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Could You Own a Cannon Before the Second Amendment?

Could You Own a Cannon Before the Second Amendment?

One of the most common arguments for gun control is that the Second Amendment has never existed without restrictions. The President of the United States, Joe Biden, has stated that, “the Second Amendment, from the day it was passed, limited the type of people who could own a gun and what type of weapon you could own. You couldn’t buy a cannon.” Is this, in fact, correct? Could you own a cannon before the Second Amendment?

Could You Own a Cannon Before the Second Amendment?

Americans absolutely could own a cannon both before and after ratification of the Second Amendment. Private ownership of armed ships was common; such ships could have entire batteries of cannon.

Both PolitiFact and the Austin American Statesman issued fact-checks of President Biden’s statement and concluded that it was completely false. When we examine the historical evidence, it becomes clear that firearms were almost entirely unregulated at the time of the Second Amendment’s passage. There was little distinction between military armaments and privately owned weapons.

Weapons in the 18th Century

While the typical conception of 18th century weaponry is cartoonishly long muskets that fire one round every five minutes, there was actually a wide variety of fairly advanced firearms in existence.

The Puckle Gun

puckle gun
The Puckle Gun

In plain English, the Puckle gun was a mounted, portable, crew-served revolving machine gun. It was intended to be used on ships to rapidly fire at boarding parties. The Puckle Gun could fire up the three times faster than a musket

The Kalthoff Repeater

Kalthoff repeater
The Kalthoff Repeater

Designed in 1630, the Kalthoff Repeater was a flintlock rifle that could fire between 30-60 rounds per minute. It went through multiple variations, some able to fire 29 shots without reloading, similar to the standard magazine capacities of the Colt AR-15.

American Colonial Artillery

American Cannon at Saratoga

The Continental Army used field guns, mortars, howitzers, and siege cannons. Many such weapons were captured from British units, though some were American-manufactured. Additionally, some cannon were taken from privately-owned ships.

Private Warships

Privateer/Navy ration,

Perhaps the most damning evidence of outright private ownership of heavy artillery is the existence of privateers.

According to Merriam-Webster, a privateer is, “an armed private ship licensed to attack enemy shipping.” Privateers were essentially naval mercenaries. They were used by many nations throughout the colonial period, including by the United States.

Privateers were especially important in the Revolutionary War:

The 13 Colonies, having declared their Independence, had only 31 ships comprising the Continental Navy. To add to this, they issued Letters of Marque to privately owned, armed merchant ships and Commissions for privateers, which were outfitted as warships to prey on enemy merchant ships. Merchant seamen who manned these ships contributed to the very birth and founding of our Republic.


There were 1,697 ships operated as privateers which boasted 14,872 guns in total. Every single one of those naval guns was privately owned. Private possession of heavy weaponry was clearly widespread, so much so that the government was relying on private citizens to fight its wars!

A merchant in the colonial period could own a fully outfitted warship, arguably the most powerful “weapon” in existence at the time. The argument that the Founders intended the Second Amendment to restrict weapon ownership is ridiculous, given that they had just won a war on the backs of private gun owners. Moreover, the U.S. Constitution specifically recognizes the existence of privateers (and thus private ownership of naval artillery) and provides for the commissioning of more privateers in the future. This clause of the Constitution deals with Letters of Marque and Reprisal.

Letters of Marque and Reprisal

Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power “To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.”

Letters of Marque and Reprisal are the legal vessels by which a government can commission privateers. A Letter of Marque allows a private citizen to act on behalf of the government in war and a Reprisal allows such privateers to do things like seize foreign ships.

Notably, this clause is still in effect. Congress still has the power to commission privateers. Although the modern political environment no longer allows Americans to own warships, the Founders clearly did not have that intention, and they certainly did not intend to ban private ownership of cannon.

Could You Own a Cannon Before the Second Amendment?

The argument that the Second Amendment always restricted what guns you could own is ridiculous. In colonial times, not only could you own a cannon, you could own a warship with dozens of them. You could also own a machine gun. There may be legitimate arguments in favor of modern gun restrictions, but Joe Biden’s historical argument is not one of them.