Saturday, October 20, 2018

Guns On The Job In The Old West


I was recently in a conversation with someone who asked if I thought everyone carried a gun in the Old West?

Thinking about this, I believe it has everything to do with where one lived at the time. But also, actually more importantly, it depended on what they did for a living back in the day. I really believe these two factors are what determined the type of firearm one selected and whether or not one carried a gun.

For example, a great many friends over the years have all said without hesitation that they would have carried a Colt Single Action Army if they lived back then. A couple of friends have recently said that they would have opted for the Smith & Wesson Schofield because of the faster loading capability in a shootout -- a full blown firefight.

We should keep in mind that unless cut down, those choices are big guns that are not the easiest guns to conceal. Cowtowns like Wichita and Dodge City back East in what we know as the mid-West allowed open carry at first. The same was true for towns out West like Denver, Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and others. But after a while, as those towns grew, most established no carry laws. Yes, weapons prohibition. Because that was taking place around the West, there were a lot of folks who opted to carry concealed weapons.

To ensure their own safety, people had to make a conscious decision to violate the law. They also had to make a choice between carrying a full-size Colt versus a small pocket pistol or derringer of some sort. If we look at the sales figures for firearms for the period of 1867 to 1900, take out the sales to the U.S. Army and Navy, and to foreign sales, you will see that more Americans bought pocket pistols than the big hoglegs that we are led to think people carried.

People talk about how folks dressed back in the Old West and inevitably people will describe some gunman with a lot slung holster and big iron on his hip. While those individuals were surely a part of the landscape for a while until they couldn't carry in towns on their hip, that sort of gunman soon became a minority.

Knowing where we live would be an important factor considering no carry regulations, but that's second in importance to our occupation when it comes to selecting a carry weapon back in the Old West. This determines what sort of gun we would need on a daily basis during a workday? Also, this determines if it's a bother or not? Yes, the question as to whether or not it is a precaution or something that just gets in the way?

For example, if I were in any sort of law enforcement work, such as a deputy, then besides my sidearm, I would have probably carried a side-by-side shotgun when in town. As a stagecoach messenger, a payroll guard, a mail guard on a train, or even a bank guard, those positions would require a shotgun as well. In some cases they were armed with rifles, but mostly a shotgun was the weapon used for it's effectiveness and intimidation factor. 

Traditionally, shotguns in law enforcement were used for a few reasons. First, the officer didn't have to be a great shot to hit his target and shotguns have maximum effectiveness at fairly close range. Second, used in town, the projectiles disperse and have less of a chance of hitting some innocent bystander in town if the officer misses who he's was shooting at. And yes, a shotgun is intimidating.

In a posse, the need changes and subsequently a repeating rifle is needed. While there are always exceptions to the rule, lawmen usually used rifles when on the trail. The reason simply had to do with the fact that a rifle is a better weapon of choice when your target may be out of the effective range of a pistol or a shotgun. 

As far as people who go armed in a town according to Hollywood's version of the Old West? Well, audiences usually see a town marshal, his deputy, a county sheriff, a deputy U.S. marshal, prison guards. a circuit judge, saloon owners, bartenders, dance hall girls and soiled doves, card sharp gamblers, a banker, a hired gun, a bounty hunter, a gunslinger, and most likely a Pinkerton Agent. Of course there are the outlaws, the Mexican bandits, the claim jumpers, the rustlers, the no-name drifter, and a few others including those ever present men who sit around saloons -- the nondescript saloon bums in films who never seem to have a job yet always have money for drinks and gambling.

As for carrying on a daily basis? Lawman of all sort can always carry legally. If not the law, then those people weren't able to carry legally. But frankly, that didn't stop the law from looking the other way -- especially when they were friends of the law. And by the way, in all no carry towns, bounty hunters, private detectives, and even Pinkerton Agents, were not seen as lawmen and were also restricted from carrying in no carry towns. So the bounty hunter walking into such a town carrying a rifle while wearing three guns and bandoleer is all Hollywood.

As for most people who were not the law, or connected to the law, or their friends, if there was a not carry law? They were legally prohibited from carrying a weapon. But did that stop people from carrying anyway? No it didn't. They mostly carried concealed weapons. They carried guns in all sorts of ways from pocket pistols and larger pistols in shoulder holsters, vest pockets, trouser pockets, waistbands, in coat pockets, and a number of imaginative ways.

John Wesley Hardin was known to carry his pistol in his waistband. Wyatt Earp was known to carry a pistol in his overcoat pocket. Luke Short carried his revolver in his back trouser pocket. Killer Jim Miller supposedly favored a shoulder holder that he wore Winter or Summer under his heavy frock coat. Virgil Earp carried his pistol in his waistband in the small of his back. Even Wild Bill Hickok was known to carry a hideout gun, a small Smith & Wesson Model 2 as a backup gun.

So where am I going with this? My friend is of the opinion that everyone carried and "everyone in the Old West should have carried at least 3 guns because the West was that dangerous." For me, I think one gun would have been fine for the average citizen who was not a lawman or guard of some sort. And frankly, that's the point, as we all know, not everyone were lawmen and guards in the Old West. Not everyone was associated with seedy gamblers and con-artists, soiled doves and dance hall girls, and the such who live in that world. There were those who worked regular jobs.  

Friends, there were a lot more occupations in the Old West. Yes, certainly a lot more than what we've seen in Hollywood movies. For example, as for the people who built the towns, there were woodworkers, carpenters, cabinet makers, coopers, sawyers, loggers, lumber laborers. And besides bakers and cooks, there were bricklayers, stationary engineers, stationary firemen, hod carriers, stone cutters, stone masons, painters, plasterers, plumbers, even tile layers.

As for clothing, there were dressmakers and sewing machine operators, just as there were shoemakers, leather cutters, stitchers, vampers, lasters and tanners. Most towns made their own clothing for sale, there were doffers, drawing frame tenders, cotton dyers, loom fixers, cotton spinners, cotton weavers, knitters of hosiery and underwear, weavers and winders of silk goods, dressers and dyers of woolen and worsted goods, loom fixers, spinners, and even wool sorters. For houseware goods such as cups and glasses and plates, there glass blowers, potters, kiln placers and turners.

There were blacksmiths in railroad shops, in machine shops, and in livery stables. And of course, horseshoers. Boiler makers could be found in foundries and machine shops, and there were core makers, foundry laborers, lathe hands, machinists, millwrights in flour mills and other places, iron molders, pattern makers, tool and die makers. In mines there were mine drivers, loaders, drilling machine operators, timbermen for the mines.

Of course in most towns, there were newspapers that needed bookbinders, press feeders, proof readers, compositors, stereotypers, and pressmen who operated the printing press. Where tobacco was their cash crop, there were cigar makers, tobacco stemmers and strippers.

To transport all of the goods being made or ordered, there were 1-horse teamsters and 2-horse teamsters, and of course stock tenders, wheel makers, and wagon wrights. As for the railroads, besides the fact that they hired hunters to supply their workforce with meat, there were laborers, brakemen, conductors for passenger railroads, conductors for freight railroads, locomotive engineers and firemen. In shipping, there were sailors and longshoremen, ship builders, chalkers, woodworkers, and a number of trades including sail makers.

There were all sorts of laborers. From Chinese laborers who worked on the railroad, to those who worked in the laundries, or in restaurants as bakers and cooks, and waiters. In saloons as bartenders and beermen. In hotels and cleaners and clerks and such. Yes, there were no shortage of unskilled labor.

As for farmers, cattlemen, cowboys, there were also homesteaders, pioneers, settlers, teachers, missionaries, dentists and doctors. As for the doctors, most times they treated both people and animals. In some towns, depending on its size, there may be a number of doctors there.

The vast majority of these occupations did not have the need to carry a gun while at work. The vast majority of people working understood that a pistol would have simply gotten in the way. Yes, they would have gotten in the way.

For example, rifles were routinely carried on a Cowboy's saddle, and used to hunt with and shoot predators going after the cattle and rustlers. But contrary to what Hollywood depicts, most working cowboys did not carry a sidearm while working cattle simply because there wasn't a need to carry a sidearm during those times. A sidearm just got in the way when working cattle -- especially during brandings.

That's the same as with most occupations in the Old West. Mostly, for most occupations, guns got in the way. But, even though that was the case for many, whether a labor, a clerk, a farmer, and the many occupations that there were, that's not saying that someone working his or her job in the Old West didn't have a gun of some sort nearby. Not to say all jobs had them nearby, but a lot of folks who worked a job that may not have called for a gun usually knew where one was located in case of emergency.

For example, sailors in the Old West didn't go armed other having than a knife. Yet, it wasn't unusual for a boat Captain to have rifle in his cabin along with a gunlocker for his crew. Knowing full well that the law was not obliged to protect anyone, this was for protection against two legged predators.

It wasn't uncommon for a shop owner to have a rifle or shotgun stationed where he knew it just in case of an emergency. It wasn't out of the question for many occupations to have a firearm conveniently located in case the need arose.

One example of this took place during the Coffeyville, Kansas, bank robbery by the Dalton Gang. Townsfolk had there firearms near enough to respond when they were needed. Of course, for those who were not armed, rifles and shotguns were being handed out to them so that they too would be able to defend the town against the marauders.

Another example was when a Frenchman was stabbed in his butcher shop by a Chinese customer who was intent on killing and robbing him. At one point during the assault, the Frenchman reached over to grab a pistol that he kept on the counter of his shop just for such an incident. He fired at the Chinaman, and missed, but his shot singed his attacker's face and sent his attacker running.

A passerby heard the shot and saw the Chinaman running. He chased him down and fought it out before bringing the Chinaman back to the authorities. The attacker was identified by the Frenchman before he died. The people there in that California mining camp took the Chinaman out and hanged him.

In Cheyenne, Wyoming, a Merry Go Round Operator saw Tom Horn escaping from jail. He reached in his toolbox and grabbed his Iver Johnson .38 S&W and took after Horn. He shot at Horn and later beat him with his pistol while capturing the killer. We all know that Horn was taken back to jail in spite of the townsfolk wanting to save the state some money and simply string him up at a nearby tree that day.

While there are a lot great choices, some will read this and say a .38 S&W back in the day was a sad choice. And while I agree to a certain extent, a top break double action Iver Johnson is easily concealable and can be reloaded faster than my second choice to carry which really would have been a Colt 1877 Sheriff's Model with 2 1/4 inch barrel in .41 long colt. 

While I like the stopping power of a .41 long colt versus a .38 S&W, reloading a Colt 1877 can take some time in comparison to a top break. And then there's the problem of only being able to load five rounds in a six shooter, the hammer of a Colt Single Action Army has to rest on an empty chamber unless you know you're going into a fight. 

In the case of what happens if a Colt Single Action Army is dropped by accident, this is what can happen if one doesn't put the hammer down on an empty chamber. As reported in the Wichita Beacon on Janaury 12th, 1876.

"Last Sunday night, while policeman Earp was sitting with two or three others in the back room of the Custom House saloon, his revolver slipped from his holster and in falling to the floor the hammer which rested on the cap, is supposed to have struck the chair, causing a discharge of one of the barrels. The ball passed through his coat, struck the north wall then glanced off and passed out through the ceiling. It was a narrow escape and the occurence got up a lively stampede from the room. One of the demoralized was under the impression that some one had fired through the window from the outside."


Iver Johnsons top-break pistols were chambered in 5-shot versions of .32 S&W and .38 S&W. They were also produced in a 7-shot .22 Long Rifle. Those pistols were ahead of their time in that they included an internal transfer bar safety. They had transfer bar safeties more than a half century before Ruger created the modern transfer bar safeties in their pistols. If the trigger was not pressed all the way to the rear, the gun would not fire. Just as with the Ruger these days, the Iver Johnson transfer bar safety sat between the hammer and a cartridge and prevented the gun from discharging unless the trigger was depressed all the way. 

Iver Johnson advertised this feature because it was revolutionary at the time. The hammer itself cannot make contact with a loaded cartridge. This was a feature that Colt and others didn't have. It was a feature that appealed to the gun-tottering civilian who stuck it in his or her coat pocket on the way to town, or while in town on the way to the Merry Go Round. 

Tom Correa




1 comment:

  1. The only two comments I can add are, first - cowhands often carried guns to deal with predators attacking cattle and to end the suffering of a badly injuried horse - as well as their personal protection. And second in places such as Los Angeles which once had the highest murder rate in the entire country - many memoirs of shop owners record their buying a gun and learning how to shoot it - as one of the first things they needed to do.

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