Way of the Gun is an occasional Artbound series that explores the representations and cultural meanings of firearms as depicted in various American artforms.
If you go to The Autry in Griffith Park, you will find there a darkened room lined with display cases showcasing the products of the company that has contributed significantly to America's origin myth: Colt's Manufacturing Company (formerly Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company).
Colt's was founded by Samuel Colt, an early 19th century inventor who pioneered assembly line production with his use of interchangeable parts. His factory in Hartford, Connecticut built the guns used as sidearms by both sides in the Civil War, and later his firearms were used so widely for hunting and self-defense by pioneers, gold-prospectors, and cowboys that they were credited with winning the West.
Perhaps even more significantly, however, for the conversation about guns taking place now, Colt was a wily salesman, transforming firearms from objects of utility to objects of desire, intertwined with national identity.
He used art, personally commissioning six paintings by George Catlin, the famed painter of Native Americans, that he reproduced and widely distributed (see the lithograph of Catlin himself, galloping after buffalo in the wide open West, brandishing a Colt pistol).
He used celebrity endorsements -- giving signed guns to heads of state and industry both in America and in Europe -- a century and a half before Nike, Pepsi, and Levi's popularized the concept of branding.
And he understood the power of beauty. What strikes one most about the "The Colt Revolver in the American West" display at the Autry collection -- beyond the list of US presidents who had guns made in their honor (one wonders if Colt will create one for President Obama) -- is how gorgeous many of these weapons were.
On one hand his rifles, revolvers and pistols fulfill the industrial era, Modernist design imperative of form following function. They were lean and economic machines -- designed to be ever lighter and more efficient, with slender barrels and handles fitting ergonomically into the palm of the hand, and with obvious sexual associations that could only enhance their allure. "Happiness is a warm gun," sang John Lennon, cryptically, before being fatally shot by one.
At the same time they could be sumptuous, made of rich metals and woods, with opulent engraved designs by artist-craftsmen whose names live on today: Alvin White, Leonard Francolini, Louis D. Nimschke, and others.
These guns were meant as works of art, says Jeffrey Richardson, Gamble Curator of Western History, Popular Culture and Firearms at the Autry, even though, he adds, "it's important to remember that all guns are created for one purpose, to hurl a projectile at a speed capable of killing people and animals." Of course Colt, in his energetic promotion of the role his products played in America's manifest destiny, did not remind customers that accidents with firearms were, as the Autry notes, "one of the most common causes of death and injury" on the trip westwards.
The combination of beauty and lethality embodied in these vintage firearms is disarming, but helps account for why some people collect guns just as they collect intricate watches or hand-built cars. The display also helps visitors understand how gun manufacturers since Samuel Colt have used design and branding to perpetuate sales to civilian Americans who no longer hunt wild buffalo or fight off Native Americans.
Over time the styling of guns has changed in tandem with technology and culture. Guns these days are mostly designed on computer and lack the craftsmanship of yesteryear; the Design Museum in London, for example, singles out the indestructible, functional-looking and hyper-destructive AK 47 assault weapon as the iconic gun design of our era. But the model established by Samuel Colt has not changed: create an ever more powerful gun and wrap it in a compelling narrative.
Barbara Eldredge is a design writer currently working at MOMA. She studied the gun industry for a student thesis on why most design museums, most notably MOMA, choose not to own or display guns, despite the fact they are central to American culture, and are the quintessential efficient machine (apparently, MOMA and other design museums, with the exception of London's Design Museum, ignore firearms on the grounds they do not conform to the utopian model of society enshrined in Modernism.)
One of the people she spoke to in the course of her research, as she told KCRW's DnA, was Herb Belin, one of America's leading gun designers, who works at Smith & Wesson. Belin, who created the Model 500, the most powerful handgun on the market on its release in 2005, told Eldredge that gunmakers today use the same tactics as designers of many other products (and Samuel Colt 150 years ago): they try to create a gun with emotional appeal, through its strength and power and the status those confer.
For many gun buyers that strength and power does not come from a traditional rifle, but rather from "military-style" assault weapons, says Tom Diaz, author of Making A Killing: The Business of Guns in America. He attributes their appeal to the fact that many of today's gun-owners did not do military service so they compensate by playing at being warriors with weapons designed for combat. Then he says, there is an "insurrectionist" strain in American society that sees guns as all that stands between them and a tyrannical government; the military-style firearms, he says, look "macho and wicked," giving them market appeal.
Just like Samuel Colt, gun manufacturers today use art and popular culture to reinforce "market appeal." The Autry's Jeffrey Richardson says that a fascination with firearms developed last century in dime novels, then translated to film and television, with branding on celluloid becoming commonplace "in the 50s and 60s when TV was dominated by the Western." Many shows, he says, "differentiated themselves by weapons. Steve McQueen would use a cutdown Winchester lever action rifle, Hugh O'Brien, who played Wyatt Earp, would use a long-barrowed Colt." Later Miami Vice popularized the semi-automatic Bren Ten pistol, James Bond turned the Walther PPK into a must-have automatic handgun, big action movies did the same for the Desert Eagle, and now shoot 'em up video games have introduced young people to all sorts of gun brands, most chillingly, the Bushmaster.
Even though screen-guns are carefully repurposed to make them completely safe for actors, safety is not the image that's projected. On the contrary, movie producers will intensify the sound and other effects to add to the impression of "lethal" impact, and because movie-makers want verisimilitude, not obvious artifice, they will use recognizable gun brands. The gun companies will gladly provide those guns, says Tom Diaz, because "they know that for people who care about guns it's important to see the brand there."
Until the Newtown massacre awoke my interest in how guns have come to be so entrenched in American culture and the specter of controls so controversial, I, as a native of England, had been able to grow into adulthood without ever encountering a real gun (well, maybe one or two, on display in gun cabinets in country houses).
It is not that British culture is devoid of violence by any means, and certainly firearms have been integral to its colonial conquests, not to mention central to aristocratic life ("huntin', shootin' and fishin'" have long been considered the primary pleasures of an English gent; note that when guests arrived at Downton Abbey for the wedding of Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley, a couple of references were made to getting the guns ready).
But civilian life rarely involves guns; even most police do not have them, by their own choice as much as by policy (a 2006 survey of Police Federation members found 82% did not want officers to be armed on duty, despite almost half saying their lives had been "in serious jeopardy" during the previous three years). And a look back at the origins of this policy finds its roots back in the time of Samuel Colt.
At around the same time Colt was developing the firearms that would go on to "win the West," Prime Minister Robert Peel in England was forming a Metropolitan Police Force that would routinely not carry firearms, because Peel knew, according to Peter Waddington, a professor of social policy, that the British people had a very strong fear of the military and "the masses feared the new force would be oppressive."
Where Colt's branding would spawn trigger-happy Westerns in the 1950s, Britain's Peel's gun-free police constables would find expression in England in the 1950s in a popular TV show called Dixon of Dock Green, which enshrined the "friendly bobby." Even though many British film-makers have since made films that glamorize gun violence, crime with guns has increased on the island, and English police can inflict great pain with truncheons, the "friendly bobby" self-image has stuck. For most Britons gun-play is associated with play-acting, with aping America's cop and gangster culture -- a culture in which guns have been cleverly branded as the solution to conflict, not a problem.
My father and I -- when he was visiting L.A. once -- were stopped for a traffic infraction, and dad made the mistake of pointing at the cop's holster full of guns and asking, with amusement, "are those real?" The cop was not at all amused.
Samuel Colt might be laughing in his grave.
Frances Anderton is a regular contributor to Artbound and host of KCRW's DnA: Design and Architecture and recently aired a show on Lethal Weapons.