Dawn of an Era: How Charles Dickens as Journalist Covered the Mass Manufacturing of Firearms

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Charles Dickens, the great British exposer of Victorian-era social evils and ills, also had his finger on the pulse of America — and its guns.

Buried deep within an 1854 issue of his 24-page weekly “Household Words,” a dispatch Dickens published simply titled “Revolvers” presaged a revolution in manufacturing 50 years before Henry Ford’s assembly line would prompt rapid production of the automobile.

Written at the peak of the British Empire and at the height of the novelist’s powers, it also documented the birth of an American institution — the quickly repeating firearm.

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“We are on the threshold of Colonel Colt’s factory, in the sombre and smoky region of Mill-bank,” Dickens wrote of his tour of a newly opened Colt gun-manufacturing facility in London. “Under the roof of this low, brickbuilt, barrack-looking building, we are told that we may see what cannot be seen under one roof elsewhere in all England—the complete manufacture of a pistol, from dirty pieces of timber and rough bars of cast steel, till it is fit for the gunsmith’s case.”

In the “Household Words” dispatch, Dickens noted how few, if any, customers desired or needed to own more than one American-made Colt revolver, by virtue of their “being equal to six single pistols.”

What was once a distinction that drew Dickens’ definitive praise has become a vexing problem for Americans as they mourn another mass shooting and search for answers, the questions of which, by Dickens’ account, are more than 175 years in the making.

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“This is the famous Revolver, of which marvellous tales are told in the Western States, in South America, and even in the Caucasus,” Dickens wrote, before detailing several such tales. “Superstitious legends circulate, among the Russian soldiers … More authentic stories of American colonels in the war in Mexico … Anecdotes, calculated to propitiate the Peace Society, appear in Californian papers …

“Our own officers at the Cape of Good Hope, who were graciously permitted to purchase Colt’s Revolvers for their own uses with their own money, relate their marvellous achievements, till Her Majesty’s Board of Ordnance begin to hear of them,” Dickens wrote. “When British and Russian gunboats shall have come to hand-to-hand fighting in the narrow and shallow channels of the Finlandic Archipelago, we may perhaps hear of them again.”

Dickens also describes Colt’s pioneering manufacturing process with trademark precision.

“The bores of barrels and cylinders must be mathematically straight, and every one of the many parts must be exactly a duplicate of another,” Dickens wrote in a time when many guns were still handmade. “No one part belongs, as a matter of course, to any other part of one pistol; but each piece may be taken at random from a heap, and fixed to and with the other pieces until a complete weapon is formed; that weapon being individualised by a number stamped upon many of its component parts.”

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Eventually, Dickens is led into the factory’s “proving room,” where he test-fires a Colt revolver. “After a little practice,” Dickens wrote, “I find that a mere novice may, with one hand, discharge the six rounds as rapidly as the eye can wink.”

Dickens was renowned for his social criticism through novels like “Oliver Twist,” in which the plight of the child laborer and orphan amidst the Industrial Revolution was exposed, and “A Tale of Two Cities,” which depicted the parallels of a fated Paris and London aristocracy in the years before the French Revolution.

And his 1854 effort wasn’t his first in covering gun manufacturing. Dickens had two years earlier published a “Household Words” article titled “Guns and Pistols,” a piece that, taken together with his later work, reflected how guns had in only two years grown to become significant tools of rapid destruction.

In “Guns and Pistols,” Dickens meticulously traces the evolution and history of firearms from their 16th-century origins and bemoans, as gun makers today would of mass shooters, that when it comes to their customers — friend or foe — they can’t discriminate.

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“‘We make firearms for both parties, in all wars,’ said a manufacturer to us yesterday. As such is and must be the fact, we like the plain avowal of it; but it is a strange-sounding truth,” Dickens wrote.  

Dickens’ musings illustrate the development of his views over a two-year span in which firearm technology was quickly improving thanks in large part to Samuel Colt and his Hartford-based gun company.

Across the Atlantic and 150 years later, it took only a year-and-a-half for Dickens’ native Britain to ban the private ownership of handguns after the Dunblane, Scotland massacre of 1996, during which 16 children, all aged 5 or 6, were killed in a schoolhouse gymnasium in an incident eerily similar to Sandy Hook — and now, Uvalde.

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