By Bill Dobbins
We don’t have photographic documentation of most of history, at least nothing before about 1839. But when it comes to the old west, the myths and legends that have grown up about this period are informed to a large extent by photographs – pictures of everyone from Billy The Kid and Wild Bill Hickcock to Custer and Sitting Bull. Because of photos, we know a lot about how people lived, how they dressed – and what kind of weapons they used.
Western movies have been made almost since the beginning of film, but don’t make that many westerns nowadays – featuring stories the American frontier from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the 20th Century – although you’ll still find lots of “oaters” on services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. But when I was a kid there were lots and lots of cowboy and western movies and TV shows. From Hopalong Cassidy and Maverick to John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, they mostly the plots featured a code of honor and honesty and sticking up for justice and the little guy – and western heroes often enforced their will on the bad guys by carrying revolving pistols, more often than not a 45 caliber Army Colt “Peacemaker.”
The historical fact that the possession and use of guns in the early history of the country was commonplace eventually turned into enduring American myth, and is one of the reasons why so many in the US still regard firearms as an essential element of American life.
Firearms of one sort or another have been around for centuries, including pistols, but one major technological development that changed the way people fought and defended themselves with handguns was the invention of the multi-shot revolver. Most early handguns and long guns, with a few exceptions, limited you to firing one shot and then having to reload – a time-consuming procedure. The multi-shot revolver increased an individual’s firepower by six or eight-fold, which made a huge difference.
The first primitive firearms originated in 10th-century China when bamboo tubes containing gunpowder and pellet projectiles were mounted on spears into the one-person-portable fire lance, which was later used as a shock weapon to good effect in the Siege of De’an in 1132. In the 13th century, the Chinese invented the metal-barrelled hand cannon, widely considered[by whom?] the true ancestor of all firearms. The technology gradually spread through the rest of East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Older firearms typically used black powder as a propellant, but modern firearms use smokeless powder or other propellants. Most modern firearms (with the notable exception of smoothbore shotguns) have rifled barrels to impart spin to the projectile for improved flight stability. – Wikipedia
While the development of the cannon was quite rapid once the use of gun powder to propel a projectile was understood (of course, nothing like the computer-controlled, satellite-guided weapons of today), it took a long time for technology to come up with really effective designs for small arms: long guns and pistols. The earliest long guns were little more than miniature canons – metal tubes stuffed with powder and some sort of metal ball or other material, terribly inaccurate, liable to blow up in the shooter’s hands and so inaccurate they were best used as volley-fire from large groups.
The technology of firearms proceeded from matchlock to wheel lock to flintlock, all involving loading powder and shot or a bullet into the barrel and then having some kind of ignition system to set off the powder and expel the projectile. One major advance was adding rifling to the barrel to impart spin to the bullet, making it far more accurate than a musket, which shot a ball with no deliberate spin. A pitch thrown with not much spin is the knuckleball, and it’s a tendency to dance around is great for getting batters out, but this kind of unpredictable movement is not so desirable when you are trying to hit a target with a firearm.
Early 19th century rifles could be extremely accurate over distance, as many a victim of snipers during the Civil War could attest. A marksman with a good rifle was a far different thing than an ordinary soldier with a musket.
Also by the 19th century, the design of flintlock pistols had become quite sophisticated, as evidenced by the elegance, beauty and deadly accuracy of the gentleman’s dueling pistol, which ended the life of Alexander Hamilton, as depicted in the extremely popular rap musical about Hamilton and Aaron Burr.
The introduction of a pistol with a multi-chambered revolving cylinder – which we know as the revolver – became a reality a short time before the Civil
War and continued to evolve over time – but the revolvers of that time were not the first attempt at creating a multi-shot handgun.
Here is some history, courtesy of EdFormatics:
“Snaphaunce” revolvers with the most important features of the type single fixed barrel, automatic cylinder rotation, and positive cylinder alignment were made in the late 17th century. The earliest known specimen, now in the Tower of London armories, is dated about 1680 and attributed to John Dafte of London.
Elisha Collier patented a flintlock revolver in Britain in 1818, and significant numbers were being produced in London by 1822. The origination of this invention is in doubt, as similar designs were patented in the same year by Artemus Wheeler in the United States and by Cornelius Coolidge in France.
Samuel Colt received a British patent for his revolver in 1835 and an American patent (number 138) on February 25, 1836 for a Revolving gun, and made the first production model on March 5 of that year.
Another revolver patent was issued to Samuel Colt on August 29, 1839. The February 25, 1836 patent was then reissued as U.S. Patent RE00124 entitled Revolving gun to Samuel Colt on October 24, 1848. This was followed by U.S. Patent 0007613 on September 3, 1850, for a Revolver, and by U.S. Patent 0007629 on September 10, 1850, for a Revolver.
The earliest revolvers of the 19th century involved loading each cylinder with some powder and a metal ball and then a putting an explosive percussion cap on a nipple of each of the cylinders in order to initiate firing. This was tedious and time-consuming but many of the pistols allowed for carrying extra loaded cylinders that could be quickly swapped out once ammunition was exhausted. Having a weapon like this created a level of firepower that made a single individual a much more formidable threat than ever before.
These pistols were soon replaced by ones that shot a cartridge that could be loaded and then reloaded into a chamber fairly rapidly. A lot of early percussion cap-and-ball pistols were later converted for the use of cartridges. In a lot of Clint Eastwood westerns, you’ll see characters using older model style percussion pistols that are have been upgraded to shoot cartridges.
By the way, another technological development of the time was the use of smokeless powder rather than black gunpowder. This new type of gunpowder was more powerful and created less residue to foul the weapon. Lack of a lot of smoke each time you pulled the trigger was also beneficial in not giving away your position each time you fired your weapon.
One very popular revolver at the time, and extremely popular in TV shows and movies about the old west, with the Colt Single Action Army, also known as the Single Action Army, SAA, Model P, Peacemaker, M1873, and Colt .45 is a single-action revolver with a revolving cylinder holding six metallic cartridges. It was designed for the U.S. government service revolver trials of 1872 by Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company—today’s Colt’s Manufacturing Company—and was adopted as the standard military service revolver until 1892.
Actually, the Colt Single Action Army was not the government’s first choice for a military sidearm. For one reason, it required that each cylinder be loaded individually and then each spent cartridge ejected one at a time. There were other designs in which the pistol was hinged so it would “break” forward so that all the fire cartridges could be ejected simultaneously, with the rear of the cylinders exposed for easier reloading. One competing design was the .45 Schofield with a shorter caliber than the .45 Colt. Most importantly it had an improved extractor that ejected all six empty casings at once. But the revolvers were found to be less reliable than the Colt 1873 Single Action. Also many in the Ordnance Department and in the Army felt that the ability to quickly extract empty cartridges was not needed. So the Colt was accepted by the army and thousands were ordered.
There was a saying at the time that God created man and Sam Colt made them equal. But it is a fact that gunfights with pistols were far less common in the old west than as depicted in TV shows and movies. In fact, the west of that time was less violent in general than the myths indicate – although there certainly was violence. To help control violence, many cities passed ordinances that prohibited carrying firearms within city limits. This made for a lot fewer opportunities for drunken cowboys and miners to hurt or kill each other.
Any firearms expert will agree that pistols are fairly inaccurate weapons without a great deal of practice and ideal circumstances. Statistics tell us that most police officers miss most of the time when they fire their pistols. The same was true in the old west, especially using pistols that were less accurate than those of today. Besides which, it was the style of the era to shoot a pistol with one hand, rather than with two hands and is standard today. This makes the expertise of somebody like Wild Bill Hickock, who was a marksman capable of shooting down an adversary at 75 yards with a revolver, all the more impressive.
But if you needed to so some accurate shooting – for hunting, combat, defense against bandits of Indians – the weapon you needed was a rifle. The Henry repeating rifle was introduced in 1860. It was a lever-action, breech-loading, tubular magazine rifle famed both for its use at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and being the basis for the subsequent and iconic Winchester rifle of the American Wild West.
But the Henry used a rim-fire cartridge, which is weaker cartridge than the center-fire version, and this type of cartridge can’t be reloaded after being fired. So the Henry was pretty much supplanted by the Winchester, which used center-fire cartridges. Lever-action rifles were supplanted in time by bolt-action weapons for military use, but they remain in production and are very popular to this day.
Of course, when it comes to self-defense and close combat probably the best firearm for the job is the shotgun. With a simple mechanism, not much chance of misfire, easy to load, requires much less skill to use and aim and creates a devastating result when the trigger is pulled. Even the most accomplished gunslinger would think twice about going up against an adversary armed with a shotgun.
Nowadays, the semi-automatic pistol has largely supplanted the revolver, especially in the military and with law enforcement. Depending on the design, this kind of weapon can be loaded with more ammunition than a six-shooter revolver and reloading is simply a matter of ejecting a magazine and inserting another.
But the six-shooter revolver, particularly the Colf Single Army, remains an iconic symbol of the old west and seems to be a permanent part of the American psyche. Forget that these weapons are not all that accurate over distance, that you can’t really hit anything with a fast draw unless the target is right in front of you (and then you have a good chance of shooting off your own toes), and that actually gunfights face to face in the street were a relatively rare event in the old west.
As the character says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Bill Dobbins is a professional photographer, videographer and writer based in Los Angeles. His work has been exhibited as fine art in two museums, a number of galleries, and he has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Taschen)
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