WHAT OUR OLD WEST ANCESTORS SAID ABOUT THE GUNS THEY CARRIED
Updated: Feb 12
Upon the Western Frontier, the only 'first-responder' around would be you. The variety of Frontier weapons depended upon the needs of those who carried them from Colonial times through the 1870's...and arguably still today.
What is an adventure without a protagonist stepping off into the unknown armed against the beasts and brigands who wait in the shadows? The tales of armed heroes facing down insurmountable odds has captivated adventurous minds since the age of the first storytellers. In the American West, the gun represents that rugged individual as the symbol of self-reliance and responsibility. In settled towns of mostly law-abiding communities, “packing iron” was often unnecessary. However, in the wild, unsettled plains and mountains, travelers were compelled to ‘go heeled’ and it captured the imaginations of generations the world over. Just like today, gunfights were a statistically rare occurrence so arming up was more for providing meat for the table or warding off wild animals. Still, there were occasions where one also needed a deterrent against the 2-legged beasts who lived beyond the laws of man.
The Arms Carried by Prairie Travelers and Mountaineers
Firearms and edged weapons are just like any other tool. Their various design characteristics gave them an advantage in approaching the specific tasks at hand. The typical armaments carried in the days of the American frontier usually included some type of longarm, a pistol or two and a variety of cutting edges such as knives and hatchets. Among these would be counted long-bladed ‘butcher knives’ later to be replaced by regional ‘toothpicks’ or even, the Bowie knife. A hatchet or ‘tomahawk’ served both as a useful tool as well as a devastating backup weapon. In regards to firearms, there were rifles, fowlers, shot-guns, surplus army muskets, carbines, and even repeating arms as well as pistols or revolvers. Pistols were typically single-shot hand guns while revolvers most likely were ‘5-or 6-shooter revolvers. Small .28 to .31 caliber models were commonly called ‘pocket revolvers'. The .36 caliber revolvers was often referred to as a ‘belt-revolver’ or as a ‘navy-six’ especially in the later decades of the 19th century. The .44 caliber revolvers were called ‘dragoon-revolvers’, ‘batteries’, or ‘army revolvers’.
With each decade of America’s frontier history came varied climates, landscapes, technological, as well as social changes that dictated the rules of what weapons would be best. For example, the dense foliage with the smaller game of eastern forests meant hunters would likely engage their targets at less than one hundred yards with a smaller caliber bullet. Open plains with big game required a larger-bored and longer-ranged solution. From the recollections of those who were there, a few quotes were selected along with insight about the arms known to have been carried by our frontier ancestors.
The Early West from Ohio and Kentucky to The Rocky Mountain Fur Trade
This period really dates from colonial times and continues well into the 1830-50’s ‘expansionist era’. Even today, much of this land still remains wild and untamed. Travelers of the period needed a reliable arm that could suitably take game in the forest but still be formidable enough for uninvited guests. This was typically a rifle or fowler accompanied by a hunting knife and perhaps a hatchet or tomahawk.
“Over it (the shoulder) hung a powder horn and a bullet pouch, and around his body was a leathern belt in which was thrust a large formidable knife. A loaded rifle lay carelessly across the rider’s shoulders.”
-Rural Kentucky (ca.1800-10s) Pioneer Life in the West – J.B. Finley (written in 1857)
The ‘rifle’ alluded to here would be a flint lock. Indian trade guns using the same type of ignition system were often called a ‘fusee’. The 'pan and flint system would be the norm right up until the percussion cap appeared in the 1830s. But from the days of ‘Kentucky backwoodsmen’ to the Rocky Mountain Fur Trappers and Plains Hunters, the arms-lineup remained largely the same as noted from the 1840s era account here.
“A long butcher knife in the belt with tomahawk and a long, heavy rifle.”
-The Great West (1851) Henry Howe
Fur trappers were more apt to enhance their kit with a pistol or two added in anticipation of an armed confrontation with hostile Indians or desperadoes. Bonneville gave a description of arms carried by William Henry Vanderburgh when he was killed by Blackfeet warriors in 1832.
“He still had his rifle in his hand and his pistols in his belt”
-The Rocky Mountains; or, Scenes, Incidents, and Adventure in the Far West – W. Irving (1837)
Many of the early frontier rifles in the eastern states were small-bored or ‘squirrel guns. For good reason; why waste a large lead bullet and twice the powder when a small .32-.45 caliber ball will sufficiently take game such as squirrels, hares, muskrats, turkeys, and eastern woodland deer. While larger calibers did also exist, it was all about the economic advantage. Those who chose to spend their dollars on a big-bored gun had good reason to do so depending on their occupation or the game they hunted. Another favorite was the muzzle-loading ‘fowler’ or smooth bored (single or double-barreled) gun. These were the shotguns of the early frontier. They could use bird shot for small game and avian prey or a patched ball for larger game. Fowlers were usually from around .55 to .62 caliber but could go up to about .79 caliber (10 gauge). The ubiquitous ‘trade-gun-or-musket’ and ‘barn guns’ were typically fowlers.
The Rocky Mountain Fur Trade and The Western Trails
Following the exploration by Lewis and Clark, the west really opened up beyond the Mississippi through the plains, into the Rocky Mountains, Forests and over the Deserts all the way to the Pacific Coast.
Before a network of National Wagon Roads was established, travelers were compelled to travel the vast country in groups for mutual protection. Weapons with superior range and power were required and this is where a rifle throwing a larger ball really showed its worth. “Big bore” rifles were the weapon of choice for life in the Rockies. Fur trappers typically carried them as flint-locks from the eastern states. In the mid 1820s around the region of St. Louis and along the various trails west from it is where the custom-made Hawken (sometimes misspelled Hawkin's) rifle earned its name with mountaineers for its superior range and ability to accurately stop large animals such as the bison, elk, mule-deer, catamount, and bear. Mountain man Dick Wootton wrote extensively on life in Colorado, New Mexico and along the Santa Fe Trail. Many of those observations were in regards to the arms they carried along the way.
“Every man wore a full buckskin suit and a pair of moccasins. In a belt which he always wore, he carried a couple of pistols, two large knives and a tomahawk. What we called a tomahawk was a kind of hatchet which we used to chop our meat up with, and in fact do all the chopping that we had to do.”
Wootton also described a similar set of arms for those whom he had hired on to accompany his outfit as stated in a letter dated June 24th, 1852.
“I armed each of the men, Americans and Mexicans alike, with a first-class rifle, a pistol, and knife, and thus equipped we started our long drive…”
-The Rocky Mountains into New Mexico Territory (ca.1830-50’s) – “Uncle” Dick Wootton (written in 1890)
As emigrants headed west toward the gold regions, numerous guidebooks gave advice on what to take for the long trip.
“Every man should be provided with a good rifle, and if convenient, with a pair of pistols, five pounds of powder, and ten pounds of lead. With the wagon, there should be carried such carpenter’s tools as a handsaw, augur, gimblet, chisel, shaving-knife, &c., an axe, hammer, and hatchet.”
-The Emigrant’s Guide to New Mexico, California, and Oregon - Disturnell (1849)
A brace of single-shot pistols was a common sight with long-hunters and prairie travelers, but it was later to be replaced with Colt’s revolvers and the various other brands who followed suit especially after Colt’s patent expired in 1857. By that time, the revolver was the rule while the single-shot ‘pistol’ was now a relic of the past.
In the late 1850’s, US Army Captain Randolph Marcy was asked to compose a guidebook for emigrants based on his 25 years’ experience upon the western frontier. His book continues to supply today’s generations with a wealth of knowledge on what pioneers carried as well at the various methods of travel and survival used while crossing the continent.
“Every man who goes into the Indian country should be armed with a rifle and revolver, and he should never in camp or out of it, lose sight of them.”
From the 1840s-50s onward, Colt’s revolving pistols started to make up a strong presence in frontier arms. Marcy gave a preference for the heavier ‘army’ revolvers (.44 cal.) for their superior penetration making them capable of killing bears over the less-powerful (.36 caliber) ‘belt revolvers’.
Marcy also gave valuable observations as to what type of rifle was carried on the frontier versus what the old hands were set on carrying despite recent advancements in firearms technology. Breech loading arms such as Hall’s, Maynard, Sharps, and others offered an efficient way to load and fire faster and with far greater ease on foot or even from the saddle.
One disadvantage early breech loaders had was a loss of power caused by gas escaping at the breech while firing. Although loading was faster, the gas pressure propelling the bullet was diminished. For this reason, muzzle loading arms continued to have an advantage for hunters in overall muzzle energy until the advent of the metallic cartridge. Among those who clung to the old muzzle loaders were the mountaineers and fur trappers.
“A large majority of men prefer the breech-loading arm, but there are those who still adhere tenaciously to the old-fashioned muzzle loading rifle as preferable to any of the modern inventions. Among these may be the border hunters and mountaineers, who can not be persuaded to use any other than the Hawkin’s rifle, for the reason that they know nothing about the merits of any others.”
-The Prairie Traveler. – R. Marcy (1859)
There are other instances where older arms such as flint-locks retained the trust of seasoned plainsmen over more modern solutions. When George W. Kendall made his travels across the Southwest in 1841, he gave an interesting account of his friend, Texas frontiersman Tom Hancock who clung to his old-fashioned firearm until necessity compelled him to upgrade for at least a while.
“Tom's ordinary weapon, and the one upon which he most ‘prided’ himself, was a long, heavy, flint-lock rifle, of plain and old-fashioned workmanship, for he could not be made to believe in percussion caps and other modern improvements. In the adventure I am about to describe he was armed with one of Colt's repeating rifles, which he had borrowed, his own being out of order.”
-Narrative of the Texan Santa Fe Expedition – G. W. Kendall (1847)
On a supplemental note, Kendall carried a Dickson rifle which at the time was a well-known brand of muzzle-loaders manufactured in Louisville, Kentucky. It was described as “short but heavy-barreled” and of .59 caliber (24 gauge). This account brings us to the discussion of repeating arms making their appearance at a time when muzzle loading arms were the trusted norm. Although a single-shot arm provided fewer moving parts and was less-likely to break, weapons that could deliver more than a single shot per loading was the reasonable next step in weapons design for border warfare.
Additional Notes on Revolving (Repeating) Arms
Despite its bad reputation by modern historians quoting a few Civil War accounts, Colt’s line of revolving rifles and shotguns were looked upon favorably by mountaineers and seasoned military officials especially for frontier use. As long as they were handled properly, with both hands behind the cylinder, Colt's revolving rifles would serve the shooter as reliably as the pistol will. Take note of the photo from the the US Army manual. Holding the rifle by fore-stock is a bad idea. There is a tremendous amount of blast and spray between the breech and cylinder. In the event of a misfire, it would cost you some fingers so for this reason, shooters should always cup the trigger guard with their free hand and NEVER place said hand in front of the breech and cylinder.
Just like Colt’s revolving pistols, the rifles and carbines could discharge up to 6-shots in an era of single-shot weapons. The down-side to them is that they were enormously expensive. Just one 'new model' revolving rifle in the 1850s would cost the equivalent of at least two new muzzle loading rifles. Below is an account from Josiah Gregg from 1843 when the Colt’s (first) pattern rifle and pistols he carried would have been of the ‘Patterson’ design. These sold for up to $150 each at a time when a good rifle cost $20.
Here is a rare account of individuals who could each afford a Patterson rifle along with a brace of Patterson revolvers.
“Then my brother an myself were each provided with one of Colt’s repeating rifles, and a pair of pistols of the same, so that we could if necessary, carry thirty-six loaded shots apiece; which alone constituted a capacity of defense rarely matched even on the prairies.”
-Commerce of the Prairies or the Journal of a Santa Fe Trader, Vol. 2 – Josiah Gregg (1849)
Records from other publications refer to Marcy carrying one of Colt’s New Model (m1855) Revolving Rifles during the Third Seminole War (1857). His official account for the arm is consistent with what he said about it in ‘The Prairie Traveler’.
“For my own part, I look upon Colt’s new patent rifle as a most excellent arm for border service. It gives six shots in a more rapid succession than any other rifle I know of, and these, if properly expended, are oftentimes sufficient to decide a contest…”
-The Prairie Traveler. – R. Marcy (1859)
The next passage is given by George Hunter during California’s Rogue River War of 1853. Note the mention of a rare ’Patent’ rifle which may have been a Colt Patterson Rifle or even a rare Porter Turret-Rifle which carried from 7-10 shots in a rotary magazine that could be switched out quickly. Once again this serves as a reminder that despite the value and availability of repeating arms, the reliable and economical muzzle loaders continued to do their service within one's financial means.
“We were each armed with a muzzle-loading rifle, a brace of Colt’s navy revolvers, and a knife – except Crosbie, who had a patent gun with two cylinders, which he could fire sixteen times without reloading.”
- Reminiscences of an Old Timer- George Hunter (1853 account, written in 1887)
Did they carry extra cylinders for their revolvers?
There were a few period opinions about the advantage of Colt’s patent revolving arms and in carrying loaded cylinders. Some of those accounts have been used in this article. A colleague of mine showed me accounts of Missouri Bushwhackers switching out loaded cylinders during the Civil War so we can't say it was never done; it just wasn't common. The afore-mentioned and potentially dangerous ‘Turret-guns’ were designed to have easily interchangeable magazines. But in practice, carrying a loaded cylinder in your pocket or hunting bag is enormously dangerous. The right jolt will cause a discharge that is embarrassingly too close to the one carrying it. Switching out cylinders was arguably too time consuming in the middle of a firefight whereas carrying extra revolvers made much better sense in most cases during the era. Even Colt's early loading instructions warned against removing a capped, loaded cylinder from the firearm as it was just too dangerous. For this reason there are no known original ‘cylinder pouches’ with the exception of anachronistic designs being made by historic reenactors since the 1960s. Is it possible individuals other than a few bushwhackers may have done it? Yes, but historical accounts indicate it was not at all commonly practiced. While carrying spare magazines makes sense to modern shooters, the complex loading process for 'cap & ball' made carrying multiple revolvers the more logical means to maximize firepower.
Did Old West Travelers Really Need Revolvers on the Trail?
Actually, yes. Pistols were and remain the historically preferred weapon of personal defense for Americans. Their compact convenience allows the bearer to have both a simple means of protection and a deterrent to potential miscreants. This is why period travel guides did not dissuade emigrants from carrying pistols and revolvers even though a confrontation where they may be used was unlikely. As wagon roads became more established, civilization and law enforcement came with it. This in turn made it even riskier for desperadoes or hostile war parties to attack travelers at will. As the old saying still goes, 'tis better to have and not need than to need and not have'. Here are two trail guides that express a similar ideal regarding personal arms for the journey across the west.
“Of firearms, we believe the best, considering their weight and effectiveness for all manner of game to be, good sized, double-barreled shot guns. Many will take rifles because they have them, and are accustomed to use them. It is well enough to have a revolver, but you will seldom if ever, have occasion for its use.”
-The National Wagon Road Guide – Whitton, Towne & Co. (1858)
In the heyday of post-war travel across the great plains, caution was still advised despite the unlikelihood of an attack. This travel guide to Montana’s gold regions gives advice similar to that of the previous quotation.
“Parties should go well armed. Each should have a rifle or shot gun, and a revolver. Very few who cross the plains have occasion to use them, but the fact of having them along serves to fortify parties against an attack from either the marauding whites or hostile Indians.”
-Montana Gold Regions: The Emigrant’s Guide Overland. – J.L. Campbell (1865)
There were times where certain personalities carried arms to an excessive degree. While the article describes a normal compliment of weapons for any frontier traveler, lawmen and desperadoes sometimes carried an excessive amount of guns. In 1873, Isabella Lucy Bird recorded the armaments of a desperado she encountered in the Rockies. Even with her first-hand observation of other western types, she noted the number of weapons he carried to be 'unusual'.
“What was unusual was the number of weapons he carried. Besides a rifle laid across his saddle and a pair of pistols in the holsters, he carried two revolvers and a knife in his belt and a carbine slung behind him.”
-A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, Isabella Lucy Bird Letter XI, p. 202 (Dated Nov. 6, 1873 at Hall’s Gulch Colorado)
Since the end of the 1870s to the present day, the advent of metallic cartridges has made carrying a single handgun to be enough as a deterrent against would-be criminals. A shot-gun or repeating rifle was suitable for travels across wild country but was normally unnecessary in town. Today’s magazine fed pistols carry more firepower than a hatful of percussion revolvers. Bowie knives have been replaced by more useful folding pocket knives. In my home state of Arizona, the subtle presence of concealed arms is preferred over open carry. Since Arizona is a gun-owner’s state, few are impressed by flaunting your firepower. Besides, it’s always better to keep the bad guys guessing. So, in a way ‘packing iron’ is not at all a sign of bygone times but rather, one step in the continuation of a very old idea. It’s another sign that America’s frontier spirit isn’t dead, but rather alive and well in the hearts and dreams of her sons and daughters. May it continue for many generations to come.