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Posted on Jul 12, 2011 in Books and Movies

Guns of the Civil War – Book Review

By Neal West

Guns of the Civil War by Dennis Adler, Zenith Press, 2011. Hardback, 340 pages. $40.00

Dennis Adler is a well-respected author, photographer, and historian of 19th century firearms. His latest coffee-table book, the 37th of his career, is Guns of the Civil War. This essential overview of the legendary guns and arms makers of the Civil War era includes exquisite photography of the handguns, rifles, and muskets, with numerous close-ups that capture the detail of each piece. Each of the 331 pages celebrates the art of the gun maker with beautiful full-color glossy pictures from both well-known and obscure American and foreign firearm makers. Colt, Remington, Sharps, Henry, Starr, and Springfield are just a few of the American’s represented while Tower, Whitworth, Kerr, Adam, and London Armory are some of the foreign makers that are tallied in their own chapter.

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Guns of the Civil War comprises six chapters. The first deals with the types of guns available to the general public at the time of the Civil War that could have made their way onto the battlefield. The next three show the types of handguns and longarms of the United States and Confederate militaries. The final chapters deal with foreign weapons and modern reproductions.

Adler’s book is primarily about the art of gun making, not a reference book, per se, for reenactors or military historians. While it does contain a good bit of information about gun makers, factories, patents, and numbers produced, its focus is not the same as Time-Life’s Echoes of Glory: Arms and Equipment of the Union/Confederacy (Alexandria: Time-Life, 1991), or Francis Lord’s Civil War Collector’s Encyclopedia (Edison, NJ: Blue and Gray Press, 1995). Instead of focusing on the nuts and bolts of Civil War weaponry, Adler’s book showcases the intricate scrollwork of artisans such as Gustave Young, Samuel Colt’s renowned engraver. An example is Young’s “Tears of Gettysburg” piece on pages 119–121. Affected by the horrendous loss of life during the three-day battle, Young engraved an 1861 Navy revolver with 11 dog, wolf, and eagle heads within the encircling scrollwork—each of the heads shedding a tear over the Union dead.

Many of the other guns depicted within book are primarily showcased for the artwork they contain, not necessarily for their popularity, suitability, or numbers used in battle. The only (minor) discordant chapter is the one of modern reproductions at the end. Here are many of the commemorative editions by Colt, Uberti, America Remembers, American Historical Foundation, as well as private commissions. If you think of Guns of the Civil War as a historical work, then this chapter of reproductions is a bit jarring but if you consider Guns as an art book then it makes perfect sense.

Guns of the Civil War is your typical coffee-table book—if the books on your coffee table typically show that you love the sulphurous smell of burning black powder. It is a heavy volume filled to the brim with clear, full-color, glossy close-ups of 150-year-old rifles and handguns, including many rare and one-of-a-kind weapons. If you’re a reenactor or historian you may be disappointed, but once you open the book you can’t help but be engrossed and amazed by the level of artistry and love demonstrated by the artists who used metal as their canvas.

About the Author:
Neal West lives in Southern Maryland and is a retired USAF E-7 and continues to serve as a USAF civilian. He is working on a Master’s Degree in Military History with a concentration on the Civil War. He has written maritime history for Suite101.com, is a National Park volunteer and can be found during the summer months as serving Manassas National Battlefield’s Parrott gun. In the summer of 2011, he will be volunteering at numerous Civil War 150th anniversary events at Manassas and Arlington National Cemetery. Read his article about life as an NPS volunteer, on our partner site, HistoryNet.com.

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