Monday, May 23, 2016

Guns and the Old West—Part III by Gordon Rottman

This series began two months ago and 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.

Marta’s shotgun and some oddball weapons
I guess first a brief word on Marta is in order. Marta, no one knows her real name or much about her. She’s a stray 16-year old mute Mexican girl, trail-smart—her murdered family had been migrant workers doing any odd job they could find—tough, self-reliant, practical, opinionated, and didn’t take any gruff from anybody. And especially from Bud Eugen, an out of work cowpoke unprepared to handle the spunky girl.

The next mention of arms in The Hardest Ride is a brief reference to some old rifles used by renegade Indians when Bud found Marta’s murdered family. Bud reflects, “Poor Mexes almost never had guns. They were easy pickings….” This was often true. Besides lack of money for such expensive implements, it was common for Texicans to simply disarm Mexicans encountered with firearms. There wasn’t a lot of mutual trust. All Bud found were empty cartridge cases at the murder scene. The rimfire .50-70 Government was used in the obsolete Model of 1866 Springfield trap door rifle issued by the Army until it was replaced by the well-known .45-70 Government in 1873. It was the first centerfire cartridge adopted by the Army. The other cases he found at the scene were .40-50 Sharps. There were about two dozen different .40-caliber rifle cartridges in use by the mid-1880s for buffalo and other large game. Most of these were long-ranged, but the .40-50 Sharps was the smallest of the many Sharps rounds and mostly used in Remington rolling block rifles, which did not have the strongest breech blocks around. He also found some .32 Long Rifle cases. This was a reloadable centerfire version of the older .32 Long rimfire. It was never too popular and eventually pushed out of the way by the .32-20 Winchester and other newer .32-caliber rounds. The .32 Long Rifle was found in various single-shot rifles from 1875 like the J. Stevens. The 12-gauge empties Bud found he assumed were from Indians. Later he decides Marta’s papa probably had the shotgun as she obviously knew how to handle one.
 Springfield .50-70 Model of 1866 rifle.

Bud encountered a lone cowpuncher heading home after a long absence and besides the revolver holstered on his belt; he noticed he carried a “horse pistol in a saddle holster.” This was not a particular type of pistol, but any make and model of revolver carried in a holster attached to the saddle. It was simply a backup. It might be his “second best” pistol. Occasionally a flap of cowhide with hair might cover it for protection from the weather or concealment. There were also pommel holsters, usually two holsters connected by a leather piece, often with a hole that fitted over the saddle horn. This was mainly a military rig, but occasionally fancied by lawmen.
With Bud’s encounter with some murdering Indians, we learn he not only uses ammunition sparingly, but is very self-conscious about his ability to hit targets, especially at the close ranges he experiences here. This is where he acquires the shotgun that becomes a major player in The Hardest Ride. It’s a Parker Brothers 16-gauge long barreled, double-hammer piece mainly used for fowling. This particular piece had 30-inch barrels. From muzzle to butt it was almost as long as Marta was tall (she’s 4 feet 11 inches). Double-hammer meant exposed hammers cocked manually. It would not be until 1888 that hammerless, self-cocking models appeared. Bud views its acquisition as a hunting piece, but his practical mind tells him to purchase some buckshot and later slugs. In those days the most popular gauges were 10-, 12-, and 16-gauge. The massive 8-gauge also saw some use. Today the 12- and 20-gauges are the most popular. As a side note, anything today over 10-gauge is illegal and has been since 1918.
I realize most know that in the gauge system the larger the number the smaller the shotgun’s bore. The following is just for those who are not clear on it. A shotgun’s gauge is determined by the number of balls of the shotgun’s bore diameter that can be formed from one-pound of lead. A 16-gauge shotgun requires sixteen balls from that pound of lead while a larger 12-gauge has twelve balls.
I’ve been asked why just a 16-gauge and not something bigger? First it had to be something the diminutive Marta could handle and I simply wanted to avoid making it a big bore just because its macho—“My scattergun’s bigger than yours.” She makes pretty effective use of the smaller gauge gun as it is. The Parkers were quality pieces for their day, a basic model going for about $40.00. Even basic models sported some fancy engraving. What else went for $40.00 in 1886? A Grade A Michigan four-seat family wagon.
This little event with the three Indians also lands Bud a nice Smith & Wesson Russian No. 3 in .44 S&W. S&Ws were the second most popular revolvers after the Colt. The S&W Russian was based on the pattern purchased by the Russian government in 1870 and chambered for the .44 S&W Russian, a popular and accurate cartridge. They began to be sold in the States in 1878. The Russians were chambered for other cartridges including the .44 S&W American, .44-40 Winchester, .32-44 S&W, .38-44 S&W, and .45 S&W Schofield. S&Ws were quality revolvers and quite popular. Besides obvious external differences in design from the Colt, the two big differences were: Colts were loaded through a side gate on the right side and cartridges were emptied one at a time and loaded one at a time rotating the cylinder for each round. S&Ws broke open to eject all empties at once and could be loaded much quicker since all chambers were exposed and did not require cylinder rotation for each round to be loaded. And, Colt cylinders—viewed from the rear—rotated clockwise and S&Ws rotated counterclockwise. There is no particular benefit for the direction of rotation. It’s just the way they were made. A shooter needed to know this so he could rapidly load a round or two so the cartridge would align when the revolver was cocked without having to ratchet the cylinder all the way around in the opposite direction.
The Remington Army .50-caliber Model of 1871 pistol Bud later liberated from a wannabe desperado was outdated the day it was adopted. Revolvers had been popular and in wide use since the 1850s and after the Civil War the Army adopted a single-shot pistol of all things! It was a rolling block action as used on rifles and breech-loaded using an internally primed cartridge (no visible primer—it looked like a rimfire). It is little wonder Bud had difficulty selling it, which was fortunate as Marta made effective use of it in a moment of dire need. The Army wisely adopted the Colt single-action Army model, the Peacemaker, two years later. As useless as Bud considered the old Remington .50-caliber, it later has its use.
Part IV to appear on 20 June (third Monday).

No comments:

Post a Comment