Before you read any further, know this: What follows is a glimpse into mid-century history, not advice. Personally I don’t shy away from candid characterizations of the threats Americans confronted and perceived in the late 1950s, but some may find them disquieting.
If that’s you, maybe you should find something else to read today.
But if you were alive and awake during the 1950s and early 1960s, you remember the Civil Defense shelters, the “Duck & Cover” short and other signs of those times. I know I do, and so does Deb. The dangers confronting us today seem to bear little resemblance to the ones we faced then — nukes and nations have been supplanted by shadowy cells and lone wolves. Still, I find it fascinating to revisit Americans’ attitudes toward the threats of 60-plus years ago.
We’re fortunate that Guns Magazine archived a bunch of its back issues from that era, offering us a window on sporting arms, the day’s mindset of defense and American culture. (The ads alone are reason enough to browse the stacks.) Unfortunately, they’re not easy to find anymore.
Your best bet is to type a year (“1959,” e.g.) into the search box at the top of the gunsmagazine.com home page. Look for a result like “GUNS Magazine 1959 Classic Editions” and click — you’ll be presented with thumbnails of that year’s issues. Clicking on a thumbnail will take you to a pdf of the complete issue.
In this post I’ve included excerpts from three articles published during an eight-month period from August of 1958 to April of 1959. They share a similar theme, though each approaches it from a different angle.
If you’d like to read a complete article, click on the image next to my excerpt. That’ll take you to a pdf of the complete issue containing that article in the Guns Magazine archives.
I returned to these vintage magazines recently for the first time in ten years. I’d forgotten just how intriguing they are. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
“.22’s for Survival?” (August 1958)
“His face looked sort of bleak, and I was feeling sort of butterflies-in-the-stomach again, myself.
“‘You know, I saw some places where people took advice like that, and didn’t resist the invaders. I wouldn’t like to have what happened to them happen to my family.’
“He picked up the little rifle and ran his hands along the barrel. ‘A man is the most dangerous game there is,’ he said, ‘but you don’t have to think of him the way you do about taking wild game. War is not a sport. You don’t have to figure on clean, one-shot kills. And you don’t have to figure on shock and stopping power either, the sort of war I’m thinking of. Because if the enemy gets that close to you, you’ve had it.’
“He stopped for a minute, and I was afraid he was through talking. But he wasn’t. He said, ‘The way I figure, if we fight again soon it will be — well, a religious war. What we believe in, against people who believe in nothing but force. We built our government and our laws on what we believed. The men who drew up our Constitution and our Bill of Rights were, by and large, god-fearing men. They weren’t planning conquests, or invasions of other people’s rights; but they were strong men, too, and they didn’t figure we should be sitting ducks. They wrote in the Bill of Rights that the right to bear arms shall not be infringed.’
“He put the rifle back on the counter.
“‘These are real handy little guns,’ he said. ‘Man who knows how to shoot, who knows the country, knows how to get around in the woods a little — he could do a lot with one of these. He could feed his family, for one thing; birds, small game, frogs. If he was careful, he could do the enemy some damage, too. One of these little slugs will kill a man, all right; kill him instantly, if you hit him right; but, instantaneously or not, it’ll kill him. The sound doesn’t travel far… I know; it sounds melodramatic, maybe even crazy. But — order me another one of these, will you? I’ll be in again next week. I’m getting my neighbors interested in this, too. You may sell a lot of these rifles — I hope.’
“And he walked out.”
“Where are Tomorrow’s Minutemen?” (January 1959)
“We like to think of ourselves as ‘a nation of riflemen,’ self-armed, ready and able to dash out any time and become an effective, fighting, guerrilla force in resisting any enemy who might attack our country.
“But is it true?
“Except for a very few widely scattered individuals — and possibly small groups in certain also widely scattered areas — no.
“We’re not ‘a nation of riflemen.’ Hardly 5 per cent of the men inducted into the armed forces for World War Two knew how to shoot a rifle even passably well. A stunningly high percentage had never so much as fired a rifle or handgun. And it is highly doubtful that as many as one of 100 of the men who were familiar with weapons knew enough about woodscraft to live off the land and fight effectively as guerrillas.
“If this seems to you to be a pessimistic appraisal, ask yourself this question: If this country were hit tonight and you were a survivor, what would you do?
“Involved in that question are these questions: Where would you go? With whom? How would you get there? What would you take with you? And what would you do, or try to do, after you got there?
“Time was, you remember, when the American colonies helped defeat invaders by the more or less individual efforts of the ‘Minute Men.’ Armed with gun skills and woods skills gained in Indian fighting and in getting meat for their tables, these men were a formidable force against the world’s finest soldiery. But times have changed, and men have changed with the times. How many men today could survive and fight under similar conditions?”
“The Rifleman in Civil Defense” (April 1959)
“You were somewhere else when it happened. Now you stand beside the smoking pile of rubble that an hour ago was your home — in the debris-strewn area that was your city. The sights and sounds around you are horrible. Seventy miles away the big metropolis was Ground Zero — one of 63 major U.S. cities defense authorities estimate would be vaporized in the first minutes of nuclear attack. Your car radio is chattering hysterically about enemy troops dropping from the sky — they’ll be here soon, you think.
“What do you do? Some fellow on television told you last fall, but you switched to the ball game. A magazine article had suggestions, but you were too busy to read it. Will a Civil Defense Rescue Unit come charging up the street to help you? You doubt it. Neither you nor your neighbors paid much attention to Civil Defense over the past few years, and it’s too late now.
“So, what do you do? What are you going to do it with? You don’t know…so you are chalked off along with seventy-five million other Americans in those 63 major cities who sat, fat and happy, and laughed at the people in Civil Defense who warned, and played cops-and-robbers with fire hoses and guns. Now you, too, would like to play the game, but there aren’t enough “toys” to go around. You’re out. You are dead…not because Civil Defense has failed to try to save you, but because you and your neighbors rejected their efforts.
“Can this picture be prevented? Not entirely, but your chances of survival can be increased many times by efficient, effective preparation. In your home, now, you can organize things to help yourself cope with disaster. Matters such as at least two weeks food supply for your household; containers of water tightly sealed; towels, bandages, blankets, and first aid supplies, could make a difference. And you can join your local Civil Defense unit now, and become an important member in the organized fight for survival.”