​How guns became a part of American culture

Guns in America
Guns in America 06:42

No other developed country embraces firearms the way ours does. The more we argue about them, the more it seems their mystique grows. But just how guns became part of our cultural DNA has been a long journey. And that is where Lee Cowan begins:

[An earlier version of this story was originally broadcast on Match 13, 2016.]

Of all the artifacts that were aboard the good ship Mayflower, not a single gun is known to have survived. But historians believe they were probably there, accompanying the pilgrims to Plymouth Rock.

Guns are so woven into the fabric of our founding that on the fourth floor of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, they have their very own vault.

"I'm sure there are people who'd give anything to come in here and see these things, right?" Cowan asked.

"Yeah, I get lots of visitors who are just astounded and don't want to leave," curator David Miller replied.

He's got guns of all shapes, sizes and calibers, and every one has a historic reason for being here. Some we barely recognize (such as the "hand cannon," probably made in Germany in the 1390s, and the oldest gun the museum's collection), and some we all know, such as a musket. It's not THE gun that kicked off the Revolution with that "shot heard 'round the world," but it's similar.

David Miller, curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, shows a Minuteman musket to Lee Cowan. CBS News

The musket is now in every history book. It's come to symbolize freedom and independence -- even celebrated on Broadway, in the smash hit, "Hamilton."

Guns are part of our everyday language "Going off half-cocked" -- "flash in the pan" -- "bite the bullet"... they're all rooted in firearms lore.

But were we really BORN a gun culture? Historian Pamela Haag says, not necessarily.

Basic Books

"Listen to how many sentences begin with something like 'Americans have always....' 'They have always loved guns. They have always had guns.' These things are much more complicated than that. The meanings of guns have changed."

In her book, "The Gunning of America," Haag says most settlers viewed the gun as a tool -- as necessary, and yet as ordinary, as a plow or an ax.

"We think we have a gun culture because of this special exceptional status with guns, but really, commercially, the gun was extremely unexceptional," she said. "It was very much treated like any other commodity."

At the start of the Revolutionary War, we didn't even have enough arms to outfit the Continental Army. Today, however, it's estimated we have more guns than people.

So how did we get from there to here?

"The gun industry is not the only reason that we got here," Haag said. "However, it is the reason that never gets talked about."

It's not just a matter of salesmanship, but gun industrialists like Oliver Winchester and Samuel Colt did their level best to create a market for their wares. Out of their factories in Connecticut -- what came to known as "Gun Valley" -- they would soon produce firearms with the same speed and efficiency as Henry Ford would later do with the automobile.

Best known: the Winchester '73 and the Colt Single Action Army revolver -- two of the guns that won the West.

But as the frontier disappeared, so did the desire of many Americans to own a gun. They were not, Haag said, "flying off the shelf."