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Drilling Down: Part II

Restrictions aimed at gun users are almost as old as the guns themselves.


This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

Early handguns were a craft commodity. Important at the level of wars, they needed to be produced affordably enough that cities and early states could arm their own militias, and the weapons needed to be durable and familiar enough that repairs could be done locally. This meant that the proliferation of firearms for war meant also an abundance and dispersal of firearms that people would own, for self-defense or other purposes, all plugged into the same economy of manufacture and gunpowder.

In “Firearms and the State in Sixteenth-Century Italy: Gun Proliferation and Gun Control,” Catherine Fletcher used primary source material, including rulers’ decrees, inventories, letters, export licenses, arms licenses, military surveys, and others, to put together a portrait of gun proliferation in Italy during the Renaissance. 

These early modern city states were tasked primarily with overseeing military matters, as well as policing, provisioning justice, and raising taxes, all of which dealt with firearms, “and therefore their study brings together aspects of state formation that are often dealt with separately in the literature: the development of the military state with its concern for defence on the one hand, and of the disciplining state with its concern for social order on the other,” writes Fletcher.

Apart from a brief attempt by the Papal States to ban the manufacture of guns, which could claim the moral authority of the Pope, gun restrictions were aimed at gun users.

These early firearms were largely arquebuses, which consisted of a lock, stock and barrel. Skilled metalworkers were needed to make the barrels, while the wooden stocks required less specialized knowledge. A switch from matchlock to wheel-lock guns, which fired immediately and did not require a lit flame, made the weapons potent for ambush, whether in war or against nobles on city streets.

“The average gun user in sixteenth-century Italy had ample access to positive messages about the new weapon,” writes Fletcher, noting the way cities promoted gun ownership and marksmanship through regular drills and contests. This, in turn, served to give the state a reserve of somewhat trained and armed fighters it could call upon in a conflict.

The 1500s in Italy saw decades of armed conflict, as Northern Italy especially became a proxy battleground between the monarchs of France and Spain, as well as sometimes in the east, raided by Ottomans.

“It ought not to come as a surprise that in the aftermath of the Italian Wars of 14941559, the conflict in which handguns first came to prominence as a significant military technology, aspects of their proliferation into wider society were perceived as a risk to social order, even while an armed citizenry continued to be valued for its contribution to civic defence,” writes Fletcher.

Apart from a brief attempt by the Papal States to ban the manufacture of guns, which could claim the moral authority of the Pope, gun restrictions were aimed at gun users.

“It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the firearm restrictions of the 1530s and 1540s targeted gun users and not manufacturers or merchants: the geopolitical situation favoured the maintenance of an industry that could readily provide the Italian states with further weapons at a rapid pace should they be required,” writes Fletcher.

Kelsey D. Atherton


Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the author of Inkstick's weekly newsletter, Critical State. His reporting has appeared in Popular Science, C4ISRNET, and The New York Times.


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