FINKELMAN: What happened at Pottawatomie is pretty gruesome. Brown's men eventually kill, with broadswords, five pro-slavery settlers. To late Twentieth Century ears and eyes, this is pretty horrifying. What's interesting is that almost no one ever talks about the free-state people who have already been murdered in Kansas, and almost no one talks about the free-state people who are murdered after Pottawatomie.
We focus on the Brown killings, perhaps because he used swords rather than guns, perhaps because it seems more bloody. Let me explain at least two theories of using the swords. One is that he used the swords simply to save bullets, this may seem silly to us, but this is a time when Brown and his men are financing their own defense and every bullet counts, every bullet is expensive. Later on, at a fire fight, some of his men run out of ammunition -- swords are handy, they're cheap, and, of course, you don't waste bullets.
Secondly, shooting a bullet off in the middle of the night on the Kansas prairie is likely to cause alarm. Now, Brown does shoot one gun in this killing spree on Pottawatomie, but, one rifle shot or one pistol shot is not going to arouse the neighborhood -- a whole bunch of them would have.