If you’re going to enjoy Westerns to the fullest, it’s good to know some of the more popular handguns of the Old West.
It’s been suggested many times that gun play was not nearly so common in the American West as Western fiction makes it seem. Likewise some have insisted that the late Elmer Kelton (whom Western Writers of America crowned the greatest Western author of all time) didn’t write shoot-’em-ups. Both statements may be correct, but a great deal of fiction across all genres places heroes and villains alike at one end or the other of a gun. It’s fiction.
Meanwhile, the American West of the 1860s-90s was not a tame place. A cowboy might need a pistol if for no other reason than not wanting to get dragged to his death if his horse threw him and bolted while his foot remained tangled in his stirrup. Besides, there were snakes, wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, and the like to contend with, not to mention a wide open land with too few lawmen to keep up with scores of new settlements and problems.
With that said, what popular handguns did the folks of the Old West like to carry?
Famous Handguns of the Old West
No six-shooter of the 19th century has surpassed the fame of Colt’s .45 caliber M 1873 Single Action Army (SAA) revolver or its .44 caliber twin, the Colt Frontier Six-Shooter. Sometimes called the Peacemaker or simply a Colt, even modern-day weapons experts will often say that this is the finest revolver ever made.
Both the .45 caliber Army version and the .44 caliber Frontier version of the Colt Model 1873 were available with 7.5 inch or 5.5 inch barrel lengths.
The Peacemaker was a single action weapon, which means firing the weapon required two distinct steps–pulling back the hammer and then squeezing the trigger. But don’t let that fact fool you into thinking this was not a rapid-fire handgun. Practiced six-gun artists can often fire faster than someone using a modern handgun.
Several earlier model Colt revolvers were also popular in the Old West. Colt Walkers, Dragoons, and Model 1860 Army revolvers were found throughout the West, especially in the days shortly following America’s Civil War. Some of these weapons were converted to fire brass cartridges instead of the original paper cartridges and lead balls (or bullets).
Wild Bill Hickok was known to have preferred to carry a pair of Colt Model 1851
Navy revolvers with ivory grips and silver plating. The photo to the right shows a Colt Navy revolver with a shorter barrel than the ones Hickok carried. And while Wild Bill’s revolvers were of the old cap and ball type, this Colt Navy revolver fires the newer metallic cartridges.
Colt Wasn’t a Monopoly
While Colt six-shooters were immensely reliable and popular, they were by no means the only guns on the market in the Old West. Wyatt and Virgil Earp, Marshal Pat Garret, and notorious outlaw John Wesley Hardin were all enthusiasts of Smith & Wesson’s Model 3 (Schofield) revolver.
One thing that made the Schofield different from the Colt was that the Schofield was a top-breaking revolver. Instead of opening a gate and having the cylinder
swing out to the side of the weapon for loading, as was the case with the Colt, the entire barrel and cylinder portion of the Schofield rotated forward on a hinge for reloading.
The .44 caliber Schofield was an 1875 modification to Smith & Wesson’s 1870 Model 3 Single Action Army revolver that saw action from the American Indian wars through the Spanish-American War.
Another Popular Make
Eliphalet Remington & Sons manufactured three different variants of its Model 1858 single action revolver–a .31 caliber pocket pistol, a .36 caliber Navy
handgun, and a .44 caliber Army revolver. Sales of the Army model took off in 1864 when Colt’s factory suffered a massive fire.
Beginning in 1868 the Remington company itself began to offer metallic cartridge conversions of its New Model Army revolver. Next to the Colt M 1873 Six-Shooter, perhaps no other pistol of the time boasts such an iconic profile. Buffalo Bill Cody proudly packed an ivory-handled Remington .44 caliber, and the six-gun has since been used in many a Western film.
Remington’s pocket pistol was a handy back-up weapon that might be stowed in a waistband or a shoulder holster. A lady might well discreetly carry one. Or,
she might prefer one of Remington’s famous Derringers in her muff or garter.
The over-and-under double-barreled Remington Derringer is a classic weapon, famous the world over. It was manufactured from 1866 through 1935 in one caliber only–.41 rim fire. That’s plenty enough punch to take care of business at close range.
Double the Action
Not every handgun of the Old West era was of the single action variety. Following the Civil War, a number of Ebenezer Townsend Starr’s sturdy and revolutionary double action revolvers made their way to the frontier.
The Starr revolver–available in .36 and .44 calibers–was a tricky weapon until one got used to it. The trigger wasn’t actually what fired the weapon. Instead, the trigger rotated the cylinder and cocked the hammer until it finally struck a small lever built into the frame that set off the gunpowder. The slight delay could be unnerving. Nonetheless, a number of former Union soldiers converted their Starr pistols to fire metallic cartridges and carried them out West.
My personal favorite double action revolver of the period–Colt’s Model 1877–had a bad reputation at the time. Too many folk, accustomed to using single action pistols, ruined the delicate mechanism of the Colt double action by using it in single action fashion or by not letting the gun reset before yanking on the trigger again and again.
But when used properly, the Colt Model 1877 Double Action was a lovely handgun. It was produced with the classic and easily recognizable bird’s head grips that many users came to love for fit and comfort in the hand. Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, and Doc Holliday were known to have liked and carried the Colt Double Action.
Manufactured in three calibers, the 1877 Colt came to be known as the Thunderer in its .41 caliber variant, the Lightning in its .38 caliber form, and the Rainmaker in its .32 caliber iteration.
Whatever the frontiersman’s choice, the handgun he packed on his hip or under his coat was no toy. Yes, the rambunctious trail hand occasionally shot up the town with his six-gun at the end of a long, grueling cattle drive. By and large, however, the men and women of the West knew that carrying a firearm was serious but necessary business in a time and place when help was often a long, long distance away.