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Exam question. Advanced topics in firearms:

"The Colt revolver was:
a. The single most important development in firearms technology.
b. The single most important development in personal defense technology, at least for a small person's ability to defend herself against a group of larger assailants."

Agree or disagree with item a or item b, or both. If you disagree, please cite specific examples of more important development(s), and why you believe they are more important.

Impressively erudite answers in the comments! For further refinement:

For a., only consider firearms, not ammunition. This eliminates the (persuasive) argument in favor of the breech-loading metallic cartridge. It leaves an argument in favor of the machine gun--although one could counter-argue that the Gatling Gun was just a very sophisticated extrapolation of the revolver. To which one could sur-reply that the Gatling didn't change things all that much, in practice, but the Maxim Gun did, and the Maxim was in no way derivative of the revolver.

On b., only consider weapons, and not other technologies (such as telephones).

toxic (mail):
I guess this is pedantic but... isn't gunpowder the most important development in firearms technology?

Also... important to what? If warfare, then no. Personal defense maybe.

And a small person would be better off with an AK-47 to defend him/herself against a large group, so do you mean in the context of modern gun control laws as well?
5.5.2008 12:31pm
Anonymous Coward #39841:
I'd say that the discovery/invention of gun powder was the single most important development in firearms technology. :-)

But only considering more recent history, I'd agree that the revolver was the most important development in personal defense. But for military applications, I'd say that the development of the semi-auto rifle would be of greater importance.
5.5.2008 12:32pm
JB:
B more than A.

There were a lot of important developments in firearms technology that made the Colt possible. The most important one, I'd say, is the percussion cap, allowing guns to be fired readily in the rain. Without that, no Colt, but also no machine guns or any other modern firearms.
5.5.2008 12:32pm
Paul Milligan (mail) (www):
It's all a progression, an evolution. You can't really pick out one single step and say 'this was the one that mattered'.

BTW - facing a large group, I would rather have my Glock in hand ( and spare mags on my belt ), than my King Cobra :-)
5.5.2008 12:41pm
Stephen Aslett (mail):
Disagree with A. Rifling is way more important a development than being able to fire multiple shots without reloading. You have to be able to hit the target with some degree of accuracy first.
5.5.2008 12:43pm
Houston Lawyer:
While I don't dispute that a Colt revolver could have been used by women for self defense, I was under the distinct impression that it was used almost exclusively by men. Maybe the West was crawling with Sharon Stone look alikes strapping large pistols on their shapely hips, but I think not.
5.5.2008 12:44pm
kdonovan:
a. is wrong. Early artillery (bombards) allowed the early modern monarchs to batter down feudal castles. Early handguns helped end the dominance of mounted knights and usher in an era of standing national armies and the financial innovations required to maintain them. Cannons mounted on ships (caravels etc.) allowed small Europeans navies like the Portuguese to gain control of ocean trade routes ushering in an era where Europe dominated world trade. Any one of these led to far more important changes than whatever revolvers have done.
5.5.2008 12:47pm
JBL:
I don't want to take a strong stance, but here's a couple of possibilities.

a. There's something to the previous comments about the long and many-stepped development of firearms; I'd add rifling to the discussion.

b. I'll take a different track here and suggest the telephone. The ability to quickly and effectively organize a response to a violent act serves as a significant deterrent. It's entirely possible this effect has a greater impact on personal safety than any particular development in the initial conflict itself. Not quite the same question, but worth considering.
5.5.2008 12:55pm
mjd:
If you're talking about magnitude of affect, I think you need to consider the machine gun or some form of automatic weapon. Whether it's the Gatlin gun of the Civil War or the machince guns used by the Germans in WWI, these automatic weapons had a much greater impact on world events than the Colt revolver.
5.5.2008 12:55pm
mjd:
affect --> effect. Silly fingers.
5.5.2008 12:56pm
rarango (mail):
I'm with the gunpowder--every other develop in firearms technology appears to me to flow from that. (given a choice of which hand gun to buy--a M1911 Army Colt 45 or colt revolver of any caliber, I prefer the 45 ACP
5.5.2008 12:57pm
SamChevre:
On (a), I'd argue for the breech-loader as more important; it makes rifling much more effective, speeds up rate-of-fire, and enables automatic weapons, making frontal attacks much less possible and artillery much less imporant.
5.5.2008 12:58pm
Sean M:
Re: b.

Men come in all shapes and sizes, but Colt makes them equal.
5.5.2008 1:01pm
LCDave (mail):
Along with the inventions listed above I would add the cartridge as a more important item than the Colt revolver.
5.5.2008 1:05pm
DonP (mail):
I'm gonna go with "c". "One of the most important developments", if you don't mind. The Colt manufacturing process, with interchangeable parts, made guns for personal carry and defense relatively inexpensive for the common man to own.

The combination of metallic cartridges, rifling, a reliable repeating design and the conical projectile all came to a head in the mid to late 19th century.
5.5.2008 1:06pm
Flydiveski:
Which Colt revolver? In any event, I would argue that both gunpowder itself, and the advent of the brass cartridge, were more important than a specific model of handgun in general, as to b), I don't recall large flocks of women packing Colts around town to overawe ruffians; the damn things were too large. More petite handguns that fit demurely into convenient handbags were much more important than the Colt. As was being accompanied by a male packing a more obvious hogleg.
5.5.2008 1:09pm
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
Disagree with A for all the reasons that other people mentioned. Agree with B - the ability to fire multiple rounds at close range with a gun that was easily maneuverable was of invaluable importance in self-defense, and I can't think of any other item or idea that has such a significant leveling of the playing field effect. Even when matched up against multiple opponents similarly armed, if you are decently trained you stand a much better chance of survival due to the ranged attack and the resulting maneuverability allowing for gaining defensible position or escape. After all, you don't bring a knife to a gun fight.
5.5.2008 1:09pm
Smokey:
As SamChevre points out, the breech loading rifle introduced during the Civil War allowed an infantryman to reload from the prone position -- a big advantage over standing up to reload.
5.5.2008 1:12pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
I'm with the gunpowder

Not really. The chinese invented gunpowder but never really used it as an effective weapon. It was only when the Europeans (or was it the Turks) invented the cannon that it became really useful.

As for b), I was going to say the telephone too--but we could also add paved roads, electric lighting, liberalized divorce laws, the emancipation of women, the automobile, deadbolts, and a myriad of other advances that make women (and men) safer without having to resort to violence or the threat of violence as much more important than any firearm.
5.5.2008 1:13pm
CDU (mail) (www):
It's hard to argue for any one development in firearms technology being the most important, since so many advances built on the previous ones. Gunpowder was first, of course, but early weapons, which did not have the benefit of later advances, were pretty useless. You could also make an argument for the importance of the flintlock, the percussion cap, the revolver, metallic cartridges, the breechloader, the bolt action, smokeless powder, recoil and gas based autoloading actions, and many other developments.
5.5.2008 1:16pm
ChrisIowa (mail):

While I don't dispute that a Colt revolver could have been used by women for self defense, I was under the distinct impression that it was used almost exclusively by men.


I don't know specifically about the use of the revolver by women, but but in the late 1800's advertisements with images of women carrying rifles were used. There were also rifle matches with separate contests for men and women.
5.5.2008 1:22pm
Cal Harling (mail):
Item B, I agree with. Item A, not even close. Rifling, artillery, and the development of the percussion cap are all more important to firearms development than the Colt. In particular, the development of cartridges made possible the widespread use of repeating rifles and machine guns. The Sharps buffalo rifle and Winchester made the settlement of the west possible, not the Colt.
5.5.2008 1:24pm
SeaDrive:
Is this an example of push-polling?
5.5.2008 1:24pm
Bored2L:
I think the invention of "gunpowder" was not as important as it seems. The Chinese had gunpowder for a long time but never really used it for weapons and black powder was inefficient and difficult to use, especially in wet conditions. The invention of smokeless powder, on the other hand, was one of the things (along with rifling, self-contained cartridges, and repeating designs) that really led to modern weapons.
5.5.2008 1:30pm
Student:
I'd have to disagree with a). I think any number of inventions or developments were more important than the revolver, many already mentioned. If I had to pick just one I would pick Maxim's over Colt's simply because it changed warfare in a way the revolver simply didn't. Rifling, or the lowly breech-loading rifle had more of an affect on the way wars are fought than the revolver did.

I'd have to disagree with b) as well. I think the revolver is a fine weapon for self defense, but I don't think it is the dramatic breakthrough b) suggests. Any number of other weapons were available both before and after the invention of the revolver that are as good or better, depending on the situation (your description is a little vague; are the larger assailants armed? Is the lady defending her home, walking down the street, attending a society function?). A one or two shot derringer is as good or arguably better choice for the second or third situations, a small or medium gauge shotgun for the last.
5.5.2008 1:31pm
Anon #319:
Regarding a: I'd say wrong and probably go with rifling and/or breachloading. But it is also hard to argue with the machine gun style action of the Maxim and Gatling guns.

Regarding b: I'd agree only but I would also qualify it based on the relative ease of use, maintanence, and the size. A long gun can be effective for personal defense, but would generally inferior when compared to a handgun such as the Colt.

I wouldn't go so far as to say the Colt was the absolute best, but I think it was a watershed moment that set benchmark for all handguns that came after. Not just because of the performance of the gun, but the manufacturing process, the popularity, and the marketing that came along with it.
5.5.2008 1:32pm
Smokey:
What good is personal defense if you can't use it?
5.5.2008 1:40pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
As a former taker of law exams, my immediate thought is if I pick "agree" for both, I'm finished with the question! It only says to cite counter-examples if you disagree; it doesn't say that you have to do any other work if you simply agree. If this were a limited-time exercise, I'd simply write "agree" and move on, particularly if I knew that my professor had a fondness for Colts.
5.5.2008 1:45pm
zippypinhead:
Dave, would this be a bleg in disguise? These questions sound suspiciously like a beta test of an argument one might want to make in an op-ed piece castigating the D.C./Chicago handgun bans or similar.

On the merits,

a= "no." As pointed out, the Colt revolver was but one step in the rapid evolution of 19th century firearms technology. It had its heyday for about 50 years, until being technologically superseded by superior semi-auto handgun technology before WWI. The arguably obsolescent revolver remained (and remains) popular because it is (a) inexpensive to make; (b) simple to use; and (c) reliable. But there's a reason it has been replaced by semi-auto technology for serious law enforcement, military, and (I would argue) self-defense purposes. I'm actually persuaded by the other posts suggesting that the advent of the unitized cartridge/primer was more important in general.

b="maybe, maybe not." The answer all depends on context, and could range from the telephone (as suggested above) to the handgun, to the shotgun, to various sociological phenomena such as the increasing concentration of population in dense urban/suburban centers, which makes help in response to a scream much closer than it was back in the days of Little House on the Prarie (leaving aside the Kitty Genovese story, which I believe was one of your old crim law professor Yale Kamisar's favorite 1L case studies, of course...)
5.5.2008 1:47pm
Virginian:

Maybe the West was crawling with Sharon Stone look alikes strapping large pistols on their shapely hips...


Am I the only one turned on by this image?
5.5.2008 1:58pm
Pin Head (mail):
The invention of smokeless (nitrocellulose based) propellants was the single most important invention because it allowed the development of high velocity, non-fouling ammunition that is needed for all modern weapons.

The revolver was certainly a milestone in the development of weapons for personal protection, but it was more of an evolution from the "pepper box" type repeaters.
5.5.2008 2:02pm
ChrisIowa (mail):
Gunpowder was available for many years without producing weapons that were more deadly than bows and arrows.

Rifling was available in the 1600's, but until the Minie Ball the bullet had to be fit tight to the barrel and took longer to ram home in a muzzle loader. The common opinion of militaries with muzzle loaders was that it was better to get more lead in the air than to take the time to get better accuracy.

The primer being developed made ignition more reliable, especially in wet weather, though early mountain men still had a preference for the flintlock, which could be more readily repaired with the technology available to them.

The development of the cartridge allowed loading from the breach rather than from the muzzle, a much more efficient and rapid operation, especially in the heat of battle. The metal cartridge also provided protection from the wet for the power, did not require the bullet to be tight to the rifling since the charge could push the bullet into the rifling. The development of the cartridge also made the repeater possible.

The cartridge also worked with either black or smokeless powder, smokeless powder was developed well after the cartridge was in common use.

I'd say the single most important advance in firearms technology was the metal cartridge, since it brought so many developments together and made them all practical.
5.5.2008 2:17pm
John (mail):
1. We are talking about "firearms" technology. Developments in firearms technology cannot, by definition, precede firearms by very much. So gunpowder is out. What's in, beats me.

2. On self defense, however, it has to be the club or the rock.
5.5.2008 2:17pm
Ben P (mail):
Why does this remind me of Colbert's standard interview question to congresspeople.


George W. Bush
A) Great president
B) Greatest President
5.5.2008 2:21pm
DiverDan (mail):
I agree with all of the posters above on why a. is wrong, but I would add to the list of more important developments (like gunpowder) the development of the conical bullet, starting in about 1823 (with the British "Norton Bullet), continuing with the "Greener Bullet" in about 1835, to the "Minie Ball" in 1847, which caused the vast majority of all rifle casualties in the Civil War. Without the conical bullet, rifling of the gun barrel would have been much less effective, and brass cartridges for easy breach loading would have been impossible.
5.5.2008 2:25pm
The Unbeliever:
Maybe the West was crawling with Sharon Stone look alikes strapping large pistols on their shapely hips...

Am I the only one turned on by this image?

You might have missed the movie reference, but the image is readily available on DVD for $19.99.
5.5.2008 2:26pm
philosophystudent:

2. On self defense, however, it has to be the club or the rock.


Can either of these qualify as "technology"?


Can there be a single most important point in the evolution of an arms race? If you don't keep up, you are at a significant disadvantage. I'm sure the guy with a knife was pretty pleased with his technology until he brought his knife to a gun fight.
5.5.2008 2:28pm
SIG357:
The development of the primer fired brass cartridge containing smokeless powder was the most significant development in firearms history.

Agree with b.
5.5.2008 2:30pm
luagha:
As many have mentioned, the Colt revolver was but one step in a continual evolution of firearms technology. Other multiple-shot pistols like the pepperbox revolver were dsigned first (now they are called 'transitional revolvers' by firearms historians).

The triumph of the Colt revolver lies first in advertising. Its advertising was so powerful that we still routinely quote its ad copy 150 years later when we say things like 'Samuel Colt made every man six foot tall.'

(Its secondary requirement was that it live up to its hype, and that's where things like its reliability, its simple components, its mass production and so on come in. The combination of perfect advertising plus good-to-great product make it transformational.)
5.5.2008 2:43pm
luagha:
As many have mentioned, the Colt revolver was but one step in a continual evolution of firearms technology. Other multiple-shot pistols like the pepperbox revolver were dsigned first (now they are called 'transitional revolvers' by firearms historians).

The triumph of the Colt revolver lies first in advertising. Its advertising was so powerful that we still routinely quote its ad copy 150 years later when we say things like 'Samuel Colt made every man six foot tall.'

(Its secondary requirement was that it live up to its hype, and that's where things like its reliability, its simple components, its mass production and so on come in. The combination of perfect advertising plus good-to-great product make it transformational.)
5.5.2008 2:43pm
stevesturm:
And how about (c), "the single most important development in allowing a single person to commit criminal acts against those individuals and groups denied or otherwise lacking access to similar weapons"?
5.5.2008 2:53pm
zippypinhead:
Kopel updated his post:

Impressively erudite answers in the comments! For further refinement...
When you don't like the answer, change the question?

On the merits (as refined), "a"=the repeating firearm in general. For military purposes, the repeating long gun, from the Spencer rifle, to the Mauser bolt action (and its relatives, the Krag, Enfield and M1903 Springfield), semi-auto M1 Garand, full-auto/select fire M14, and M-16/M-4 all were evolutionary steps along this path -- although the most important development of all (as your reformulated question appears to admit) was Hiram Maxim's machine gun. The machine gun led to the greatest changes in military tactics since the advent of the cannon, IMHO, although it certainly took some rather unpleasant tactical mis-steps along the way, like WWI trench warfare among others.

For military purposes, the limitations of the handgun always made it a tertiary weapon, as perhaps best examplified by the hasty development of the M1 Carbine, which was initially designed for use by rear-echelon GIs when the M1911 pistol turned out to be inadequate for self-defense.

"b" (as refined)="the forged blade." The sword and knife likely revolutionarized personal self-defense more than anything before or since. In arguably the most famous example, it gave Simon Peter the ability to single-handedly take on a group of Sanhedrian guards in the Garden of Gethsemane.
5.5.2008 3:05pm
Brett Bellmore:
Unless you're in the habit of firing breach loading metalic cartridges from muzzle loaders, and muzzle loading firearms designed for breach loaded metalic cartridges, I think it's a bit dubious to dismiss the metalic cartridge as not a firearms development. Firearms and ammo form a single system, each useless without the other.
5.5.2008 3:09pm
SeaDrive:

Maybe the West was crawling with Sharon Stone look alikes strapping large pistols on their shapely hips...


Nah, they looked like Bardot.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BV5p4ERHx2E
5.5.2008 3:34pm
Kingsley Browne (mail):
Don't forget one other attribute of the Colt revolver (specifically, I am referring to the 1873 Single Action Army): It is probably the most handsome firearm ever made.
5.5.2008 3:40pm
zippypinhead:
Maybe the West was crawling with Sharon Stone look alikes strapping large pistols on their shapely hips...

Nah, they looked like Bardot.
Sorry, but they looked more like Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain. Which some of us actually find rather alluring. Especially with the shotgun...
5.5.2008 3:48pm
ChrisIowa (mail):

It is probably the most handsome firearm ever made.


Only if you've never seen a schuetzen rifle.
5.5.2008 3:50pm
hattio1:
I know you've modified the (b) component to limit it to weapons, but what about solely defensive technology? I understand why you wouldn't want to consider electric lighting, the telephone, and paved roads as they have so many other uses. But as to purely combat inventions that evened the odds between the large and numerous, and the smaller or less numerous, I would have to go with plate armor. Granted, not much use today, but was extremely useful when Spain was taking over Native American Empires in South America. I think in one battle less than 100 hundred armored mounted men defeated an army estimated around 10,000. And when you consider that the Colt only held sway for 50 or so years (according to comments, I'm not a firearms guy at all) and plate armor held sway for 500-800 years, I have to go with plate armor.
5.5.2008 3:53pm
hattio1:
Actually, re-thinking the plate armor, I notice that the original question specifically said "a small person's ability to defend herself" (Emphasis added). I don't think plate armor was often made for women because of the massive weight.
5.5.2008 3:56pm
zippypinhead:
I don't think plate armor was often made for women because of the massive weight.
What about Joan of Arc (see the associated picture)?
5.5.2008 4:09pm
hattio1:
zippy,
Often, Zippy, often. One counter-example does not a counter-argument make. Besides, God was carrying the weight, not her
:)
5.5.2008 5:09pm
Gregory Conen (mail):
Ever? No to both. As other have noted, there is too much history, with many revolutionary changes.

a) A number of better possiblities; from the concept of guns itself on. The best you could argue is repeating firearms, with the Colt as part of that movement.

b) This is even worse. How about the very idea of a dedicated tool for combat/hunting, invented in mists of prehistory. Or the cutting edge, or the forged blade, etc.
5.5.2008 5:13pm
Waldensian (mail):
a. Clearly not. The machine gun is the winner here. It revolutionized modern warfare, and is still a cornerstone of small-unit tactics, because it allows you to do things that you really can't do with a revolver or single-shot rifle: you can repulse "human wave" attacks and in particular you can fairly reliably hit a man who is running.

b. I think I would agree here. It is indeed "the Great Equalizer."

The military quickly grasped the utility of the revolver for this very purpose during the Civil War and especially World War I: the revolver was inferior to the rifle in many significant ways as a weapon of war, of course, but a man or small group of men with repeating handguns could potentially prevent a static position of high value (e.g. an artillery piece or machine g un) from being overrun and captured.

For a variety of reasons, in military applications, the semiautomatic pistol is a better device than the revolver for this purpose (see the discussion of this in the classic "A Rifleman Goes to War"), but the basic point still stands.

The same principle applies to personal defense. I live in a bad neighborhood. I have no interest in facing down a group of several nefarious people with my trusty Detective Special, but the fact is that if I have to, I can (maybe) do it. Without the revolver, or an equivalent semiautomatic pistol, I'm almost certainly dead meat in that situation.
5.5.2008 5:34pm
Anon #319:

b) This is even worse. How about the very idea of a dedicated tool for combat/hunting, invented in mists of prehistory. Or the cutting edge, or the forged blade, etc.[/


True. But if I had my choice of a Colt or a Clovis point, I'd choose the Colt to defend myself. And I think it was a more significant development in this area than paleolithic bifaces. So maybe the contiuum is thus: club-->stone point--> metal blades-->handguns. I'd give handguns the edge, unless of course I'm out of ammo...
5.5.2008 5:58pm
Smokey:
For those with fevered dreams about Sharon Stone and Renee Zellweger.
5.5.2008 8:05pm
Doc W (mail):
May we see the answer key, please?
5.5.2008 10:41pm
Larry Fafarman (mail) (www):
Waldensian said,
The military quickly grasped the utility of the revolver for this very purpose during the Civil War and especially World War I:

By WW I, the Colt Model 1911 Automatic Pistol had been selected as the official US Army handgun.

The revolver was certainly an important firearms invention. It helped win the West. But it was not an essential firearms invention. Today, it is the oldest repeating firearms technology still in use. The Gatling gun survives today as the Vulcan rotary cannon. The lever action rifle is also an old technology still in use.
5.5.2008 10:45pm
Waldensian (mail):

The military quickly grasped the utility of the revolver for this very purpose during the Civil War and especially World War I:
By WW I, the Colt Model 1911 Automatic Pistol had been selected as the official US Army handgun.

No kidding, but I was talking about the Civil War as well, and the U.S. wasn't the only military in WWI.....

The Russians and British militaries, for example, continued to use revolvers in huge numbers throughout WWII.
5.5.2008 10:56pm
Cal Harling (mail):
A)There are so many weapons more important than the Colt in history of firearms that it would be impossible to do them justice here. In no particular order of importance I will try to list three. First up: the brown bess, the first standardized infantry musket. Much of the British empire fell to the brown bess, including India. It was in use for over a hundred years. Remember Waterloo? 2) The M1 Garand. Described by Patton as "the greatest single battle implement ever devised by man". 3) Sturmgewehr 44, the first true assault rifle. Developed by the Germans toward the end of WW2, it was the direct progenitor of modern infantry rifles such as the M16 or the AK47.

B) Modern gunfighting began with the Colt. My vote would be for the 1851 Navy although a case could be made for the 1860 Army. Light enough to be easily carried, fast out of a holster and with enough power to end an encounter on the spot, these two models truly revolutionized personal defense.
5.5.2008 11:00pm
Bored2L:
Trying to consider firearms without ammo is like trying to consider cars without engines (hybrid, gasoline, whatever). You can't have one without the other.

Without the metallic cartridge, we would still be in a world with single shot or multiple barrel firearms.
5.5.2008 11:38pm
JimT (mail):
a: disagree
Someone mentioned, erroneously, the Colt manufacturing process. The single most important advance in firearms was the development of the "American Method" of manufacture, involving powered machinery, division of labor, and interchangeable parts. Eli Whitney usually gets credit for it, although others did a lot of the heavy lifting. The method was in place well before Colt patented his revolver. The ability to produce inexpensive, reasonably identical weapons in large quantities is a precondition for having standardized ammunition readily available.
b: Agree. The standardization was the key. The question referred to personal defense, not military armaments, which leaves out most alternative answers. Anyone could walk into my grandfather's hardware store in El Paso and buy a reliable weapon and ammunition to fit it for a price she could afford. The were sold from a big glass case right in front of the door. When I first saw that case I was very young and my grandfather was very old, several wars ago.
5.6.2008 5:43am
Porkchop:

Virginian:
Maybe the West was crawling with Sharon Stone look alikes strapping large pistols on their shapely hips...

Am I the only one turned on by this image?


Smile when you say that. ;-)
5.6.2008 7:57am