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The National Rifle Association of America has a long, exquisite history of service to the nation. Many of its leaders from past generations were war heroes. But their legacies, largely for political reasons, are barely known today.
The NRA was founded in 1871 by veteran Union officers in New York City six years after the Civil War. They knew that both better rifles and marksmanship had tipped the balance in favor of recent European wars. Their aim was to improve riflery at home in anticipation of future wars.
NRA co-founder William Conant Church had been a journalist, once slightly wounded during the Civil War Battle of Williamsburg in Virginia. He later became an Army brevet lieutenant colonel. The other NRA co-founder, George Wood Wingate, who retired as a general in the New York National Guard, was promoted to sergeant during fighting in Carlisle, Pa., during the nearby Battle of Gettysburg.
Wingate later wrote the Manual of Rifle Practice, and his training regimen was adopted by most branches of military service and state national guards. Church published his rifle manual in his Army and Navy Journal and Gazette of the Regular and Volunteer Forces, the first of its kind later renamed Armed Forces Journal. In its pages, Church also became the first to advocate that the military remove two racial epithets — one that disparages blacks and one that disparages Italians — from its vocabulary, doing so a half century before the military finally integrated its forces.
James A. Drain led the NRA after the turn of the 20th century. By then he had lost his right hand in a hunting accident. But he still later served in World War I as a lieutenant colonel leading an ordnance corps in France. He later helped design and deploy the tanks credited with having helped defeat the Central Powers, earning him the Army Distinguished Service Medal.
Milton A. Reckord was, until recently, the longest serving chief executive of the NRA. Reckord served in the Mexican Expedition. During World War I, he led troops in the Battle of Meuse-Argonne in the final Allied offensive, for which France bestowed upon him the Croix de Guerre with Palm and his own nation awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal. In World War II, he first trained recruits and then became the Provost Marshal for Europe in charge of enemy prisoners of war, earning the Distinguished Service Medal with a bronze oak leaf cluster, and the Bronze Star.
The NRA has honored other war heroes among the NRA’s past leadership like the late World War II Marine fighter pilot Joe Foss. A longtime NRA board director and former commissioner of the American Football League, Foss received the Medal of Honor for his aerial combat role in the Battle of Guadalcanal. But Foss, unlike many other war heroes, joined the NRA board after the organization’s “shift” to prioritize gun rights, as one former NRA president put it, in 1977 in what is still known in the lore as the “Cincinnati Revolt.”
Three years before, in 1974, Reckord, at 94, was interviewed by NRA officials in his home for an NRA oral history. In it, he described how a law that he and the NRA supported during the Tommy Gun days of Prohibition that outlawed automatic firearms (still on the books) was “sane, reasonable and effective.” The NRA oral history was never published.
Merritt A. Edson led the NRA through the late 1950s. He became known as “Red Mike” back when he was commanding a Marine expeditionary detachment in the late 1920s in Nicaragua, where he earned the Navy Cross. He later earned the Medal of Honor for leading the defense of “Edson’s Ridge,” overlooking an airfield, in the Battle of Guadalcanal. Edson’s other honors included two Legion of Merit decorations, a Presidential Unit Citation with two bronze stars, and, from the United Kingdom, the Distinguished Service Order.
Franklin L. Orth led the NRA through the 1960s. He entered World War II as a captain in the infantry who “served on extra-hazardous duty in long-range penetrations behind the Japanese lines in Burma.” Orth later served in the Eisenhower administration as deputy assistant secretary of the Army, and as president of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Orth’s legacy, however, is also largely forgotten. “The NRA does not advocate an ‘ostrich’ attitude toward firearms legislation,” said Orth in 1967, one year before the NRA supported the Gun Control Act of 1968. “We recognize that the dynamism and complexities of modern society create new problems which demand new solutions.” It was this federal gun law that radicalized the NRA along with others who formed the nation’s gun rights movement in the 1970s.
Since then, the NRA’s new leaders have focused more on the future than the past. Politics is never a good reason, however, to keep the legacies of any war heroes in the dark.
Frank Smyth is author of “The NRA: The Unauthorized History.”