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Reviewed by:
  • Gun Culture in Early Modern England by Lois G. Schwoerer
  • James Sharpe
Gun Culture in Early Modern England. By Lois G. Schwoerer. ( Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016. x plus 261 pp. $39.50).

In this wide-ranging and ambitious book, Lois G. Schwoerer attempts to establish the existence of a "gun culture" in early modern England. The various chapters cover a number of themes which together, on Schwoerer's account, demonstrate not only that there was a gun culture on early modern England but also that this culture was a phenomenon of considerable importance. She stresses that the government attempted to restrict the possession and use of guns to the relatively wealthy after 1514, which produced a distinctively English gun culture. She argues that the employment of guns for military purposes increased interest in guns and their use among the population at large, suggesting that returning soldiers (and certainly their officers) transferred their knowledge of and enthusiasm for firearms into civilian life.

Men, and to a lesser extent women, participated in the burgeoning firearms industry, and Schwoerer is especially interesting when tracing the struggle of The Worshipful Company of Gunmakers to achieve recognition as well as the development of the government's Ordnance Office. She demonstrates how gun-making and gunfounding in London developed into an industry which affected the capital's topography and economy. She also makes original and interesting analyses of guns in contemporary portraiture, guns as an element in gift exchange, and the apparently widespread existence of toy or miniature guns as children's playthings, which, Schwoerer suggests, modifies our perception of early modern childhood. The closing chapter develops some of the suggestions she made on Article VII of the 1689 Bill of Rights in her 1981 book on the Declaration of Rights. She argues here that Article VII took a very limited interpretation of which of William and Mary's Protestant subjects had the right to bear arms, and hence, despite claims to the contrary, was of minimal importance to the framing of the United States' Second Amendment.

Gun Culture in early modern England draws on a wide range of sources, administrative, legal, visual, and autobiographical, and the reader cannot but be impressed by the author's willingness to adopt original approaches to her subject matter. Clearly guns, and in particular personal firearms, were of great importance in early modern England. This importance was, as Schwoerer notes at several points, probably greatest for the aristocracy and gentry, but guns were produced in sufficient quantity, and at a low enough price, to make them readily available (legal restrictions notwithstanding) to a broad section of the [End Page 621] (overwhelmingly male) population. Approximately 2,069 gunmakers can be identified in London between c.1500-c.1765; a birding-piece could be bought for as little as three shillings and a pistol for a shilling by the late seventeenth century; and William Brazier, serving twice as Master of the Company of Gunmakers, proofed approximately 29,000 handguns between 1721 and 1731. But although guns were present in large numbers in early modern England, and, as Schwoerer suggests, carried a variety of cultural resonances, are we therefore able to accept the existence of a "gun culture," a phenomenon for which in any case Schwoerer provides no satisfactory definition.

To consider some of the issues further, let us turn to Schwoerer's claim that "Gun accidents and gun crime affected all levels of society and requires (sic) integration into historical accounts of that society" (176). Gun accidents, a number of which are noted by Schwoerer would indeed be useful in any attempts to identify a gun culture in the early modern period if studied systematically. In the eighteenth century, they were increasingly noted in newspapers, often with a moral or didactic message woven into the account. In addition, and perhaps more useful for the project envisaged here, gun accidents were described in depositions arising from homicide cases: as has long been known, a large number of cases involving death by gunshot, originally regarded as homicides, were subsequently categorised as accidental killings. A more systematic analysis of gun crime might also cast light on the existence of gun culture...


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