The myths about the Wild West are plentiful. They’re long in the tooth, but often incredibly short on facts. For today, however, I vote we embrace the legends a bit and appreciate some of the iconic guns that are now burned into the American cultural memory.
What a time to be alive. America’s Manifest Destiny was in full swing – aided by a healthy appetite for news about gold and silver to the west. It had those with adventurous spirits on the move, but it could be a dangerous life. From settlers and prospectors to barkeeps and gunslingers, everyone had an interest in packing some Wild West heat.
Guns helped define the spirit of the independence and grit we now associate with the Wild West. Firearms technology was also in a transitional period. The result? These five iconic guns built the legend of the West and still keep it alive today.
Colt Single Action Army Revolver
Why beat around the Western sagebrush, this is the pistol we’re all thinking of when we picture the classic cowboy. The Colt Single Action Army is commonly known as the “Peacemaker,” but it graced the hands of gunslingers wearing both the “white” and the “black” hats. Unlike its percussion-cap predecessors, this single action took full advantage of the rise of cased ammunition for speedy reloads.
Colt wasn’t the first to get breech-loading revolvers on the market, but this gun is probably the most recognizable to Americans today. That’s thanks largely to classic Western movies. Many guns graced the hands of the great John Wayne, but Colt can probably thank “The Duke” for selling more of these pistols in the 20th Century than just about anyone else. Colt certainly seemed appreciative, having presented seven ornate versions to his family after his passing.
It’s American to the bone. Even Gen. George S. Patton was known to strap on a peacemaker – one not issued by the U.S. government – with ivory grips. He carried the pistol through two world wars.
Who doesn’t need a little bit of extra protection at the card table? Sure, most of us aren’t going to be doing any riverboat gambling any time soon, but these early concealed carry pistols were popular for a reason. They were easy to conceal and just enough firepower to give you some peace of mind while out in town – a town with little real law enforcement and plenty of lawbreakers.
Derringers were simple enough to be reliable well before pocket-sized semi-auto pistols were even conceived. They were common among gentlemen looking for some peace of mind in their vest pocket. But they were also well-liked by women, who were less apt to strap on a leather gun belt with a pair of revolvers.
No Western gun list is complete without paying homage to the iconic and, at the time at least, advanced Winchester lever-action rifles that have come to truly define most people’s idea of a Wild West gun. There should be no surprises here. Lever actions have a special place in the history of the West, the myths of the cowboy, and the hearts of millions of Americans today.
In particular, the Winchester Model 1873 stands out as “The Gun That Won the West,” as the company marketed the rifle anyway. Winchester didn’t corner the market entirely of course, with the Henry repeating rifle laying the groundwork. In fact, the Henry rifle saw use against Custer’s men at Little Big Horn against our final selection (more below).
There are numerous versions of these lever actions that range in caliber and size, such as the small-framed Mare’s Leg. Any way you cut it, the lever-action rifle is inseparable from the history and the myths of the West.
Want to ride shotgun? Well, pack your double-barrel coach gun for the trip. Sometimes known as “messenger shotgun” or “riding shotgun,” these powerful side-by-side break actions are a must for any Western movie or tall tale. They were also effective and powerful deterrents for any would-be stagecoach robber. They offer some key advantages when you need to put a lot of lead downrange in a hurry and possibly from a moving horse or carriage.
No less than Wyatt Earp himself “road shotgun” security for transports moving valuables in the dangerous and often lawless West. It’s was reported that “Doc" Holliday used a similar gun at the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and there are reports that Earp put the gun to use from time to time as well. Reports often varied, so we can’t easily say that we have two smoking barrels for every tale. Still, there’s no denying the coach gun made its mark in the West.
The award for the least recognizable gun on the list would probably go to the 1873 Springfield “Trapdoor,” so named because of the hinged breech block. Its place is well earned regardless, having been the firearm that U.S. soldiers predominantly carried during military campaigns to expand control in the American West. The short carbine variant was also carried by the ill-fated men under Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Over the years, more than a few found their way into private hands in the West.
As a transitional gun, it is also one of the most historically interesting. With a glut of increasingly obsolete muzzleloaders after the Civil War, the U.S. military had an interest in salvaging at least some of them to save some cash. The solution was to repurpose some rifles and add a breech-loading “trapdoor” to convert them into single-shot, breech-loading rifles that used cased ammunition.
After some trials of other guns, the gun was selected even over more modern magazine-fed firearms. Basically, it was outdated before it even got into soldiers’ hands. It managed to make its mark all the same, with state militia units still carrying it to the war with Spain in 1898.