For nearly 80 years, Captain America dressed up in the red, white, and blue, to fight villains both foreign and domestic. Despite the near-constant political turmoil in the United States during these years, this very symbol of America somehow managed to stay universally appealing. Still, he’s a quirky hero, and one thing that’s somewhat confusing about him is that Captain America uses a shield. It’s an unconventional superhero totem, not as ethereal as the Green Lantern’s ring nor as foreboding as Wolverine’s claws. Still, this simple accessory became a defining part of the Captain America character. Yet, the precise reason why Captain America uses a shield is rarely addressed or even thought of. To many fans, the shield is as inseparable from Cap as Batman’s utility belt or Daredevil’s billy-club. Since the creators never told fans why, specifically, they gave Cap his iconic shield, we can only speculate.
Does Captain America Only Use a Shield?
The film version of Steve Rogers, played by Chris Evans since 2011, is unquestionably the most popular version of the character. While his shield is a big part of his repertoire, he’s also seen using a gun a few times. Interestingly, during his original run in the 1940s, Cap didn’t use a gun at all. In fact, he didn’t only fight Nazis and the Japanese in the comics. Jack Kirby’s covers, however, often depicted Cap taking it to the Germans. Yet, even in these images Captain America uses only his shield. Though, in a bit of unintentional foreshadowing, his teen sidekick Bucky Barnes is often seen shooting a gun. (It’s also worth noting that while Cap is a super-soldier, Bucky was just a normal child with no powers and still went on all of Cap’s capers.) The idea that Cap used guns in WWII is strictly a modern invention.
Still, there are plenty of times Captain America doesn’t use his shield. There is a notable issue from the late 1980s where Cap uses an Uzi to shoot a terrorist about to kill a lot of people. He immediately regrets it, asking “Oh God, what have I done?” Also, for a time during the Watergate hearings, Steve Rogers abandoned the Cap identity. He dressed in a, um, questionable costume and carried a sawed-off shotgun. Yet when Steve Rogers wears the uniform, Captain America only uses a shield and his fists to defeat the villains, with rare exceptions.
Captain America Uses a Shield to Help Sell Comic Books
One of the main reasons Captain America uses a shield is because in the 1940s, you couldn’t have a costumed hero go around shooting people or hacking them up with a sword. This was a comic book parents might pick up because of the patriotic subject matter, seeing it as the “wholesome” compromise if their kids insisted on buying those dreadful comics. Today, comic books are seen in a better light. Back then, they were simply funny books for kids. Conservative parents were wary of the flashy superheroes and how they are always beating people up. Also, it meant that all kids needed to do to pretend to be Captain America was find a trash can lid. Today, however, kids and adults can shell out cold, hard cash for a replica Cap shield. Thanks to the MCU films, Cap’s shield is cool again.
The other reason Captain America uses a shield, is because at the time the only other patriotic superhero was known as The Shield. Published by MLJ, which survives today as Archie Comics, the character actually debuted before Cap by a few months. So, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby instantly tied the two characters together by giving Cap his distinctive accessory. Yet, because Captain America uses a shield, it makes the other character seem derivative by comparison. Still, the shield drawn for the first issue looked a little too similar to the uniform worn by MLJ’s character. The round shield Cap is best known for appeared in the second issue in May 1941, only with a blue stripe around the edge instead of red. Some blame the Comics Code Authority for why Captain America only uses a shield, but this was a character trait long before it existed.
Captain America Uses a Shield as a Symbol of What He Represents
Now, it’s possible that Captain America uses a shield because every costumed hero needs a gimmick. Yet, looking at these characters that way is cynical and does a disservice to the artistry at play here. In his autobiography, Joe Simon stated unequivocally that Cap was a political statement. The iconic first issue cover, in which Cap punches Hitler in the face, premiered in April of 1940, a full 20 months before the Japanese air force attacked Pearl Harbor. Simon, Kirby, and others were disgusted by the Nazis’ actions. In his first year of stories, Cap often fought Nazi spies on U.S. soil. Even though the reality isn’t so clear-cut, Captain America is meant to represent the best parts of his namesake nation.
So, in this context, it makes perfect sense that Captain America uses a shield. For most of its history, America was not the aggressor nor did it court war. Cap’s accessory is primarily a defensive weapon, though it can be used offensively if needed. In the post-WWII era, America’s reputation changed. Thus, Cap became a symbol of what the American spirit should represent: compassion, integrity, and a willingness to defend others. In fact, given the tensions in politics from the 1960s until the present day, it’s almost strange that Cap remains such a popular figure. So, Captain America uses a shield because at his best he is a “defender.” (Not to be confused with The Defenders, another popular Marvel superhero team.)
Why Captain America Doesn’t Use his Shield in Infinity War
As mentioned above, there are times when Captain America does not use his shield. Sometimes its because he’s not Captain America anymore. Other times, it’s because he’s separated from it for some reason to provide tension. Whenever Cap separates from his shield, most fans begin to anticipate the triumphant moment he picks it up again. So, at the end of Captain America: Civil War when he drops his shield, it’s meant to start that countdown clock in fans’ heads. There is a good story reason for it, of course. That Howard Stark created Cap’s shield in the MCU began as a bit of world-building, a fun Easter egg to create a sense of continuity in The First Avenger. This detail makes it very poignant when he abandons the Stark shield after he fights Tony. Bucky killed Howard, thus Steve didn’t “deserve” it anymore.
When Cap finally shows up in Avengers: Infinity War, he’s still very much a badass. He and the Black Widow fight literal aliens to a standstill, and the only weapon Cap uses is the one he takes away from Corvius Glave and Proxima Midnight. One of the biggest “cheer” lines in the movie was when T’Challa tells his people to “get this man a shield.” While Cap ends up with some pretty cool vibranium gauntlets, it’s just not the same as his original shield. The moment in Avengers: Endgame when Tony gives the “new” shield to Cap, it’s meant to show that the two friends are mending their wounds to save the world. The shield, like the man himself, is a symbol.
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Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.