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Shooting from the hip

Former military sniper explores the gun's impact on American history

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Firearms have an undeniable connection to American history. Born of revolution and unsurpassed in military superiority, the United States has engaged in over 90 military campaigns since independence.

New weapons have appeared, but the gun remains a constant. Wars aside, the gun has marked U.S. politics, society and culture. More are produced, owned and used to kill in the U.S. than any other country.

Former U.S. navy SEAL Chris Kyle gained notoriety in 2012 with his bestseller American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. With more sniper kills than any other U.S. soldier, Kyle was feared by the enemy, and earned the nickname "Al-Shaitan Ramadi" ("the Devil of Ramadi") in Iraq.

Once retired from the SEALs, Kyle led a security training company and founded FITCO Cares, a foundation for retired military personnel with emotional and physical challenges. In February 2013, one of FITCO's clients, a former soldier with post-traumatic stress syndrome, killed Kyle at a Texas shooting range.

At the time of his death at age 38, Kyle was completing this book. His wife, Taya, enlisted the help of his co-author on American Sniper, Jim DeFelice, to assist William Doyle on the final parts of the book. Doyle, an executive producer for HBO, is the author of A Soldier's Dream. Taya provides a foreword and afterword here.

Well-versed in guns and gun culture, Kyle chose 10 firearms (his "personal list") spanning American history from the War of Independence to the War on Terror. Kyle's used all these weapons, or versions of them, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of their lineage and use.

The American long gun, sometimes known as the Kentucky or Pennsylvania Long Rifle, was a single shot rifled-bore gun that stretched over 1.2 metres long. Sized up against the smooth-bore musket-style gun used by the British during the American Revolution, it gave the Americans an advantage, and some say "won" the war.

The Spencer Repeater was tested and approved by Abraham Lincoln himself, and used extensively by the Union side during the U.S. Civil War.

Some have had a long shelf life. "The Gun that Won the West" -- the Winchester 1873 Rifle -- is likely the most famous of the 10. This lever-action repeater would be familiar to anyone who has seen a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood western.

The Colt Army pistol was one of the first chambered handguns. Introduced in 1873, it's still produced. Two other pistols, the .38 Special, which is favoured by law enforcement, and the Colt 1911 used by the U.S. army, were developed over a century ago, but still are made as variants today.

The Springfield and the M1 Garand rifles were the backbone firearms in the First and Second World Wars, respectively.

We acquaint the Thompson submachine gun, the "Tommy gun," with its odd "drum" magazine, with gangsters like Al Capone and John Dillinger, but more than 1.5 million were used by the U.S. military during the Second World War.

All versions of the M16, which turns a startling 50 years old this year, are used widely by modern armies around the world (the Canadian Forces use the C7 model). Other firearms make appearances throughout, but these 10 form the core cast.

Kyle likes to "talk history with the bullets flying," and often it's hard to keep up. Each chapter begins with a historical anecdote connected to a gun, and includes diagrams and illustrations of the weapons.

With Kyle's narrative flair, many tales seem unbelievable, if they weren't true. Put together, it is a selective, and rather thin, account of U.S. history, and the gun's impact.

Early on he says the gun has "torn the U.S. apart," then later concludes firearms are "just a tool. If you don't like guns, blame it on the society they're part of." He doesn't dig any deeper -- social and historical scrutiny are not included.

After the 10 histories, Kyle sums up, "pick up a rifle, a pistol, a shotgun, and you're handling a piece of American history." That's not quite the case, though.

The Luger, the Glock 17, the AK-47 (all discussed here) aren't American, and a Canadian designed the M1 Garand. This book might have read differently if Kyle had more time, and awkward musings may have been rethought. (He finished with: "Think of yourself, and your connection to history. Ask yourself: What do you owe to the American soul you're tied to, and how are you going to pay it forward?")

Coupled with many superb visuals, Kyle's prose does keep the reader absorbed. It's a page-turner, but disappointingly interrupted by many yokel comments ("the weapon could take a beatin' and still kick ass"), decidedly politically incorrect language ("Indians"), and a knee-jerk disdain for government ("boob-ureaucracy").

Yet while it's mainly for gun-lovers, Kyle's history is emphatically first-hand, and thoroughly thought-provoking.

George A. MacLean is associate dean in the faculty of graduate studies and professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba. He's only ever fired a vintage 19th-century Snider-Enfield rifle.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 22, 2013 A1

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