Western Trips

Friday, April 20, 2012

Frontier Firearms and Antique Guns During the 1800's

colt 38 revolver
Colt .38 at Fort Sumner Museum
When you travel throughout the western United States you'll come across many of these sites. The vast majority of these frontier guns are the real thing, not replicas. In fact, some of these individual firearms have quite a bit of history tied to them. For instance, at the Kit Carson Home and Museum in Taos New Mexico, you'll view a double barrel shot gun on display that reportedly was owned by Kit Carson himself.

rifles of kit carson
Kit Carson's rifles on display in Taos, New Mexico
The two frontier firearms shown below were once owned by frontier legend Kit Carson. The gun at the top is a double barrel shotgun. The rifle shown below the shotgun is a Spencer carbine.
The Spencer carbine was used first by the U.S. Navy and then adopted by the U.S. Army. The rifle was used extensively during the American Civil War. The Spencer rifle could shoot twenty rounds per minute and was considered very reliable under combat conditions. The only real complaint mentioned by it's users was that it emitted a lot of smoke and could make viewing the enemy a bit difficult. Regardless, the Spencer rifle gave the Union forces a good advantage over the Confederates. An interesting side note about the Spencer is that the company actually went out of business in 1869 through a merger but ammunition for it's firearms was manufactured right up until about 1920.

The antique gun photo shown at the top of the page is of a Colt .38 caliber that is on display at the Fort Sumner Museum in Fort Sumner New Mexico. This weapon supposedly was the firearm of choice for none other than Billy the Kid. As you may know, Billy met his end at Fort Sumner at the hands of Sheriff Pat Garrett.

The Colt revolver pistol represented a turning point in the frontier west. Probably the most written about account of the Colt revolver involved it's use with the Texas Rangers. Texas had been the scene of countless Comanche raids on frontier settlements as early as the 1820's. The Comanches were considered by almost all as being very effective fighters. Some believe even more effective than the Apaches to the west. Single shot firearms were difficult to use against these fast moving warriors. Texas Ranger Jack Hays had proven the usefulness of the six shot Colt while encountering a far superior force of Comanches in what would be called the Battle of Bandera Pass in the year 1841.

Below is a link to our Trips Into History site for an interesting article on Samuel Colt, his invention of the repeating pistol and a story of a murder involving his brother.

Samuel Colt, His Successes and Personal Trials

Another photo article on our Western Trips site you'll enjoy is historic Fort Garland Colorado and it's frontier carbine collection.

colt 44 revolver
1843 Colt .44 revolver reproduction
His fifty Rangers held off a force of near 1,000 warriors  due to the Colt repeating fire pistol. From that point forward, the Texas Rangers had the advantage over the Comanches.

The 1843 Colt revolver .44 shown left is on display at the California State Railroad Museum located in Old Town Sacramento California.

Another interesting stop is down in Fort Stockton Texas where among other exhibits is a Sharps 1874 Sporting Rifle. The Sharps Rifle was the gun that most believed was responsible for the decimation of the bison herds on the western plains.The Sharps Sporting Rifles were well known for their accuracy over very long distances. This was the firearm that played a big part in the second Battle of Adobe Walls in the Texas Panhandle. The breech loading Sharps rifles made their debut in 1848 and were designed by Christian Sharps. By the year 1874, Sharps rifles were so popular for their distance and accuracy that they were employed by many armies around the world. The second rifle from the top in the photo below is a 1874 Sharps Sporting Rifle. This display can be seen at the Fort Stockton Museum. The museum is located on the grounds of the former Fort Stockton at the town of Fort Stockton in southwest Texas. If your travels take you on Interstate 10 between San Antonio and El Paso Texas, adding a stop to this museum on your trip planner is well worth it.

sharps 1874 sporting rifle
1874 Sharps Sporting Rifle
You could make the argument that there were possibly four firearms that had a real significant impact on history during the 1800's. The first might be the Colt revolver mentioned above. The second would be the Spencer repeating shot rifles. The third might be considered the various Sharps rifles that not only, and unfortunately, decimated the buffalo herds but, because of their long range, proved effective against Indian attack, and the fourth might be the Gatling Gun and it's redesigned Battery Gun. All four of these firearms were involved in history changing events.

The Gatling Gun is well known for it's rapid firing capability. You would call it an early machine-gun. The concept of a rapid firing gun went back into the eighteenth century but lack of adequate engineering prevented it's realization. The Gatling Gun is known for it's multi-barrel design which rotated. The rotation of the barrels helped keep the gun cool during rapid firing. The first models required someone to crank the gun to turn the barrels. Firing output could reach some two-hundred rounds a minute which was incredible at the time.

gatling gun
1875 Gatling Battery Gun
The early ammunition was gravity fed using no belts. The Gatling Gun was first used in combat during the Civil War and was used right through the Spanish American War. The Gatling Gun and all it's versions were discontinued by the U.S. military in 1911.

The Gatling Gun shown in the photo at right is a 1875 version. The display shown here is at the California State Military Museum located in Old Town Sacramento California. This museum officially opened in 1991 and is the official military museum for the state of California. This museum features over 33,000 artifacts including a very large selection of vintage firearms, official flags and uniforms and a unique collection of old Spanish military equipment. In addition to this it offers a well stocked library. There are many things to do in Old Town Sacramento and a visit to this museum is certainly one of them.

When you're vacationing in the western U.S. you'll find many vintage firearms on display at a variety of historic sites. In many cases these firearms have been donated or loaned to the museum by people who have acquired these guns by having them passed down through the generations.The historic sites and museums mentioned in this article are only a few of the many out there in the western United States.

As a side note, today, many people purchase vintage gun kits such as the Sharps models. Sharps kits are now produced by at least two manufacturers from Montana. There are also many firms that buy and sell vintage rifles and pistols such as Colt's and Winchester's. There's a large market of vintage gun collectors and we're fortunate to have many of these classic firearms on display at hundreds of museums spread across the U.S. Each one of these vintage firearms come with a bit of history attached to it.

(Photos are from author's private collection)