Best Defense

The horse & the gun: I think mobility and firepower are at the core of our history

Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on December 1, 2015.



Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on December 1, 2015.

Firepower and mobility are the American cultural equivalent of wine and cheese in France, or fish and rice in China. They go to what we are about.

Continuing my binge on early American history, I picked up another Lance Blyth recommendation, Changing Military Patterns of the Great Plains Indians, by Frank Secoy.

It isn’t as good as Comanche Empire, but it is still thought-provoking. Secoy analyzes the spread of the horse (from the Southwest) and the gun (from the Northeast). Some tribes got one first, some got the other. The big winners were those who were among the first to get both—the Sioux in the north and our friends the Comanches in the southwest.  “Shortly after 1770 a series of changes began which upset the balance of power, enabling the Sioux to expand westward.” Most notably, when the fur trade resumed after being interrupted by the French & Indian War, it brought guns and ammo. “The Sioux took advantage of this to cross to the west side [of the Missouri] in summer to hunt the buffalo, and to secure horses from the western tribes, mainly by raiding.”

The more I read, the more I think that American history begins in earnest about the time that the horse and the gun overlapped, which Secoy says is around 1750.

The Indian adaptation of both the horse and the gun strike me as an impressive story of human flexibility.

A side note: It is interesting that the gun trade required good trade relations, while the horse business did not. This is because horses could be raided as well as traded, but there was only one way for an Indian tribe to secure a steady supply of guns and ammunition, and that was by buying them.

Image credit: Charles Marion Russell/Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons


Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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