I saw a genius advertisement yesterday. Scene: a generic US professional cube space, florescent lighting, grey carpet, coffee makers. Cut to the main character, middle aged white guy, tan jacket, angry, sad look on his face. He's striding through the office, carrying an old fashioned musket. He's here for blood. He rounds a corner and there's his target, some average office peon, at a desk. The shooter shoulders, aims, fires. There are screams, people run. The target is fine. The shooter missed his target, at about 20 feet. He needs to fire again. He digs in his pockets, runs the ramrod out of it's holder on the musket. Powder, ram, patch, ball, set in barrel, ram, put the rod away, prime the charging hole, set the flintlock. As he loads, every one of his potential victims has run away. Fade to tagline: OUR GUNS HAVE CHANGED, SHOULDN'T OUR LAWS?
Let's do a basic comparison here. It's obvious, but maybe some numbers will help.
During the revolutionary war, the standard weapon of the British army was the Brown Bess musket, or more accurately, the smoothbore Land patterned musket. This was a single shot gun ranging from 37 to 58 inches long, weighing roughly 11 pounds. It fired a 75 caliber lead ball to an accurate range of about 180 yards at best, at about 900 feet per second. A practiced shooter was able to fire 3 good shots a minute with the right gear, 4 sloppy shots if they were in a hurry. In addition to the gun, shooters needed to carry ball, powder paper measures, extra flint, and a few tools for basic maintenance. If the gun was loaded in the wrong order, it would take a good hour of poking and prodding and short charge firings to clear the barrel to be reloaded. If the gun or powder got wet, it wouldn't work. If the flint mechanism was bumped, it could fire. Even when the gun fired correctly, there was a large cloud of smoke and sparks right in your face that obscured your view of the target. The bullets were pattern cast and varied in quality. They didn't have a lot of penetrating power and could be deflected or stopped by walls of heavy wood, light masonry, and bales of cotton. If there was a problem with the loading, it could take several seconds for the gun to fire after the trigger was pulled. After 25 shots or so the gun was so fouled with powder it would need a good lengthy cleaning. It took a lot of training to learn all the idiosyncrasies of this gun, in order to use it as an effective military weapon. These guns did not have sights. Most military models had a mount to fit a standardized bayonet, allowing the gun to be used at close quarters for melee.
Now let's get modern.
Today the standard British military service rifle is the L85A2. This is a full select fire weapon, ranging in length from 28 to 48 inches and weighing 8.4 to 14.5 pounds depending on the attachments and pattern. It fires a 5.56x45 NATO round at around 3,100 feet per second, and the standard effective range is around 330 yards, but can be much farther when using long range sights and barrel modifications. The rate of fire can be as high as 775 rounds per minute, and the gun uses a standard 30 round magazine. Assuming it takes 4 seconds to reload the gun (realistic for your average person), starting with a full mag, the napkin calculation comes out to around 270 shots, assuming sustained automatic fire. The 5.56x45 cartridge can use bullets of various applications, including anti-armor and tracer ammunition, most of which can reliably penetrate bullet proof vests of lower armor ratings, car doors, brick walls, or riot shields. All a shooter needs to carry is the gun and as many box magazines as they want. The ammo is waterproof, the gun won't fire if dropped, works when wet, and is fairly reliable in dust and in the mud. If there is a misfire, the dud round can be removed in a few seconds with the charging handle. Disassembly can be performed in under a minute by hand. The gun can fire hundreds of round before fouling can begin to affect performance. Using the right optics, it can be used in the dark. Additional attachments like grenade launchers, flashlights, lasers, sensors, suppressors, bayonets, and mag mounts can be attached to the gun as well. Given about an hour, your average person can understand how to use the gun effectively in most situations.
Well, there you go. In the 250-odd years in between these guns, a lot has changed.
"But wait!" say critics, "These are military guns, not what the common people can use, what about civilian guns?"
Well, okay. The thing is, the Brown Bess was essentially the same as what most civilians of the time had access to in terms of fairly nice weapons. A civilian gun might be made to a slightly lower quality standard and have an even less reliable firing mechanism, but the capabilities were usually in the same range. In terms of what the US Army used at this time, the standard military firearm WAS what the civilians used.
The modern flipside to that question? Even in California, a state bashed by pro-gun lobbies for their strict laws, and under the most recent gun control legislation passed, a civilian can have a rifle firing the same cartridge (or much larger, so long as it isn't .50 caliber) as the L85A2, with a 10-round detachable magazine, and whatever optics they want. The major limitations are that the gun is over a certain length, can fire semiautomatic (one shot per pull of the trigger), doesn't have a handgrip (something which is fairly badly defined by law) and has a "bullet button" system. A bullet button is a modification which slows the removal of a magazine by replacing the ejection button with a recessed catch that must be pushed by sticking something, like the tip of a cartridge, a stick, or a pen, into the hole to eject the magazine. Even with those limitations, it's still entirely possible to hit over a dozen targets at a hundred yards in less than a minute with some basic preparation. Modern guns are really excellently designed machines.
And that's why the tagline from the commercial makes so much sense. It's been two and a quarter centuries since our constitution was written (the Bill of Rights containing the 2nd Amendment was ratified in 1791, not 1776 with the original Constitution). In that time, even with the legal restrictions on guns applied in some states, technology has changed enough to allow a person to kill around 3 people in a minute with a musket, to easily over 15 in the same amount of time (assuming they are using a standard CA-legal-current rifle), from greater distances, with greater reliability. Thinking of the effectiveness of a weapon in "Lives per minute" is an effective (in terms of moral consequence, obviously not tactical statistics) way to realize the technological advance.
How many lives per minute should a citizen be given the ability to take with a legal weapon? Who do we trust with these abilities?
This is the second in an arbitrary number of writings on gun control that I am working on, discussing the realities and speculation of the current situation of gun violence and control in America.
^Theres the link to the ad I mentioned earlier