Thursday, August 15, 2019

Trade guns

Mr James Dakin claims that guns are the pinnacle of modern technology in two of his recent posts.

He makes the point that bartering away ammunition has to be one of the stupidest ideas, ever.

Mr Dakin is supported by history
The Northwest Trade Gun was one of the three, main items traded to native-Americans in exchange for beaver pelts, the others being wool blankets and distilled alcohol.

Even by the standards of the day (1600s-1830s) trade guns were cheap, crude and primitive. The native-Americans could not trade their bows-and-arrows away quickly enough to get the new guns.

People do not abandon stone-age technology because of a sudden shortage of rocks. In most parts of North America, the trade gun had huge advantages over bows and spears made from native materials.

The primary advantage was range. This is when the student of history whose primary source of information is television calls BS.

They will point out that the Mongolian hordes had laminated bows and could launch arrows much farther than the typical trade gun could effectively shoot.

This is a classic case of comparing apples and orangutans. Launching arrows over a city's walls into the massed peoples waiting out a siege is different than hitting a deer or moose center-of-mass at fifty yards.

The native Americans did not have laminated bows made from horn on the compression side and sinews on the tension side. Even if they did, the humid weather east of the Great Plains would have negated any of those advantages.

Nor did native-American bows have "sights" and the high cost of making bows, arrows and arrowheads limited the number of repetitions a typical native-American could practice, thereby making "instinct shooting" unattainable for most.

The primary advantage of bows is that they had slightly more range than a hand-thrown spear and they required far less motion to discharge. Estimated draw-weights of bows used by the Penobscot tribe were on the order of 25 pounds. Keep in mind that those wimpy bows were lobbing hefty arrows made of willow, dogwood or viburnum shoots tipped with a chunk of rock. It is not an exaggeration to say the trajectory approximated the arc of a rainbow.

The typical trade gun was a smooth-bore; a shotgun in modern parlance. It typically started out with a bore of 0.57", the smallest iron pipe that was economical to manufacture. As a reference, most modern muzzle-loading rifles have a bore of 0.50 inches and most 20 gauge shotguns have a bore of about 0.62" Even though the bore may have started out at 0.57", over time rust and re-boring caused that bore to get larger.

Traditions die slowly. Most of the rifles issued during the American Civil War also had nominal bore diameters of 0.57 inches.

The trade guns' sights were crude. The lock times were glacially slow by modern standards. The technology for manufacturing ammo was crude.

I will go out on a limb and suggest that forty yards was the maximum, effective range against deer sized animals. Any farther than that and more than half of the animals would not be recovered.

Forty yards might not sound like much but it is HUGE if your reference is a bow with fifteen yard capability. Not only could the new gun kill deer at a range three times farther than your old bow, but you were far less likely to alert your target because you only had to wiggle a few fingers to make the gun go off.

That ability to be stealthy was particularly important when your targets were other native-Americans. Although rarely documented, I expect that most war parties used the muskets for the first, devastating volley and then depended on bows and clubs for quick follow-up.


  1. Many thanks for the mention and link. :)

  2. Yep, classic use of 'new' technology to give the tribe(s) a leg up on their competitors...

  3. I agree with your basic premise of new technology taking over. However some of the mountain tribes (shashoni and nezpierce [spelling] ? ) did have laminated sheep horn bows. I understand that some of the plains tribes once they had horses(new technology!) Could drive an arrow to the feathers and kill buffalo on the run. I read in the lewis and clark jornals that their large caliber multishot air rifle got them much more respect than the songle shot rifles and muskets in reducing attacks. They only had one but it was well demonstrated and the tribes had already figured that if you draw their shot they have a fancy club left. There was some fancy fast and accurate bow work by the souix that impressed lewis and clark as well.

  4. I got this book from a library about Native Americans and the firearms trade and it was great, very readable and highly informative.

  5. I read that as vibranium. Whoa! I need me some of that.

  6. Trade guns have always been in demand, and not just in North America. I recently saw pictures of an English made Trade flintlock dating to the 1880's; guns were specifically made as Trade guns for almost 500 years.
    More recently, existing stocks have been used as trade guns; I read an account recently by a tribe in Africa about their access to guns - their first guns were Enfields, post WWI, and they cost 8 to 10 cows each. Now they can get an AK-47 for 1 to 2 cows each - prices are dropping and capabilities are rising!

    1. Beware that most likely prices dropped because of the Soviet stockpile draw-down. Not sure how long that is going to last, being a One Off. I was picking up no4 Enfields all day long all through the 90's for $125 ( refurb'ed ). Then one day, it doubled and shortly thereafter quadrupled. I can now get two new AR's for the price of one junked Enfield. Surplus firearms are a Seneca Cliff.


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