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  • Gary Glemboski

The Martial Art of the American Gunfighter

At a recent Gabe Suarez class I attended in Arizona, Gabe stated that becoming proficient in the use of firearms was the ‘martial art of the American gunfighter’. Being a traditional martial artist himself, it is easy to see how he has linked the two together. I have written several pieces supporting a similar line of thinking. As a martial artist, I have always seen the connection between traditional martial arts and firearms. It stands that firearms in America – particularly handguns – have been a large part of the fabric of this country and the ownership, possession and use of firearms are part of who we are.


Guns and America were born around the same time and grew up together. Like quarreling cousins, their histories have been inexorably linked ever since. Often beneficial in American history, firearms have been undisputedly influential in the development of our country. The American Revolution would not have been won without guns.


Some people believe that the pilgrims were among the first people in America to use guns, possibly in 1607, when the first colonists landed. Others believe the Spanish may have been the first Europeans to bring guns to the Americas. Regardless, by the 13th century, forbearers of the modern firearm had spread from Asia to Europe, where they were further developed as weapons in the form of matchlock, wheel lock and flintlock firearms. By the time the colonists arrived in America in the 15th century, firearm design had advanced significantly, and the weapons were routinely included in journeys to the New World.


Culturally, the use of firearms has been embedded in our nation since before its founding. As early settlers came to this country, firearms were always a part of life on the frontier.1 The gun was a necessary and prized tool when pioneering a frontier wilderness, and gun makers were valued and essential members of the fledgling society. While many European designs found their way to America, during the ‘Colonial years’, a distinctly American type of gun would be developed.


The American long rifle, variously known as the Kentucky, Pennsylvania, or Ohio rifle, is most likely the descendant of the German Jaeger or "hunter" type flintlock, a practical European hunting rifle. This is the gun that fed and defended early pioneer families. Marksmanship was a valued, necessary, and common skill.


After securing its independence, our new country rapidly sought its own means of mass producing arms. Government arsenals were established at Springfield and Harpers Ferry so early manufacturers like Remington, Deringer and Eli Whitney's Whitney Arms could produce small arms. The age of the rifle as an essential weapon for the marksman in combat had arrived.


Caleb Giddings wrote an article for Recoil magazine 2 in which he outlines the parallels of traditional martial arts and gunfighting. He says, “The defining characteristic of a martial art is that it's a codified system or tradition of combat. Based on that criteria, fighting with a handgun certainly qualifies as a martial art.” I must agree. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, martial arts are:


“… codified systems and traditions of combat practiced for … self-defense; military and law enforcement applications; competition; physical, mental, and spiritual development; … and the preservation of a nation's intangible cultural heritage.”


For example, the arrival of guns in Japan in 1543 greatly increased the capability of the military units on the battlefield. Hōjutsu, ‘the art of gunnery’ or ‘fire art’, was subsequently developed as a martial art dedicated to firearms usage. It is still practiced today, often with antique matchlock firearms and is most common in Japan where access to historical equipment is easier for practitioners.


Giddings continues, “… it was during the Western period that you saw the first strictly American imprints on the idea of fighting with a handgun. Wild Bill Cody espoused the idea of consistent marksmanship practice, and years later Wyatt Earp would say “you must learn to be slow, in a hurry” – laying the foundation for the concept of focused practice.” Again, we see a direct correlation between gunfighting and traditional martial arts. Other ‘modern gunfighters’ such as Jim Cirillo, Bob Stasch, ‘Jelly’ Bryce, and Ralph Friedman had thoughts similar to Earp and Cody, and even mirrored the renowned 16th century Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi’s tenants.


“Americans took the idea of fighting with a handgun and made it our own. Through the years, the understanding of how to best fight with a pistol expanded through two World Wars, until in the 1950s Jeff Cooper first developed the Modern Technique as a teachable system of handgun fighting. The Modern Technique … dramatically changed the state of gunfighting as a martial art, for the first time creating a system that could be easily replicated and taught to large numbers of students.” 3


It seems clear that the martial art of the gun, especially the handgun, is uniquely American. The ability to protect ourselves and our loved ones from harm is a fundamental right and guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment, a uniquely American standard, that we need to do all that is necessary to preserve.


BE SAFE. BE EFFECTIVE. BE READY.


References:

  • Supica, J. May 12, 2016. A Brief History of Firearms: Early Guns in America.

  • Shufro. C., October 13, 2021. A Brief History of Guns in the U.S. Bloomberg Public Health magazine.

  • Editors, August 21, 2018. Firearms. History.com.

  • Giddings, C., February 15, 2019. Gunfighting: The American Martial Art. Recoil Magazine.



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