Here's a question that I get from readers fairly often, "Can someone use Old West guns for self-defense purposes today?"
My first response to that question is usually, "Why not?"
Well, I've put off answering this question simply because I didn't know if this would interest you. But after thinking about it off and on for some time now, I've decided that now seems like a good time to talk about using firearms from the Old West for self-defense purposes today. Of course, what might surprise you is how long some technologies have been around -- technologies that we still use today.
First, shotguns are shotguns. Whether it's in the Old West or today, a shotgun's simplicity and usefulness really hadn't changed since the days when folks came West carrying grandpa's black-powder handed-down shotgun. I've said this before, it's my belief that the gun that really won the West was the American shotgun.
Those shotguns which were handed down from generation to generation in most American families were used for hunting both small game and birds, as well as used for self-defense when it came to protecting one's family. Shotguns have, as always, the ability to be used by even the most inexperienced shooter -- and be proficient with it when doing so. Whether it was back in the day or today, a person armed with a shotgun does not need a lot of practice to learn to be competent when wanting to hit what they aim at.
That ability to grab a shotgun and be fairly competent even though you aren't someone who shoots a lot speaks to the fact that shotguns are not complicated and extremely easy to use. As for the myth that all shotguns in the West had exposed hammers, what some of us like to affectionately call "rabbit-ears," the first hammerless shotgun was produced in the late 1870s.
So no, one doesn't have to use a "rabbit-ear" shotgun, one with exposed-hammers, to think that he or she is using a shotgun like those used in the Old West. And while I've talked about how lawmen used side-by-side double-barrel shotguns as "town tamers," they have not lost their effect today. In fact, I don't think anyone would argue that shotguns can still stop a fight by merely being present. They can intimidate and change the attitudes of would-be bad guys faster than most things. They did in the Old West, and they do today.
Side-By-Side Double Barrel Shotguns
Loading the old standby side-by-side shotgun is as rudimentary as can be. Make sure the safety is on and the gun pointed in a safe direction. As always, you should always treat any gun as though it were loaded -- even if you know for certain that it isn't.
The first step in loading a side-by-side "break action" shotgun is to open the breech. You can do that by finding and engaging the barrel breech lever. While some of the first side-by-side shotguns had the breach lever located on the bottom and even on the side of the guns, today the lever will usually be on the top of the gun. On most shotguns, it will be located between the safety and where the barrels meet the stock.
On most shotguns, moving the breech lever to the right will open the breach and drop open the barrels. The shotgun will be ready to load or extract the spent shells when you open the break-action and lower the barrel away from the stock of the shotgun.
If there are spent shells, then remove and discard the spent casings. With most side-by-side shotguns, the spent casings should be ejected automatically. In some cases when they don't, then you may have to use your hands and take them out. You should keep in mind that the spent shells might still be hot after being just fired. In that case, try not to touch the metal of the barrel if possible since it might be hot as well.
Replace each of the used casings with a fresh shell. While it is virtually impossible to put the shotshell in wrong, remember that the business end of the shell should be the end that you slide into the barrel.
Once you have a couple of shotshells loaded, bring the barrel back up and close the breach. You should hear the break-action closing and feel it click shut. With that, your side-by-side shotgun is now loaded and ready to fire.
In 1875, the first self-cocking mechanism is said to have been pioneered by British inventors Anson and Deerley for their hammerless shotgun. Their idea was to have the movement of opening the action of the breach be used to cock the gun at the same time. Their invention is still used almost unchanged to this day.
So now, how does American inventor Daniel Myron LeFever fit into this story? Well, Daniel Myron
LeFever is credited with the invention of the first American hammerless shotgun. Working out of Syracuse, New York, he introduced his first hammerless shotgun in 1878. But his gun was not a "self-cocker." His shotgun was cocked with external-cocking levers on the side of the breach. So no, it wasn't a "self-cocking" shotgun. But, that didn't stop him from inventing a shotgun that would do that and more.
Daniel M. LeFever went on to patent the first truly automatic hammerless shotgun in 1883. That shotgun automatically cocked itself when the breech was closed. And, he later developed the mechanism that automatically ejects the shells when the breech is opened. So, believe it or not, by the late 1880s hammerless self-cocking shotguns that ejected their spent rounds were commonplace in the Old West.
What's the difference between the "hammerless, self-cocking" shotgun and one with exposed hammers "rabbit-ears"? Break-open actions are the most common type used for shotguns, and a hammerless shotgun will cock itself when it is open and closed. The exposed hammer shotguns don't. In the case of shotguns with exposed hammers, a shooter has to physically cock the hammers back into firing-position after closing the breach with new shells.
Also, for a hammerless shotgun, after you close the breach, its safety is probably engaged. So yes, it's probably on safe as soon you closed the barrels. The button that operates the safety has to be off before you can fire.
I know some folks who have shotguns with the safety disabled so that there's no fussing with the safety when the breech is closed during loading. Their reasoning is that they want their shotgun ready to go once the break is shut. I wouldn't recommend disabling a safety.
Double-barreled shotguns, both the side-by-side and the over-under, are the safest shotgun to own because anyone can see if they are loaded when the action is broken open. If the action is open, the gun cannot fire. Even though that's the case, there is no need to disable a safety since the simplicity behind loading and unloading a double-barrel shotgun already makes it extremely easy for even the novice who is forced into a situation of protecting himself or someone else in mortal danger.
As for pump-action shotguns, the first slide-action (pump-action) shotgun patent was issued to British inventor Alexander Bain as far back as 1854. American firearms inventor Christopher Spencer came up with his version in 1890. None other than the famous American inventor John Moses Browning followed up a few years later with his pump-action shotgun in 1893.
We know that when John Moses Browning built the Winchester Model 1893, that he lived to see it become the first commercially successful pump-action shotgun. As for his knowing how much we would all love pump-action shotguns, that is something that we will never know. We love them because of their functionality and their durability. We love them because they work. It is because of those factors that millions have been bought.
As for loading a pump-action shotgun, as with any gun, make sure the barrel pointed away from you in a safe direction. This is always the first step when handling and loading any firearm. The shells are loading into the tube-magazine from under the chamber.
While I've seen some people close the chamber by sliding the action forward and loading the tube-magazine from under the gun, I like to turn the gun upside down after sliding the action shut. As with a side-by-side, the shells slide in with the "business end" of the shells pointing toward the "business end" of the gun barrel. The "business end" is the end that the shot comes out of. It is the opposite end of where the metal shell cap and primer on the shell are located.
Load a single shell against the loading flap just ahead of the trigger guard by using your thumb to push the shell straight into the loading flap. Do that until you hear and feel a distinct click. That click is the rim of the shell passing over the magazine catch. Push it in until you hear that click indicates that it is securely in the tube-magazine.
Follow that up with another shell, and another, and another, until the tube-magazine is full. You can tell the tube-magazine is fully loaded when you attempt to load a shell but it won't go in.
As for operating the pump-action? Locate and hold in the action release button. Then pump the slide backward. That will slide the bolt to the rear while taking a shell from the tube-magazine. A lifter arm puts the shell into position to be chambered. Pump the slide forward with a reasonable amount of force to load the chamber. This will put you ready to fire. Yes, the shotgun is now ready to fire.
After firing, pump the slide backward. You will notice that the spent shells are ejected. When you pump the slide forward again, that repeats the process and readies your shotgun to fire again. Repeat the action until you need to reload the tube-magazine again.
I would not consider semi-automatic shotguns as being part of the guns used in the Old West simply because they came about in 1903 with the Browning Automatic Shotgun. Semi-automatic shotguns did become very popular during the years leading up to World War I. And it's said that while it was a favorite of bird hunters, it's also said that lawmen at the time and during Prohibition enjoyed the fact that they could unleash five rounds very quickly while only using their trigger fingers.
While I know that Chinese made lever-action shotguns are seeing a bit of a spike in popularity these days as a result of their use in Hollywood movies, the most successful lever-action shotgun in the Old West was the Winchester Model 1887. It was designed by John Browning in 1885.
But that didn't stop Winchester Repeating Arms Company from wanting to market a lever-action shotgun for reasons of brand recognition. Remember, Winchester was best known for manufacturing lever-action rifles firearms at the time. So it was their thought that they could capitalize on their lever-action reputation with a lever-action shotgun.
The result was the Winchester Model 1887 which specified using black-powder. It had a following at first, but its sales declined. After ten years of poor sales, Winchester came out with their Model 1897 which used smokeless-powder cartridges. It's said that John Browning advised Winchester against coming out with the Model 1897 because he felt the lever-action design was inferior to the pump-action design which was taking the market by storm.
The popularity of the Winchester's Model 1887 and Model 1897 dropped as the demand for pump-action shotguns took off. The result was that Winchester stopped production of the Model 1887 and Model 1897 shotguns because of poor sales by 1920. That was a very short run for a firearm. Of course, it should be noted that lever-action shotguns diminished in popularity because they gained a reputation as being unreliable when compared to the steadfast durability and ease of function of pump-action shotguns.
As for pump-action shotguns, like that of a basic design of double-barrels, it's a technology that has endured the test of time. And yes, they really part of the Old West.
So now, to answer the question, can guns from the Old West be used today? As we know, the answer is yes -- especially when it comes to shotguns. Its basic technology has been around longer than most realize and they still work.
While gunmakers today can tinker with adding multiple tube-magazines, increasing shell capacity, using pistol grips and even lasers, the basic technology of getting a shotshell from a magazine and into a chamber has not changed since the 1800s. Gunmakers still make double-barrel shotguns and pump-action shotguns because that technology is time tested.
Our knowing that hammerless side-by-side double barrel and pump-action shotguns have been around since the days of the Old West should tell us something. Their longevity shows us that they can still be a perfect choice for self-defense purposes today. They were used routinely in the Old West, and no one can deny that they can't be very effective today. The reason is simple -- they work so well.
Next time, we'll talk about Old West pistols and rifles that can certainly be used today in cases of self-defense and keeping predators away from our livestock.