John Bainbridge, Jr.'s Gun Barons is a narrative history of six charismatic and idiosyncratic men who changed the course of American history through the invention and refinement of repeating weapons.
Love them or hate them, guns are woven deeply into the American soul. Names like Colt, Smith & Wesson, Winchester, and Remington are legendary. Yet few people are aware of the roles these men played at a crucial time in United States history, from westward expansion in the 1840s, through the Civil War, and into the dawn of the Gilded Age. Through personal drive and fueled by bloodshed, they helped propel the young country into the forefront of the world's industrial powers.
Their creations helped save a nation divided, while planting seeds that would divide the country again a century later. Their inventions embodied an intoxicating thread of American individualism—part fiction, part reality—that remains the foundation of modern gun culture. They promoted guns not only for the soldier, but for the Everyman, and also made themselves wealthy beyond their most fevered dreams.
Gun Barons captures how their bold inventiveness dwelled in the psyche of an entire people, not just in the minds of men who made firearm fortunes. Whether we revere these larger-than-life men or vilify them, they helped forge the American character.
Journalist and lawyer Bainbridge (coauthor, American Gunfight) spotlights in this laudatory history the "keen inventors and wily businessmen" who built America's gun industry. Contending that gun manufacturing was inextricably linked to the rise of "mechanized production and interchangeable parts," Bainbridge documents how mass-produced weapons such as the Remington and Colt revolvers and the Spencer repeating rifle contributed to the settlement of the American West and the Union's victory in the Civil War. He also delves into the colorful biographies of America's leading gun manufacturers, noting that Eliphalet Remington II was a "romantic youth with pacifist leanings" who wrote poetry before he founded the company that bears his name, and that Oliver Winchester drifted from carpentry to the clothing business to the firearms trade. Though these "gun barons" accelerated the demise of American craftsmen and the rise of large corporations, their names are still synonymous with "old-fashioned pluck and Yankee ingenuity," Bainbridge notes. Flowery constructions ("Free of tyranny and drunk on possibility, the United States barreled into the mid-nineteenth century with a sense of conquest and creativity") occasionally disrupt the book's otherwise crisp, journalistic prose, and Bainbridge refrains from fully reckoning with the negative aspects of America's gun culture. Still, firearms enthusiasts will savor this brisk and entertaining account.