Americans have always had a romantic notion about the frontier, how we arrived with our guns and honor, and settled the land in a fair fight. The passion extends to firearms themselves, which seem to possess a magic power to turn us into sharp-shooting heroes defending the homestead from any danger. But today our relationship with guns is in turmoil, as the bleak reality impinges on the myths we’ve come to hold dear.
“The better the weaponry, the more people started dying in the Old West.”
After the Autry National Center, a museum dedicated to the American West, was gifted a collection of some of the finest American firearms from the 19th century, the news broke of yet another mass shooting. Overnight, the ethical implications of showcasing and celebrating guns began to weigh heavy on the museum’s curators.
“Firearms were such an important part of the history of the American West, so they have always been featured quite prominently within the museum,” says Jeffrey Richardson, the curator of the new “Western Frontiers: Stories of Fact and Fiction” exhibition, which opened July 27, 2013. “In the past, the museum had treated firearms no differently than any other object, be it a saddle, spurs, or a painting. But as we move forward, we’ve begun to question that particular thinking. The reasoning being that every so often, we have a terrible tragedy that occurs in America, and it gets us debating these national issues about gun control and gun rights.”
Richardson explains that as he and his team at the Los Angeles museum were preparing this new show of opulent Western guns last December, a shooter murdered 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, before taking his own life.
“Firearms present a unique challenge for curators that just about no other object does,” he says. “Regardless of whether it’s the most beautiful, historically important firearm you’ve ever seen, a firearm is a tool that is designed to hurl an object at speeds that can kill people and animals and cause all sorts of destruction. We can never remove that baggage from a firearm.”
It’s true that the history of United States is inextricably entwined with the history of gun manufacturing. And perhaps that’s why the fervor for unrestricted gun rights never dies down, even when chaos breaks out. Without firearms and the determined settlers carrying them, this country would be a fraction of its size, never realizing what we called the Manifest Destiny to span the American continent coast to coast. But the real history of the Old West is far less noble and clear-cut than the legends we hold in our collective imagination.
In the early days of the United States, when the country was comprised of 13 states hugging the East Coast, the West seemed a boundless source of possibility and hope. Any man who wanted a new life could pack up his family and strike out westward in a covered wagon. Bringing an American longrifle, also known as a Kentucky rifle, used for hunting and self-defense, was simply a necessity.
“The notions of what was wrong, what was right, law and order—all of those things were quite amorphous on the American frontier.”
“To get the food that was necessary to live, you had to hunt,” Richardson says. “In the West, everyone relied on a hunter, be it someone directly in their camp or someone outside, for their survival. Early settlers had a firearm not only to hunt but to face whatever hostile elements that they might come across—both animals and people. Then, firearms were also used to make war or to keep the peace. And they were used the same way by all people in the American West, by white settlers, Native Americans, and African American Buffalo Soldiers.”
Of course, aside from wild animals and Native Americans unhappy with the invasion, pioneers had to stay alert for bandits, other white folks who decided to survive on the frontier through armed robbery, “pretty much as soon as white Americans got here,” says Bob Boze Bell, the executive editor of “True West” magazine. “I’m sure banditry happened in Native Americans times, too, but when the pioneers got there, they started writing this stuff down, so you get the record of it. Where there isn’t law, you’re going to have gangs of roaming marauders that are looking for plunder. The criminal element was here hundreds of years before the Wild West even, when the Spanish were here. And some Native Americans stole horses from the Spanish to go on raiding parties against other tribes.”
At first, the frontier was anything west of the Appalachian Mountains. By the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, the West had been pushed to the other side of the Mississippi River. With the help of the Transcontinental Railroad opened in 1869, civilization swallowed up the last of the American frontier by 1890, just 25 short years after the end of the war. It was the Old West’s last hurrah.
In the early 1800s, “the West just didn’t have that many people in it,” Bell says. “Just prior to the Civil War, in the 1850s, you start seeing settlements throughout the West—pockets, really. After the Civil War and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, what was a trickle became a deluge. Even then, you had urban areas like Tucson, but you could ride for 10 miles and all of a sudden you were in the middle of nowhere and could be attacked by Mexican contraband people or Native Americans or rogue gangs of white outlaws.”
In the early days, those American rifles, which had to be packed with gunpowder and ammunition through the muzzle for every shot, had nothing on the number of arrows a Native American warrior could shoot at a hapless homesteader in a short amount of time. But in the end, white settlers defeated everyone who laid claim to that land, be it Native Americans or Mexican vaqueros, thanks to rapid advances in American gun technology in the 1800s.
While the rough-and-tumble Westerners had no love for the elite industrialists of the East Coast, ironically, it was those companies and their precision manufacturing that gave the white settlers the upper hand in the 1800s, as they revolutionized gun technology between 1830 and 1870. Certain Native American tribes had access to firearms—which they would also use to lord over enemy tribes—but the white man got the lightest, fastest, and most accurate guns first.
“The protocol of either counting down to draw or allowing the other person to draw first, that’s pure made-up hooey.”
“At the beginning of the 1800s, you had the flintlock system, which required the individual to separately load both the gunpowder and the bullet,” Richardson says. “You had a flint on your gun, and that flint would spark, which would cause the gun powder to ultimately explode, which would cause the projectile to shoot out. It was a very labor-intensive process to load the gun and to clean the gun so it remained accurate. By the time you get to 1900, you have repeating, breech-loading guns using metallic cartridges, which are the types of firearms that we see today.”
The web page for the Weitzenhoffer Fine Arms Gallery at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City explains: “Between 1830 and 1870, firearms technology advanced from muzzle-loading, single-shot weapons employing percussion ignition, to ingenious breech-loading and repeating arms using dependable metallic cartridges. This rapid evolution in design and function coincided with a virtual revolution in the means and methods of industrial production. Initiated and perfected among domestic arms makers, this ‘American System of Manufacturing’ relied on specialized machinery, precision tooling and gauging, and mass-production principles like the uniformity of constituent parts and the division of labor among trained mechanics rather than artisan gunsmiths. Employing this ‘system,’ American arms makers produced hundreds of thousands of machine-made firearms that often rivaled traditional European standards of craftsmanship while at the same time providing greater mechanical ingenuity and superior firepower.”
Samuel Colt patented his design for a repeating, revolving-cylinder in 1836. His wasn’t the first revolver—in fact, he simply improved upon Elisha Collier’s 1814 flintlock revolver. Colt’s game-changing innovation was making every part of a handgun by machine, so each piece of a revolver was uniform and interchangeable with any other gun of that same model. But Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company, based in Hartford, Connecticut, didn’t rely on machines alone. In the early 1850s, Colt brought in a stable of brilliant artisans, metal workers and engravers, who could personalize any Colt firearm, making it a unique work of art.
When Colt’s patent expired in 1857, Remington Arms Company of Ilion, New York, got in on the revolver action, producing high-quality and reliable machine-made firearms that rivaled Colt’s. Around the same time, Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson, based in Springfield, Massachusetts, produced an even better revolver featuring a bored-through cylinder and self-contained metal cartridges. Smith & Wesson guns quickly became the favorites of soldiers and lawmen like Wyatt Earp. However, when Colt issued its Single Action Army Revolver—also known as Colt .45—in 1873, it quickly became the most popular gun on the frontier, and it’s often referred to as “the gun that won the West.”
However, that title is a matter of dispute. After all, handguns, like revolvers, are only effective at a close range. Long arms, such as rifles, were more important on the frontier, because they can hit a target from a distance.
While Christian Sharps developed a successful single-shot breech-loading long arm in 1848, many inventors were attempting to make “repeating” or multi-shot long arms as well, but most of these early models failed in the market. In the 1850s, Smith and Wesson tinkered with a repeating rifle that had first been patented by Walter Hunt in 1849 and then improved upon by Lewis Jennings. Wesson and Smith first established the Volcanic Repeating Arms company in 1855, but their less-than-successful endeavor was quickly taken over by an investor named Oliver Winchester, who forced the founders out in 1856 and relocated to New Haven, Connecticut.
“For those who did not experience the frontier, Wild West shows solidified that connection between firearms and the American West.”
As Smith and Wesson went on to build their own successful namesake revolver company, Winchester charged plant foreman Benjamin Henry with perfecting the repeating rifle. Winchester’s New Haven Arms Company produced the first Henry rifle in 1860, which was so popular with the Union Army during the Civil War that soldiers, who were never officially issued those guns, would buy them with their own money. The Union soldiers were also sometimes armed with repeating rifles developed by Christian Spencer. Confederate soldiers, who were still using muzzle-loading single-shot weapons, were stunned.
After a financial dispute with Henry, Winchester organized his company again, this time as the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and had his engineers once again improve upon Henry’s repeating rifle design, issuing the first Winchester rifle in 1866. However, it was the Model of 1873, with its center-fire cartridge, that dominated the long-arms market in the late 19th century, rivaling the Colt .45 for the designation of the legendary “gun that won the West.”
Richardson makes a case that the Winchester was arguably the most important gun on the frontier, because it also made great strides for hunters. “As guns got lighter, more powerful, and more accurate over time, it allowed individuals to hunt at greater distances,” Richardson says. “While we don’t think of the buffalo, or more accurately, the bison, as being this dangerous wild animal, it certainly was. You didn’t know exactly what would happen when you got up close to one. As the technology improved, men were able to hunt buffalo at greater and greater distances, which was obviously a lot safer for them, but it wasn’t a good thing for the buffalo.”
But the buffalo weren’t the only ones that were suffering at the hands of new weapons. “The better the weaponry, the more people started dying,” Bell says, although never in the sort of rule-abiding shootouts seen in Hollywood Westerns, such as “High Noon” or countless John Wayne films.
“The protocol of either counting down to draw or allowing the other person to draw first, that’s pure made-up hooey,” he says. “In the real old West, there were stand-up face-to-face gunfights, but they were much more straight-up, go-to-fighting kind of affairs. Up through the 1860s and 1870s, everyone was heeled, which means that they were armed, so you had more people cocking guns in other people’s faces. And of course, in most of the fights, the idea was to get the drop on the other person, and that meant, more often than not, shooting from a safe place in an ambush, or shooting someone in the back, unfortunately.”
Hearing that, you’d think that people living in the West survived bloody horrors every day, living in a state of post-trauma shock where they constantly had to watch their backs. But the truth is, if you weren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could go decades without witnessing violence in West.
“There are a thousand movies made about them, so you’d think that there were gunfights every day,” Bell says. “And when you read the diaries or you talk to the old-timers, they’ll say things like, ‘Why, I never saw anybody pull a gun in anger, and I lived on the range for 40 years.’ Did most people settle their differences in court? Yeah, probably. Did they use their fists more than their guns? Yes. Were there a lot of deaths from shooting in saloons? Oh yeah. It was a wild time. It’s safe to say that the West had its moments. And what we celebrate in legend are those dramatic moments. They weren’t all the time, and they were not like Hollywood portrays, but if you portrayed it real, nobody would go see the movie.”
Historians continue to debate how “wild” the Wild West actually was, Richardson says. Most towns were not as lawless as they were portrayed, while others, like Dodge City, Kansas, and Tombstone, Arizona, went through extraordinarily violent periods.
“Some historians have argued that Western frontier towns were safer than modern cities, but Los Angeles, for example, had much higher crime rates in 1900 than even today, which people might be surprised to learn,” Richardson says. “In Western towns, the lawmen oftentimes found themselves on the other side of the law. The notions of what was wrong, what was right, law and order—all of those things were quite amorphous on the American frontier. Sometimes the good guys did bad, and sometimes the bad guys did good.”
And because some of the guns from the 1800s are so aesthetically pleasing, it’s easy to forget their capacity for devastation. Like Colt, Winchester also offered a wide variety of ways to have your gun embellished and personalized. The most opulent guns were rarely used; they often became status symbols for wealthy ranchers and entrepreneurs, who passed them down as prized family heirlooms.
“A common individual, be it a typical settler or a typical law enforcement officer, would’ve carried a very basic gun,” Richardson says. “All of the examples in the ‘Western Frontiers’ exhibition are superior, exceptional examples of their type, beautifully engraved, in excellent condition, owned by historic individuals. We have examples that are gold-plated or silver-plated, with ivory or mother-of-pearl grips, gold inlay, inscriptions, and engraving.
“We do have one example that shows wear from use, which is Teddy Roosevelt’s Colt Single Action Army, his favorite Western revolver,” he continues. “That particular gun, which originally had gold-plating and these wonderful ivory grips, is beautifully engraved with T.R.’s monogram on one side and a bison on the other, which was the first big-game Western animal that Theodore Roosevelt ever killed. But because Roosevelt used it every day—he carried it with him, he took it in and out of his holster—all of the gold plating has been completely removed from the gun through wear.”
“Up through the 1870s, everyone was heeled, so you had more people cocking guns in other people’s faces.”
Even more guns flooded the West at the end of the Civil War in 1865, as disgruntled Confederate soldiers and sympathizers angry about the Reconstruction began to form outlaw gangs like the James Gang. “The Civil War created the dynamic where both sides wanted part of the West, and that created conflict,” Bell says. “After it was over, then you had this collision of people from Texas, who were Southerners, meeting the people from the North, who were Yankees, in the West. And you had the people who were coming up from Mexico. Then you add all the Native American tribes already here, and you got a recipe for fighting.”
Also, during the frontier days, the U.S. government would send marshals to keep law and order in towns springing up in the West, who may or may not have gotten along with the locally appointed sheriff. Making things even more complicated, the local lawmen might own a controlling interest in the mines nearby or the town’s gambling hall.
“There were lots of jurisdiction problems—and then there were just problems with having too much territory to cover,” Bell says. “In Lincoln County, this huge county in New Mexico, a judge would travel to a jurisdiction once a year, or maybe twice a year, to hear all the complaints and warrants for murder. By the time he got there, more people were dead. That was a case of the law being few and far between. In that same county in 1878, you had the Lincoln County War, where two rival camps went to different towns and got sworn in as lawmen. Then they were out hunting and killing each other. So then you had too much law.”
Most towns would only have a couple law enforcement officials, say a sheriff and his deputy, so if they heard a known outlaw was approaching town, they’d form a vigilante committee. Of course, they didn’t have to adhere to the notion of “innocent until proven guilty.” “When a group mentality took hold and vigilante justice would be forced upon individuals,” Richardson says, “it was usually to keep minorities down.”
“Every town had a vigilante group,” Bell says. “If keeping the peace got too much for the lawmen, who were usually only one or two people, they would form a vigilante group and they would act to protect the interests of the town. Of course, sometimes they went too far and they got on a hanging jag. The next thing you know they would hang 10 people, and nine of them were innocent.”
Well-known outlaws like Jesse James and Billy the Kid were protected by impoverished locals, who benefited from the bounty the criminals pilfered. “As long as they had local protection, they could act almost with impunity,” Bell says. “Southerners hated the Yankees. When the James brothers were robbing trains and banks, most people in Missouri, and certainly the South, didn’t have any love for the banks, so they didn’t care.
“But the James Gang made a mistake when they went to Minnesota because they tried to rob the bank in Northfield and they thought that it was going to be a pushover,” he continues. “The local people had money in that bank, and they fought back and defeated the gang. The same thing is true with Billy the Kid. The Spanish-speaking community loved and protected and hid him. But he finally pushed it too far and lost his base of support.”
Cowboys and ranchers, as it turned out, could be just as much of a menace. Traditionally, ranchers grazed their cattle on the open range, and before settlement, the West had plenty of it. Post Civil War, the demand for beef was growing on the East Coast, where ranchers could get $40 a head for cattle (as opposed to $4 in the West). Ranchers from Texas, for example, would hire cowboys to drive their cattle to the railhead at Dodge City, Kansas, where they would be shipped back East.
But homesteading acts and the Transcontinental Railroad brought more and more settlers, who established farms and put up barbed wire fences right across cattle trails. When competitive ranchers saw how much this hurt rival cattlemen, they’d erect fences everywhere, even on public land. Angry cowboys cut every fence they encountered, set the posts on fire, or organized vigilante posses to retaliate against their enemies with violence. And every cattleman had it in for the shepherds, whose flocks destroyed good grasslands.
“Where there isn’t law, you’re going to have gangs of roaming marauders that are looking for plunder.”
“What really happened in the Range Wars is that you start to get the big, financed corporations from San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and London buying up the ranches,” Bell says. “It always starts with the little prospector and the little guy, and he comes upon something. Within hours, they’re bought out for $500-$1,000. All of a sudden you have another buyout, just like what’s happening today, in cable or with the Internet. A big fish is taking a bite of a little fish, and then the next thing you know you got two huge juggernaut companies, and they slug it out. What happened with the cattle: You had little cattlemen and little farmers, and now here we are, 125 years later, and Monsanto runs the entire Midwest.”
Yes, most violence in the West was about money, and explicitly competing business interests. Even the most famous gunfight, the shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, had its roots in business: the Earp family, the town’s lawmen, had mining-interest disputes with the ranching Clanton and McLaury families. And over time, resentments simmered in myriad ways. The Clantons (from Texas) and McLaurys (from Iowa) identified as Southerners, while the Earps and the townspeople (from Iowa), identified as Northerners.
“The gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which is a very well-known event, was something that had social, political, cultural ramifications,” Richardson says. “You had two sides. One was Northern Republicans; one was Southern Democrats. They had conflicting mining interest, and there was a love triangle. All of these things led up to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The actual shootout, which lasted 30 seconds, was ostensibly over gun control: The Earp faction, which was representing law and order, asked the cowboys to disarm as they were making their way into town at Tombstone. Well, the cowboys did not do so, and that ostensibly led to the fight.”
That’s right, the West had gun control. In the early days, the Western towns were largely populated with rowdy young men working as miners or cowboys. But as more white families flooded into the West, people started to be concerned about safety. Starting in the 1880s, many of these towns started to post gun-control ordinances that required anyone coming into town to check their guns at the local law-enforcement office or the hotel. “As they became civilized and people brought their wives and families out, they didn’t want a lot of gunplay,” Bell says. Of course, outlaws completely disregarded those laws.
The 1890 U.S. Census revealed that the West was too well-populated with American citizens to be considered the frontier anymore. Idaho and Wyoming territories became states that year; only Utah, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona territories remained. But pop culture, in the form of traveling vaudeville shows, had already begun to mythologize the Wild West. In fact, a writer named Ned Buntline produced one of the first Western dramas, “Scouts of the Prairie,” in 1872, based on the life of and starting bison hunter, “Buffalo” Bill Cody. Cody went on to launch his own circus-like traveling show, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” in 1883.
“As America started to move away from that frontier past, nostalgia built up and people wanted to see it before it disappeared,” Richardson says. “For individuals on the East Coast, one way for them to do that was to go to a Wild West show, which was packaged as a historical re-creation, as fact. Of course, certain things were embellished for the sake of drama and adventure. Then film and television followed upon those myths. People first saw Westerns at the movies. They just assumed that this has to be exactly like it was. And the same thing occurred with television.
“The Wild West shows had shooting competitions and exhibitions because, again, firearms were so intricately tied to the narrative of the West,” he continues. “So for individuals who did not have that real experience of the frontier, Wild West shows solidified that connection between firearms and the American West the same way that the television industry would 50 years later.”
Bell says it makes sense that we created these myths about the Old West because the truth is too uncomfortably gray, too much like our regular lives. “When you go to a movie or read a story, you want to see archetypes and want to see conflicts resolved,” he says. “That’s why you go to the movies or read a book, you want to escape from the fact that everything’s pretty darn gray.”
The simpler the Wild West tropes got, the more damage they did to American culture. In the 1950s, mothers began to complain about all the violence in TV westerns, so the studios responded by toning it down. The honorable hero would shoot the gun out of his enemy’s hand and win a gunfight without hurting anyone.
“The Hollywood version of the Wild West had a huge impact,” Bell says. “One of the most shocking things in the Vietnam War, which was all run by Baby Boomers, is we had an actual Army edict that we wouldn’t fire unless we were fired upon. Well, that came straight out of a diet of Westerns that came out after mothers got upset about all the violence on TV. All of a sudden we get into a war, and they’re saying we can’t fire unless we’re fired upon? That’s straight out of the myth of the Old West, but it never happened in the Old West. It’s a dangerous belief.”
Still, our frontier roots mean that Americans may never give up the idea that we’re all gun-wielding cowboys who can make it on our own in the wild.
“Other cultures didn’t have the resources of land that the United States did,” Richardson says. “That’s one of the many things that set apart the American experience from, say, Europe or Asia. Of course, ‘open land’ is a huge misnomer, as if the land was not in use, as if there were not people here. But still this notion of the availability or the supposed availability of land certainly determined America’s arc. It determined American history.”
(To learn more about the history of the firearms that “won the West,” visit the Autry National Center in Los Angeles or the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. To read about the realities of gunfights in the Old West, check out “True West” magazine.)