Mrs. Brady & the Enfield

I was pleased to read in the September Civil War News that the alleged Handgun Control Incorporated (HCI) memorandum with its "five year plan" to eliminate Civil War and other reenactments and ban antique replica firearms was, indeed, spurious.

From the start, I suspected it might be. Left-wing intellectuals generally use better grammar than that evidenced in the alleged "plan." Most are also too sophisticated to label anything a "five year plan," which evokes memories of a Stalinist Soviet Union.

Despite my sense of relief, however, I am not reassured of much by the protestations of Mrs. Sarah Brady. Although she and the organization she has become affiliated with had, as their original goal, some sort of handgun control, they have branched out and now advocate the banning of semi-automatic rifles and "short barreled shotguns," among other things.

If everything they want banned is indeed forbidden and the violence spawned by a deterioration of values and government subsidization and encouragement of fragmented social life does not decrease, what will Mrs. Brady & company focus on next? Any thoughts?

While there may be no present plan to confiscate antique or reproduction muzzleloading firearms, you won't find Senators Moynihan or Metzenbaum or others of that ilk down at the range popping off a few rounds with an 1861 Springfield. Nor will you and Congressman Shumer speculate on whether or not the Enfield on his wall was actually carried by the 28th Massachusetts at Fredericksburg.

These people are viscerally anti-gun - any gun. They are the products of an increasingly urban/suburban-based culture and couldn't, even if they made a conscious effort, understand why anyone would want to own a gun of any kind other than to shoot someone.

In addition, many of today's legislators are old anti-Vietnam war protestors who have little respect for anything associated with the military, past or present. Anyone who doubts this should take a close look at how the future capability of the American armed forces is being frittered away in budget cuts and social service assignments.

Whether or not the HCI memorandum is phony is, then, largely irrelevant. I believe that, sooner or later, Mrs. Brady and Mr. Shumer and the rest of that lot will be (figuratively at least) knocking at your door, looking for your musket, whether you are a reenactor, shooter or collector.

Should you still doubt this, remember the case of the Maryland student teacher treated like a common criminal for bringing an original Model 1842 musket to school while his class was covering the Civil War. Another Marylander was threatened with arrest for bringing a flintlock long rifle to a classroom for an enrichment class on the early American frontier.

Both men were victimized by laws which failed to discriminate between historic firearms in responsible hands and junk handguns wielded by adolescent thugs. These applications of what I like to refer to as "Shumer syndrome," are, I believe, more accurate evidence of what the anti-gun movement eventually has in store for skirmishers, reenactors and gun collectors than the bogus HCI memorandum.

Neither Maryland man was prosecuted, largely as a result of negative publicity and a public not yet ready for such simple-minded law enforcement. It is, however, my understanding that an effort to amend the law failed and that it is still illegal to bring an unloaded antique or reproduction firearm to a school for educational purposes. The implication that an antique inanimate historical object is somehow evil is obvious - and ominous.

When queried about the obvious stupidity of the application of the above- mentioned Maryland law, bureaucrats and politicians mumbled that there could be "no exceptions." That has certainly been the case over the years in my own state, New Jersey. When I was away on an all-expenses-paid government trip with the 1st Infantry Division in Southeast Asia, New Jersey passed a gun owner licensing and registration law.

Although I commanded an 81mm mortar platoon in Vietnam, when I returned from overseas in 1967 I was prohibited from buying a cartridge rifle or shotgun or even an air rifle without a "Firearms Identification Card" issued by local police after a fingerprint and background check. Permits for handgun purchases had been part of New Jersey law as far back as I could remember.

I applied for and received a "Firearms Identification Card" without any problem and believed at the time that the new law was a "reasonable" one that would help keep firearms out of the hands of "undesirables."

Of course the law didn't really apply to criminals, who were already breaking the law merely by owning a gun. Reproduction muzzleloading rifles and shotguns were exampt from the new law, and reproduction and original flintlock and percussion handguns had always been exempt from the pistol permit law.

In succeeding years, however, after a series of, to my mind, extra- constitutional "findings" by successive attorneys-general, reproduction percussion and flintlock ignition handguns, rifles and shotguns were categorized with modern cartridge guns under New Jersey firearms legislation.

A reading of the original law clearly reveals that such a course was not the intent of the legislators who crafted it. With a state supreme court which consistently refuses to enforce a death penalty for particularly heinous murders, however, overturning these "findings" was, and remains, a hopeless task.

At this time, any person attending a reenactment in the state of New Jersey who brings a reproduction firearm and is not in possesion of a New Jersey Firearms Identification Card is theoretically violating the state's firearms law and is subject to arrest, trial and imprisonment. Fortunately, state and local police simply do not, at present, enforce this aspect of the law.

In the past, however, some New Jersey police officers have been assiduous in the enforcement of firearms laws. Prior to the passage of the McClure Volkmer Act (Firearms Owners Protection Act) several out-of-state travelers were arrested following routine traffic stops when a search of their car trunks revealed legally owned, unloaded, cased modern firearms.

Several years ago, during the administration of the late, unlamented Governor Florio, a number of politicos, led by the governor, set out to "save" the people of New Jersey from wholesale massacre by "assault rifles." Of course there was no evidence of the use of legally owned weapons of this type in any crimes.

Since the governor's Democratic party held a clear legislative majority and was aided by the usual media frenzy, the ban was passed and signed. Overnight, ownership of a large number of firearms legally purchased by holders of New Jersey Firearms Identification cards was made illegal. The precedent was unsettling, even to those who did not own or care to own "assault rifles."

Similar legislation concerning handguns was planned for a subsequent legislative session. Since reproduction percussion and flintlock handguns are now, thanks to the "findings," classified as modern weapons and require the same purchase permits, they would have been banned under this legislation which was, fortunately, derailed when the voters summarily dismissed Florio and his minions.

One legislative aide I spoke to on the subject specifically (and with delight) stated that original antique handguns as well as reproductions would have come under the proposed law's purview. Precious 1860 Colt Armies and valuable Single Action Army revolvers would have been melted down if this legislation had passed.

Even without this legal horror, hundreds of historical weapons are destroyed every year in New Jersey. County prosecutors are terrified of being portrayed as "merchants of death" should they sell confiscated firearms through legal channels to licensed firearms dealers. Because of this, every gun that comes into their hands is consigned to the furnace.

I was recently apprised of a group of trapdoor Springfields that were melted into sewer plates or hoops for midnight basketball or some other such socially acceptable use of iron and steel. Civil War rifle muskets, at least one of which was turned in during the ridiculous "guns for gift certificates" fad which swept certain areas of the country awhile back, have met the same fate in New Jersey.

There is a lesson in all this. Honest, law-abiding gun owners have to deal with an increasing number of people who do not like firearms for a number of reasons - because of a war they ran away from, because they are part of an increasingly urban and suburban population whose only exposure to guns is through asinine television shows and movies, because they love animals more than people and associate guns with hateful hunters, because of the national paranoia induced by the nightly news, because they have no sense of history, or simply because they they are afraid of things they don't understand - and would like to see everything that shoots banned. Politicians searching for easy apparent solutions to complex problems that fly well with focus groups or media figures eager for high ratings are more than willing to cater to the fears of these people.

Despite what Mrs. Brady, HCI and the gun-banning politicians say now, current and proposed state legislation noted above (that could not be passed on a national level at this time) provides, I believe, ample evidence of their future hopes and plans. The gun issue is like an onion, and they will peel off the layers until they come to yours. By then it may be too late. It's that simple!

All is not lost, however. If we're assiduous, it may never get too late! Skirmishers, reenactors and antique gun collectors should constantly monitor anti-gun proposals on local, state and national levels and quickly inform politicians, media and the public of the danger that midguided if well meaning legislation poses to our precious historical heritage and its continuing celebration.

On a brighter note, we continue to learn more about the guns we still have. No, Mrs. Brady does not own an Enfield - but Bill Adams does. Adams, an expert on Southern small arms and the Enfield, was at the Gettysburg Relic Show back in July, and those who missed his exhibit missed an excellent one. Bill handed out complimentary copies of his fine monograph "A Brief Introduction to the P53 Long Enfield," to all who stopped by his table. His "Brief Introduction…" may be brief, but it sure is comprehensive.

Adams has been collecting historical data, along with Enfields and other Civil War era arms, for years. More than a mere accumulator of guns and documents, Bill is an analytical arms historian, and is far from the "It's so because I say it's so" characters who, unfortunately, are all too common behind antique gun show tables.

One of Bill Adams' greatest attributes as a historian is his appreciation of foreign information, especially on foreign arms like the Enfield. His research efforts have resulted in a comprehensive and constantly growing body of knowledge culled from little-known British, Australian and Canadian sources.

The British and their colonial progeny were profligate gun markers, as anyone who has ever perused an old Lee Enfield No 1, Mark III like the 1908 vintage gun in my own rack can attest. If you are familiar with these markings, an antique British military arm can often tell a fascinating tale of its long and varied life. Conversely, there is often a paucity of marks on American military guns, especially 19th century ones.

Unfortunately, as Bill Adams notes, British markings are often characterized by the uninitiated - and by those who should know better (and sometimes do) - as American markings. "VMSC," for example, stands for "Volunteer Militia of Southern Canada," not, as many might hope, "Volunteer Militia of South Carolina." Even more interesting, the Brits used to mark their unserviceable guns "US."

For much more, watch this space in the future or, better yet, look up Bill Adams at the next big Civil War gun and relic show.

© 1994, 1998 by Joe Bilby

return to homepage

go to Tony Beck index

go to Joe Bilby index

go to Tom Kelley index