This June, The American Rifleman turned 100. The flagship magazine of the National Rifle Association, it has chronicled the group’s journey over the past century. Upon closer look, however, the faded, yellowing pages of past issues reveal how much the NRA has changed, and how much its modern leaders have to hide—including burying the origins of the NRA itself.
Founded in 1871 by former Union officers in New York during Reconstruction after the Civil War, the NRA’s mission was to improve military marksmanship in anticipation of future wars. But you won’t hear much about the NRA’s history either during The American Rifleman’s centennial or on its website. That’s because the leadership of today’s NRA, after the re-election of the nation’s first Black president in 2012, began to rewrite the organization’s past to falsely claim that it was founded to uphold civil rights. During the Trump years, the NRA went further by asserting they were founded to arm freed enslaved people.
The leadership of today’s NRA, after the re-election of Barack Obama in 2012, began to rewrite the organization’s past.
This view has spread online and often pops up—with no fact-checking—in the letters section of local newspapers. This rewrite of Reconstruction coincides with attempts in states like Florida to censor what is taught to children about the history of slavery and racial violence. The NRA’s new origin story whitewashes early white supremacist violence against formerly enslaved people in order to repaint its early leaders as civil rights pioneers, nearly a century ahead of their time.
Yet the NRA and its founders’ own records flatly contradict these lies. The early NRA copied its name, range design, and use of up to 400-pound solid iron targets straight from the National Rifle Association of the United Kingdom. The British version had been inaugurated by Queen Victoria, who fired the first shot at its range in Wimbledon Common in July 1860.
The men who founded the NRA in New York were determined to make it as good as, if not better than, Her Majesty’s NRA in London. Within six years, NRA-trained riflemen beat first the Irish and then the Imperial team to put the American NRA on the world stage. “Pandemonium broke loose, and the sky was darkened with hats that were thrown into the air,” recalled The American Rifleman about the NRA’s first victory at its Creedmoor range in Queens County, Long Island, before NRA-trained Americans went on to become the undisputed rifle champions of the world.
Today’s NRA debuted their new history just as scholars like Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Carol Anderson were establishing the history of the way the Second Amendment was adopted into the Bill of Rights in order to support slave patrols, and how, since Emancipation, it has been used to exclude African Americans from accessing guns for use in self-defense. Some of the more prominent examples range from the Colfax Massacre during Reconstruction to the 2017 police shooting of a Black man named Philando Castile who was carrying a legally registered handgun outside Minneapolis.
But the NRA has even more to hide.
The American Rifleman was established in 1923. Two years later, the NRA suffered its first embezzlement scandal. It hired Milton Reckord, a decorated war hero, to clean house. He encouraged transparency and began publishing the NRA’s actual financial reports annually in The American Rifleman. The practice lasted more than fifty years until a group of new leaders ended it in 1977 in the so-called “Cincinnati Revolt,” when they tacked the NRA on a new, “unyielding” course.
The current chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, joined the NRA a year later. More recently, after he was accused of embezzlement, LaPierre reminded NRA members that he “learned from great leaders” of this era. By then, The American Rifleman had gained prominence, as one of its chief editors, Ashley Halsey Jr., had been hired from The Saturday Evening Post during its peak years when its covers often displayed the iconic work of artist Norman Rockwell.
But the new leaders put the Rifleman under the control of a new publishing director, and the shift in its pages became palpable. After having long heralded the practice of “hunter-conservation,” as was epitomized by NRA lifetime-member Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, the Rifleman began to embrace an expanded view of hunting to include using either a .357 or .44 magnum revolver (the latter being the weapon wielded by Clint Eastwood’s character in the Dirty Harry films) to hunt deer and the right to shoot bear cubs hibernating in their caves.
In the digital age, under LaPierre’s tenure, the NRA has invested millions into outlets like the now defunct, live-streamed NRA TV channel, and the twenty-first century magazine, America’s 1st Freedom. Yet the NRA has never digitized its signature print outlet.
Oddly, even though The American Rifleman’s issues go back a century, most of the articles posted on its website today were written recently, including even those rewriting Rifleman stories from earlier eras. One can find a handful of select back issues online, many about a different firearm. But apart from those pieces, The American Rifleman monthly back issues seem only to be accessible in select libraries and on eBay.
“Negroes were killed in large numbers throughout the South without even an attempt to hold any one responsible for their murder,” wrote William Conant Church, a former special correspondent for The New York Times and Union officer who was one of the NRA’s co-founders, in his book on the era.
His volume makes no mention of anyone in or out of the NRA coming to help arm freed enslaved people. But Church, who was also the publisher of the nation’s longest-running journal of military affairs, would later become the first figure on record to exhort the military to disavow officers’ use of common racial slurs for Black and Italian American soldiers, respectively.
One might think that today’s NRA would want people to know about that, too, but they don’t. Before the new leaders took over in 1977, back issues of the Rifleman would scarcely be recognizable today. When Smith & Wesson, in 1937, came out with a new “Magnum” revolver, an editorial called it a “freak” handgun so powerful and dangerous that it should be earmarked for use only by specially trained police. That would be blasphemy today.
The year before, an editorial preceding the 1936 presidential election that resulted in a landslide victory for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, encouraged gun owners to “keep your political interest and activity on a high plane of honest, frank discussion,” sounding nothing like the heated rhetoric of our day.
Both the Rifleman and the NRA have even more to hide.
The first reference to gun rights in any NRA publication came in a 1922 editorial in Arms and the Man, its first official journal. It was in protest of a law restricting handguns in New York that passed more than a decade earlier, and it also referenced the more recent disarmament of civilians in Russia by the Bolsheviks after they seized power in Moscow in 1917. The New York law was passed in 1911, and it had been the oldest major gun law in the nation until the Supreme Court overturned it last year. You would think NRA leaders today might want to revisit a foreshadowing, if not prophetic, Rifleman editorial like this one that would no doubt resonate with countless gun activists today.
But they do not. One reason may be that the NRA does not want anyone to know that the Second Amendment did not come up at all in The American Rifleman until 1952, more than eighty years after the NRA was founded. Six years later, in 1958, the Rifleman added a new column, “The Armed Citizen,” to start documenting uses of guns in self-defense. But the idea of making either self-defense or gun rights a priority was still decades away.
In 1964, the organization’s entire Executive Committee signed a statement in the Rifleman against “private armies” and “disavow[ed] any connection with, or tacit approval of” groups advocating “the overthrow of duly constituted government authority.”
In 1964, during the civil rights era, a year after Birmingham police bloodied protesters and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, rightwing militias in different states were arming themselves. To put distance between these groups and the NRA, the organization’s entire executive committee signed a statement in the Rifleman against “private armies” and “disavow[ed] any connection with, or tacit approval of” groups advocating “the overthrow of duly constituted government authority,” sounding nothing like today’s calls for insurrection.
Digitizing The American Rifleman might also reveal how the NRA, even back then, was already burying information. In 1967, for instance, the Rifleman briefly reported on the Mulford Act. Introduced in response to a group of members of the Black Panther Party who legally carried firearms into the state legislature in Sacramento, California, it quickly led to the banning of the open carry of firearms in the state. But the Rifleman left out the NRA’s own role in having drafted the legislation.
What today’s NRA most doesn’t want anyone to know, however, involves the NRA itself. Since the Obama Administration, Wayne LaPierre has claimed the NRA is the nation’s “oldest civil rights organization.” Since the Trump years, a few prominent NRA members and minority conservatives, such as Candace Owens and Allen West, have rolled out the idea that the early NRA had armed formerly enslaved people. West is a former NRA board member who ran last year against Governor Greg Abbott in the Texas gubernatorial primary and lost. Starting in 2018, Owens and West each claimed, as Owens put it on Fox News, that the NRA was founded “as a civil rights organization training Black Americans to arm themselves and defend themselves against the KKK.”
This is a fabrication. On the American centennial in 1876, five years after the NRA was founded, NRA leaders added the words “of America” to its name (still on the books) to distinguish itself from the National Rifle Association of the United Kingdom. The longest trip the NRA took out of New York during Reconstruction was not to the South but by steamer across the Atlantic for a successful rematch against the Irish rifle team at Dublin Bay.
Despite the preponderance of evidence debunking it, the idea that the NRA was founded to arm formerly enslaved people is believed by millions of Americans today. Perhaps fearful of the potential backlash, few activists for gun reform have challenged it.