Private firearms as bulwark against despotism in history?

A lot of Americans defend the principle of gun ownership on the grounds that guns in the hands of private owners serve as a check on government power and prevent a despotic government from coming to power. I have a historical question: have there been cases in history where privately-owned weapons have been instrumental in defeating a despotic government, or preventing one from coming into power? I don’t have a dog in this fight; I am asking out of curiosity.

Does the English Civil War count? Or the French Revolution? Or the Russian Revolution?

I dunno. To what extent, in these wars, were privately-owned firearms a factor in ending/preventing the rule of a despotic regime?


American Revolution (which was the context after which the Constitution was drafted).

Maybe I’m missing something, but wouldn’t the American Revolution fit this description?

The American Revolution?

I think that’s it. Of course, George III and Lord North were not exactly despots, even as far as the American colonies were concerned. The main issue was “taxation without representation”: would the colonists really have been much happier if they’d been allowed to send a few MPs to sit in the House of Commons at Westminster? But certainly the colonial militias were important in winning the Revolutionary War.

It wasn’t just privately owned guns in the American Revolution though was it? The French delivered troops. Did they also supply guns? Did the big players, Washington etc. arm his troops or was it a BYOG type of affair?

A lot of the heavy guns were captured from the British IIRC.

The Irish War of Independence relied mostly on gun shipments from the likes of Germany, although there were people who just brought whatever they had.

Re: the American Revolution.

To what extent were the soldiers armed with private weapons, and to what extent were they armed with weapons purchased by the Continental Congress (or whoever footed the bill for outfitting the militias)? This is an aspect of the American Revolution I haven’t read much about.

To some extent you have to accept that there are two kinds of native troops from the American Revolution. The various militias, as exemplified by the Minutemen at Concord and Lexington, or even Breed’s/Bunker Hill, were using private arms. They also were poorly trained, unable to stand up to the Redcoats, and more noted for glorious defeats, than they were for winning battles*.

Then there’s the Colonial Line troops who were effectively a European-style army, not made up landowners (or their sons) as was the case with the Minutemen, and who had their arms mostly supplied by the Congress via the Army.
*Let me make it clear I am not critiquing the courage of the militias, just their effectiveness. For example, it’s worth noting that the militiamen at Breed’s/Bunker Hill set up on the wrong hill, which substantially contributed to their eventual defeat. For real break-your-heart-stupidity there are numerous incidents of militia military idiocy from the War of 1812. My favorite is how the NY State Militia refused to evacuate General Winfield Scott’s Army across the Niagara - because they were only tasked with defending the State of NY. Not helping their nation’s troops. They fought with great courage and individual determination, but as units militias have earned a somewhat shaky reputation.

I thought that although the Germans promised much, they mostly failed to deliver. Am I mistaken? Casement was captured, and didn’t even get that many arms.

Not disagreeing with you regarding the record of militia on the whole, but when utilized properly as part of a coordinated effort with the Continental Army, they proved to be an invaluable force multiplier. The best example is the Battle of Cowpens – Morgan, realizing that the militia would break in the face of a British charge, only asked that they give two fires at the onset of the battle then retreat and reform behind the Continental line. The fleeing militia convinced the British that the American line had broken, and they charged right into the more experienced Continental line.


This is a pet peeve of mine. The militia get a bad rap. The reason they were unable to stand up to the Redcoats was their weaponry. They carried long rifles, which took considerably longer to reload than the muskets carried by regular troops. This made the militia vulnerable to bayonet charges. They would fire their weapons, and then often before they had time to reload, the British would be upon them with bayonets. The militia, with no way to counter the bayonets, had to retreat or die.

Henry Morgan was able to use the militia effectively at Cowpens by putting them out front, having them fire twice and then retire and regroup behind the regular troops. The British misinterpreted the maneuver as a rout and charged right into a point-blank volley of musket fire.


Or, what flurb just said. :stuck_out_tongue:

spoke-, the militia did have problems. But trying to stand up and face the Lobsterbacks, like they did at Lexington or Old North Bridge with a small squad, using normal musket tactics was suicide, in part for the reasons you mentioned. Also the lack of unit training I was trying to highlight.

If you think about the latter part of the conflict on April 20, 1775 when the Lobsterbacks were trying to make it back to Boston, the same Minutemen I’m criticizing for being unable to stand up and face the British did a great job of bleeding the force with skirmisher tactics the whole route back. But there they were using essentially individual tactics, and boogieing before the Brits could organize a sniper hunt.

One of the barns on Monument Road in Concord, was on the way to falling down - but had an oral history reputation of having been built on the site of a casualty of that march. Some militia man thought his vantage point was too good to leave after he took his first shot - and when he took his second the British veterans surrounded, and then burned the barn. Forgetting that the Lobsterbacks were going to react as a unit was a lethal mistake, and got made far too many times that day.

Failing to make note of the difference between the strengths and weaknesses of the two forces is one of the criticisms I have for the militias I’m most familiar with. As flurb mentioned, when the strengths and weaknesses of the militia troops were taken into account, they could be very effective. But even so, they couldn’t have won independence without the Colonial Line troops.

FWIW, I’m not sure that even many of the Minutemen were using rifled muskets. I agree that the reload disparity you mention is a real bear for any rifled muzzle-loader. But when I was marching with my town’s Minutemen cadre (Stow, MA) we were using Charlesville smoothbore muskets. Yes, the Brown Bess is a handier weapon, but it’s not that much of a difference in loading times that I saw. Especially at Old North Bridge where maybe six to eight men could come across in ranks at a time.

I don’t think the American Revolution fits the question, because the British monarchy at that time - with a type of parliament already - wasn’t a despotic government.

Second, it’s already been noted, that the private guns weren’t the only weapons (and the milita not the only troops) in the American Revolution.

Third, the reason the American Revolution succeeded wasn’t the amount of guns. It’s similar to what I always say about soldiers: Soldiers win (or loose) battles. They don’t win wars (because Generals and their superiors decide when to call quits and surrender). They don’t bring freedom, democracy or apple pie to a country they conquer (because politicans decide what governing system to put into place after the war). They don’t defend freedom and democracy and apple pie in their own country (because politicans can pass a law to take all of these away -what will soldiers do then?)
Similarly, the British weren’t killed to the last man by the amount of private guns, they decided that the fight wasn’t worth the trouble.

Same for other revolutions or uprisings in the last 15 years in the post-Iron bloc countries or South American countries: the citizens may rise up with or without arms, but it depends on where the army/military goes (private citizens are never a match for that, unless you mean guerillas, in which case you have a rebellion /civil war, with outside parties selling weapons for their own reasons).

A bulwark against despotism doesn’t require private held weapons to be used in an open revolution. Any time the authorities think twice before something like Tonypandy because of fear of casualties from citizens defending themselves would be a perfect example.

The problem is, it very hard to prove that the government didn’t oppress people in a particular situation because of private ownership of firearms…

Americans like to think of the American revolution as a bunch of poor Americans defeating the Brits all by themselves but that is very misleading. Both France and Spain sent a lot of money to help the revolution thinking it was a good way to weaken England. In succeeded to a certain extent but it backfired later when Spain’s Latin American colonies went the same way and when the French masses took their king to the guillotine and shortened him a little.

The notion that many Americans hold that private ownership of firearms will prevent an authoritarian government is just silly. The gun owners are the first ones to support an authoritarian government when the country “needs saving”. Just look at the present situation in America where the infringement of freedoms is supported by the right wing gun owners and opposed by the generally anti-gun liberals.

No government can govern if it does not have enough support from the people. To think Hitler or Franco somehow ruled their countries against the will of the great majority is just silly. They had ample support among a great part of the population. It was much easier to own a gun in Spain in Franco’s time than it is now. Spain was a rural country where people went hunting often whereas now it is a much more urbanized country and all gun permits have been very restricted.

I believe Irakis under Saddam Hussein had more freedom to own firearms than they do now under the new & improved “democracy”.

A population with no firearms can easily cause the collapse of any small government by just not collaborating. If everybody stays home what is the government going to do? Shoot them all? And then what?

The notion that guns protect the people from oppressive government is just a silly justification gun nuts like to believe.

There’s a difference between winning a war and occupying a hostile area.

The US can (for the most part) occupy Iraq and Afghanistan because we’re a foreign nation with impressive resources. A government trying to “occupy” its own soil, however, is going to have a problem since they’re generally dependent on the populace providing the supplies they need, and more importantly, money.

If you have to individually collect taxes from households, your lone tax-collector–guarded as he may be–is going to have problems. Going down a street that’s surrounded by houses, away from the rest of your force, you’re a sitting duck. So the government is going to be reliant on their troops to remain loyal when having to go out cruising streets or the money they’re getting paid with is quickly falling in value.

A lot of the weapons that the government has at its disposal, bombs, tanks, etc. are going to be largely irrelevant. So it’s all infantry on the ground and at a 1:300 ratio of infantry to citizens, that’s a honking chunk of armed people for one soldier to try to oversee.

But note that we are assuming that the government is unable to seize funds from everyone’s bank accounts. Eventually they’d run out of what people had and need to start tax collecting of course, but putting in some legislation giving banks the right to refuse the government requests for money when under military law, might be a good thing to do.

But also consider that how the government transfers to despotism could make a big difference. Large sections of the military might have chipped off and are going around terrorizing the remaining troops and so on. Having a bunch of armed support to keep the government scattered, would definitely be a good thing.

The main thing is that no matter how you cut it, an armed populace is always going to be harder to subjugate than one which isn’t. By how much will depend a lot on whether other countries give aid to the people/government, whether the foreign and local banks give support to the people/government, whether the military throws in entirely with the government or splits, etc. In all cases though, the basic act of holding and commanding an armed populace is logistics-wise akin to trying to make a horse drink water. It’s real hard to do by brunt force when you’ve got to individually control large segments of a significantly larger population than you have troops.