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Rifles, Shotguns, and Knives in the Old West

Although there is a fair amount of material available on handguns used by the Texas Rangers in the old West (a major story interest of mine), information on the other weapons they used is more scarce. No less an authority on early Ranger history than Frederick Wilkins acknowledges that there is little documentation, for example, on how widespread the use of rifles was throughout Texas in general. One reason for this may be the fact that handguns were a necessity, at least for the Rangers, in close combat with the Comanches and more is written and documented on hand guns used (see story on Handguns of the Old West in this website).

In his book on early Texas Ranger history, Wilkins provides the best description of rifles, shotguns, and knives of the early Rangers in his chapter entitled "Tools of the Trade." I credit Wilkins with most of the material on early weapons below which was taken from that chapter. I hope this material will encourage others to read that chapter (and the rest of the book) for a delightful introduction to early Texas Ranger history (see reference below).

Early Weapons (1820s to 1870s)

Rifles

Many early Texas settlers were hunters and farmers from the southern states who brought with them the flintlock rifles used for hunting and fighting in the woods. Although muskets were also being used, the flintlock rifle was superior to muskets in accuracy and range. A popular flintlock, now incorrectly but generally referred to as the Kentucky rifle, was highly accurate at 100 yards and, without significant wind drift, that range was extended to 300 yards. The Tennessee or mountain rifle was also brought into Texas by settlers. It was shorter (38 inch barrel) than the Kentucky rifle and its larger bore permitted a heavier bullet for shooting bigger game. (See, also, the story with photos of these firearms in Early Muzzleloading Pistols and Rifles found in this website.)

With the percussion cap for firearms introduced into Texas in the 1820s, flintlock rifles eventually gave way to percussion rifles because of the improved ability of the percussion cap to fire the powder charge. One of the most important advantages was that the gun discharge was much faster than the flintlock which helped improve accuracy for moving targets. Texas gunsmiths became proficient in converting the old flintlocks into percussion rifles. Although Texas Rangers used rifles earlier, Wilkins notes that a rifle was required equipment for Ranger use by the end of 1836.

Because of the time required to re-load these single-shot rifles, Wilkins points out that the rifle did not play much of a role in battle. After Colt patented the multiple-shot, revolving cylinder in 1836, he did manufacture a five-shot cylinder percussion rifle in 1839, but they were still time-consuming and cumbersome to re-load. As a battle weapon, the rifle did not gain significance in use until the introduction of metallic cartridge shells.

Shotguns

If there is little information on early rifles used in Texas, the information on shotguns used is almost non-existant by comparison. Wilkins notes that the only documented record he found of their use was from an account on arms captured in an expedition into Texas by Mexican Brigadier General Adrian Woll in 1842. In reports of battles at Salado and San Antonio, Woll notes that he captured 165 rifles, 65 muskets, and twelve double-barreled muskets. Wilkins believes the latter were probably shotguns.

Wilkins additionally reports that early Texas Rangers did use shotguns as indicated by requisition records for buckshot. In my review to date of pictures of Rangers, I have seen pictures of modern Rangers with shotguns; I have yet, however, to see an early picture of a Ranger with a shotgun. Note to firearms buffs: Samuel Colt also produced a revolving cylinder shotgun in 1839 (see the photo of the Colt cylinder shotgun at the end of this story), but I have been unable to find any reference regarding its use by Texas Rangers...or Texans in general in the old west.

Knives

From all accounts, every early Ranger had a knife for weapon and camp tool use. The use of a knife as a weapon was especially important for close fighting before the introduction of multiple-shot revolvers. Knives were also essential for cutting cloth patches for the loading of muzzleloading rifles and pistols--see Adler's article on "Flintlocks by America's Artisan Gunmakers" in the 3rd Edition of the Blue Book of Modern Black Powder Values.

Early pictures show Rangers wearing knives in various sizes and shapes with the knife often worn in front of the gun holster (try it, it works). Wilkins reports that Rangers used both American-made knives as well as knives imported from Sheffield and Birmingham in England. Early accounts frequently describe Rangers fighting with "butcher" knives, a term used to describe a variety of large knives. In a Ranger muster and pay roll report in 1839, it was noted that butcher knives were issued at a dollar cost each.

References to Bowie knives also started appearing in later Texas Ranger accounts, but the definition of a Bowie knife is not clear. In the report of arms captured by Woll mentioned earlier (see Nance reference below), Woll noted that he captured 107 "knives called Bowie first class" plus 16 common knives and 5 daggers. It is probably safe to say that "Bowie" refers to any large knife used for self-defense. My visit to the Fall 2005 gun show in San Antonio of the Texas Gun Collectors Association confirmed a wide assortment of knife sizes and shapes for Bowie-designated knives.

Those arguing for a specific shape and size for the Bowie knife generally turn to a book by Noah Smithwick. A blacksmith by trade, Smithwick reports that Jim Bowie asked him to duplicate a favorite knife of his that had saved his life in a knife fight with two opponents. According to Smithwick, Bowie had his favorite knife polished and set into an ivory handle mounted with silver. The duplicate knife requested by Bowie was for Bowie's "ordinary" use. The duplicate specified by Bowie had a ten-inch blade that was two inches broad at the widest point. The photo below is that of a Bowie knife reproduction that fits Smithwick's account. The plain wood handle probably comes closer to that of knives worn by early Rangers. Deer and elk horn, however, were plentiful in the old west and were sometimes used for handles (for both knives and hand guns.)

Folklore has it, however, that before a knife can be considered a Bowie knife, it must have the following characterisitics: it must be long enough to use as a sword, sharp enough to use as a razor, wide enough to use as a paddle, and heavy enough to use as a hatchet.

Weapons of the Late 19th Century

As indicated above, the metallic cartridge significantly changed weaponry in the old west. The first cartridge was today's popular .22 caliber rimfire cartridge which was patented by Smith & Wesson in 1843. Within two decades of that patent, hand guns and rifles were either designed for or converted to use cartridges.

The last half of the 19th century also saw a tremendous growth of firearms of various types as a number of manufacturers expanded their activity. This story can only touch on some highlights of that history. For those interested in more information, I highly recommend Flayderman's Guide to Antique American Weapons...and their values. Beyond the use of this publication for estimates of value of these weapons, Flayderman provides a wealth of historical information for these weapons for both the novice and serious student of firearms. Flayderman notes that beginning with the 6th edition in 1994 that much more new information was included not in previous editions. If not interested in current values of antique weapons, the 6th and later editions can be inexpensively purchased in used book stores. I credit Flayderman with the remaining information in this story but take personal responsibility for the highlights chosen (or errors introduced).

Colt Rifles and Shotguns

Colt's first lever action rifle, the Colt-Burgess, was made from 1883-1885. This was the only lever action rifle made by Colt in any quantity and was discontinued after only two years. The story is told that Winchester showed Colt a prototype of a double-action revolver they were ready to produce if Colt continued its plans to produce a lever action rifle. Colt decided to stop production in order to avoid competetition with Winchester over its revolvers. In 1884, Colt produced his first slide-action rifle, the Lightning model, manufactured from 1884-1904 in three frame sizes (see photo at end of story). The production of these rifles by Colt was still minor in quantity compared with the quantity of rifles produced by other manufacturers, especially the lever action rifles of Winchester and Marlin (see below).

The first double-barrel shotgun made by Colt was the Model 1878 with exposed hammers. Together with the Colt hammerless Model 1883 shotgun, Flayderman describes these shotguns as the finest made in American history and were a great success until competition from less expensive foreign products emerged.

Marlin Rifles and Shotguns

Marlin introduced its first lever action rifle in 1881 and continued to make this and succeeding models from 1881 to 1916. Another generation of Marlin rifles was introduced in 1893 and was produced until 1935. The success of these models is noted by the fact that only Winchester produced more rifles than Marlin (the quantity produced of the Marlin Model 1893 lever action rifle, for example, is estimated between 850,000 to one million with an estimate of 250,000 for the Marlin 1894 model.) Marlin introduced its successful line of pump/slide action shotguns in 1898 and succeeding models were manufactured well into the beginning of the 20th century.

Remington and Smith & Wesson Firearms

Both Remington and Smith & Wesson are arguably better known for their handguns, although Remington had an early history of flintlock and percussion longarms and Civil War muskets. Both Remington and Smith & Wesson, however, got into the production of revolving cylinder rifles, one of the more interesting longarm weapons for collectors. Remington adapted their very successful New Model Army revolving cylinder handgun to a revolving percussion cylinder rifle (made from 1866-1879...see photo at the end of this story of a replica of this rifle). Smith & Wesson also introduced a revolving cylinder rifle (Model 320) which they made from 1879-1887.

Sharps Firearms

Sharps originated a very substantial line (and reputation) for rifles with their 1849 Model. Although fewer than 100 of the 1849 models were produced, the later Sharps carbines and rifles were probably the most widely used and popular calvary weapons of the Civil War and are notably mentioned in old west history. The "new" model Sharps of 1859, 1863, and 1865 were their first converted for use with the metallic cartridge.

Winchester Firearms

Just as the 1873 Colt single-action revolver was regarded as the (hand) gun that won the west, Winchester rifles have a similar label, folklore, and history when stories of the old west are told. The sheer number of rifles produced and sold by Winchester attest to their popularity and value to those who acquired these weapons.

With several charter name changes, many consider the Henry lever action repeating .44 caliber rimfire rifle made between 1860 and 1866 as the first "Winchester" even though the company was still named the New Haven Arms Company (Oliver Winchester was the CEO during this period.) The Henry rifle had no side loading gate and was loaded from the muzzle end of the magazine. With the company name change to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in 1866, the Winchester Model 1866 rifle was introduced, also .44 caliber, but with a side loading gate and brass loading frame. Indians gave that rifle the nickname of "Yellow Boy" because of the color of the brass loading frame. Flayderman gives his vote to this model as most deserving of the name "The gun that won the west."

The success and reputation of Winchester was clearly established with the Winchester Model 1873 rifle manufactured for close to 50 years (1873-1919) with a production of over 700,000. Although some other models were introduced by Winchester, the Model 1892 had a similar 50 year manufacturing history with over a million produced (see replica photo at the end of this story). And the currently produced Winchester Model 1894 lever action rifle started production in 1894 with a production to date of over three million.

Other lever action longarms produced by Winchester included its lever action shotguns in 1887 and 1901. A Model 1890 slide action rifle in .22 caliber was produced from 1890 to 1932 with 800,000 produced during that time. Finally, Winchester produced slide action shotguns in 1893 and 1897, the latter with a production of over one million between 1897-1957.

Some Closing Comments

It should first be clearly noted that Flayderman's 600+ page guide includes illustrations and descriptions of many other firearms and manufacturers other than those listed above. Also important to note is the fact that reproductions of some of the classic rifles and shotguns described above are available for sale in the market (but not included in Flayderman's guide.) These reproductions are popular with cowboy action shooters who get the feel of shooting an original. With the price of an original 1866 Winchester Yellow Boy rifle (the first model) in fine condition commanding prices over $25,000, even if you had the original you would not want to subject that firearm to the rigors of competition.

In describing "non-originals," you will see a variety of terms used: reproductions, replicas, or "patterned after" an original. The latter is likely to have the loosest tie to an original. Although different definitions are sometimes given for these terms, the distinction between the terms is generally important only to collectors. For example, the 1866 Yellow Boy carbine model copy made by Uberti can be purchased in a number of calibers, including the .45 Long Colt (LC). The original was produced only in a .44 rimfire c aliber. With the popularity of the .45 LC cartridge for both handguns and rifles, introducing this caliber in a non-original appeals to many cowboy action shooters who prefer to use the same caliber ammunition in both their handguns and rifles. For most shooters it doesn't matter what you call the non-original, only that it meets the requirements for match competition (see story on Rigs and Weapons and Other Competition Information in this website.)

Pictured below are some photos of a number of the weapons described in this story...or photos of their reproductions or of firearms "patterned after" some of these classic firearms.

The first photo below is that of a .45 long colt carbine manufactured by Rossi which copies the Winchester Model 1892. The brass loading frame is a Yellow Boy feature not generally associated with the original (nor is the black wood color) but Flayderman notes that with a production run of 50 years for the Winchester 1892 that a wide range of variants will be found in almost every detail of that rifle.


The photo below is that of the Marlin 1894 "cowboy" version, one of the special cowboy action models manufactured by Marlin. This rifle is a .45 long colt carbine, although Marlin makes the rifle in other calibers.


The double-barreled, side-by-side shotgun pictured below is made by Baikal in Russia and imported by the European American Armory Corporation. This model is of original design in Baikal's Bounty Hunter series but seems inspired by features of other shotguns. It has the exposed hammers similar to Colt's Model 1878 shotgun. Because of its short length (20 inch barrel) these and other short length shotguns are sometimes referred to as "coach" shotguns (from the short-barrel shotguns used on stagecoaches.)

As noted earlier in this story, the Remington revolving percussion rifle was built by Remington on the frame of its very successful New Model revolver series. The copy of this percussion rifle pictured below by Uberti in a .44 caliber has some differences from the original. The barrel length of the Uberti copy is 18 inches whereas the shortest length noted by Flayderman in the original was 24 inches. In the original, the cylinder length is slightly longer than in the Remington New Model revolver--in the copy it is identical to that in the revolver. That feature makes possible the use of the same .45 long colt conversion cylinder in both the rifle and revolver copies made by Uberti.

The photo below is that of the Taurus Thunderbolt slide action rifle modeled after Colt's original slide action rifle, the Lightning.

One of the rare firearms produced by Colt in 1839 was the revolving cylinder shotgun. The photo below is that of an original offerred at auction in 2005 by Greg Martin Auctions.

Not yet mentioned in this story was the fact that some revolvers were fitted with or could be attached to a rifle shoulder stock, usually ordered by the military. The photo below is that of a third model Colt dragoon with shoulder stock. (Photo compliments of Little John's Auction Service.)


References for story:

  • The Legend Begins: The Texas Rangers, 1923-1845 by Frederick Wilkins, State House Press, 1996.
  • Colt Firearms: 1836-1959 by James E. Serven, third printing, 1959 (gives very detailed, illustrated and documented information of early and late Colt model firearms.)
  • Blue Book of Modern Black Powder Values edited by S. P. Fjestad, Blue Book Publications, 2003.
  • Flayderman's Guide to Antique American Firearms...and their values by Norm Flayderman, DBI Books, 6th edition, 1994.
  • "Brigadier General Adrian Woll's Report of HIs Expedition into Texas in 1842," translated and edited by Joseph M. Nance,Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol 58, #4, April 1955, pp.523-552.
  • The Evolution of a State or Recollctions of the Old Texas Days by Noah Smithwick, U of Texas Press, Reprint of 1983.