Counting Rifles, another substantial mistake discovered
jlindgren at WORLDNET.ATT.NET
Tue Jan 16 00:14:27 PST 2001
Michael Bellesiles claims that there were only 3 rifles in 1200 probate
inventories in frontier counties in the 1765-90 period (pp. 13, 266). Yet a
look at less than 40 inventories from one frontier PA county he supposedly
counted and 7 from another frontier PA county he supposedly counted show 11
rifles in fewer than 50 estates. Thus one of his counts of probate records is
(again) substantially mistaken.
Paul Finkelman's comments prompted me to take a close look at one set of
probate inventories from what is now Washington County, PA from 1776-81. What
I looked at were photocopies of the microfilm reels of the original probate
record books. I examined fewer than 40 inventories of itemized personal
property in that period, yet there are 10 rifles in 9 of those inventories.
All but 1 of these rifles is described as a "rifle gun" or "riffle gun," so the
problem of reading the original handwriting, which is a serious problem for
original probate records, is not a significant problem for these particular
rifles. They were highly valued, also confirming the characterization. In the
Jones database for 1774, there is also a Riffle Gun in 1 of 7 Westmoreland, PA
What makes this so surprising is that 11 rifles is more than the 3 rifles
Bellesiles claims to have counted in 1,200 (p. 266) frontier records in the
years 1765-90 (including the same 2 counties) :
"Probate records list every piece of personal property, from acreage to broken
cups. An examination of more than a thousand probate records from the
frontiers of northern New England and western Pennsylvania for the years 1765
to 1790 revealed that only 14 percent of the inventories included firearms;
over half (53 percent) of these guns were listed as broken or otherwise
defective. A musket (there were only three rifles mentioned) . . . ." Arming
America, p. 13.
Bellesiles found only 3 rifles in 1200 probate inventories from W. PA and No.
New England. Of the 40 counties Bellesiles analyzed, the only western PA
counties are Washington and Westmoreland. The only northern New England
counties in his list of 40 are 4 Vermont counties.
Thus in fewer than 50 estates in two of Bellesiles' frontier counties in a
handful of years that he supposedly counted, there were 11 rifles. He claims
that there were a total of only 3 rifles in  frontier counties over a 26
year period including these years in Westmoreland and Washington County. How
is this possible in just 50 estates to exceed substantially the number of
rifles he says were in those and other counties over a 26-year period with
Bellesiles probate numbers are (again) substantially misrecorded or
misremembered. Indeed, there are 5 rifles in 5 estates in just 11 consecutive
pages of Washington, PA probate records; there are 5 rifles in one year (1778)
in this one western PA county. Obviously, he (again) missed these when he was
reading those probate records or misremembered them when he wrote his book.
The low number of rifles that Bellesiles claimed to find would fit his argument
that rifles were not common on the frontier because they were expensive and
But there are rifles in other probate records as well. Consider Orange County,
NC, the most western interior county in the South that Jones used and
Bellesiles also included in his gun counts. In Jones' 1774 sample, 10 of 32
estates from 1774 had rifles (##92002, 92004, 92006, 92010, 92011, 92013,
92014, 92015, 92022, 92031 (2 rifle guns)). Again, almost all of these were
described as rifle guns.
Every single major claim that Bellesiles makes about guns in probate records in
17th and 18th century America that can be tested is substantially inaccurate.
Further, he cites and provides counts for no probate records that actually
support any major claim he makes about guns in probate records.
Professor of Law
Director, Demography of Diversity Project
Director of Faculty Research
Northwestern University School of Law
Chair-Elect, AALS Section on Social Science
Co-Founder, AALS Section on Scholarship
Ph.D. Student, Sociology (concentration in Social Statistics)
University of Chicago
Here is a link to our study, Lindgren & Heather, Counting Guns in Early America
Source for Washington County Probate Records:
Inventories of estates (1776-1781) and record of marks, receipts, and
certificates of freedom (1789-1790)
Washington County (Pennsylvania). Recorder of Deeds
Inventories of estates (1776-1781) and record of
marks, receipts, and certificates of freedom
FHL US/CAN Film 1449139 Item 1
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