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The Writers Block > The WB's Art of Warfare > Guns Of The Old West

Title: Guns Of The Old West
Description: I gotta stop watching Deadwood...

Nyles - May 14, 2004 10:00 PM (GMT)
I'll start with cartridge revolvers, because they're the most interesting to me (now that I own handguns I'm finding them ALOT of fun to shoot) and probably everyone else. Now, what you have to understand is there's really two classes of old cartridge handguns (and to a lesser extent cap and ball guns). The big ones, of .45 and .44 caliber (and to a lesser extent .38), which are serious guns you wear on your belt. Then there's the little hideaway guns of .32 and .38 caliber you stick in your pocket and hope you don't need. If anyone cares I'll cover them, but there's so many and they're mostly much the same, and I've only really got an interest or much knowledge about the big ones.

Anyways, as far as old west guns handguns goes, there's one thing Holywood got wrong. The Colt SAA was not the only gun around at the time. Certainly the most common, but far from the only. In fact, throughout the 1870s, Smith & Wesson made more guns than Colt, but also exported alot more so the Colt was more common. I like the other ones, they're obscure (undeservedly so) and some of them are really cool guns. Pictures are mostly repros, except of guns which they've yet to reproduce.

Colt 1873 Single Action Army / Peacemaker

To start with, we have the Colt SAA, the quintessential western gun, and the most popular. Incidentally, not at all my favorite, but I like to be different. Solid frame with a loading gate, which means you have to individual load and eject each round through a gate in the frame, a rather time consuming process. It was also unique in that it was available in a LOT of variations. It wasn't the most accurate revolver available, but it was one of the more reliable and the smallest, so it was easy to carry around.

The most common was probably the 4 3/4" or 5 1/2" (above picture) barrel in .44-40. It was also commonly available with 7 1/2" barrels. Most common calibres were .44-40, .45 Colt, .38-40 and .32-20. .45 Colt was the most powerful, but they didn't make rifles in it, and it was alot cheaper to have your rifle and pistol in the same calibre. .32-20 was a little on the weak side, but a bit more accurate and would do the job if placed right.

Some uncommon variations were the short barreled Sherrif guns, with 3 1/2" and 3" barrels and small grips. Good for compactness, but the 3" version didn't have an ejector rod, so you had to push cases out with a pencil. They were made in dozens of calibers, but aside from the main ones it's worth mentionning that the 3rd caliber introduced was .476 Enfield, to try and sell them to British officers.

7 1/2" Barrel
4 3/4" Barrel

Colt 1871-72 Open Top

The Colt 1871-72 was Colt's first purpose-built cartridge revolver (I'll cover conversions later), in production for only a couple years before the SAA was introduced. It shared alot of design features with their older black-powder revolvers, including the "open top" frame. Because of that, it had the sights on the back of the barrel. The frame was somewhat weak, which made it less accurate, and the .44 Colt cartridge wasn't very impressive. It was pretty much a lackluster design, inferior to Smith & Wesson and Remingtons guns of the time. The SAA was brought out to close the gap, with its closed frame (pretty much copied from Remington in fact).

Colt 1877 Lightning / Thunderer

The Colt 1877 was an interesting gun. It was pretty close to the SAA, but it was a double action. Don't have to manually cock the hammer, just pull through on the trigger. Unfortunately, the trigger was heavy as hell and the gun was therefore inaccurate. It also stradled the line between small and large guns. It was too big and more powerful than a small gun, but smaller than a true belt gun. It had a 4 1/2" barrel, and was available in .38 Colt as the Lightning and .41 Colt as the Thunderer, both with small rounded grips. Both were less powerful than other cartridges. It's also worth nothing that its not designed to be thumb cocked, but not alot of cowboys realised that. As a consequence, most of the ones you find today, the trigger doesn't work or the cylinder won't rotate.

Colt 1878

The Colt 1878 was essentially the 1877 on steroids. Same double action trigger, same rounded grip, but the same size as an SAA and in .45 Colt. They're quite uncommon, and I only seem to see them with 7 1/2" barrels. This was actually Canada's official sidearm before the Boer war.

Smith & Wesson 1869 American

Interestingly, while Smith & Wesson held the patent on cartridge revolvers since 1855, excluding other companies from making them until it expired, until 1869 it only made small revolvers. The American was the first large-frame cartridge revolver in the States, and the first adopted by the US army. It was a break action, like a Webley, allowing for simultaneous ejection of spent catridges. It was also very big, hard to tell from the photos but much bigger than a Colt with a 7" barrel.

It was designed to meet US army requirements, firing a centerfire version of the underpowered .44 Henry cartridge called the .44 American. It wasn't an overly succesful revolver, the US accepted a few thousand before going with the Colt and commercial sales weren't great. It was mostly important for being the start of the S&W line.

Smith & Wesson 1871 Russian Model

This was the first successful Smith & Wesson, built for the Russian government and then for the commercial market. The main difference from the American was that it was chambered for the new .44 Russian cartridge, a good deal more effective than the .44 American (the American's main failing), though still short of the .45 Colt and .44-40 (both of which are too long to fit in a Smith). Otherwise it had a spurred triggerguard and reshaped grip. It was considered the most accurate and most attractive pistol of the era. Never shot one, so I can't vouch for the former, but I'll agree with the latter.

Smith & Wesson 1875 Schofield

The Schofield was, in my opinion, the best revolver in the world before the Webley, and certainly the best of the west. It was designed by Major George Schofield, who was issued an American in the Cavalry and decided to perfect it. It had a redesigned barrel latch which allowed it to be opened with one hand and fired a more powerful cartrige, the .45 Schofield. It also had a reshaped grip. 8000 were bought by the US army for trials, but they were already commited to the Colt, and the Schofield couldn't use Colt ammo (you can shove Schofield ammo into a Colt and it'll fire, but its really not a good idea). Some of the surplus ones had the barrel chopped down to 5".

Smith & Wesson New Model No.3

In 1878 Smith & Wesson dropped all earlier revolvers for the New Model. Don't let No.3 confuse you, it's just the size of the frame, common to the American, Russian and Schofield. It was probably the second most common gun to find in the old west. Used the same basic design as the Russian (they didn't want to keep paying Schofield royalties). They had slightly shortened 6.5" barrels, redesigned grips and mechanics (easier to make), chambered for the .44 Russian. Other barrel lengths and calibers were around, but quite rare. Many went oversees for military service, including to Japan and Australia.

Remington 1875

This was Remington's entry into the revolver game. They had an excellent cap and ball gun, but found themselves playing catch-up after Colt brought out the SAA. The 1875 was pretty close, worked the same, but bigger and beefier. It had a 7 1/2" barrel, and was chambered for the .44 Remington, .44-40 and .44 Colt. It was more accurate than the Colt, but a little more awkward to load. It was never as popular as the Colt or Smith & Wesson, but still a good gun and fairly common to see.

Merwin Hulbert Frontier

The Merwin Hulbert is an unsual gun and something of a mystery. Most people have never heard of them, but they were mostly definately around, though less common to be sure. They're very well made and accurate revolvers, though probably less reliable. They work by pushing a button in front of the trigger and then twisting the barrel and cylinder to the left and pushing it forward. All the cartridges are ejected simultaneously.

They're something of a mystery, there are no production figures available and the different models are somewhat sketchy. They also made small guns using the same design, but thats outside of what I'm talking about. They all had 7" barrels and were pretty big, mostly chambered for the .44-40. They're quite unusual, I've never seen one in person so there's not much more I can say about them.

Anyways, that's the major cartridge revolvers of the old west. There were some others, but they're hardly worth mentionning.

Doc - May 15, 2004 01:07 AM (GMT)
*Doc sits down on the "Uncle Nyles's Story Time Mat" and motions for others to sit down too.

*Eyes gleaming* And then what happened?

(I love these)

Viperx11 - May 17, 2004 11:05 PM (GMT)
Someone was bored Friday night.

Nyles - May 17, 2004 11:30 PM (GMT)
Friday afternoon. I go out with my friends on Friday nights. I'll do another post soon, I've got some more important things going on at the moment.

Viperx11 - May 18, 2004 12:11 AM (GMT)
Lucky bastard who can drive/has friends who can drive....

Cool stuff though.

Unstable_Realities - May 18, 2004 01:27 AM (GMT)
When you'll be 16 Vipes. Don't worry and enjoy simple life while it lasts.

Nyles - May 18, 2004 03:42 AM (GMT)
Cap and ball revolvers, for those who aren't familiar with the concept, were the first repeating firearms. The cylinder isn't bored through all the way, and has nipples for precussion caps. Its loaded with loose powder and ball from the front with a level under the barrel. Basically its a like 6 musket chambers revolving to fire through a single rifled barrel. Pretty good in use, but damn slow to load, take a musket and multiply by 6. Again, pictures are of repros, since they're in much better shape.

Colt Patterson 1836

This was the first revolver, and obviously somewhat crude. It was a 5 shot .36 calibre, usually without loading lever. No trigger guard, the trigger lies against the frame and folds down when its cocked. Production was quite small, they were pretty popular with the Texas rangers (as with most early Colts). While underpowered, it was much better than any of the muzzleloaders around at the time. Because of the open frame, it didn't have conventional rear sights, but rather a notch on the hammer visible when cocked.

Colt Walker 1847

This was the first example of the perfected Colt revolver, most later designs were similar. It was a huge gun, designed as a cavalryman's revolver, to be more effective then a sword or muzzleloading pistol. 6 shot .44 calibre with a huge powder capacity and 9" barrel, good on a horse but a little big to carry around. Very powerful, wouldn't be equaled until the .357 Magnum. Unfortunately, production was somewhat small.

Colt 1848 Dragoon

This was a smaller version of the Walker, intended to offset criticisms of its size. Cylinder with smaller powder capacity, shorter 7 1/2" barrel, some were originally made with Walker frame and grips. More efficient than the Walker, though less famous, lighter to carry on your belt.

Colt 1851 Navy Model

This was the most famous cap and ball revolver, the Colt Navy, the first one which could be carried effectively in a holster. It was a light and incredibly well balanced .36 caliber, which, while underpowered by later, was the first revolver which could be easily drawn, and was reasonably accurate in spite of the usual crude Colt sights. It had a 7 1/2" octagonal barrel, and during the Civil War Confederate copies were made with brass frames and round barrels.

Colt 1860 Army Model

This was Colt's final major cap and ball revolver, using a newer, better balanced design. It was a .44 with an 8" barrel, of lesser power than the Walker or Dragoon, but much easier to carry. Its considered the most elegant of the time, but I like the Navy. Great gun, actually. Some were designed to be used with a shoulder stock for cavalry, before the invention of breechloading carbines. This idea was actually from Confederate president Jefferson Davies.

Remington 1858 New Army

The Remington was probably the best major gun around at the time. Unlike the Colt, it had a solid frame, which made it stronger (a real concern with muzzle loading guns which could be overloaded), more accurate, and allowed for a proper rear sight. The 1858 name is misleading, production actually began in 1863. It was easier to manufacture then the Colt, and probably more popular with those who used it. They weren't as pretty, but they worked and worked well.

Starr 1858 Double Action Army

The Starr was a clumsy-looking and ugly gun, but a brilliant design. It wasn't a true double action, but rather "self-cocking". The "trigger" was actually a cocking lever, which cocked the hammer and rotated the cylinder. The actual trigger was hidden near the grip. Properly adjusted, pulling through on the cocking lever would press down the trigger and fire the gun in a single pull. It came apart easily, and was solid and reliable. There was also a conventional single action model, and both were used by the Union during the Civil war.

LeMat Revolver

This was a French revolver used in very small numbers (less than 3000 made) by the South in the civil war, famous as a cavalry sidearm. It was a unique weapon, a 9 shot (no typo) .44 calibre with a .63 calibre shotgun barrel underneath. Cock it, flip a lever to select a barrel, quite a formidable weapon. Clumsy and awkward, it wasn't an espescially reliable gun but it was an advantage in a fight. Mentioned mainly because its a neat gun.

Anyways, that's the major cap-and-ball revolvers. There were alot more made, all were in very small numbers. Pretty much obsolete in the Old West, least not in the typical Western era. But most people weren't professional gunmen, no sense throwing away a perfectly good gun, espescially since cartridge supply was in the beggining unreliable.

Nyles - May 25, 2004 02:04 AM (GMT)
I was gonna do cartrige conversion revolvers next, cap and ball guns converted to load with cartridges, but I'm having trouble finding info on that. So I'm gonna skip straight to carbines.

Carbines didn't mean the same thing in the old west that it does today. Aside from short barrelled rifles (the modern definition, which they also used), it meant a rifle that fired a pistol cartridge. So a Winchester carbine would fire a pistol cartridge, though it was available in rifle or carbine length. A Winchester rifle fired a rifle cartridge, though it too could be in carbine or rifle length. Confused? Good, otherwise you're not paying attention.

Spencer Model 1860

A civil-war era carbine that saw some use in the early west, the Spencer was the first successful lever-action repeater. It fired a variety of rimfire cartridges, ranging from .52 to .56 calibre, from a 7 round magazine in the butt. It wasn't all that accurate, and the hammer had to be manually cocked, but it was more powerful that the competing Henry of the era. It was obsolete by the end of the war and was quickly replaced by Henrys and Winchesters.

Henry Model 1860

The Henry rifle was the first really successful repeating rifle (the Spencer was a commercial failure), which would provide the pattern for lever action rifles that's still followed today. It fired a rather weak .44 Henry rimfire cartridge from a 15 round underbarrel magazine that loaded from the front. The first few thousand had an iron frame, then the switch was made to brass (I don't know why). Some military models made during the civil war had sling swivels. It was a rifle with a 24" octagonal barrel, though some carbines have been seen.

Iron frame model

Winchester Model 1866

The Winchester '66 was really the perfected Henry. It still fired the same weak .44 Henry cartridge, but instead of loading from the front it had the far easier to use loading gate on the receiver. It had a forend and slightly improved action. It was available as a rifle with a 24" octagonal barrel or carbine with a 19" round barrel and fixed sights. Natives called this the "yellow boy".


Winchester Model 1873

This was the perfected Winchester carbine, with an improved action and steel frame, it fired centerfire cartridges such as the .32-20, .38-40 and .44-40. It was accurately called "the rifle that won the west". It was available in the standard 24" octagonal barrel rifle (15 rounds), 19" round barrel carbine (12 rounds) and 20" octagonal barrel short rifle (12 rounds), as well as several special order models, including a military musket with 30" barrel, full length stock and bayonet (17 rounds). It could be fitted with a long range aperture sight on the tang.

Short Rifle
Military Musket

Marlin Model 1889

The Marlin Model 1889 was Marlin's competitor to the Winchester '73. Instead of the Winchesters open top design, the Marlin was open on the side, a much stronger design. It also featured a short action, which was both lighter than the Winchester and had a shorter lever throw, which Winchester didn't match until 1892. It was chambered in .44-40, .38-40, .32-30. It sold relatively well, from 1889 to 1894 for every 3 Winchester 73s sold 1 Marlin 1889 was sold.

Colt Model 1884 Lightning Medium Frame

The Lightning rifle was Colt's effort to compete with Winchester in the rifle game. It was a pump-action carbine chambered for the standard Winchester cartridges (.44-40, .38-40, .32-20). It had a 26" octagonal barrel, and was mechanically weak and prone to jamming. Sales were never good and it was quietly dropped in 1904. It was also made in small frame (.22) and large frame (rifle cartridges).

Nyles - February 9, 2005 06:21 AM (GMT)
Well, Deadwood's back in a month (woohoo!) and I've been watching this old Canadian western called Bordertown in the mornings. Its not very good, but hey, it tides me over for my duster fix. Thought I'd drag this old thing back up and finish it.

First up, hideaway guns. Read some really neat articles on these recently, and its not as clear cut as I used to think. Theres a real variety there, and they were more popular than I'd originally thought.

Smaller pistols had a variety of uses. As a backup for a law man, gunman or soldier. As a smaller and more convenient gun for miners and those who didn't really need a full-size pistol. As something that could be hidden by a gambler or someone who didnt want to be openly armed.


Colt 1848 Baby Dragoon

The Baby Dragoon was the first pocket revolver, basically using a simplified version of the the Walker's mechanism in a 5-shot .31 caliber design with a 4" barrel and no loading lever. It was pretty weak compared to a serious gun, and couldn't be reloaded on the fly, but still better than a muzzle-loader.

Colt 1849 Pocket Model

The 1849 was Colt's improved hideaway gun. Still in .31 caliber, the chamber capacity was increased for more power, and a loading lever added. Available with 3", 4", 5" and 6" barrels, with 4" being the most common. Extremely popular, and pretty cheap. A version without loading lever was made for the Wells Fargo company, which prevented snagging. Incidently, the famed 1851 Navy owes more to the 1849 Pocket than the 1848 Dragoon.

Colt Root 1855

This is a very unusual gun for Colt, sharing no design similarities with their other guns. It was a very small revolver, with a solid frame (top strap over the cylinder like a Remington) and side mounted hammer - a 5 shot .28 caliber... A true mousegun. Easy to hide, hard to find information on. Seems to have lasted a long time. Not much I can intelligently say on it.


Smith & Wesson Model 1

The first cartridge revolver, dating to 1857, the S&W Model 1 was a 7 shot .22 Short, a definate mousegun. It was a "tip-up", where the 4" barrel and cylider tipped up from the brass frame, and the cylinder came free to have the empties punched out by whatever was handy and replaced. It had a spur trigger without guard, something I've never liked.


Smith & Wesson Model 2

This was the Model 1 scaled up to a 6 shot .32 caliber with a longer 6" barrel, for use as a military weapon in 1861. It wasn't a success, owing to its weak cartridge (duh) and small size. However, many Civil War infantrymen would carry one in a pocket, since they weren't issued serious revolvers and it was convenient to carry - better than the bayonet as a weapon of last resort. It wasn't made past 1864.

Smith & Wesson Model 1 1/2

This was an intermediary between the Model 1 and Model 2 - remember Model # refers to size, not chronological order. It was a 5 shot .32, with a 3" barrel. Wasn't made past 1868.

Webley Bulldog

This was a very popular British import, an early Webley product, beginning in 1872. Solid-framed with loading gate, like a Colt or Remington, not a top-break like a later Webley or Smith & Wesson. It was popular because it was a small revolver which was still heavy-caliber, something lacking with domestic guns. Available in a variety of British chamberings (.44 Webley, .442 RIC, .450 Adams, .45 Webley), it was a 5 shot with a 2.5" barrel. Something you could stick in your pocket and still count on the knock-down power of. Aparently some were made in .44 Russian specifically for the US market.


Made in too many varieties to count, Derringers are basically small, single-shot break-action pistols with spur triggers. Could be anything from 1 to 4 barrels, typically one. Usually of small caliber, sometimes bigger. Popular with gamblers on riverboats, which didn't allow guns.

4 Barrelled Model

That about covers hideaway guns - honestly, generally speaking, the 1849 Colt is definately by far the most popular of all of them, with the Bulldog as a second. People who used guns professionally or were likely to have to do so used serious guns, people who use hideaways generally weren't gunslingers, so the cap and ball 1849 never really needed replacing.

I'll talk more specifically about who would likely use what, but remember, not everyone in the West was an outlaw or a lawman. Most people out there carried guns in the expectation of never using them. Now, do we tell stories about them? Usually not, because honestly, in a Western you want to hear about the exciting stuff.

Next up I'll be talking about repeating rifles (vs repeating carbines, which I already covered.)

BlackWolf - February 9, 2005 05:34 PM (GMT)
QUOTE (Nyles @ Feb 9 2005, 01:21 AM)
Well, Deadwood's back in a month (woohoo!)

First season now available on DVD, I saw it for 90$.

Doc - February 9, 2005 05:35 PM (GMT)
Yech. Maybe I'll rent it.

Nyles - February 9, 2005 07:50 PM (GMT)
Repeating rifles were something of a latecomer in the old West, the Winchester 1876 being the first notable example. They fired a full size rifle cartridge (although not usually as big as the single shots), as opposed to a pistol cartridge like the carbines. Of course, they were available in both rifle and carbine length, just to make things extra confusing.

This can get kinda muddy, since the .44-40 and similar Winchester designed pistol cartridges (.38-40, .32-20) were actually designed for the Winchester 1873, and then later used in the Colt SAA. I draw the line at cartridges it would actually be POSSIBLE to use in a pistol. I would and have shot a .44-40 Colt - no way in HELL I'd shoot a .45-110 revolver.

These were rifles which, if you placed your shots, could be used for buffalo, though most hunters prefered bigger and more accurate single shot guns. They could also be used for smaller game (and men) at range.

Winchester 1876

The first notable repeating rifle, it was known as the Centennial model (introduced during the US' centennial celebration). Basically just a scaled up 1873, it had a short action for rifle cartridges, which meant it had to use short cartridges and couldn't use the .45-70 Government cartridge most wanted. It's not known for its strength, but it was available in a number of goodcartridges and was an excellent rifle when used within its limits. Available in .45-75 (most common), .45-60, .40-60 and .50-95 Express.

Interestingly, though it was never used by the US government, it was for a time used by Canada's North West Mounted Police (the Mounties) in a special full-stock carbine model in .45-75. Other models included the standard Rifle (26" octagon barrel - 12 rounds), Carbine (22" round barrel - 9 rounds)and Short Rifle (22" octagon barrel - 9 rounds).

NWMP Model

Winchester 1886

Winchesters perfected repeater. It had a new action designed by John Browning, which would later get used on the 1894. It was stronger, bigger and heavier than the 1876, capable of handling larger cartridges and with a shorter and smoother lever throw. It was available in .45-70, .50-110, .45-90, .40-82, .38-56 and others. Made as a 28" standard rifle (6 rounds), 20" carbine (4 rounds) and a special order Deluxe Rifle, which could have, among others, checkering, a pistol grip stock, tang sight 24" octagon barrel and engraving.

Deluxe Model

Marlin 1881

Marlin actually beat Winchester to the game in getting a repeating .45-70 onto the market. It was a little different from the later Marlin guns, ejecting from the top rather than the side. It had a 28" octagonal barrel and a 10 round magazine, and sold well enough to keep Marlin in business until being superceeded by the Winchester 1886. The one pictured has dual set triggers, a rare non-standard option, they just have one.

Whitney-Kennedy 1877

An early lever-action rifle, available in .45-70 and .45-60. Originally designed for US Military trials, which it failed, but caught the eye of the Burgess company and marketed to civilians. A somewhat awkward design, never as popular as the Winchester, it remained sparse in sales until Burgess was acquired by Winchester in 1888 and the rifle discontinued. It had a large 15 round magazine.

Bullard 1884

This was an effort to compete with the Winchester, an unusual and complicated design which loaded from the bottom. Though capable of handling some serious cartridges, it was awkward to handle and prone to parts breakage. It wasn't capable of doing anything the Winchester 1886 couldn't do better, and the company failed in 1890.

Nyles - February 9, 2005 09:42 PM (GMT)
Next up, shotguns. I'm not gonna cover all the individual models, because there's really no point. There were so many and there's really no difference between them. Generally, it was all double-barreled break actions, Ive never seen or heard of a single-barrel. Only one model of repeater actually made it onto the market during the old west period.

Coach Guns

The coach gun is the most popuar of the old West shotguns - basically its a double barrel in 10 or 12 gauge with the barrels shortened to between 16" and 20". The term comes from the practice of an armed guard of a stagecoach (which carried money and other valuables) who rode next to the driver with one of these for protection - hence riding shotgun. They can be hammer or striker fired, with or without ejectors. They had two triggers, typically one fired a single barrel and the other fired both - you'd fire one barrel, than use the both barrels trigger to fire the other, and still have the option to fire both - which typically you wouldn't.

Among the major manufacturers were Colt, Remington, Stoeger, Greener, Stevens, and Scott.

Winchester 1887

The first lever action shotgun, it used a unique operating system which was really more of a sliding breech block than a bolt. This was so it could handle the length of shotgun shells. It also makes it a leading candidate for the ugliest shotgun ever, and makes it very stiff to operate. Normally supplied with a 30" barrel, those who wanted to use them for personal defense would cut it down.


Nyles - February 10, 2005 03:26 AM (GMT)
The serious rifles of the West were single shots, built tough to handle big cartridges. These were the buffalo rifles and the long range guns, used by serious marksmen and professional hunters.

Remington Rolling Block

A reknowned simple design, it was a manually-operated rolling block introduced in 1871. To load, you simple pulled down the block, pulled out the spent case, put in a fresh one, closed the block, cocked it and fired. It was a popular and economical rifle, probably the most used rifle in the slaughter of the buffalo. It was available in a variety of calibers, from .32-20 and up to .45-70 in stock models, with pretty much any other caliber available in custom models. It was made in a number of barrel lengths and options, and was a popular military export, though never used by the US.

Extra Fancy

Sharps 1874

Considered the finest sporting rifle of its time, the Sharps was more accurate than the Remington, available in more powerful cartridges and also more expensive. Available in large cartrdiges, from .45-60 to .50-110 and a number of options (standard barrel, short barrel, extra long heavy barrel, special sights, special fittings), and was the rifle of choice for serious marksmen, both hunters and target shooters. It was also bloody heavy, espescially with the heavy barrel.

Extra Fancy

Winchester 1885

This was an improved version of a design by John Browning, using a dropping block operated by a lever forming the trigger guard, and with an external hammer cocked by the dropping block. It was available in a number of calibres, from .22 Short to .577 Eley. The most popular were .38-50, .45-60, .45-70, .45-90 and .50-110. Popular rifle, made well into the 20th century, elegant in its simplicity, but it arrived too late to participate in the slaughter of the buffalo.

RatDragon - February 10, 2005 04:36 AM (GMT)
Know anything about the availibilty of these suckers? Because I kinda want a Winchester 1873 and a Sharps 1874 or a Remington Rolling Block (Remmington has a special place in my heart, Next door to Colt and Browning)

Nyles - February 10, 2005 04:42 AM (GMT)
There's reproductions of all of them on the market - how much you willing to pay?

Nyles - February 10, 2005 06:08 AM (GMT)
I wanna cover military weapons too - its something most civvies wouldn't carry, but there's no arguing that the cavalry espescially is pretty important in Westerns. I'll cover the US Army and the Canadian NWMP, and perhaps the Canadian militia.

Sharps 1863 Conversion

This was a conversion of a Civil War-era Sharps cavalry carbine, loaded with loose linen-packed cartridges to fire the then-standard US .50-70 cartridge. They saw use in the early years of the Indian Wars until being replaced by the Springfield 1873.

Springfield 1873 "Trapdoor"

The standard US army weapon from the end of the Civil War until the Spanish-American War, essentially a muzzle-loading rifle-musket converted to breech-loading. This was done by the addition of a "trapdoor" breechblock which flipped up and allowed the cartridge to be inserted. Its worth noting that these are newly-made, not conversions. The precussion cap nipple was converted to a firing pin mechanism. It was chambered in .45-70, and made in a 30" barrelled full stocked infantry rifle with bayonet, and a 22" barrelled half-stock carbine with no bayonet. There were other models, before 1873 they were in .50-70 and some minor improvements were introduced in 1884, but the 1873 is the one you need to know.

Infantry Rifle

Springfield 1875 Officer's Model

A refined version of the Springfield 1873 for private sale to officers, it had a half-stock, German silver tipped forend, checkering, colored case-hardening, engraving and integral cleaning rod.


The standard rifle of the Canadian militia, this was similar to the American Springfield, but with a breech that pivoted sideways instead of forward. Chambered for the .577 Snider cartridge, it was a short range proposition only. Before the North West Mounted Police got its Winchester 1876 carbines, its service arm was the half-stocked cavalry carbine with 22" barrel. The Infantry of the Canadian militia carried the 30" barrelled rifle with full stock and socket bayonet, called the "Three Bander" and the Rifle regiments carried the shorter 26" barrelled "Two Bander" with a sword bayonet.

Three Bander
Two Bander

Nyles - February 11, 2005 03:27 AM (GMT)
Conversions of cap and ball revolvers to cartridge loading were very popular, espescially in the early days of the West. This was for simple practical reasons - most people didn't really need a modern revolver, the wild west wasn't quite THAT wild. Converting your old cap and ball revolver was alot cheaper - a Colt 1873 cost 12$ in the 1870s. For 5$ you could convert your cap and ball to cartridges, for 7.50$ you could buy a conversion.

Colt Richards-Mason Conversion

This was a relatively simple conversion made on the Colt 1851 Navy and 1860 Army revolvers, in .38 and .44 Colt respectively. The cap and ball cylinder was bored straight through, a backplate with loading gate installed, the ball rammer replaced by an ejector rod and finally a firing pin was added to the hammer. It was easier to load than the Remington conversions, but couldn't use loose ammunition and was hampered by the shitty Colt sights. The Army model was briefly the US Army standard until replaced by the Smith & Wesson American.

Navy Model

Remington 1858 Conversions

Remington took a different approach with their conversions of the 1858 New Army. Instead of installing a backplate and ejector rod and boring through the cylinder, they instead provided a two-piece conversion cylinder, consisting of a bored-through front section and a backplate. The old cap and ball cylinder could be removed (extremely simple, just pull out the axis pin and it comes right out), and replaced with the conversion cylinder. The cartridges were loaded into the front section, and the backplate attached, and the whole assembly replaced in the frame.

The conversion was 5 instead of the usual 6 shots, of a unique .46 Remington (old cap and ball guns had looser barrel tolerances) cartridge. It was a less-efficient rimfire cartridge, forced by not altering the hammer. It had the advantage of being able to quickly convert back to loose ammunition, given the difficulties in cartridge supply in early day, and better Remington sights compared to the Colt, but was harder to load and only had 5 shots.

Nyles - February 14, 2005 07:21 AM (GMT)
Going through my CD collection, turned up this one... its related.

The Last Gunfighter Ballad
(Guy Clark)
(Steve Earle's version)

The old gunfighter on the porch
Stared into the sun
And relived the days of living by the gun
When deadly games of pride were played
And living was mistakes not made
And the thought of the smell of the black powder smoke
And the stand in the street at the turn of a joke

Ah, the smell of the black powder smoke
And the stand in the street at the turn of a joke

It's always keep your back to the sun
He can almost feel the weight of the gun
And he's faster than snakes or the blink of an eye
And it's a time for all slow men to die
And his eyes get squinty and his fingers twitch
As he empties the gun at the son of a bitch
And he's hit by the smell of the black powder smoke
And the stand in the street at the turn of a joke

Hit by the smell of the black powder smoke
And the stand in the street at the turn of a joke

Now the burn of a bullet is only a scar
He's back in his chair in front of the bar
And the streets are empty and the blood's all dried
And the dead are dust and the whiskey's inside
So buy him a drink and lend him an ear
'Cause he's nobody's fool and the only one here
Who remembers the smell of the black powder smoke
And the stand in the street at the turn of a joke

Remember the smell of the black powder smoke
And the stand in the street at the turn of a joke

He said I stood in that street before it was paved
Learned to shoot or be shot before I could shave
And I did it all for the money and fame
Noble was nothing but feeling no shame
And nothing was sacred but stayin' alive
And all that I learned from a Colt 45
Was to curse the smell of the black powder smoke
And the stand in the street at the turn of a joke

Curse the smell of the black powder smoke
And the stand in the street at the turn of a joke

He's just an old man, now, that no one believes
That says he's a gunfighter, the last of the breed
And there are ghosts in the street seeking revenge
Calling him out to the lunatic fringe
Now he's out in the traffic checking the sun
And he's killed by a car as he goes for his gun
So much for the smell of the black powder smoke
And the stand in the street at the turn of a joke

So much for the smell of the black powder smoke
And the stand in the street at the turn of a joke

Nyles - February 18, 2005 04:22 AM (GMT)
Ok, so here's what you've got to know about ammunition in the West. First of all, what do the names mean? Well, for Winchester and Sharps designed cartridges (which make up probably 90% of those available), they use a pretty simple system. The caliber and then the charge.

So .44-40 is a .44 caliber bullet with 40 grains of black powder behind it. .38-40 is the same case necked down to .40 caliber (though its called .38, its actually .40 - one of lifes little mysteries). .45-70 is, you guessed it, a .45 caliber bullet with 70 grains of black powder behind it. Though they could be made with different loadings, the original name stuck. Others just went with diameter and named them.

Second, bullet construction. Solid lead slugs. This was before the era of copper jackets or hollowpoints. They were usually round or flat nosed, pointed bullets had yet to be perfected. Hollwpoints weren't really necessary - lead is soft, a pure lead bullet is gonna expand with or without a cavity.

Third, you're dealing with black powder. Its dirty and its corrosive as hell. You shoot your gun, and you wash it as soon as you get the chance. Otherwise you have a rusty pipe where your barrel used to be. It also makes alot of smoke when you shoot it, which contrary to popular opinion is actually whitish, not black. Also, a lot of guys reloaded, because it was cheaper and cartridge supply was never guaranteed.

Fourth, and this is the interesting point. There were two basic designs of bullet, heel type and flat-based. Heel type bullets have a heel at the base which goes into the case, the bullet itself was the same diameter as the case. This was forced by straight-bored through cylinders on conversion revolvers, and kept going for a while. .22's are still like that.

Why is this important? Two reasons. First of all, its less efficient, a .44 Colt (heel type) from a 7 1/2" barrel is notably less accurate than a .44 Russian (flat base)from the same length, and of equal power in spite of a bigger charge.

But much more importantly, a flat base can be internally lubricated, with grease on the bullet base inside the case. A heel-type is externally libricated, with grease in grooves around the bullet. They were considered the deadliest bullets in the West. The grit and other crap the grease would pick up was the difference between surviving your wound and dying the rather ugly death of the sepsis you were almost guaranteed if you got shot with one of those.

Anyways, here's some basic info on some of the more common cartridges around:

Pistol Cartridges

Flat Base:

.45 Colt - Introduced 1873 with the Single Action Army revolver, the most popular pistol cartridge of the day. The Colt was the most popular new gun by far, and more than half of them were made in this cartridge. Very powerful, probably the most powerful handgun round around. Also pretty accurate. Used only in Colt 1873 and 1878 revolvers.

.44-40 - Next most popular, introduced 1873 with the Winchester 73. Started getting used in handguns around 1876. Good all-around cartridge, good power, quite accurate, commonly available. Slight bottleneck to it, made it a little hard to reload. Used in Colt, Remington and Merwin-Hulbert revolvers and Winchester and Colt carbines.

.38-40 - Another popular one, introduced 1874 for the Winchester 73, used in Colt 1873 revolvers. Little less powerful than the .44-40, but more accurate and with less recoil, it was actually just the .44-40 necked down to .40 caliber. Interestingly, its almost identical to the .40 S&W ballistically.

.44 Russian - Originally designed in 1871 for the Russian army in the S&W Russian revolver, ended up used in most S&W revolvers and a few derringers. Less powerful than the .44-40, fairly accurate, very common. Good, but definately a short-range cartridge.

.32-20 - Designed in 1882 for the Winchester '73 as a small-game cartridge, used in the Colt 1873 revolver. Fairly light for use agaisnt men, but it would put them down if you placed your shots. Being more accurate and very light on recoil, it made it easier to do that. Good for small game since it wouldn't wreck the pelt and meat.

.45 Schofield - Designed 1875 for the Schofield revolver, its similar to the Colt except shorter and with bigger rims to aid the star-type extractor on S&W revolvers. Little less powerful than the Colt, about equal to the .44-40. The .45 Colt was too big for the Schofield, but the .45 Schofield would fit in a Colt, but only loading every other chamber because the rims would overlap if all were loaded.

.45 Government - Interesting cartridge, US army standard. It was created to solve supply problems with having both the Colt and Schofield in service. It combined the length of the .45 Schofield with the rims of the .45 Colt for a cartridge that work in either revolver - somewhat. The rims would make extraction in a Schofield hell, espescially if it was dirty. Still, better than getting the wrong kind of ammo and it being completely useless.

.41 Long Colt - Introduced 1877 for the Thunderer revolver, saw some use in the Colt 1873, but it was definately a rare chambering. About equal in power to the .44 American, with accuracy equal to the .44-40.

.38 Long Colt - Introduced 1877 for the Lightning revolver. Went on to become US army standard in 1894, only to fail and be replaced within 10 years. Not much of a manstopper, but still better than a .32-20, only without the accuracy. Basically, you'd have to shoot someone more than once to be sure.

Heel Type

.44 American - Introduced 1869 for the US army issue S&W American revolver, it was essentially a centerfire version of the .44 Henry. Which meant it was accurate, but not all that powerful - strictly a short-range proposition.

.44 Colt - Introduced 1870 with the first Colt cartridge coversions of the 1860 Army, it was roughly equal to the .44 American in performance.This is an underestimated cartridge in terms of importance in the old West, in the early years it would have been the most common gun to see on the belts of a cowboy.

.44 Remington - Introduced 1875 with the Remington revolver, it was again roughly equal to the .44 American. It was a commercial failure and quickly superceeded by the .44-40 in Remingtons.

.38 Short Colt - Original cartridge for the Colt conversions of the 1851 Navy. Quite weak and short range only. Not much of a stopper, but not totally impotent.

.46 Remington Rimfire - The original cartridge load for the converted Remington cap and ball revolver. About it in the .44 Russian range of power, short-range. Couldn't be reloaded, since it was a rimfire. It would have been popular, since the Remington 1858 revolver was pretty common.

56-56 Spencer - The most common of the Spencer cartridges, as essentially similar in performance to the others. Not that this doesn't actually refer to the power charge like others. This isn't a great long-range or precision cartridge, but it has decent power up close

.44 Henry - Used in the Henry and Winchester '66 rifles, this is a rimfire version of the .44 American. Or rather the .44 American is a centerfire version of this. Its identical in performance.

Rifle Cartridges

.38-56 Winchester - Introduced in 1887 for the Winchester 86. Lighter cartridge, deer and black bear, long range, high velocity. Good for men as well.

.40-60 Winchester - Introduced in 1877 for the Winchester 76. Good medium all-around cartridge, quite popular in its day. Lighter recoil.

.40-82 Winchester - Introduced 1885 for the Winchester 1885 and 1886. Good medium-large power cartridge, fast bullet, fairly accurate. Noted for its use on Elk.

.45-60 Winchester - Introduced 1879 for Winchester 76. Medium power cartridge, good for deer and men. Also used in the Whitney-Kennedy and Colt Lightning large frame rifles. Good all around cartridge.

.45-70 Government - This was a US military standard cartridge used in the Springfield 1873 and a number of sporting rifles. Not a great long range cartridge by rifle standards, but within 200 yards it'll really thump someone. Deadly for medium game, good for large game, and on the lighter side for buffalo, but good enough. It also came in a reduced-power carbine load, to combat fickle tendencies of the lighter carbines. Good for medium to large game and men at range.

.45-75 Winchester - A personal favorite, introduced in 1876 with the Winchester 76. Also used in the Whitney-Kennedy, and by the NWMP. Shorter than the .45-70 due to its bottleneck, but with equal or better performance.

.45-90 Winchester - Introduced in 1885 for the Winchester 1885 and 1886 rifles, essentially a lengthened .45-70. You can actually shoot a .45-70 from a .45-90. Good for buffalo, if you want a repeater, a single-shot could be had with more powerful cartridges.

.50-70 Musket - Military service cartridge, introduced 1866 with the 1866 model Trapdoor. Also very popular as a sporting rifle cartridge, good for buffalo or grizzly. Not a great long range round, but a heavy hitter within 200 yards. Also available in a reduced carbine load.

.50-90 Sharps - One of the most popular buffalo cartridges, introduced in 1872 for the Sharps and also used in other rifles. Good long range cartridge, suitable for any North American game and more than enough to drop a man at range.

.50-110 Bullard - Introduced in 1886 with the Bullard Express rifle. Easily the biggest cartridge around available in a repeater, but it arrived too late to participate in the slaughter of the buffalo, making it more gun than anyone really needed. Wouldn't be bad in Africa though.

Nyles - February 22, 2005 04:49 PM (GMT)
Some final notes, stuff thats good to know or could be useful to anyone writing a Western.

First of all, people didn't load their revolvers fully. You loaded 5 chambers and lowered the hammer on the empty 6th. That's for safety reasons. A revolver doesn't have a safety catch, and with the hammer lowered on a cartridge a blow can set it off - not good when it's strapped to your thigh. With a cap and ball revolver, you'd load 6 chambers and have a cap on 5.

Guns were alot more common back then, of course. It wasn't illegal to carry a revolver, or even a rifle. Remember, you'd carry a carbine on your horse in a saddle scabbard, just like you might carry a rifle in a gun rack in a truck today. But you can't lock a horse, you it wasn't unusual if you carried your carbine with you and propped it against the wall in a building. Other than with military rifles (not carbines), there were no slings, so you carried in your hands.

Not everyone used holsters. With a pocket revolver, you'd keep it in your pocket, and with a big bore gun you might just tuck it in your belt. A holster was less of a pain to carry with and alot easier to draw from, but it was more weight and an expense. Remember, people were not rich at the time, and didn't buy what they didn't need.

If you're going to get in a fight, you carry a rifle. Its just smart. You don't walk into a fight with just a revolver, that way you get 5 shots which are only accurate at close range. With a carbine, you get 12 with more range, and its easier to reload.

This is a point I can never over-emphasize: People carried as much gun as they needed. Unless it was a poseur who didn't know how much they needed, or someone with a special liking for guns (ie: someone like me), they would carry as cheap and as light a gun as they could that still fullfil their needs. No one carried a 16" long Colt Walker (the Desert Eagle of its time), unless they needed alot of repeating firepower, its main user was the Texas Rangers. Had a smaller revolver of heavy caliber been available at the time, they would probably have used that. That’s actually probably why the Colt Peacemaker was so popular – they made them with short barrels, which made them more convenient to carry for those who didn’t need the long barrel.

Finally, who would have carried what. Just general suggestions, within historical fact and keeping in mind what I said above. I’ll divide it into 2 time periods, which you can take to be generally accurate, but keep in mind when guns were introduced. Early would be the 1870s, later would be the 1880s. The West wasn’t really opened until the 1870s, after the Civil War. If anyone wants, I can cover earlier stuff (Dances With Wolves, for example, takes place in 1864, but that’s not really a traditional western), or ever the really late Westerns from the 1890s on (my favorite is The Wild Bunch, which takes place in 1913) but the traditional Western is within these two periods.

An outdoorsman, like a ranch hand, cattleman, farmers, frontier settlers and stuff of that ilk, who is not a gunman but would need one for self defense, is going to carry a heavy caliber but cheap and convenient gun. In early days, probably either a Colt 1851 or 1860 or Remington 1858 percussion revolver or one converted to cartridges. Later on, either a Colt Peacemaker in .45 Colt or .44-40 with a 5 ½” or 4 5/8” barrel, or a Smith & Wesson New Model No.3. In a saddle scabbard, a Henry or Winchester 1866 in early days. Later on, a Winchester 1873, with the ’66 still around. Also, having to put down one of their herd, they might have a repeating rifle like a Winchester ’76, Marlin ’81 or Winchester ’86 around later on.

Someone in a more dangerous job, who’s primary responsibility still isn’t shooting, like a courier or stage coach driver, would also be armed differently. The Colt Peacemaker would make an earlier appearance – a rider or driver might carry a Peacemaker and a knife – later on, add the S&W New Model. A stage coach guard would carry a revolver (again, likely a Colt, or later on a S&W New Model), and a coach gun. Later on, the Wells Fargo company (the most famous stage coach company), bought Smith & Wesson Schofields with 5” barrels.

Miners, who had to both defend their gold claims and carry their gear, opted for a smaller revolver they could carry in their pocket, which was still heavy caliber and easy to use. This was almost universally the Webley Bulldog throughout the 19th century.

Professional hunters, especially buffalo hunters, would mainly carry a single-shot rifle. A Remington Rolling Block mostly, in .45-70 and up. A more successful hunter would have a Sharps if they could afford it. Some might carry repeaters, especially in heavy calibers, but the preference was definitely for more reliable single shots. The handgun was less important, being used mainly for foraging small game and finishing off wounded animals. A Colt Peacemaker in .32-20 would be perfect, since the small bullet wouldn’t do much damage to a pelt.

A city-dweller or gentlemen, a lawyer, banker, etc would carry a discreet pocket gun. The Colt 1849 Pocket is of course the mother of all pocket guns, but the various S&Ws and other small revolvers (too numerous to list) fit fine too. Professional gamblers, the slick riverboat type especially, favored derringers, since they were VERY small and its bad form (but good sense) to wear a gun to a high-stakes game. Smart prostitutes would also have a small revolver or derringer handy in case a customer got rougher than they paid for. A naïve wealthy man wanting to go west, I picture with a Merwin-Hulbert.

Now, pistoleers (gunslinger is a modern term) is where you get variety. Lawmen, outlaws, professional shootists, these are people who lived by the gun. They’re liable to pack whatever they like, running the gamut from Wild Bill Hickock’s long-obsolete Colt Navy’s to Jesse James’ Schofield. The only one I would suggest avoiding is the Merwin-Hulbert – they’re odd and awkward-looking guns. I’ve never handled one in person, but they don’t look like great guns. The combination of balance, weight, power and accuracy would be whatever suited their personality. Wild Bill’s Colts may have been obsolete by the time he was killed, but he was deadly enough with them that he didn’t need anything newer. They’re also the most likely to ornament their pistols – ivory or stag grips, engraving, plating. Lawmen more than outlaws, who probably don’t want to leave it with a gunsmith.

Military were, of course, armed with what they were issued. The US Army, in the early 1870s, carried conversions of Civil War-era weapons. Cavalry had Sharps 1863 carbines converted to cartridges, and Colt 1870 Richards conversion revolvers, or some with S&W Americans. Infantry, Springfield 1866 .50-70s and Colt Richards and Remington 1858 percussion revolvers for officers. Later on, Colt Peacemakers with 7 ½” barrels and the Springfield 1873 series, some lucky cavalrymen would have had Schofields. Cavalry were always issued sabers, but rarely actually carried them. Officers often carried private purchase arms, mainly the Springfield 1875 but also Spencer rifles and non-standard revolvers. General Custer carried a Remington Rolling Block and a matched pair of Webley RIC revolvers.

The Canadian NWMP were armed with Colt Peacemakers (I don’t know the specifics, but I think 5 ½” barrels in .45 Colt), and Snider cavalry carbines early on. Later on, Winchester 1876 carbines in .45-75. Canadian Militia cavalry and officers carried Colt Navy revolvers, later Colt 1878 double actions in .45 Colt with 7 ½” barrels. For long arms, Snider cavalry carbines for cavalry, Snider 2-band rifles for Rifle Regiments and Snider 3-banders for regular Infantry.

Natives are another interesting case. Aside from their traditional weapons, the bow and arrow, spear, war club, coup stick, they carried guns. Not often pistols, since they were of limited use hunting, but rifles for sure. A peaceful native would carry an older-model repeater or single shot, the Henry, called the “Yellow Boy” was apparently very popular. Earlier on, the Indian Trade Muskets, light, percussion fired muzzle loaders of roughly .42 caliber, were common. Warring bands would probably be armed with military weapons taken from killed enemies. They’d often decorate their rifles with brass tacks driven into the stocks.

Remember, stuff was never thrown away – if an old gun still worked, and if it was taken care of it would, it would be put away if it wasn’t getting used anymore. Passed on to a kid when he came of age, until he bought himself something newer.

Cartridge supply was scarce, so ammunition wasn't always available. Smart men reloaded using simple hand tools, collecting their empties after they were fired. Also, military supply was even more fucked up then than it is now - you could have soldiers issued the wrong ammunition - .45 Colt for Schofields, rifle-load .45-70 for carbines - that may actually have happened at the Little Big Horn, and accounted for reports of jamming in the 7th Cavalry's carbines.

Finally, I would suggest that if someone is supposed to be a real bastard, give them a heel-type bullet-firing gun so they can be sure anyone they shoot suffers an uncomfortable death. A converted percussion revolver doesn’t work, since that’s just a matter of economics. But an S&W American or especially a Remington 1875 in .44 Remington, when other, better guns were available. Cause hey, sepsis is a really shitty way to go.

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