Where is freedom guaranteed by a
heavily-armed civilian population? In a
land where assault rifles are freely
in the homes and hands of her citizens.
The Mesocco castle, a medieval stronghold in Italian Switzerland, overlooks the autobahn. Shooters during a competition will fire over the autobahn at targets on the next Alpine peak.
Competitors at Mesocco fire at targets placed on the mountainside opposite the castle, 300 meters away. The autobahn runs through the valley between the mountains.
In 1444, at a small river in northern Switzerland known as Saint Jacob on the Birs, some 1,400 Swiss Confederates wielding bows and arrows, polearms, and swords attacked 44,000 French invaders, some of whom were armed with a new technology--firearms. After four hours, 900 Swiss were killed, but the remanent defiantly refused to surrender. They were promptly massacred and thrown into mass graves. The audacity of the small Swiss force to assault a massive, seasoned army served to deter further invaders. European tyrants of the day must have thought, "Don't mess with the Swiss--they're crazy!"
In August, 1994, at Basel, Switzerland, near the site of the carnage of 1444, the Historisches St. Jakobsshiessen (Historical St. Jacob's Shoot) celebrated the 550th Anniversary of the battle. I attended the celebration as the guest of Colonel Bernhard Hurst of the Swiss military department, who coordinates civilian shooting competitions. In this 300 meter rifle competition, one may choose to shoot a SIG Sturmgewehr (assault rifle, abbreviated "Stgw") Model 1957 (57) or Model 1990 (90), or 1931 bolt action carbines. Pistol events (25 and 50 meters) are also part of the celebration.
Switzerland, Europe's most peaceful country, has no standing army. Instead, the country is defended by a militia composed of virtually all male citizens. The government issues rifles to these citizens, and the rifles are kept at their homes.
Children play behind a
woman with a Model 1931
Exemplifying the slogan, "What if they gave a war and no one came?" Switzerland avoided both World War I and World War II. Though Switzerland was surrounded by the Axis powers, even Hitler was afraid to invade this country of riflemen. Winston Churchill wrote in 1944: "Of all the neutrals, Switzerland has the greatest right to distinction. ... She has been a democratic State, standing for freedom in self-defence among her mountains, and in thought, in spite of race, largely on our side."
The Swiss call their rifles "assault rifles" to add to the mystique and convince foreign rulers that these people mean business. These rifles have never been used for criminal purposes, although they would certainly be used against any invader. Instead, they are used for essentially one purpose: to shoot as many bullseyes on paper targets as quickly as possible at sporting competitions. I have never seen a golf course in Switzerland, but I wish I had a Swiss franc for every shooting range I have seen.
The course at the St. Jacob's shoot is 15 shots--5 shots slow fire (5 minutes), then 2 strings of 5 shots each in 90 seconds. The center of the target is worth 5 points, outside of that is 4, and so on. A perfect score is 75. Using a Stgw 90, a highly accurate rifle with little recoil, I shot a 64 (the winning score was 73).
The August 20 competition was "invitation only" with teams of 8 shooters each coming from all over Switzerland. There were 600 competitors. I filled an empty slot for the second team of the Feldschützen Affoltern, located in the Emmental region. "We used to be best known for our shooting, now we are best known for our cheese making," jokes Ernest Mollet, the team captain. Some teams are organized by profession rather than geography. The Feldschützen Bankverein, with its 100 members, consists solely of persons employed by the Swiss Bank Corporation. Team member Alfred Brodbeck explained that one must work for the bank a certain number of years before being eligible to join. Some shooting clubs are as much as a century and a half old.
The Swiss have the reputation of being the world's foremost bankers. The fact that many are regular shooters and presumably better able to protect their stashes can't hurt their reputation for protecting your gold.
In Switzerland, firearms in the hands of the citizenry are considered wholesome and a civic duty. Newspapers and cosmetics are advertised in shooting programs I picked up at the rifle range. Can one imagine the New York Times placing an advertisement in a program for a U.S. pistol shooting event?
This woman with a Sturmgewehr 90 assault rifle is a stark contrast to Mesocco's original warriors, who were armed with crossbows and swords.
Basel's Allschwilerweiher shooting range is situated in a large population center (yes, there are some noise complaints) adjacent to other athletic fields (I imagine that the soccer fans are much louder than the rifle shooters). It has some nice sheltered areas to taste local sausages and to drink and toast good Swiss wine and beer, but not enough space for a large festival tent such as one sees at rural Swiss shooting matches.
After the competition, everyone converged on the spacious Basel headquarters of the Ciba-Geigy Pharmaceutical Corporation, which normally closes on Sundays. Inside, displays include colorful banners with pictures of old and modern firearms, medieval weapons, and historical or mythological persons and themes.
The author shooting the Sturmgewehr 90 rifle at Basel. This selective fire "assault rifle" is currently issued to all Swiss males of militia age to keep at home.
Outside Ciba-Geigy's headquarters, hundreds of parked autos held at least 599 rifles (an elderly man brought his 1931 model carbine inside with him). I wondered what the bicycle riders did with their rifles. At rural shooting events, the rifles are leaned against the picnic benches under the colorful tents.
The event's host gave a speech, recognizing various dignitaries present--some generals, Basel's mayor and other Basel officials, the president of the Swiss Shooting Federation... and the visiting Ameri-can. As we ate Basel specialties and toasted with good Swiss wine, Kaspar Villiger, Switzerland's Defense Minister, gave a speech in the Lucerner dialect (Swiss German speech is divided into many regional dialects). Though this dialect is far harder for me to understand than proper high German, I nonetheless heard Schiessen (shooting) and Freiheit (freedom) in the same sentence.
Rifles are inspected in one room of the Mesocco castle, just as swords and crosshows were inspected 500 years ago.
The backbone of Swiss defense and independence is the individual citizen with his assault rifle, which he keeps at home and with which he stays proficient by entering matches such as today's Historisches St. Jakobsshiessen. Such serious thoughts are one thing, but only one word accurately describes the day's target shooting and fellowship: fun!
The St. Jacob's historical shoot exemplifies aspects of Swiss culture which explain why none of the belligerent countries invaded Switzerland in World War I or II. This country has a centuries-old tradition of bloody and stout resistance to the most powerful European armies. Its people have continued into the twentieth century to be an armed citizenry whose members regularly exercise in weapon handling and practice.
On to Mesocco
Mesocco is a valley in the southern, Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. In 1478, Mesocco separated from Milan, the power base of northern Italy, and built a massive fortress-type castle on a high point in the valley center, with steep and imposing Alps on either side. Today, some of the castle walls remain but much is in ruins. The castle overlooks a major autobahn that connects southern Switzerland to Zurich, the nation's capital. In earlier centuries, Mesocco's powers-that-be extracted tribute from merchants who passed through the valley going to and from Milan, Italy, and Basel, Switzerland, then the gateway to France and Germany.
On August 28, 1994, seven riflemen and I lay in prone position at an opening in the castle ruins. We aimed our SIG rifles (I had a PE 90, the semi-automatic version of the Stgw 90) at targets 300 meters away on the opposite mountain slope, over the autobahn. The traffic below was oblivious to the bullets flying far overhead. I later discovered that it is very common in Switzerland to find shooting ranges with elevated firing positions on one side of a road and elevated targets and backstops on the other. The country is as vertical as it is horizontal.
This day's shoot is the Tiro storico indipendenza mesolcinese, the Mesocco independence historical shoot. I shot with the Tiratori Del Gaggio Cureglia (Marksmen of Gaggio Cureglia), a local club which needed an eighth shooter for the day. Because the targets were significantly higher than our position in the castle, proper sighting and body position proved quite difficult. This kind of shooting is good training for an armed citizenry who must be prepared to defend their Alpine homeland.
The match was sponsored by the Societá Carabinieri Mesocco (Mesocco Rifleman's Society). My host was Judge Werner Walser of Lugano, Switzerland. The city of Lugano, about 45 kilometers south of Mesocco, is called the Swiss Riviera. Lugano is surrounded by beautiful lakes and mountains and is the cultural center of the Canton of Ticino. Judge Walser is a civil court judge in Lugano and member of a shooting club founded in 1833. Davide Enderlin, a prominent Lugano attorney, has been the club's president for over 25 years. My translator was Enderlin's son, Davide Jr., a law student at the University of Basel.
Delightful little children played around the castle during the shoot. A boy carried a plastic shotgun; a girl had a bow carved from a tree branch. People socialized, shot or watched the shooting, and enjoyed the Ticino sausages in the festival tent.
These August shooting matches seem to be for sharpshooter training--only a few rounds are fired, and they must be well-placed. As at the Basel competition, the rifles being shot were the usual SIG assault rifles (Models 57 and 90), with 24 and 20 round magazines respectively, and the 1931 bolt action carbines.
We were given two practice shots at one minute each for sight adjustment. Next, we took four shots in 90 seconds, and, finally, six shots in 120 seconds. The bullseye was worth 5 points, with descending points for hitting further out on the target.
After each practice shot and after each of the two phases for score, we were instructed to put our rifles on safe and to lay them down. Across the valley, suddenly, like a swarm of bees, a dozen boys flew out of an underground bunker to the right of the target frames. They scored the targets. Sticks with different colored circles on the end were placed over each shot to show where it hit, and how many points were scored. For a miss, a boy would swing one of the sticks like a head shaking "No."
A perfect score is 50. Only one shooter scored a 50, and he (of course) won the match. Judge Walser distinguished himself with a 49. I consoled myself with my score of 36 by noting that while my group centered off the bullseye at eleven o'clock, it was very tight.
My friends listened in disbelief as I explained that the then-pending "Crime Bill" in America would make it a five-year felony to possess a firearm magazine holding over ten cartridges if the magazine had been made after 1994. They laughed contemptuously at the anti-gun claim that "assault rifles" have but a sole purpose: to kill as many people as quickly as possible. To these Italian Swiss, a fucile d'assalto (assault rifle) has only one purpose in peacetime: to shoot as many bullseyes as quickly as possible.
These Swiss saw this disarming of the American people, denying them the right to possess assault rifles, as contrary to the rights of a citizen. Indeed, the rifles to be banned by the Crime Bill were not real "assault weapons," they were semi-automatic sporters. The Swiss pointed out that for centuries, no European power has dared aggress against Switzerland, a nation in arms. An armed citizenry in Alpine terrain has never been very inviting. If Switzerland were to be invaded, the invaders would face assault rifles in the hands of skilled shooters--the Swiss citizenry.
After shooting, we sat in the festival tent drinking Ticino Merlot wine mixed with a clear Sprite-like soda, a regional favorite for a hot day. Locals excitedly told me the history of the Mesocco region, and explained the broader Swiss ideal of freedom.
Swiss Freedom and Liberty
The idea, but not the reality, of liberta (liberty) existed in medieval Milan and spread abroad, including to the Mesocco valley. The people were poor and uneducated, but yearned for freedom. Mesocco freed itself from Milan in 1478, but economics and political power continued to make it difficult for peasants to own weapons. The three independent communities of Mesocco in that century are represented today by the blue, white, and gray on the ribbons on which the shooters' medals are pinned.
Machiavelli's 16th Century political writings called Switzerland "most armed and most free." Within parts of what is now the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, however, there was an ever-present struggle between the ruling classes and the peasants. The commoners were allowed to have "hunting weapons" under the Articles of 1524, issued from Llanz by powerful lords in northern Italy. However, it would be naive to suppose that peasants did not own arms before that date, or that their arms would not be used for the imperatives of personal security and liberty, if not for rebellion against the elite.
The Swiss Confederation began in 1291 when three cantons united. (Austria's ruling family, the Hapsburgs, had tried to send a judge to rule the three Swiss cantons, but the Swiss promptly killed the would-be foreign ruler, united, and have remained unmolested ever since). The Confederation grew over the centuries to include more cantons--it had 13 when the United States was founded with 13 states.
Switzerland did not, however, remain unaffected by the European social revolution in 1848. Elsewhere, the forces of progress were crushed. In Switzerland, the populace won. The Confederation, among other things, abolished any cantonal prohibitions on possession of arms by requiring every man to be armed.
The country had no firearms regulations until after World War II, when a few cantons passed some gun control regulations. The voters rejected giving the Confederation power to legislate on firearms until 1993, when the claim was made that "something had to be done about foreigners buying firearms" in Switzerland. Yet no law would be passed until 1997.
To the surprise of the citizens, in early 1996 stringent gun control regulations over law-abiding citizens were proposed in the Swiss Parliament. These did not pass, largely due to the resistance of the Swiss shooting societies; had they passed, the shooting societies immediately would have mounted a referendum campaign to repeal them. I published an article in Neue Zurcher Zeitung, Switzerland's largest newspaper, entitled "Avoiding the Mistakes of the United States" in opposition to the proposed law.
As it turned out, in 1997 the Confederation passed a relatively innocuous federal firearms law that requires a permit to carry a handgun in some instances but exempts carrying to shooting ranges. However, the law also allows all Swiss citizens, male and female, to purchase surplus Sturmgewehr 57 assault rifles (converted to semi-automatic only) for about $50 each.
The Swiss have, through referenda, consistently rejected membership in the United Nations and the European Community. The majority of the Swiss felt U.N. membership was inconsistent with independence, and that the EC would impose German-style gun controls.
After the Mesocco shoot, the judge and I were invited to the home of one of the competitors. He owns an array of semi-automatic rifles, such as the AR-15 Sporter and the Springfield M1A, which he uses for hunting game in Africa. He also owns a dozen machine guns, including a German M42 with a barrel converted to the 7.5mm Swiss cartridge. The machineguns are licensed, as is each of the thirty or so pistols he owns. The proud owner of these firearms is no more sinister than a banker.
Lawyers, judges, bankers, cheesemakers, and watchmakers--all seem to have firearms. Armed and disciplined, the Swiss people have what Machiavelli called civic virtue. In a world seemingly manipulated by the goddess fortuna, the tradition of having a heavily-armed civilian populace has been this small nation's guarantee of freedom and self-determination.
Stephen P. Halbrook, Ph.D., J.D., is the Fairfax, Virginia, attorney who successfully argued the Brady case, Printz v. U.S., in the U.S. Supreme Court. Author of That Every Man Be Armed, Halbrook's latest book is Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War II (1998, Sarpedon Publishers, Dept. AG, 49 Front St., Rockville Centre, NY 11570).
During his visit to Europe, author Stephen P. Halbrook also traveled to France.
Unlike the Swiss, the French have a history of being invaded, particularly during the twentieth century. The day after the Basel shoot, we traveled to Paris, France, for the celebration of France's fiftieth anniversary of liberation from the Nazis near the end of World War II. Our destination was France's Army Museum, located at the Hotel National des Invalides. The tomb of Napoleon, France's emperor from 1799 to 1814, is located in these palace-like buildings, which were used to house countless soldiers maimed for life from Napoleon's wars of aggression.
The museum features an outstanding display of historical items from the years when Hitler's Nazis occupied France (Paris fell to the Germans on June 14, 1940, and was liberated on August 25, 1944). Banners and weapons of the resistance fighters--including a silenced pistol, a STEN submachine gun, and other arms--stood alongside one of the most revealing items of Nazi tyranny: the "Ordinance concerning the detention of arms and radio transmitters in the occupied territories". This mass-produced poster was pasted on walls throughout France.
The text of the Nazi decree, which was issued by the German military commander, states (in English translation):
1) All firearms and all sorts of munitions, hand grenades, explosives and other war materials will have to be turned over immediately. Delivery must take place within 24 hours to the closest Kommandantur [Nazi police station] unless other arrangements have been made. Mayors will be held strictly responsible for the execution of this order. The troop commandants may allow exceptions.
2) Anyone found in possession of firearms, munitions, hand grenades, or other war materials will be sentenced to death or forced labor or in lesser cases prison.
3) Anyone in possession of a radio or a radio transmitter has to turn it over to the closest Nazi military authority.
4) All those who would disobey this order or would commit any act of violence in the occupied lands against the Nazi army or against any of its troops will be condemned to death.
The Nazis did in fact execute persons in possession of firearms, but the Nazi gun control decree was not entirely successful. Magazines and books sold in Parisian shops on the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Paris contain numerous pictures of civilians with revolvers, semiautomatic pistols, and rifles at the barricades in Paris in 1944, fighting Nazis.
Just three days after I photographed the above Nazi decree, the U.S. Senate passed a ban on numerous firearms and magazines holding over 10 cartridges. This U.S. "assault weapon" ban has no death penalty, but each offense is punishable with five years' imprisonment, meaning that one could spend life in prison for possessing just a few rifles and magazines.
This article first appeared in the January 1998 American Guardian.