Friday, January 9, 2015

Shooting Irons, Part 3

R - Sharps

What would the Old West be without the gun? From the Hawken of the Mountain man to the Peacemaker of the gunslinger, we just can’t imagine our protagonists any other way. A gun was not just a means of war between men, but a way to put food on the table and protect against wild animals. Of course, there was that ever-present incentive to politeness we’ve already discussed…

Here’s Part 3 of our gun glossary.

Reach, reach for the sky: raise your hands in surrender when a gun was pointed your way

Remington: Eliphalet Remington of Ilion, NY, made his first flintlock muzzle-loader in 1816; by 1828, he had a thriving business and was later joined by his sons. In 1845, he made his first standard arms in large batches for the military. He manufactured exclusively for the North during the war, but both sides used weapons of his pattern. After the war, more veterans purchased their Remingtons than did Colt users. Early models, built to the Beal’s patent, were massive (2 lb, 14 oz), but beautiful in design and good in balance, easily recognizable by the slope from the trigger to the tip of the lever-hammer. They were cap-and-ball, single-action guns. The New Army and Navy models (cap-and-ball) were still in demand until 1888 and 1875 respectively, and were often converted for metal cartridge use – the firm produced a conversion kit so that the owner could exchange chambers and use the weapon either way. Remington also made “derringers,” pocket revolvers, shotguns, rifles and carbines. An important step in the evolution of the rifle was the introduction of the rolling-block breech, which greatly increased the loading speed. Also, through the nature of construction, it became stronger at the moment of ignition; the greater the recoil, the more tightly the parts of the breech interlocked. The early model rifle was an instant success in the West. Nelson Strong, a trail driver, and his crew proved its capability by fighting off a large band of Sioux led by Crazy Horse.

Repeater: sometimes in the early days used to refer to a revolver, but more usually to a rifle capable of firing a number of shots without reloading

Revolver: Flint-locks were in limited use in the US and Europe at the beginning of the 19th Century, but made no great impression on gun-handlers until Sam Colt came along with his adaptation of the cap-lock to the principle of the revolver. In 1835, at age 21, Colt patented it in England, and in the US the next year. The Paterson Colt was first used by the Texas Rangers in action against “some astonished and shortly after, mostly dead” Comanches in 1844. Early guns were cap-and-ball, and such weapons were used right into the 1870’s for a number of reasons. Some were reluctant to change to the new-fangled metal cartridges which came into use in the late 1850’s; they knew their old guns well and the cap-and-ball, because it limited their shots, made them more careful. The loading of the old guns was also more economical, and cartridges were not always easily available. There were a number of pretty good guns besides Colts: Remington, Starr, Smith and Wesson, Le Mat, Irving, Trantor, Adams, and a good many others. Some of these ancient hog-legs were like young cannon and weighed two to three pounds. Despite what is said, guns of 1850-70 could be fired accurately in the right hands; however, size prevented them from the fast-draw. Most men, even at quite a late period, wore weapons pretty high on the hip; most carried one gun on the right side for the orthodox draw. Mounted men favored a gun position high on the left with the gun butt forward.

Saddle-gun: a rifle or carbine that was attached to and carried on the saddle, either by a string over the horn, in or out of a scabbard, or booted under the leg of the rider – unsatisfactory for long trips, as it chafed the horse. Earlier, the term also covered horse-pistols.

Scabbards: this term was used more commonly in the general sense than today, covering gun-holsters, rifle-boots, and sword- and knife-sheaths.
            Gun Holsters: After the Civil War, these had flaps to retain the gun and keep out dust, but in the decade afterward, these were mostly discarded as encumbrances. Until the  
mid-1870’s, holsters were plain and not cut away for a quick-draw. There were two basic styles: those with loops holding the holster to the skirt (the flat leather between the holster and leg) and those which were stitched to the skirt. The cutaway for the trigger-finger was not so vital to the user of a single-action gun, for whom the thumb-cock was the first move, so cutaways were necessary only when double-action guns came into use.  For a cross-draw, the scabbard was worn high with the gun close to the body; for the side-draw, the holster was slung at a slight angle to the body, leaving the butt clear. In the 1880’s and 1890’s, holsters were often artistically tooled, and by then, hideaways were in being and usually worn underneath the left armpit, suspended in a shoulder harness. The holster shape was dictated by the gun design. Not until the Peacemaker, with its compact shape, could a holster be made for the classic quick-draw. Shootists had holsters trimmed and fashioned to their own tastes – one had hip pockets lined with leather to hold his guns. Holsters were constructed with open fronts, necessitating a clip to hold the gun. One type was pivoted so that the gun could be elevated to be fired while still in the holster. But the average man kept his gun in a deep, safe scabbard so that, whatever happened, his gun would still be there when his hand went looking for it.

            Rifle scabbards: Dust was the great enemy of every Westerner who cared for his weapons; when a saddle-gun was taken on a trip, it had to be protected as much as possible. In the 1850’s, a much favored scabbard was a decorated doeskin Indian scabbard, used by both Indians and Whites. Most models covered both barrel and stock, leaving all or part of the butt exposed. During the Civil War, the cavalry employed a spider, a small socket affair attached to the off-side cinch ring, secured by a strap. The barrel of the carbine went through this, and was attached by a ring and swivel to the trooper’s shoulder-strap. Solid leather scabbards were official issue in 1885, and probably in use by civilians in the West before that. There were many ways of carrying a scabbard on a saddle, including hanging it from the horn loose and hanging it from the horn with the barrel secured by a latch under the rider’s legs.
            Fast-draw holsters: Tio Sam Myres, master saddlemaker of El Paso, created a holster to the requirements of master gun-handler and lawman Tom Threepersons: thick, hard leather that left hammer, trigger and butt clear of that leather. The scabbard tilted slightly forward and never lost shape once it was molded wet to the gun it was made for. Some old-timers may have pulled iron from leathers a slight faster than some of the opposition, but with holsters which were in use then, could never compare with 20th Century quick-draws.

Scattergun: a shotgun

Sharps: one of the greatest rifle-makers in the world. They made almost forty models between the 1840’s and 1881. They are usually associated with the Big Fifty of the last days of buffalo hunting; also with the Sharps-Borschardt .45, which could take a heavy load and penetrate thick buffalo hide in a way repeaters (such as the Henry and Spencer) could not. With production in 1875 of his .50-.90 (.50-caliber, .90 powder weight), Sharps responded to demands by hunters for a gun that could carry heavy charges. This charge could vary to 100 and 110 according to personal taste. Bowman (1953) describes the Sharps of 1848: “The Sharps’ action consisted of throwing forward the trigger guard, which dropped a sliding block at the rear of the barrel and uncovered the breech for loading. Paper and later Sharps’ linen cartridges …. were then inserted and after the trigger guard was drawn back, the rising block sheared off the rear end of the cartridge, exposing the powder charge. When the trigger guard was fully returned to position, the sliding block effectively covered the breech.” This was the pre-metallic cartridge Sharps. Buffalo Sharps were chambered for various metallic cartridge, .44, .45 (the 2 1/10 Sharps is the same as the .45-70 US) and in several .50-caliber loads.

A Dictionary of the Old West, Peter Watts, 1977
Dictionary of the American West, Win Blevins, 1993
J.E.S Hays


  1. Another useful and informative post. Thanks Doris

  2. Informative post. Thanks. You mentioned about hideaway holsters underneath the left armpit and was reminded that Wes Hardin often carried a pair of revolvers in holsters attached to a custom vest.

    1. I'll be willing to bet that there were a lot of hidden guns back in the Old West!

  3. Thank you for taking the time to publish this information very useful! western leather gun belts and holsters