Monday, March 21, 2016

Guns and the Old West by Gordon Rottman

Firearms of all kinds and flavors were important implements in the Old West. Besides their use by “shootists”—the term “gunfighter” was little used during the era while “gunslinger” originated in the 1920 movie, Drag Harlan, they were the constant companions of lawmen, ranchers, farmers, hunters, storeowners, travelers, and just about anyone else. Even townsmen might own a shotgun or small-caliber varmint rifle.
Understanding the realities of firearms in the Old West is important for writers. Granted, some take the safer minimalist approach to depicting firearms in writing. For example, the firearm used by a town marshal might be identified only as a “pistol” or “revolver” with no mention of its make, model, or even caliber. It might be called only a “Colt” or a “.45” or a “Peacemaker.” It’s “safer” than identifying a specific weapon that may not have been used in the story’s timeline. Some writers will include full information, a “Winchester .44-40 Model 1973 rifle.” That may be too technical for some. Others consider it a slowing of the reading pace. Of course once mentioned, such complete nomenclature need not be repeated.

I say “safe” in the minimalist sense in regards to writing as it requires less in-depth research (a timesaver) and less of a chance of making an error. An example, the .44-40 Winchester Model 1873 was of course introduced that year. But it was not available in .38-40 until 1879 and .32-20 until 1882. Hopefully this series will provide you with some ideas and answers in regards to firearms of the Old West.
It is easy to get the impression from novels and movies that just about the only guns used in the West were Colt revolvers and Winchester rifles. That’s far from true. So what firearms were in common use? Over the next few months—I have no idea how many parts this series will entail—we’ll discuss the firearms used in The Hardest Ride. When I came up with the idea of this article, I thought the novel might be a good mechanism for the examination. It’s set in the winter of 1886, by which time most of the firearms in use through the Old West era were already in distribution. There were of course later weapons introduced, but by then many did not see widespread use in the Old West era. A word on distribution. The Colt Peacemaker, for example. It was introduced in 1874, but it was a year or two before they even came into wide use. Another consideration when mentioning a weapons caliber. A particular weapon may have been introduced in a particular year, but not necessarily in all the calibers it was eventually made in.  As this series continues we’ll also look at additional arms mentioned in The Hardest Ride’s sequel, Ride Harder.

A rope and a gun
Guns were tools of the trade for 1880s cowboys and vaqueros. These are some who argue that many cowhands didn’t carry guns, that Western movies and novels overplayed the common use of the gun. They claim too that this is based on period photographic evidence. Many photographs of the Old West are from its later years and guns were indeed not as frequently carried owing to the spread of law and order. Most towns had laws on the books prohibiting guns within the incorporated limits or at least within saloons and certain other establishments, not unlike today. In many towns, respectable citizen, even cowhands known to be steady and trustworthy, carried guns openly. They were known and trusted by the marshal, mayor, judges, etc.
It may surprise some that in 1871 the Republican Texas Legislature passed a law stating: “If any person in this state shall carry on or about his person, saddle, or in his saddle-bags, any pistol he shall be punished by a fine of not less than twenty-five nor more than one hundred dollars. That’s about $2,000 today. The law didn’t apply to travelers and those in “frontier county liable to incursions by hostile Indians.” The primary motivation of the law was to allow the Reconstruction government to disarm Confederate sympathizers and those interfering with the rights of freed slaves. Later, it allowed the Democratic Legislature to disarm Black sharecroppers. Rifles and shotguns could be openly carried.
Pistols or revolvers? While there’s a distinction between the two, the terms were used interchangeably by the cowboy. What’s the difference between the two terms? Well, a pistol is any handgun, whether single-shot or a self-loading semi-automatic, that’s not a revolver.
Guns though were important to the cowboy and widely carried, especially on the 1880s Texas-Mexican border. By then there were few Indian troubles, but Mexican banditos, rustlers, highwaymen, robbers, and plain old troublemakers were still plentiful. As a tool, the cowboy viewed the gun as essential. The borderlands were perpetually simmering and it didn’t take much for serious trouble to boil over. There were even county “election wars” that saw their share of gunplay. Guns were carried through for self-defense from the occasional bad man or outlaw, but more commonly used for ranching “chores.” This included, but was not limited to putting down injured or sick cattle and horses, killing snakes, eradicating destructive javelina and wild hogs, shooting coyotes, skunks, and wild dogs—feared because of hydrophobia—rabies, and bagging game when the opportunity presented itself. Wolves and pumas, a threat to cattle and sheep, were rapidly being eradicated from many areas.
True, many cowboys didn’t routinely carry a revolver, but they often owned one, even if only a small-caliber cheapo model. Some didn’t carry one openly, but in their saddlebag or coat pocket. More commonly carried was the rifle, or more often, the shorter barreled carbine for its handiness. Even out in the wide open spaces there was not a lot of use for longer barreled rifles, unless one was a serious hunter…and a darn good shot. Depending on where one was, the most common game was mule deer, white-tail deer, and pronghorn antelope.
Before we talk about specific guns, let’s discuss an important factor. Realistically, at how far can targets be hit?

Realistic shooting ranges
For the cowboy, most rifle shooting took place at relatively close ranges, typically under a hundred feet, usually much less. Most cowboys were not all that good a shot and were hard-pressed to hit anything near a hundred feet much less a hundred yards. The chances of hitting a moving target at such ranges were almost impossible. In the opening of The Hardest Ride Bud’s first-round hit on an airtight with a rifle at a hundred paces, maybe ninety yards, was actually a very good rifle shot. They didn’t have the funds to spend on a lot of ammunition.
More widely used than seen in movies and novels was the plain old double-barrel shotgun. A shotgun plays an important role in The Hardest Ride, a metaphor for a young woman’s unconventionality and independence. Shooting was at generally close ranges and the shooter was not always that good of a shot. Shotguns were good for small game and bird hunting, and eradicating varmints. It was a lot easier to hit a rattlesnake, or a man for that matter, at twenty feet with a scattergun than a revolver. They were also cheaper than a mechanically sophisticated carbine. A shotgun gave a man only two shots though. Scatterguns only scattered so much. At thirty yards they only had about a three-foot spread. At forty yards they began to spread more, but by then only a small number of pellets hit the target and they had lost much of their potency. In room-size shooting situations their spread might only be a foot, certainly not room-clearing blasts as is often assumed. More often than not, shotguns retained their long barrels. Swan-off shotguns (under 18 inches) and short-barreled (20-22 inches) coach guns were relatively uncommon. We’ll talk more about shotguns in a future installment.
Most handguns, or rather the shooters themselves, were not very accurate at over twenty yards, and that’s really pushing it. It takes a crack shot to hit airtights at fifteen, even twenty yards. More realistically, 10 yards—just 30 feet, was a difficult shot for an airtight or bottle. By the way, I don’t think they shot to pieces a lot of bottles. They were too useful for other things. Beer bottles, emerging in the 1880s by the way, could be sold back to brewers. Most gunfights, not that many cowboys were even involved in one, were at ranges of ten to twenty-five feet. There is an account of the shootout between James Butler Hickok—“Wild Bill” Hickok—and Davis Tutt in Springfield, Missouri. They opened fire on one another on first sight at 150 feet. While the actual range is disputed, many eyewitnesses claim it is so. Tutt bit the dust by the way. If true, that is certainly an extreme range for a revolver fight.
And then there’s the silliness. There are numerous Western movies in which a gunman braces himself, takes careful aim, elevates his pistol based on I don’t know what, and hits a moving target at extreme range. It didn’t happen. Handguns had short 4-6-inch barrels. Even with a “long” barreled revolver with a small powder load, a heavy bullet, and simple sights, it was difficult to hit a stationary man-sized target at even thirty yards. Keep in mind that all guns of this period were still firing black powder. Black powder loads offered more variance in ballistics than the smokeless powder loads appearing in the 1890s. Bullets were solid lead, no semi-jacketed hollow-points or anything fancy. With short barrels, heavy blunt bullets, and light black powder loads, any degree of long-range accuracy with a handgun was unobtainable, with the exception of the rare lucky shot.
Keep in mind too that when shooting from a galloping horse or from a jolting stagecoach, especially if the target too is on a galloping horse, is a virtually impossible shot. A fraction of an inch alignment of the barrel with the target can mean a miss by a foot or more at even a close target. Additionally there’s no way one can allow for windage and the irregularity of a gallop on even an open level ground.
About the silliest shooting sequence I’ve seen in a Western movie was so far beyond reality to be laughable. Unfortunately I don’t recall its title. If this rings a bell with someone, please let me know. The scene saw the hero duck behind a water trough as I recall and it just so happened that there was a 16-inch long 1 x 4-inch board laying there. He picked it up and there just so happened to be a knot near the end of the board that just do happened to be loose enough that he was able to knock it out with the butt of his Colt and it just so happened to be just the right size to insert the butt into the hole that just so happened to be the right distance from the board’s end to clear the trigger guard. With the revolver wedged into the knothole, he used it as a cumbersome shoulder stock to take aim and just so happened to hit the bad guy at a range difficult for a carbine.
I have tried to give an idea on the cowboys’ outlook and use of guns in The Hardest Ride as well as include some interesting and sometimes little known firearms that were somewhat more common than often acknowledged. There were a large number of firearms around other than Winchesters, Colts, and Smith & Wessons. They may not have been as common as these staple firearms, but they were widely used in their own right. We’ll take a look at Bud Eugen’s firearms in the next installment.


  1. Thank you! Looking forward to the rest of the series.

    Nancy C

  2. GORDO,

    I read every word. I also look forward to other installments about weapons of the West.

    Once before I disagreed with you about one particular in your argument about Westerners and whether or not they could shoot. I believe this: Many Westerners came from the Civil War. Many soldiers on both sides fought in large battles using their weapons over and over and over. It is just not believable that by the end of the war (or their enlistment) they would not become great experts with a weapon and with shooting.

    Anyway---good article!

    1. I understand what you're saying Charlie, but I don't thing the smooth-bore and even rifled muzzle-loaders with extremely poor sights (many lacked rear sights) and being taught to mass fire directed at troop formations is very conducive to learning how to shoot accurately. Its a start, but unless someone did a lot of hunting I don't think the run of the mill cowboy, farmer, or townsman were much better than average shots at best.

  3. Well done! I'm glad to see the subject covered in this depth, and the same should apply to other genres such as action-adventure and police procedurals, etc.

  4. I have seen a book for writers about firearms, mainly oriented to modern police use. I cannot begin to recall the title and have Googled for it with no luck.
    My "The Big Book of Gun Trivia: Everything you want to know, don't want to know and don't know you need to know" covers some Old West and modern military facts about guns that would be valuable to writers.

  5. Good article.
    I remember seeing a movie with the knot-hole-board stock but can't remember the title or the actor.
    I did a series on my own blog a while ago about the weapons I've used in my novels and a couple of the liberties I took.
    Some liberties, as you suggest, should never be taken. I was reading a story about the early days of the gold rush (Barkerville, BC in 1860s) which was entertaining up until the author gave his protagonist a .30-30 Winchester. None were chambered for that round until the Model 1894. Ruined the whole book for me.