In every battle there is a moment when the combatants, and the world, seem to catch their breath. It is a fleeting moment, lost in the blink of an eye. But in that same blink, everything changes. Such moments are borne of desperation, of courage, of plain dumb luck. But they are pivotal – for what was before is forever changed afterwards. –Steeljaw Scribe, June 2007
I first wrote those words while analyzing the course of events that took place at Midway, some 65 years ago. Yet the sentiment may be applied across the board where the intersection of decisions made (or not) and actions taken (or not) collide and where a determined individual may be able to change the course of battle – and with it, history. It is a quintessentially American belief with examples woven into the warp and woof of American history.
In his opening chapter of American Gun, author Chris Kyle drops us squarely into a similar scenario – a war that was trending badly for the Colonists who were facing the arrayed might of the British Empire and found them at a crossroads in New York. Lose and the British Army would march to the coast, effectively splitting the northern colonies, the center of industry and mercantile efforts from the agricultural colonies in the south. Split in two, the secessionists could be defeated in detail and the Colonies retained. Win, and that march would be stopped and the French, until now hesitant to pitch in, would provide the necessary support (sea power especially) to ensure defeat for the British and an independent America. But that would turn on this battle.
With the Battle of Saratoga providing the canvas, we are introduced to Sergeant Timothy Murphy, a member of an elite brigade, Morgan’s Rifles, who were noteworthy long distant marksmen. Unlike the rank and file Redcoats or Continental Army (and associated militia) with their emphasis on close order drill and massed fire, Morgan’s group had a different focus and mission – attack the head of the serpent, namely the field leadership who gave the orders and executed close control of deployed ranks. The tool that gave Morgan’s men the ability to carryout this tactic was itself an American icon, the Kentucky long rifle. Descended from the Jaeger rifles of the Old World, but with a New World twist in rifled barrels, excellent balance and, for the time, amazingly light. Bringing to bear his own extensive experience as a SEAL in describing the rifle, its manufacture and employment, in the context of the tactics and effects desired, Kyle presents the reader with an effective and compelling illustration of the first of 10 firearms that are both a reflection of the American experience and emerged at a time of crisis to play a pivotal role in the expansion or protection of that experience.
Subsequent chapters follow in much the same manner – open with a story of someone in combat armed with the firearm of interest, segue to it’s evolutionary path, what effect it had on the conflict at hand and what, if any future generations it may have engendered. Reading American Gun is many respects, like joining a group of professionals sitting around the campfire or in the ready room swapping sea stories about their chosen profession of arms. There is at once an easy informality about it, but the discussion is anything but superficial. The challenge in such an approach, however, is ensuring that those outside the profession are made to feel as welcome as the inner circle – that one isn’t left in the dark outer circle puzzling out the jargon and insider knowledge that permeates these discussions. It is the mark of not just a writer or scribe, but a master storyteller that this is successfully accomplished. Chris Kyle is that kind of storyteller.
To be sure, there are some rough spots, because Chris Kyle was taken from us – murdered by someone he was trying to help, back in February 2013 in the midst of writing American Gun. While his co-author, William Doyle, conducted the formal research and background verification, it was Chris’ style and voice, which painted the canvas. Clearly, the book was one that was at once deeply personal as he appears to be getting in touch with his own past and one that unblinkingly places the role of firearms in general and this group of ten most important ones in particular in context.
Completing a project such as that – where the author is deeply and personally enmeshed without being at the end to see through the editing process and ensure a singular voice remains as narrator is extremely difficult and had to have been a challenge to his widow, Taya Kyle. To her credit she understood the importance of this work to Chris and with the help of Jim DeFelice, Chris’ co-author on American Sniper and in concert with William Doyle, completed the book. With this effort though, there are some rough spots in the book where the narrative is repeated or seems to get out of synch and others that leave the reader longing for more. Nothing that would diminish the real value of the work, however and in light of the circumstances behind it, in fact enhances the work. And while I generally skip over introductions and acknowledgements, I strongly urge the reader to pause and reflect on Taya’s compelling Foreword and Chris’ Introduction.
So is the book a buy? Absolutely. If you are a firearms collector and enthusiast like myself (and like myself, may find several of your collection making the list) the book is a compelling read and puts flesh and character to the dry historical guides we typically use when perusing the local gun show or ads in the back of Shotgun News. For those of use with particular leanings to lever rifles of the Winchester and Marlin stripe, the chapters on the Spencer Repeater and Winchester 1873 (widely remarked upon as “The Gun That Won the West”) are very worthwhile. Anyone who has served or had a relative serve can relate to the chapters on the M-1, M1911 and M16. For the non-collector or family historian the vignettes offered of personal struggle and heroism in the face of incredible odds is an uplifting one – and one underscored by some of his personal offerings contemporary and historical.
In Chris’ own words at the end, he writes that the guns were a product of their times – from the individually crafted Kentucky long rifle to the mass-produced M16. That they in and of themselves are no more than a tool used to a particular end and that yes, that end has been evil and good – but that in the end, while there were (and are) indeed terrible missteps and great struggle along the way, these same tools helped us endure and face down the worse evil of our times. And that it wasn’t the guns in and of themselves that did it – but the men and women who stood in the breech and held forth. The guns were the necessary and important part of that struggle.
I know every time now that I may lift my beloved Winchester 1892 to my shoulder or unholster my Korean War veteran father-in-law’s 1911A1 I will think a little more on the historical lineage of those arms and the role they and their relatives played in the founding and preservation of this nation. And each time I will thank Chris for enriching that memory with this work.
“You can get a little fancy talking about guns. You can become a bit starry-eyed about history. You can forget the rough spots. That’ not fair. Real life has been messy, bloody, complicated. Not a straight line.
That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been triumphant, victorious, glorious, and wonderful along the same way. Good has triumphed over evil; we have come to terms with our darker selves. America has won its freedom, preserved it and extended it to others. Guns are not perfect – no model in history has come to market fully finished without flaw. Neither have we. Man and gun have improved together, sometimes with ease, more often with great struggle and sacrifice.” – Chris Kyle, American Gun
Note: HarperCollins provided a pre-release version of American Gun that was used for this review.