The Second Amendment, the NRA, and a One-Armed General

Constitution Day 2023

“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  — Amendment II to the U.S. Constitution, 1791

“The militia shall consist of … two classes — the organized militia, to be known as the National Guard … and the … Reserve Militia. … The organization, armament, and discipline … shall be the same as … for the Regular … Armies of the United States.” — Militia Act of 1903

William Woodward, PhD, Professor Emeritus of History

By William Woodward, PhD
Professor Emeritus of History
Seattle Pacific University


Tragically, mass shootings continue. Frustratingly, the debate continues. Regrettably, the context continues to be overlooked.

Four years ago, deeply agonized over gun violence, I tried — as part of this annual series marking Constitution Day — to clarify the origins of that notorious article in the Bill of Rights. I zeroed in on “The Second Amendment’s Forgotten Clause.” My aim was to explain how the drumbeat of tragic gun-related crimes too often prevents us from grasping the significance of the Amendment’s opening phrase, “a well regulated Militia.”

I described how an idealized civic duty, militia service, grew into an essential component of national defense: today’s National Guard. The contested “right of the people to keep and bear arms” is the second clause of the Second Amendment, I pointed out, constrained grammatically by the forgotten first: “A well regulated militia [is] necessary to the security of a free State.”

And what is a “well regulated militia”? I explained that the phrase held specific and honored meaning in the founding years. A free people in a “free state” must ground their security in the local citizenry, constituted as a semi-organized force under local authority: the militia. What the Second Amendment assumed, elaborating on Article I of the Constitution itself, was that in the new Federal Union the states would retain their militias, but under the “discipline” laid down by the national Congress — thus ensuring a well-regulated state force, a widely used phrase. One power the Congress did not have, however, was to disarm those citizen soldiers — a ban made explicit in the Amendment.

The concept of a dual system of national security — of a small national army augmented by the citizen-soldier militias of the states — developed fitfully. Eventually the “militia” ideal evolved into the organized state forces now called the National Guard: a state force to protect and aid communities and, at the same time, to train as a backup to the national military.

When and how did that evolution culminate? To personalize and localize the answer, this year’s essay zeroes in on a transforming moment in the early 20th century, when a now forgotten Washington State militia officer, an early leader in the National Rifle Association (NRA), helped shape the federal law that created today’s National Guard.


To begin, time-travel with me back to the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the turbulent time known as “Reconstruction.” Post-mortems preoccupied veterans on both sides; for some Northern officers, the question was what a future U.S. Army should look like. Two of these — William Church, a journalist and former Union officer, and George Wingate, a captain in the New York National Guard — fixed their sights, so to speak, on a startling defect in the Union soldiery: woeful marksmanship. By one official report, it took a thousand Yankee rounds to fell a Rebel soldier. Wingate, inspired by Church’s relentless critiques of soldier training, and drawing on help from an active “National Rifle Association” of Great Britain, developed an influential Manual of Rifle Practice.

Adopting the moniker and purpose of their British predecessor, the American namesake was organized in 1871 by New York Guard officers under a New York state charter to “encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis,” in Church’s words. For its first several decades, the NRA promoted increasingly popular shooting competitions both in its Northeast regional base and internationally.

In short, the NRA in its early years focused on recruiting American males (mostly) to the sport of competitive shooting, tapping into the increasing popularity of sport hunting and an undercurrent of professed manly and martial ideals. Underlying the instruction and competitions was the assumption that ordinary citizens needed to be ready for military service when their country next needed them. Indeed, many of the participants were members of the voluntary National Guard companies in northeastern states.

The NRA began, that is, with a focus on skills; it was more civic than private, more concerned with the first clause of the Second Amendment (“a well regulated militia being necessary”) than the second (“the right to keep and bear arms”).

The Association flagged in the depression-ridden 1890s. But in 1898 came the Spanish-American War, awakening a nation to a world beyond its borders and sending volunteer regiments, drawn largely from National Guard organizations, overseas. The War revived the NRA, just in time to attract a young hunting enthusiast in newly admitted Washington State, James A. Drain. As with many young men born too late to serve in the Civil War or frontier army, he prized the patriotic ideal of self-sacrificing citizens ready to defend their country. To be ready, one must learn to wield a firearm safely and expertly; when the time came, one must promptly step forward for military service.


Adjutant General James DrainSo he did. When in 1898 President McKinley called for those volunteers, an energetic and patriotic Drain organized an infantry company in Spokane. Though never needed, the effort led to a battalion command in the postwar Washington National Guard.

Then came the accident that would thereafter define Drain’s life of gritty state and national service.

He set out into the countryside one day in September 1900 to train a pup, loaded shotgun in hand. “It was ready to shoot, as always, when I was alone,” he later explained. A stumble, a discharge, a stab of pain, and Drain saw spurting blood where his right hand had been. With his left, he jerry-rigged a tourniquet, then, groggy but conscious, he staggered to a farmhouse for aid and finally barged his way into Sacred Heart Hospital. The hand could not be saved. Shooting enthusiast Major James Drain was a 30-year old amputee.

What is a one-handed shooter and soldier to do? In the midst of his extended convalescence, Drain dutifully wrote Governor John Rogers, offering to step down unless somehow he could retain his Guard commission with only one hand.

Rogers stunned Drain with his response, delayed until January, when the governor had secured his re-election and Drain had resumed his business activities. Rogers invited Drain to Olympia, where he offered the young major the position of Adjutant General: commander of the entire state Guard organization.

“You do not want me,” Drain recalled answering. “Your National Guard is rotten. It is a paper force.” A complete rebuild would be required, including new legislation.

“That is just why I want you,” was Rogers’ rejoinder.

Looking back, Drain reveled that he had been given such a “free hand” to put into practice his long-standing conviction that the National Guard, the new form of a “well regulated militia,” was the foundation for a new defense strategy that kept faith with the historic American reliance on a democratic citizenry. “It was a pressing invitation to remake the National Guard of Washington, to use it as a tryout agent, to make it a model for all the states and the nation.”


Rogers had unleashed a whirlwind.

Linked through their common reform zeal, Rogers and Drain envisioned a modernized military organization, depoliticized and professionalized, sustainable in both structure and manpower, more military reserve than the kind of police auxiliary it had been.

That the Washington Guard must be rebuilt nearly from scratch made reform timely; that Rogers turned over full control to his youthful Adjutant General made politically insulated change possible.

Two characteristic commitments drove Drain: “preparedness” for future wars and (a necessary condition stressed by the rejuvenated NRA) improved marksmanship. Against other reform efforts of the day that sought international arbitration efforts rather than strengthened armed forces, Drain argued that “self-preservation is certainly that first law of nations,” an echo of similar rhetoric associated with soon-to-be president Theodore Roosevelt.

General Drain introduced his reform regimen swiftly and energetically. Practiced marching (“close order drill”), maneuvers out in the field, military discipline — all the distinctives of the Regular soldier’s life — were fundamental. Most essential was individual marksmanship. Drain directed his officers to train their troops according to Wingate’s NRA manual: fire 50 rounds per soldier, shoot competitive matches, record scores, award medals and cash prizes. He persuaded the legislature to chip in to pay three cents a shot to every soldier.

And he walked the talk. Single-handedly, as it were, he went out to the range with his soldiers, taught himself to fire left-handed, and qualified as a marksman.

To reinforce his new mandates, Drain took a retired Regular Army officer on an inspection tour of every unit. He demanded fiscal accountability with full documentation. Recruiting and promotions were formalized, with exams identifying the most qualified candidates. And many of the new protocols were codified in new laws Drain persuaded the legislature to pass.


Such were the Drain reforms in his adopted state. But it was only the beginning. Just six months into his term, Drain left for the nation’s capital, the “other Washington.” His stated charge was to secure deserved federal reimbursement for state expenses during the recent war. But he aspired to much more. He arranged to meet President William McKinley’s reform-minded Secretary of War, Elihu Root, who already had determined to transform the Army.

Drain laid out a long list of recommendations to Root, many focused on formally constituting the National Guard of the states as the nation’s reserve force — equipped, trained, and paid comparable to the Regulars, and subject to the orders of the President to enter federal active duty. Central to his vision, already implemented in his own state and fully aligned with the NRA, was marksmanship training.

Sympathetic to Drain’s urgent agenda, Root shrewdly drew together an array of advisors and advocates to shape a bill. A key figure was Charles Dick, the chairman of the House Militia Committee, a powerful Ohio Republican and Adjutant General of the Ohio National Guard. Another ally soon arrived: a new President, ascending to the White House when McKinley was assassinated, a Spanish-American War hero and friend of the NRA: Theodore Roosevelt.

Astute floor management and carefully orchestrated pressure from coordinated National Guard interests, all featuring Drain’s behind-the-scenes networking, led to passage of the Militia Act of 1903. The landmark law still bears the nickname of Dick, its sponsor, but insiders knew it was as much the triumph of the under-recognized Adjutant General of distant Washington as of the prominent Ohioan. Drain’s key role earned him an appointment to the War Department’s new Militia Board; on his retirement a decade later the then Secretary recognized that the National Guard “owes much of its present efficiency to your disinterested and able efforts.”

The basic provisions of the “Dick Act” endure over a century later. They are the charter for today’s “dual mission” National Guard — a state protective force in peace, a trained reserve in wartime. Put differently, the Guard envisioned by Drain has become that “well regulated militia” contemplated in the Second Amendment.

Such is the surprising legacy of Washington’s own gifted citizen-soldier, James Drain. With not much exaggeration, one could say he pulled off a revolution in national security policy “single-handed.”

Rights and Responsibilities

A delicious footnote must be added to this tale. Drain soon after was elected president of the National Rifle Association. He set out to widen its scope and impact by recruiting influential life members. One of his first successes was an enthusiastic subscription from none other than the celebrated occupant of the White House, Theodore Roosevelt.

General James Drain overcame both the emotional trauma and the physical impairment of his self-inflicted injury with both an iron will and a passion for behind-the-scenes public service. His lifelong mantra, by his own account, was “I am glad I lost my right hand,” for he had determined, “with God’s help,” that the loss would “prove a benefit rather than an injury.” His rare combination of drive and modesty decisively contributed to the evolution of a key component of the nation’s security arsenal, the National Guard.

Unquestionably, the need to reduce gun fatalities through mitigating the polarization over gun regulation versus gun rights remains. But constitutional clarity requires contextual precision and historical understanding. I believe that the story of Drain’s wide-ranging contributions to state and nation instructs us in a more helpful way to talk about the right — and the responsibility — the Second Amendment enshrines.

Constitution Day Archive
Since 2005, Seattle Pacific University has distributed essays by Professor Emeritus William Woodward about the Constitution and related topics. Explore the complete series here.