of honor and masculinity; the gun nonetheless replaced the assegai (spear) as social status marker after Ngoni subjugation and recruitment for paramilitary service. Jack Hogan follows with an account centered on the Anglo-Zulu War. Although the Zulu had acquired, and practiced using, large numbers of firearms, the gun never replaced the assegai as symbol of heroic honor and masculinity and so never significantly modified Zulu tactics. In chapter [End Page 754] 7, Gianluca Pastori suggests that romanticized and mythologized accounts of colonial warfare contributed to the persistent overvaluing of bayonets by European armies.

Part 3 covers gun laws and citizenship. Simon Ball attributes British pre–Great War attempts to suppress the illegal arms trade through Persian Gulf ports to concerns about the threat firearms posed to India’s North-West Frontier. Bill Nasson considers the meaning of South Africa’s willingness to allow blacks to serve as soldiers in World War II (as they had not in the Great War), but only in support services; they were banned from bearing arms. The link between bearing arms and civil rights frames Kevin Yuill’s argument that black Americans lost legal and political rights in the New South because of their systematic legal (and extralegal) disarmament.

The final section is something of a miscellany. In chapter 11, Ian F. W. Beckett shows how the controversial Martini-Henry breech-loading rifle, carried by British infantry from1874 to 1888, achieved its present near-iconic status almost entirely as the result of its romanticization in films, fiction, and popular history from the 1960s onward. Spencer Jones credits British Army tactical reforms after the Boer War to the army’s conviction that superior Boer weapons and marksmanship led to England’s humiliating defeats in the war. The final chapter, by Timothy Bowman, describes how both Irish Unionist and Nationalist paramilitary forces, from 1910 to 1921, sought to acquire firearms by purchase, theft, and force.

The book is less expansive than its title might suggest. The British Empire is the subject of all but three (Jones, Pastori, Yuill) chapters; all but three of the authors (Bruner, Pastori, Nasson) work at British institutions. Studying the cultural history of firearms seems unobjectionable, but not nearly so...


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