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Careful study of almost any arms and armour catalogue shows that many of the weapons owned by Englishmen in the past were not for sporting or military purposes but for self defence. Add to this weapons intended for defence of property, guarding the mails, for customs and excise or police use, or for equipping the militia and you have a cache of arms that cannot be ignored. Yet the use of arms by civilians in Britain has been a neglected area of social history.

Frederick Wilkinson cuts a broad swathe through history from Roman times to the present day, drawing on archive sources and relying heavily on the Royal Armouries for his black and white illustrations. The highly regulated situation we know today is the exception and in the past large sections of the population were “entrusted with arms”, either deliberately or by default.

The early chapters are largely concerned with the attempts by monarchs to balance the defence of the realm against the threat of insurrection and lawlessness from armed bands. To the average dealer or collector this is largely of academic interest and even the later chapters should be treated as background reading rather than an everyday reference book or identification guide.

That said, there is plenty to interest even the general reader. For instance, we learn that until 1936 it was up to individual police officers to decide whether to carry a pistol on night patrol and that training was minimal. While the routine arming of the British police force remains a highly provocative subject, it is evident that in the past the general attitude was far more relaxed and officers were sometimes laden down with guns, swords and truncheons.

At other times they found themselves unarmed just when they needed to be. The author relates an incident in North London in 1909 during which police and civilians pursued two heavily armed robbers using a combination of bicycles, a horse and trap, an electric tram, a milk cart and a van. Eventually official police revolvers were pressed into service, though the cupboard they were kept in had to be broken open. In the meantime, the police apparently had little difficulty in arming themselves by borrowing shotguns, revolvers and even an airgun from citizens they encountered during their pursuit.

Not that the cost-conscious authorities encouraged officers to practise with their weapons. Pity the poor constable who, in February 1887, was reprimanded for firing his year’s quota of ammunition (six rounds) over the roof of a burning house in an attempt to wake the occupants.

The book abounds in such insights into contemporary attitudes to weapons and for those who wish to dig deeper into any one aspect of the subject Frederick Wilkinson’s bibliography is a substantial read in itself, running to 12 pages and more than 450 titles.