The Column, No. 44:

American Rifle by Alexander Rose

Book Review by Chuck Hawks

American Rifle book cover
American Rifle book cover.
Courtesy of

American Rifle - A Biography by Alexander Rose is a well written, professionally edited, hard cover book published by Bantam Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. The 2009 cover price is $30. There are 409 pages of text, voluminous notes and (by my count--I may have missed some) 74 illustrations.

Although the cover is attractively decorated by an embossed picture of the receiver of a fully engraved Winchester Model 1873 sporting rifle, American Rifle is focused primarily on the history and development of American military (army) rifles from colonial times to the present day. A more accurate title might have been "American Infantry Rifle."

Author Rose describes the history and the debates surrounding the evolution of American military rifles and the rifle's importance in US culture, but remains impartial, as a good historian should. American Rifle is readable history, not a political treatise, and the modern debate over "gun control" and the Second Amendment is thankfully ignored.

A recurrent theme throughout the book is the ongoing philosophical and tactical debate between those who favor an "Army of Marksmen" (whom the author calls "progressives") and those who believe in semi-aimed, massed firepower (the "diehards") as a battle winning infantry tactic. This argument has smoldered within the US Army from the time the rifle began to replace the smoothbore musket on the battlefield to the present day.

Key chapters in American Rifle describe the change from military musket to rifle, introduction of machinery and mass production--including interchangeable parts--to gun manufacture, introduction of self-contained (metallic) cartridges, single shot vs. repeating infantry rifles, the shift towards smaller caliber army rifles, bolt action vs. autoloading army rifles and post WW II infantry rifles. The final chapter speculates about "The Rifle of the Future."

The development of specific rifles covered in some detail in American Rifle include the flintlock Kentucky (or Pennsylvania) rifle, percussion rifle-muskets of the Civil War period, Spencer and Henry repeaters, 1873 "Trap Door" Springfield, Remington Rolling Block, Springfield Model 1903, M1 Garand, M14, M16 and the M4 Carbine favored by today's US military.

What are not covered in detail are the hunting rifles of the metallic cartridge era. In fact, the rifles most familiar to Guns and Shooting Online readers are completely ignored. I do not recall the sporting rifles made by Marlin, Winchester, Remington, Savage, Ruger and others that have dominated the American civilian marketplace since the introduction of smokeless powder in the late 1800's even being mentioned. Sporting rifles are discussed only tangentially, when they influenced the evolution of military rifles.

Being something of an amateur historian, as well as a rifle buff, I enjoyed reading American Rifle and I am happy to recommend it to others, particularly military historians, soldiers and gun collectors. Alexander Rose is also the author of Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring and Kings in the North: The House of Percy in British History. You can learn more about the author and his books on his website,

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Copyright 2009 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.