Every Man His Own Militia

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed

It’s hard to come up with a fair-minded, non-ideological reading of the Second Amendment that doesn’t lead to the conclusion that it wasn’t intended to be an absolute right of every individual to own a personal arsenal for vigilantism. Rather, it was to ensure there would be sufficient numbers of appropriately armed men to serve in local militias mustered in response to invasions, Indian raids and rebellions.

Militias weren’t considered some haphazard gaggle of yokels with guns. The Militia Act of 1792 was very specific about how militia men should be outfitted:

every citizen, so enrolled and notified, shall, within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch, and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder; and shall appear so armed, accoutred and provided, when called out to exercise or into service, except, that when called out on company days to exercise only, he may appear without a knapsack

When the Second Amendment was adopted, a “well regulated militia” was composed of men armed with muskets that in the hands of an experienced shooter could fire about three rounds per minute. Musket He was supplied with 20-24 rounds. The basic small fighting group, as described in the Militia Act of 1792, was a company, composed of 64 privates commanded by about a dozen officers and non-commissioned officers. If all were firing their weapons at an average rate, a company could fire about 225 rounds a minute, and the killing range of their muskets was about 80-100 yards.

Compare the musket’s lethal effectiveness to that of the AR-15. AR-15 The AR-15 was one of the weapons used by Aurora murderer Aurora murderer James Holmes, was the sole weapon of last week’s Oregon mall murderer Jacob Roberts. It is very similar to the Bushmaster carbine found in the car of Newtown murderer Adam Lanza and used by Beltway Snipers John Muhammad and Lee Malvo. The AR-15 has an effective range of over 500 yards, over five times the range of a musket. Standard clips hold 20-30 rounds (although they can be fitted with drum magazines that hold 100 rounds). Even with smaller capacity clips, like used by Holmes, they can fire a tremendous number of highly lethal bullets (far more lethal than the balls of lead flung by eighteenth century muskets). In one minute Holmes fired more than 50 rounds in to the Aurora movie theater.

When the Second Amendement was adopted, it took 16 or 17 men to fire off as many rounds in one minute as one deranged lunatic fired in to a movie theater. If those 16 or 17 men with muskets advanced toward one person with an AR-15, they would have to walk a quarter of a mile under lethal gunfire from one person with an AR-15 before they could get in range to fire a lethal shot from their musket. It they advanced across an open field against a skilled marksman, they would all be killed before they ever got close enough to fire a shot from their own weapons. And four James Holmes’–or two pairs of Muhammad/Malvo or Harris/Klebold–with weapons easily acquired today, could mow down an entire “well regulated militia” before that militia would have been in range to fire a shot.


The Second Amendment ensured that Americans could arm themselves with a musket. But the courts have repeatedly concluded that Americans aren’t entitled to arm themselves with a Browning .50 caliber machine gun. I’d like to think Scalia and his majority on the Supreme Court would stop being blockheads and acknowledge that an AR-15 or a Bushmaster is much closer to a .50 caliber machine gun than it is to the muskets of the militiamen of 1792. But I’m not holding my breath.

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9 Responses to Every Man His Own Militia

  1. Jim Waterman says:

    Why do we ignore the well regulated militia portion of the second amendment? Clearly the link is established between gun possession and militia service. Hamilton makes that connection in Federalist Paper 29. Absent service in a well regulated militia, does a person have a right to own a gun? If yes, does a person have a right to own anything other than what would be prescribed for service in a state regulated militia?

    • Dana Houle says:

      There’s that, but it’s also noteworthy that it was a federally mandated purchase (Obamacare!!), and, as I emphasized in the piece, an individual with a musket was a fraction as lethal as anyone today with a semi-automatic carbine (to say nothing of those modified to perform as automatics, as used by the military). Today a single US soldier armed with an AR-15 fitted with a grenade launcher or also carrying an anti-tank rocket is more lethal than a Revolutionary War-era small artillery battery. And the Second Amendment didn’t guaranty the right to own and bear cannons.

  2. Norbrook says:

    The only other historical aspect was that at the time, those same men used their muskets/rifles to put food on the table. Today, hunting is one of the most regulated activities you can find. I know in my state – and in most states – there are an extensive set of regulations governing what sort of weapon and ammunition may be used when to hunt various game. One of the more useless guns you would want would be the AR-15 variants or most other military weapons. Seriously, if you need a 20 round clip to get what you’re after, you need to go back and learn how to shoot.

    • Dana Houle says:

      Some did, sure, but a musket was very, very expensive; adjusted for today’s money, far more expensive than a Bushmaster or an AR-15. Most farmers didn’t have a smoothbore musket, in part because they weren’t all that effective in hunting game. Rifled muskets were, but they were cumbersome, took about four times longer to load, and like I said, were very expensive. Besides, by the late eighteenth century, a lot of Northern farmers were in areas that had mostly been deforested. (New England today is far, far more heavily forested than it was 150 years ago.) Unless you were on the frontier of white settlement, you probably didn’t have a musket, and having one would have been a bad financial decision. And if you had a musket somewhere else, it was as likely to protect yourself and other settlers from Indian raids, or to protect yourself from slave revolts.

  3. JD says:

    I wonder if the author would consider his article to be protected by the first amendment. Because using his own logic that would only be the case if had used a quill pen or printing press to write it. As clearly computers and the Internet had not been invented and therefore would not be protected as free speech.

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  7. JenBob says:

    No one here has mentioned the reason for the second amendment… and it wasn’t for hunting.

    It was for defense against enemies and that could include outside forces as well as a tyrannical government.

    So, it’s not too surprising that when technology increases the range, frequency of fire and overall efficiency of small arms in the hands of enemies, the second amendment would extend to those same types of weaponry in the hands of the citizenry as well to sustain the intended balance.

    Until the National Firearms Act of 1933, you could freely and easily own fully automatic weapons, silencers, short-barreled shotguns and other weapons of war. Until the 1968 Firearms act, guns could be purchased through the mail and across state lines with little or no vetting of the customer. So, the question that begs itself is…why were mass shootings for no apparent reason rare when guns were more readily available? Is the problem really the guns?

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