So did just about everyone who populated America’s frontier West pack iron? Or is that a misconception perpetuated by Western fiction, TV, and movies? While I make no claim to be an expert on the matter, and though my scholarship on the topic is superficial at best, I believe I can offer some legitimate observations in answer to the question.
One way to know the extent to which citizens of the Old West characteristically carried weapons is to go to period sources, including period photographs. Recalling that the latter half of the nineteenth century was not exactly the era of the “selfie,” getting one’s picture taken was something of a special event back in those days. Consequently, folks might not have behaved–or even dressed–the same as they would in day-to-day life.
Many a cowhand–at the end of a cattle drive, once he’d gotten himself cleaned up–spent a bit of his earnings to have his picture made. And quite a few surviving photos of the trail-drive era show cowboys wearing six-guns. Some folks have debated whether the guns in the photos were the property of the wearer, or whether the entrepreneur on the other side of the camera knew that by offering such manly props he would assure himself more customers. Image, you know (no pun intended).
On the other hand, being that a six-shooter could save a cowhand’s life in a number of ways against either man or beast, it’s no stretch to assume that a fair sampling of them carried a gun.
We can, also, find out a bit about just who went around “heeled” when we examine the paintings and sculptures of certain Old West artists. Researcher and writer Jane Lambert noted in a recent issue of American Cowboy that Charles M. Russell was a particular stickler for detail. And the cowhands depicted in Charlie Russell’s works are, more often than not, armed.
Aside from cowboys, who else in the Old West might have habitually packed iron? We’d expect the men whose job it was to enforce the law to typically carry a gun. Same as today. But what about others?
Photographic evidence shows a mix of armed and unarmed citizens among those inside saloons and out front of their shops and businesses in towns of the period. Miners and sodbusters don’t seem to have worn a gun during the course of their everyday work, but I wouldn’t assume they didn’t own firearms…or keep them close at hand.
Teamsters? Sources seem to indicate that they, along with stagecoach drivers, usually did their jobs with a Winchester or a shotgun within close reach, whether or not they carried a revolver on their hip.
Admittedly, the appearance of firearms in period photos of the Old West may well have been a factor of who was taking the picture–when, where, and why–as much as it was an indicator of the habits of the folks in the pictures. But from all indications, it does not seem that the ubiquitous presence of weapons in the American West of the late nineteenth century has been excessively exaggerated in literature or in film.