Dr. David Mazel
Adams State College
Some people sure do get off on guns.
According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah lawmakers opened this year’s legislative session by “praising Utah weapons pioneer John M. Browning, celebrating a day honoring the state’s founding father of firearms and then moving to designate Browning’s M1911 as Utah’s official gun.”
An official state gun! Why didn’t Colorado think of it first?
I’m no firearms expert, but from what I hear the Browning M1911 was one heckuva gun, and Browning a truly great designer. To the good legislators of Utah, he is no doubt a native son of whom the entire state can be proud, a saintly contributor to the progressive exaltation of Christian civilization.
That’s one way of looking at it, anyway. But one could also see the M1911 as the product of a troubled time in the history of Western imperialism, as a response to a sort of speed-bump on the road to dispatching the dark-skinned peoples of the earth.
That troubled time would be the early 20th century. Belgium was suffering bad PR for its genocide in the Congo. In Rhodesia and South Africa, the British were having trouble subjugating African natives, because the overly citified British soldiers were too soft to hack it in the bush. Unschooled in “woodcraft,” they could barely start a fire or pitch a tent, much less sleep on the ground night after night and get up in the morning in any condition to take on the fearsome Zulus.
As a remedy, the legendary lieutenant-general and First Baron Lord Baden Powell founded the Boy Scouts, the idea being to get the lads while they were still teenagers, toughen them up a bit, and instill in them the woodsy skills and plucky dispositions they’d need when they grew old enough to go overseas and shoot black people.
In another part of the globe, in the Philippine-American War, American troops were having troubles of their own with another group of dark-skinned freedom fighters, the Moro tribesmen.
By this time the U.S. invaders had already killed hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, while suffering no more than a few thousand losses of their own. However impressive that might seem it was nonetheless felt that an even more efficient rate of slaughter might be achieved — not by molding better soldiers in the crucible of a quasi-fascist youth organization, but by inventing a better gun.
Happily enough the ingenious Mr. Browning was there to help. The Wikipedia entry on “Browning M1911” is telling:
In response to problems encountered by American units fighting Moro guerrillas during the Philippine-American War, the then-standard Colt M1892 revolver…was found to be unsuitable for the rigors of jungle warfare, particularly in terms of stopping power, as the Moros had very high battle morale and frequently used drugs to inhibit the sensation of pain.
The U.S. Army briefly reverted to using the M1873 single-action revolver in .45 Colt caliber, which had been standard during the last decades of the 19th century; the heavier bullet was found to be more effective against charging tribesmen.
The problems with the .38 Long Colt led to the Army shipping new single action .45 Colt revolvers to the Philippines in 1902. It also prompted the then-Chief of Ordnance, General William Crozier, to authorize further testing for a new service pistol.
This is the context in which Browning did his work: in the face of heroic resistance by people defending their freedom, a concerted search for greater “stopping power.”
There is no doubt that Browning, Colt, and others were great designers. It is also true that the products of their genius had legitimate uses. (The same might be said of Zyklon-B.) But those products were also the instruments of mass killing, and of the imposition of an unjust world order under which millions continue to suffer to this day.
The wanton slaughter in the Philippines was well known and widely criticized in the United States – Mark Twain was among the war’s most vociferous opponents – and Browning surely knew what soldiers were doing with his inventions. I wonder if it ever gave him pause. If so, then perhaps he really does deserve to be honored, if only for occupying a slightly higher moral plane than the average Utah state legislator.