Firearms played an important role on the American frontier. Used to hunt animals for food and clothing, they also safeguarded one’s home against outlaws and other hostile elements. This definitive, scrupulously researched work describes and illustrates the many different weapons that opened up and secured the American West. Enhanced with colorful anecdotes, the vividly detailed narrative tells the dramatic story of shoulder arms, hand guns, percussion and cartridge weapons, and describes the hunters, settlers, peace officers, stagecoach drivers, soldiers, range detectives, rustlers, outlaws, Indian chiefs, and other picturesque characters who used them.
Here are detailed descriptions and illustrations of the Kentucky rifle that saw battle in the American Revolution and in the War of 1812; the repeating rifle used in the Civil War; the Sharps rifle that wreaked havoc during the great buffalo hunts; the Colt revolver, used by cowboys and outlaws alike; the fast and reliable Winchester rifle, the most widely used shoulder arm of the post-Civil War era; as well as flintlock pistols, derringers, muskets, buffalo guns, carbines, signal pistols, Confederate revolvers, and many other celebrated firearms.
Illustrated with nearly 500 photographs and line illustrations, this classic reference will not only be invaluable to dealers and collectors but will also appeal to Americana devotees, weaponry enthusiasts, and students of the American West.
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Guns of the Old West
An Illustrated Guide
By Charles Edward Chapel
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
How Suns Began
FIREARMS, like people, have ancestors, and the frontier guns were no exception. Just as did most of the men and women who carried them, these weapons had their early roots in Europe. We can trace their lineage back to the sieges of the walled cities of the thirteenth and fourteeth centuries, to a primitive weapon called the hand cannon.
Don't be misled by the name, for the first versions of this arm bore little resemblance to the old pistols and shoulder weapons you see in museums or the shops of antique gun-dealers today. The word "hand" merely indicates that this was a semi- or fully portable cannon, at first maneuvered and fired by two men, and the early models were very crude indeed.
These were merely tubes made of welded iron bars strengthened by hoops and covered with leather. The explosive they used was called "serpentine powder," a mealy mixture of saltpeter, sulphur and charcoal, and it took a large quantity in each charge to give sufficient velocity to the missiles—at first stones, then lead, brass and iron balls—to penetrate enemy coats of mail. Although it was not long before the barrels began to be cast of iron or bronze, they continued to be not only loaded, but also ignited from the muzzle by torch or red-hot iron.
The name of the inventive genius who first bored a small hole at the top of the barrel near the breech is, alas, lost to history. By putting a little black powder into this touchhole and spilling a bit around it, then applying the torch, this unsung hero literally blazed the way for breech firing. Perhaps he had experienced some personal casualty in firing from the muzzle, for that operation could be both awkward and dangerous. Only after the torch had been applied to the muzzle did the gunner have time to get the piece set to aim and to absorb the recoil, and it's conceivable that premature explosions often occurred. All of which might well have inflicted more casualties on the gunners themselves than on their human targets, making that type of weapon the enemy's best friend.
The process of forming gunpowder into grains, discovered in the fifteenth century, worked a change. By this method of "corning," as it was called, one could vary the size of the grains, and therefore the strength of the powder. To charge adequately a hand cannon, it was not necessary to fill half the barrel with powder, when a smaller amount of the larger grains would do the job. The natural consequence of this was the introduction of one-man hand cannon—the forerunner, or remote ancestor, of the hand gun and shoulder arm used on the constantly shifting American frontier. Yet—characteristically of all firearms—this improvement does not imply that the former type of muzzle-firing weapon was obsolete. Hand cannon, both muzzle- and breech-firing types, were used right alongside the crossbow, for the development of new types of firearms was slow and often like the way to heaven, one step forward and two steps back. We will discuss this phenomenon a little later—for phenomenon it is when compared to the history of almost all other mechanical devices.
Use of the fifteenth-century hand cannon is shown by figures 1 and 2, for infantry, and in figure 3 as it was used by mounted men, usually knights or men of high estate who could afford such expensive armament.
When used by horse soldiers the hand cannon was called a petronel, and it was secured to the horseman by a thong or chain about his neck, attached to the butt of the weapon. His armored breastplate was just as necessary in absorbing the heavy recoil as it was in fending off enemy missiles. So, filled with sound and fury, his charger pounding ahead at full gallop, with one gauntleted first clenching a flaming torch and the other steadying his petronel in its forked metal rod, this knight must have struck terror to the hearts of a less combat-wise enemy. And that's probably all that he did strike, for his armament—despite all its noise and fire and smoke —was far more frightening in appearance than deadly in performance.
Just how effective these ancient weapons were is something we may never accurately know. We do know that historians of that period were wont to rely on hearsay, gossip and their own personal biases. Objective, on-the-spot reporting was unknown, and usually literacy was limited to monasteries and princes of the church and the realm. Moreover, history and the stories of battles were often not written until decades had passed after the engagements. However, for what it is worth, an Italian writer in 1430 described the use of hand cannon in the siege of Lucca in this manner:
"The Luccanians invented a new weapon. In their hands they held a block of wood, about one and one-half yards long, fastened to which was an iron tube filled with sulfur and saltpeter which threw iron bullets by the force of fire. The blow, when it struck, brought certain death, and neither armor nor shield were a sufficient protection; then not seldom did a single bullet penetrate a file of two or three men."
Before going further, we might warn the reader who may be new to gun lore that it is impossible to assign various types of guns to neat little boxes, labeled by dates and specific kinds of arms. No strict chronological division is possible, because no gun authority would care to say, for example, just when the flintlock period ended and the percussion era began. Even though, in the latter case, we are more or less agreed upon dates of patent, first model, the time of general public acceptance and the date of government use for martial arms, from first date to last there's a time-stretching spread of over three decades. Even when authorities agree—as they rarely do—who is to say if the percussion period began with the granting of patent, the completion of the first model, or the time when the system came into general public use? And even today not only percussion pieces, but flintlocks and almost every other form of historic firearm are in use in some part of the world. When does an era in gun design end? Apparently not quite yet.
So it is throughout the history of guns: the various periods of development and progress are like a number of overlapping circles, each with its own center and each cutting over the circumference of the others.
What happened to old guns? Sometimes they were converted from an old firing system to a newer type. Sometimes they were melted down for their metal, or sold for junk, or gathered dust and rust in the attic. But a surprising number of them are somewhere in regular use.
Madison Avenue, New York, is Advertisingland and it is governed by the Priests of Pursuasion. One of their great basic laws is that obsolescence is the life of trade. This may apply to household equipment, automobiles, toys, clothes, and to other things we use, but within the scope of our book, that law very rarely was valid, and then only as applied to Martial Arms (that is, arms actually contracted for by the government and put into active military use). The guns that come within our purview originally attracted no seeker for prestige; their hidden motivation stayed cozily hidden and they carried no keeping-up-with-the-neighbors snob appeal. The only prestige, motivation and snobbery when a man obtained a gun was a great desire to remain among the living, and a gun was a tool that would help him mightily to do just that. Considerately cared for and used with skill, a gun would argue loud and persuasively for you against man and nature when both were hell-bent on your immediate personal destruction.
New arms, manufactured on the Atlantic seaboard and shipped overland by wagon or by sail to the Coast, were costly, and the pioneer usually had little cash. He was accustomed to "making do"; he was characteristically thrifty, largely because he had to be, but anyway he liked things that had served him well and would still do so. Old buckskins grew soft and comfortable with use; a good horse or mule was one that was seasoned and disciplined to the dangers and hardships of the wilderness trails; a knife might be honed to stiletto thinness and be the better for it, and a well-cared-for rifle might have had the lands so worn with shooting that the barrel had to be rebored for a larger ball, but the gun was still an old friend, and could still be trusted to do a job. Why change it for a more modern weapon, unless there was a good and definite reason?
With the exception of some famous makes of firearms, whose development and descriptions are treated in separate chapters, we will follow the usual method of following the progress of these forebears of Western guns —according to their ignition, or firing, system. Since strict chronological divisions are nonexistent in gun history, the changing method of setting fire to the powder charges in weapons has come to be accepted as the logical line which—no matter how vaguely in point of time—sets off one period of firearm development from another. The reason for taking this mechanism as a kind of yardstick is simple: On the ignition system depend the various loading, aiming and rifling methods—in other words, how the gun is fired determines how it is used, and how effective the arm is for its purpose.
We can see that very clearly below, in a development of a system and a weapon which was the natural outgrowth (or development or evolution, if you wish) of the hand cannon. This is called ...
Although the matchlock was probably invented in Europe about 1450, it was possibly developed in Asia before that date. In its first stage it was a vast improvement on the hand cannon, for, instead of the awkward hot irons and torches used to ignite the priming powder, this new gun was equipped with a burning wick, attached to what we would call the hammer, but what in the illustration is an s-shaped piece of metal that became known as the serpentine. The wick was called a match, thus giving the piece its name. This device was a considerable step forward, for it allowed the shooter to aim and fire at the same time.
In the meantime (again see the illustration) gunmakers moved the touchhole from the top of the barrel to the side, where they placed a tiny' pan, called the flash pan, and which held the priming powder for setting off the main charge. Various changes were to follow, chief among them being the introduction of a match soaked in a saltpeter solution, dried and then issued in four- and five-foot lengths. This, however, proved both awkward and unsatisfactory and resulted in the snapping type of serpentine, which was by this time called a cock, held back by a spring until released by pulling the trigger. The cock then fell with a quick blow, igniting the priming powder in the pan. The long, awkward match of the nonsnapping type was replaced by a short piece of match held in the cock by a tube, instead of by the former clamp.
Many shoulder arms and some pistols using the older nonsnapping type of matchlock were introduced to America by the original settlers, and continued in use until the latter part of the seventeenth century. The chief advantages, accounting for their long span of usefulness, were that they were simple to make and easy to repair. They were also very inexpensive—a fact not without attraction, especially for the Indians, who used this arm well into the eighteenth century, probably during the French and Indian War in what was then our Western frontier.
The serpentine, or nonspanning, type of matchlock (see illustration) worked like this: First the end of the match is lighted (A), being held by the clamp (C) at the upper end of the serpentine in which the match is carried. The lower end of the pivoted, s-shaped piece of metal—later to be known as the trigger—(B) is then pulled to the rear, which lowers the burning end of the match into the pan (D) that holds the fine priming powder. This is ignited and starts a fire going through the touchhole (E) into the rear of the barrel. The main charge of powder is thus ignited, causing the explosion that propels the bullet from the barrel.
Almost three-quarters of a century was to pass before the next development in ignition locks appeared, and as usual this new invention was designed to overcome the defects of the older type. Although the outstanding advantage of the matchlock lay in its simplicity and cheapness, its exposed wick almost precluded game-hunting or human hostilities during damp or rainy weather. Other practical disadvantages were that the matchlock took a long time to prepare for firing, and the burning wick was too often an unwelcome advertisement of the shooter to wild game or human enemy.
For these defects, a remedy of sorts appeared with the application of what was even then an ancient ignition principle—flint and steel. Thus was born what might be termed the great-great-great-grandfather of the later and justly famous flintlock. It was called ...
The Wheel Lock
Although this marked a definite milestone on the strangely twisting road of gun development, even less than other innovations did it replace its predecessors in popularity. During its lifetime its effect on the general use of matchlocks and even longbows and crossbows was negligible.
Probably invented in Germany about 1515, this mechanism, for its period, seems of almost Rube Goldberg complexity after the primitive and simple systems preceding it. The device consisted of a notched steel wheel motivated by a straight spring and cam. The spring was wound with a keylike tool called a spanner, and when the trigger was squeezed, the cock, its jaws holding a piece of flint, descended against the whirling wheel and a shower of sparks ignited the priming powder in the pan. The rest of the process—the fire in the pan running through the touchhole in the rear of the barrel, and so forth—was the same as we have seen in other ignition types. The hardness of the flint, however, wore down the notches in the wheel rim, so iron pyrites, the brassy yellow mineral called "fool's gold," was successfully substituted.
While this was almost weatherproof, and had the further advantages of one's being able to conceal it on the person, and greater accuracy than the matchlock when fired from horseback, it suffered two major intrinsic liabilities. For one thing, the mechanism was both complicated and delicate, and as temperamental as a privileged courtesan. When something went wrong with the wheel lock—oftenest, you may be sure, at a crucial moment in hunting or in combat—nothing less than the services of a skilled locksmith were required. Another built-in disadvantage was the high cost of its construction; the average yeoman or knight of modest means simply could not afford this fancy firearm. Even sovereigns, barons and rich merchants who habitually equipped large units of fighting men from their own private purses, balked at the price of issuing this arm, and as a military gun it was in relatively scant supply. This was just not the stuff to feed the troops; and the crossbow, hand cannon or matchlock that was good enough for grandfather was plenty good enough for the ordinary levied soldier or huntsman. It is probable, however, that our yeoman would not have traded his clumsy but dependable old weapon for the costliest wheel lock that ever lost a nobleman an eight-point buck—or his own life on the battlefield.
This weapon, a rich man's personal arm and often richly ornamented with inlaid ivory, silver and gold, was never in use on the American frontier. It does, however, deserve mention because of its important place in the story of guns, and because it brings us closer to a firing system which, on musket, rifle and pistol, was to play a long and active role in the history of the pioneer West.
The development of guns, as we have seen, was a slow and almost a reluctant process. Improvements and refinements appeared very gradually and over a relatively long period of time. This is specially noticeable when we consider the comparatively breath-taking pace in the changes of other mechanical devices for use in homes, offices and in commerce generally, from the post-Civil War years onward.
The very nature of early firearms—always precision instruments and skillfully hand-wrought to last for generations—precluded any sudden, sweeping dramatic changes which overnight would make yesterday's guns fit only for the junkyard. An exception may be entered here in the case of martial arms; but even then, no matter how vitally urgent the need, alterations took time to design and produce. To offset improvements in enemy weapons—if and when it could be done—meanwhile taxed to the utmost both military and civilian ingenuity and courage until the new guns were available for the field.
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Table of ContentsForeword
I How Guns Began
II The Kentucky Rifle and Pistol Head West
III Flintlock Pistols on the Frontier
IV "Musket, Rifle and Carbine: American Martial Shoulder Arms"
V Pepperboxes: Percussion and Cartridge
VI Pocket-sized Death: Development of the Famous Deringer
VII "The Voice of the Derringer: Imitations, Counterfeits, and Competitors of Deringer's Pocket Pistol"
VIII Twilight of the Derringer: Breech-loading Cartridge Types; the Derringer in Transition
IX Captain Walker's Gun-Hunt: Early Colt Revolvers
X Martial Percussion Hand Guns on the Frontier: U.S. Martial and Secondary Martial Pistols and American Martial Revolovers
XI Johnny Kept His Gun: Confederate Firearms in the West
XII Revolving Shoulder Arms and Related Weapons
XIII "When the Colt Was King: The Immortal '72 Model Peacemaker, and Others"
XIV Gunsmoke over Powder River: The Winchester Rifle
XV The Indian Campaigns: U. S. Martial Arms of the Post-Civil War Era
XVI Buffalo Guns and Hunters
XVII The Shotgun Guards the Stage
XVIII The Guns of Teddy Roosevelt