If you’re standing anywhere near a muzzleloader at a reenactment or military history site you invariably hear the question, “what if one side had automatic weapons? They’d have won the war immediately, right?” This is another example of everyone’s favorite historical past-time: what-if history.
What-if history is the story of things that never happened, which is also known as fantasy. Their clear link is demonstrated by being kept on separate shelves together at the bookstore.
What-if history’s value lies in giving the history professional and hobbyist something else to argue about, like what if they had machine guns? Or what if Napoleon conquered Europe? Or what if America stopped letting in anymore brown people? War and politics are popular what-if topics. You almost never hear someone ask what if they never discovered iodine? Or what if books were never invented? That’s because those are boring topics. You might as well talk about real history then.
One contribution to the automatic weapon v. muzzleloader argument is Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South. In this alternate timeline neo-Nazis time travel from 2014 to the Civil War-era Confederacy. They bring AK-47s to arm the Confederate troops in the hopes that the South will win and establish a lasting segregated state.
Turtledove goes to great lengths (576 page lengths to be precise) to try to show what a late-nineteenth-century mind would do with a machine gun. It’s worth the time, but if you’re too busy or uninterested to read it just remember the title so you can mention it the next time the subject comes up at a reenactment or military site.
Or you can simply ask yourself what if if I move over there away from this conversation? That, at least, has a concrete and useful answer.