Eric Mottram on Triggernometry (2)

littleceasarEnough readers have suggested I continue posting Eric Mottram’s essay, “Persuasive Lips,”  so I will — it will take 5 installments all in all. Here, the second part:


The technological morality of gangster and police movies provides a full iconography from the Thirties onwards. The obvious symbolism of black and white shirts is there in cowboy films, of course, together with other ancient characterizations: blonde and brunette, fair and darker skins. But clothing and other ‘extensions of man’ furnish gangster films with their own mythical technology. Large hats and heavy coats signify police in Thirties gangsterdom. The Cadillac 1926 touring model in Little Caesar (Edward G. Robinson), the 1930 Nash Ambassador in Each Dawn I Die (Cagney), and the 1928 La Salle and 1927 Lincoln in The St Valentine’s Day Massacre show how the automobile can be used for intimidation as well as mobility. Cigars become a form of communications technology. The gangleader who continually orders his up-and-coming henchmen to change his suits emulates and parodies class shifts in society at large. Scenes in tailors’ shops and clothing stores therefore become crucial moments, since fashion and status are emblematic of money and power, and since, in the iconography of the capitalist city, money is the most visible form of energy control. The standard weapons in the city’s civil war armoury are the .38, the sawn-off shotgun, and the submachine-gun, all of which are manufactured by an arms industry that claims moral neutrality. As in the Western, hands placed above the shoulders remains the key icon of vulnerability. The victim cannot reach his gun, nor can he protect his face, his stomach, or his groin.

The plots intersect clothing and cars, guns and money. The characters they draw together include the cop, dick, private eye and priest, the lawyer, mother, girlfriend or moll, the boyfriend (a few homosexual variants around) and the gunman. The dangers lie, not so much in the cops and detectives (who act as predictable agencies of law), as in the irrational, whether in sex or in the passionate involvements of killing, which themselves often reach orgasmic abandon. Danger arises either when sexuality undermines mobility or when the erotic starts to govern the use of gun, knife, and sword, of bullet and cigar, and, to some extent, of car and bike. Behind both the gangster movie and the Western lies the legislative permissiveness of the prime agencies of gun-manliness: the gun lobby and the armaments manufacturers and importers. During the 1970s, TV took over the gun scene. The police-hero saga in particular played a major part in fuelling the cult of ‘masculine mystique’ rife in TV and cinema movies of the period. In 1955, the plot of Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause turns, rather as it does in John Frankenheimer’s All Fall Down (1961), on the use of telephone, alcohol, car and gun as familiar instruments in middle-class life. Both Jim Stark’s cry to his impotent father -‘We’re all involved!’ – and his quiet retort to Buzz’s taunts concerning his masculinity – ‘You’ve seen too many movies’ -express their very ubiquity. The middle-class kids use cars as instruments in a twentieth-century medieval tournament. The justification for Plato’s use of the gun, however, is pure twentieth-century America – ‘I need it’ – whilst his cry to the Black servant encapsulates the film’s indictment of the entire middle-class assumption of security and superiority. Once the fearful Plato takes the gun from under his pillow, the plot moves towards senseless killing. First he protects himself from middle-class teenage thugs in black leather. Then the police move in, their target high-school kids on the run from parents rather than Cagney on the run from a System which in Public Enemy (1931) had insisted on World War I and prohibition.

Within this pattern gun technology, like any other technology, modified morality and attitudes to law. The arts moved in. The Depression of the 1930s was accompanied by a rediscovery of national cultural roots, and the tale of Billy die Kid became a ballet. To the generation of the 1960s, the police were legalized gunmen, since they were never off duty as far as their weapons were concerned. Some Americans still felt protected, others felt entirely vulnerable. But the issue had been stated at least as far back as 1835 when De Toqueville suggested that being American technically meant unlimited individual power. There then follows the concomitant challenge: how come I am not as powerful as God’s programme of self-reliance claims for me? Just who is permitted to be an elite in what is assumed to be an egalitarian structure? Wild Bill Hickok was a small-time thug, gambler, and drunkard who used a rifle to shoot the McCanles gang (three unarmed men) at a safe distance.12 But his dime novel myth was sealed when he was played in a 1937 De Mille movie by Gary Cooper, star of endless good dumb men roles and one of Hollywood’s major investments. In 1946, Henry Fonda portrayed Wyatt Earp as a charming, shy and good marshal in Ford’s My Darling Clementine. Andy Adams’ Log of a Cowboy (1903) recalls one side of the Mastersons, Wyatt Earps, ‘Doc’ Hollidays, and other such ‘peace officials’ from ‘the trail days’: ‘The puppets of no romance ever written can compare with these officers in fearlessness. And let it be understood, there were plenty to protest against their rule; almost daily during the range season some equally fearless individuals defied them.’

In fact, when Earp was on the Dodge City payroll, he and Bat Masterson augmented their income through gambling and prostitution. The cowboys nicknamed them ‘The Fighting Pimps.’ As lawman and gambler, Earp and Doc Holliday robbed a stagecoach of $80,000 and murdered the driver and one passenger.13 The gunfight at the O.K. Corral on 26 October 1881 saw the slaughter of those who could have made a case against them. One version says Wyatt’s brother Virgil, town marshal at Tombstone, Arizona, acted as peace-officer (his brothers as deputies) and only shot when shot at. Another version holds that the Earps wished to kill Ike Clanton because he had seen them try to rob a stage-coach. A third says the two clans were feuding over women, and a fourth that the Clantons headed a cowboy gang out to kill the Earps. Wyatt’s account in the Tombstone Epitaph claims the Clantons were threatening the Earps. In all these ambiguities, what is certain is that the Earps were acquitted and Wyatt Earp died peacefully at the age of 81 in 1929. It is also certain that the Earps used six-shooters.’4 In February 1974 a Tombstone, Arizona, business man auctioned Earp’s .22, a seven-shot revolver made by the American Standard Co. of Newark, New Jersey, and given to him by Doc Holliday in 1884. In My Darling Clementine, self-reliant survival in a hostile environment is an essential myth: Fonda’s Earp dances at a church celebration as avenger and free man. Alan Ladd’s Shane (1953) is rather more honest, since it portrays a gunfighter who fails to settle into a community when his abilities are no longer needed. He leaves because he lives on the edge of hysteria and might draw at any time. Law finally means settlement and family. Director George Stevens’ last shots show Shane riding off into the geology of America. A roller-skating rink has now been laid out over the O.K. Corral.

As weapons technology has developed, so the boundaries between hero, villain and fool have become increasingly blurred. As Marx puts it in the Grundrisse (1857-8): ‘Is Achilles possible side by side with powder and lead?”6 The crucial fusion in America, as elsewhere, brings together invention, the factory, and mass-production techniques under state or private capitalism:17 ‘The triumph of violence depends upon the production of armaments, and this in turn depends on production in general, and thus … on economic strength, on the economy of the State, and in the last resort on the material means which that violence commands.”

Although the idea of a projectile spinning in a barrel was expounded to the Royal Society in 1747, the objective was to make it spin tightly. The smooth-bore wheel-lock musket had appeared in Germany in about 1500, and rifles were well-known by 1525, but until the Thirty Years War they were still primarily used as sporting instruments. Accurate weapons were too expensive for common warfare, and rifles were difficult to load in field conditions and on horseback. Franklin is said to have advised American generals to use bows and arrows rather than guns at the beginning of the Revolution.19 Experience made the soldiers listen respectfully. Experiments in 1838 with the service musket led the Royal Engineers to advise soldiers to aim 130 feet into the air above a man at 600 yards in order to hit him.20 During the Franco-Italian Wars of 1494-1559, the invention of the horse-pistol enabled a key-wound spring lock to make a rough-edged wheel spark from a piece of pyrites. This weapon could be fired twice in succession, which meant that a cavalryman could fire once, charge, and fire again without reloading.21 By 1630, French perfection of the flint-lock enabled a strong spring to drive a flint against a roughened metal plate fixed over a firing pan into which sparks fell. In the 1660s, Louis XIV equipped his army with it; and during the 1688 English Revolution the flint lock was again in evidence. Though it remained a luxury, this weapon was not seriously challenged until 1807, when the crucial invention of percussion-powder led a Scottish Presbyterian clergyman named Alexander Forsyth to seek a patent.22 In 1816 an English painter, Joshua Shaw, invented a percussion cap using fulminate of Mercury as a detonator. Subsequently, the so-called American System introduced the mass production of fully interchangeable parts and thereby changed the economy of weapons manufacture and distribution. Army rifles produced in this fashion were exhibited at the 1851 Great Exhibition, although the method had been witnessed by an excited Thomas Jefferson in Paris as early as 1782. Jefferson wrote back to the States: ‘I put several [locks] together myself, taking pieces at hazard as they came to hand, and they fitted in the most perfect manner. The advantages of this when arms need repair are evident’.23

Eli Whitney began manufacturing muskets comprised of interchangeable parts for the American government after 1794; Simeon North did the same for pistols; and in 1819 the two main Army arsenals adopted the method. After the American victory in the war with Mexico had demonstrated the value of the Colt revolver, invented a decade earlier, the manufacture of small arms increased rapidly. By 1853 Colt had developed an armoury employing 1,400 machine tools.

How quickly the Colt entered the dreams of the righteous is confirmed by John Greenleaf Whittier’s ‘Letter – From a Missionary in the Methodist Episcopal Church South, in Kansas, To a Distinguished Politician. Douglas Mission, August, 1854.’ The poem speaks in the voice of a Christian slave-addict, panicked by the Yankee abolitionist onslaught against the divinely-ordained institution of slavery, and about to abandon the South in favour of Cuba:

. . .Methinks I hear a voice come up the river
From those far bayous, where the alligators
Mount guard around the camping filibusters:
‘Shake off the dust of Kansas. Turn to Cuba –
(That golden orange just about to fall
O’er ripe, into the Democratic lap;)
Keep pace with Providence, or, as we say,
Manifest Destiny. Go forth and follow
The message of our gospel, thither borne
Upon the point of Quitman’s bowie-knife
And the persuasive lips of Colt’s revolvers.
There may’st thou, underneath thy vine and fig-tree,
Watch thy increase of sugar cane and negroes,
Calm as a patriarch in his eastern tent!’
Amen: So mote it be. So prays your friend.

Locksmiths, explosives, men, and the American System came together to produce the gunman’s means. During the Middle Ages, Armytage writes, gunpowder not only ‘helped to render both the catapault and the medieval castle obsolescent, so further weakening the feudal system,’ but also ‘stimulated other sciences [such as] chemistry, metallurgy, mechanical engineering, [and] surveying.’24 The beginnings of the machine gun were already evident in the fourteenth century ribaudequin, ‘a multi-barrelled mobile weapon and a small barrel mounted on wood,’ whose development prompted alterations in ‘the fortifications and designs of towns . . . defense in depth supplanting the simple keep or castle tower.’ The rifle was first effectively used in the War of Independence by America’s ‘Minute Men.’ After Forsyth’s early nineteenth century patenting of percussion-powder, the improvements next called for and perfected were a weatherproof action and better bullet design. Joseph Whitworth, who set up in Manchester in 1833, constructed many pioneering tools, standardized the thread of screws, and by 1855 had become the world’s most distinguished tool-maker. The British government called on him to improve the design of barrels and projectiles, develop an accurate rifle, and then experiment with the production of heavy guns using a casting technique which involved submitting molten metal to hydraulic pressure before it cooled. The issue was the Crimean War. The orders that Whitworth supplied for the Confederate Army during the American Civil War enabled him to experiment further with large steel castings using a hydraulic press rather than a steam hammer. While the results did not appear until 1870, Whitworth’s company was big enough by 1874 to come under the Limited Liability Act. In 1883, the American Gun Foundry Board visited his works at Openshaw, near Manchester, and reported that the production process ‘amounted to a revelation.’ In the United States, the main issue for Samuel Colt was the Mexican War, which promoted small arms manufacture from 1846 onwards. In 1854, Colt’s factory impressed John Anderson, a British inspector of machines reporting to a Parliamentary Committee on Small Arms. His assembly line techniques were also admired by the British pioneer of such systems, James Nasmyth, who witnessed ‘perfection and economy such as I have never seen before…. You do not depend on dexterity- all you need is intellect.’25 The Lee-Enfield was produced according to American principles at Enfield, near London, from 1851. Within three years, Anderson’s factory was turning out 2,000 guns a week. These labour, technology, and mass-production intersections show at least something of the international connections between weapons and politics. The Lee-Enfield ultimately secured British rule in India and other colonies.

Samuel Colt perfected his first six-shooter in 1832. The gun, which was company manufactured from 1836 onwards, could be fired with one hand and was therefore essential to cavalry. It was first put to political use by the Texas Rangers against Comanche Indians in June 1844, and was used widely during the Civil War. Colt’s factory was designed by the brilliant mechanic and organizer Elisha K. Root. The machine-gun, like the torpedo and the electrically-fired mine, was also developed during the Civil War. Originating as a ten-barrel revolving rifle rotated by hand-crank, invented by R.J. Gatling in 1861 as, in his own words, ‘a labour-saving device for warfare,’ it eventually fired 200 rounds a minute, and was widely adopted where a small number of men fought a large number of ‘natives.’ These later developments were made in France during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.” The machine-gun went on to be used by Mark Twain in the slaughter at the end of A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court in 1889, and by Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘rough riders’ in Cuba in 1898.28 In 1854, Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson patented their metallic cartridge. Three years later, they began to manufacture pistols with patented, bored-through cylinders to go with it. They specialized in .22 revolvers, and their seven-shot pistol became popularly preferred to the Derringer. In the 1870s and 1880s at least fifty companies were producing small cheap revolvers, often with names stamped on the barrel such as Protector, Little All Right, Tramps Terror, and Banker’s Pal. Smith and Wesson are still, of course, a major armaments firm; they also manufactured the handcuffs used by the South Vietnamese Government on those of its political opponents held in the notorious ‘tiger cages’ (a Houston, Texas firm supplied the cages themselves).29 As Lewis Mumford wrote in Technics and Civilization (1934): ‘bloodshed kept pace with iron production: in essence, the entire paleotechnic period was ruled, from beginning to end, by the policy of blood and iron.’30 As a result of labour shortages and military demands, war also created the conditions for other kinds of technology. The French Navy exploited Nicholas Appert’s invention of hermetically-sealed bottles and cans, whilst during the American Civil War the commercial food firms owned by Borden and Armour obtained their footing supplying tinned milk and meat for the Union Army that subsequently made them millionaires.31 In 1885, the French physiologist E.J. Marey invented a photogun to record the stages of bird flight. The barrel housed a camera lens and the plates were carried on a revolving cylinder and changed by the trigger action at sixteen exposures a minute.32 On the other hand, we can condense many of the consequences of the repeater-mechanism for more violent political action through Anthony Mann’s film The Tall Man (1961), in which a detective sergeant tries to foil a plot to assassinate President Lincoln. The action turns on the ability of a pistol to fire one shot and of the addition of a telescopic lens to the rifle. The detective’s name is John Kennedy.

[to be ctd.]

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1 Response

  1. Poo says:

    The following article appeared in your New York Times. The International Weekly comes with my Sunday Star or I might well have missed it. I know, who would have thought? Still, it is a good piece, well thought out and certainly better than anything I migtht have put together.

    Do We Have the Courage to Stop This?
    Nicholas D. Kristof
    New York Times

    In the harrowing aftermath of the school shooting in Connecticut, one thought wells in my mind: Why can’t we regulate guns as seriously as we do cars?

    The fundamental reason kids are dying in massacres like this one is not that we have lunatics or criminals — all countries have them — but that we suffer from a political failure to regulate guns.

    Children ages 5 to 14 in America are 13 times as likely to be murdered with guns as children in other industrialized countries, according to David Hemenway, a public health specialist at Harvard who has written an excellent book on gun violence.

    So let’s treat firearms rationally as the center of a public health crisis that claims one life every 20 minutes. The United States realistically isn’t going to ban guns, but we can take steps to reduce the carnage.

    American schoolchildren are protected by building codes that govern stairways and windows. School buses must meet safety standards, and the bus drivers have to pass tests. Cafeteria food is regulated for safety. The only things we seem lax about are the things most likely to kill.

    The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has five pages of regulations about ladders, while federal authorities shrug at serious curbs on firearms. Ladders kill around 300 Americans a year, and guns 30,000.

    We even regulate toy guns, by requiring orange tips — but lawmakers don’t have the gumption to stand up to National Rifle Association extremists and regulate real guns as carefully as we do toys. What do we make of the contrast between heroic teachers who stand up to a gunman and craven, feckless politicians who won’t stand up to the N.R.A.?

    As one of my Facebook followers wrote after I posted about the shooting, “It is more difficult to adopt a pet than it is to buy a gun.”

    Look, I grew up on an Oregon farm where guns were a part of life; and my dad gave me a .22 rifle for my 12th birthday. I understand: shooting is fun! But so is driving, and we accept that we must wear seat belts, use headlights at night, and fill out forms to buy a car. Why can’t we be equally adult about regulating guns?

    And don’t say that it won’t make a difference because crazies will always be able to get a gun. We’re not going to eliminate gun deaths, any more than we have eliminated auto accidents. But if we could reduce gun deaths by one-third, that would be 10,000 lives saved annually.

    Likewise, don’t bother with the argument that if more people carried guns, they would deter shooters or interrupt them. Mass shooters typically kill themselves or are promptly caught, so it’s hard to see what deterrence would be added by having more people pack heat. There have been few if any cases in the United States in which an ordinary citizen with a gun stopped a mass shooting.

    The tragedy isn’t one school shooting, it’s the unceasing toll across our country. More Americans die in gun homicides and suicides in six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

    So what can we do? A starting point would be to limit gun purchases to one a month, to curb gun traffickers. Likewise, we should restrict the sale of high-capacity magazines so that a shooter can’t kill as many people without reloading.

    We should impose a universal background check for gun buyers, even with private sales. Let’s make serial numbers more difficult to erase, and back California in its effort to require that new handguns imprint a microstamp on each shell so that it can be traced back to a particular gun.

    “We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years,” President Obama noted in a tearful statement on television. He’s right, but the solution isn’t just to mourn the victims — it’s to change our policies. Let’s see leadership on this issue, not just moving speeches.

    Other countries offer a road map. In Australia in 1996, a mass killing of 35 people galvanized the nation’s conservative prime minister to ban certain rapid-fire long guns. The “national firearms agreement,” as it was known, led to the buyback of 650,000 guns and to tighter rules for licensing and safe storage of those remaining in public hands.

    The law did not end gun ownership in Australia. It reduced the number of firearms in private hands by one-fifth, and they were the kinds most likely to be used in mass shootings.

    In the 18 years before the law, Australia suffered 13 mass shootings — but not one in the 14 years after the law took full effect. The murder rate with firearms has dropped by more than 40 percent, according to data compiled by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, and the suicide rate with firearms has dropped by more than half.

    Or we can look north to Canada. It now requires a 28-day waiting period to buy a handgun, and it imposes a clever safeguard: gun buyers should have the support of two people vouching for them.

    For that matter, we can look for inspiration at our own history on auto safety. As with guns, some auto deaths are caused by people who break laws or behave irresponsibly. But we don’t shrug and say, “Cars don’t kill people, drunks do.”

    Instead, we have required seat belts, air bags, child seats and crash safety standards. We have introduced limited licenses for young drivers and tried to curb the use of mobile phones while driving. All this has reduced America’s traffic fatality rate per mile driven by nearly 90 percent since the 1950s.

    Some of you are alive today because of those auto safety regulations. And if we don’t treat guns in the same serious way, some of you and some of your children will die because of our failure.

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