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Old February 6, 2011, 03:32 PM   #1
Ben Towe
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Cowboys and guns in the 19th century

In the thread about cowboy guns it has been put forth that few cowboys even owned guns in the 19th century. My question is where do you get your information?
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Old February 6, 2011, 04:17 PM   #2
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I don't have an answer for your question but it may depend upon one's definition of the word "cowboy"

I would think that the decision to keep a firearm might depend upon

1) the likelihood that the individual might need one
2) the ability of the individual to afford to buy one and maintain it

Firearms and ammunition were not cheap by 19th century economic standards. A revolver might represent the most technologically advanced contrivance that most citizens owned. The knowledge of how to maintain it might not have been well ingrained.

In post Civil War America The transcontinental railroad, along with other railroad projects occupied a lot of labor. In Steven Ambrose' book he describes how work crews fought off attacks by small bands of Indians with Civil War era firearms. He did not say what percentage of the crews might be armed but it seems as though the number was not large. Where grade crews or track crews were working, an economy followed. When work was complete the economic structure subsided and gravitated to settlements which eventually became towns and cities. Companies of cavalry were detailed to protect the work occassionally but far more often the workers were left to fend for themselves.

This is going to be an interesting thread because there are some folks on the forum who are very familiar with the history of the use of firearms in western America.



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Old February 6, 2011, 06:44 PM   #3
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Mostly from books and history shows. Guns were expensive and cowboys didn't make much. Ranchers supplied a lot of the working guns when they were needed. In the early days they were more prolific but by the 1880's not so much. Those that did have them usually carried them in saddle bags. Most that did have them would have a rifle or a shotgun.
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Old February 6, 2011, 08:27 PM   #4
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I love westerns but

I am smart enough to know that they do not represent history.

I am with Hawg on this one but not because I have studied it, only because it seems right from a logical standpoint. One of my favorites is "Open Range" but I would have been happier to see the free grazers spending most of their time without the side arm, at least while they were working the cattle. I have been required to carry a .45 for long periods and it isn't fun. The police officers in the group will have more accurate information here.

I have heard people say that "cowboys" side arms were handy for snakes. I have also been told that the best load for snakes is birdshot. Not likely a cattle worker would have had a round for snakes and a round for wild Indians and a round for dishonest gamblers etc.

My limited experience is that most snakes will avoid humans whenever possible. I actually stepped on a small rattler while walking in the Badlands National Monument. I think I surprised him more than he surprised me. He did not strike but permitted me to open the distance. I also saw a water moccasins with a very bad temper. He struck an excavator operator who was retreating. I guess he was not moving fast enough.

With the expense of ammunition, my thought is that more snakes were killed with shovels than revolvers. Again I want to emphasize I have not studied this but my guess is that some of the "factual information" is just factual to the author or to the person who told it to the author.
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Old February 6, 2011, 10:31 PM   #5
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I agree that westerns don't represent history, but I find it difficult to believe that most people would not have carried a gun. It is simple economics. Average wages for a cowboy in the 1870s was $30 and board. A Colt revolver cost about $17 dollars. Two weeks pay. A box of ammo was 50¢ and a Winchester rifle cost $40. I don't know about everyone else but I have spent two weeks pay on a gun. Many times.
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Old February 6, 2011, 10:41 PM   #6
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I was watching a program about the Old West a few years ago,and it stated that a Colt Peacemaker cost about 2 months wages for the average Cowboy at the time,so I wouldn't be suprised if many Cowboys were unarmed.Don't forget we have been told about the Old West by Hollywood for the last 100 years.
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Old February 6, 2011, 11:12 PM   #7
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The most affordable firearms were war surplus. A lot of cowboys carried cap & ball revolvers til way into the late 1870s. Most of the Colt '73 Peacemakers went to the Army and few into civilian hands until the army contracts were filled first. If a fellow didn't have a lot of loose change a C&B was still affordable and available.
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Old February 6, 2011, 11:25 PM   #8
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I’m not sure my family can be called “Cowboys” (where horse people from Virginia) but in five generations, I’m the first one whom has ever been around handguns, or even bought one. Before that the military handed one to them and that was the first time they ever carry or had one . I’m the first one who ever carried one regularly. This covers from the “War of Northern Aggression” up to Gulf War 1.

I’ve always carried a handgun, but my ancestor carried rifles or shotguns.
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Old February 7, 2011, 12:05 AM   #9
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Colt manufactured 215,000 51 Navies, 200500 60 Armies, 47000 62 Police models and 340,000 49 pocket pistols. That doesn't include the Remington percussions. I suspect that the vast majority of these guns that survived the Civil War and were not kept as souvenirs made it into the civilian market, and quite a few were converted to cartridge pistols in the 1870s. Between 1873 and 1900, Colt made almost 200,000 SAAs invarious calibers. Obviously there were a lot of other guns around, including of course the Smith & Wesson Scofield, and foreign manufactured arms as well. I'd ballpark it well over a million sidearms in the US at the beginning of the twentieth century, with a total population of around 76,000,000. And rifles were probably more prolific as hunting was not a sport for people from the Appalachians west, it was necessary to survival.
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Old February 7, 2011, 06:58 AM   #10
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62Colt

Welcome to the forum and thanks for the numbers.

I was considering this concept as I was making the comment that I did not know how many of the railroad grade crew people had firearms but did not take the time to compile the list. The number of firearms available divided by the population gives you a somewhat usable ratio but there is a lot of room for variance.

On one side, the population includes a lot of folks who never needed a firearm. On the other hand, the number of firearms available might not be anywhere near the number manufactured or introduced through other sources. I think it would also be worthwhile to consider the distribution of the population geographically (mostly in the east), the logistical system which made weapons available in various parts of the land (which in many places might not have included the availability of new weapons.), and the distribution of the likelihood that the individual would encounter a need for the weapon. (I think that if five percent of the people in New York City felt as though they needed a revolver, it may not be a good assumption that a similar percentage of the people in Abilene felt the same way.)
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Old February 7, 2011, 10:10 AM   #11
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I really don't have a dog in this fight but as a cattle owner of many years, I never traveled into the herd without a gun somewhere close. Not on my body but certainly in the truck.Too many situations from dispatching a predator to dispatching a "down" animal to be without.
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Old February 7, 2011, 11:54 AM   #12
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Here's an interesting take on the subject from Google Books.
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Old February 7, 2011, 11:55 AM   #13
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I don't have any cold hard facts for ya all however having grown up in Kansas in a family who's been here since before 1900 (on both sides) and hunting on farms and ranches who's roots go back to those days. I can say with some assurance that "most" cowboys did own guns however "most" did not own a handgun.
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Old February 7, 2011, 01:03 PM   #14
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I'll agree with Mavracer. I believe the lack of money limited most "cowboys" and people of the frontier,to just a rifle & maybe a shotgun.

My father,born 1918, worked as a ranch hand in the Del Rio TX area before WWII for various large ranches. His jobs included riding the fences, repairing fence as needed, and sometimes sleeping in line shacks or out in the open when he had to check miles of fences. He often did not have two nickels to rub together. The horse belonged to the ranch, the saddle was his, as was a model 94 Winchester which was always carried while he was horseback. He told me once that one needed to always have a rifle back then while horse back because of the dangerous animals (hogs, javalina, cougar, a few black bear). Also it was useful to shoot supper with.

He owned no handguns until the 50's. Before that, he only owned shotguns and rifles, and not too many of those, just enough to hunt with. Sometime in the fifties he bought a S&W .38 for home protection since he was living in the city by then.

My grandfathers (born before 1900) only had rifles and shotguns out in the country/ frontier. The guns were for food gathering and livestock protection. They lived on the frontier and traveled by wagon the first half of their lives. Much of the meat was what they shot or raised.Where they lived, other people were not feared so the firearms were not for protection against others.

My great grandfather (back down in the Del Rio TX area in the latter 1800's) was also a ranch hand (cowboy). I have his old model 92 Winchester 44-40. It is well worn with saddle wear, yet is in very good working shape. It was made in 1895 and saw Indian and bandit conflicts along the border as some of those troubles were still happening at the turn of the century. No one ever knew if great-grandpa ever had any handguns, but it is confirmed that he shot nine men with that rifle in defense of bandid raiders and Indians. No handguns were ever handed down.We just all assumed they were lost over time. I suspect he may have never had a handgun because he had very little money, but the rifle was always in the scabbard when he was horseback.
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Old February 7, 2011, 03:05 PM   #15
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Well both my great Grandfathers were in Wyoming/Western Nebraska in the 1880's. To the best of my knowledge just about everyone carried a gun. If you were a cowboy it was a fairly large revolver like the Colt SSA. Townsfolks often carried the smaller stuff like a 32 Rimfire. One of my great grandfathers was a carpenter and carried a 32 rimfire (I have the rig). Twice in his life he needed it in self defense while riding between places.
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Old February 7, 2011, 08:18 PM   #16
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I'm going to play it safe in responding to all of this and make the same statement I do when a woman asks if the dress she's wearing looks nice . . . basically I've learned the best reply is . . . . "I am a man . . I have no opinion."
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Old February 7, 2011, 11:47 PM   #17
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I suspect that handguns were owned mostly by city folk and lawmen. they aren't much good for hunting anything but manimals. Cowboys were very practical people; a rifle would have far greater utility when riding herd that a handgun. Even when you ran into bad men, it was usually at range. Miners on the other hand, seemed quite fond of handguns, especially short barrelled types that could be carried without getting in the way. You still see any number of sawed off Colt "belly guns" o the antique sites. As that Google book review noted, handguns were used more often when in town than elsewher.

Now I really have no idea anymore what population densities were, but you can safely assume that, with the exception of Oregon and California (starting with the gold rush), densites were pretty thin for everything west of Denver.
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Old February 8, 2011, 05:13 AM   #18
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The first practical repeating arms.....

...... were Colt percussion revolvers. Staying alive is universally popular. In a dangerous world people will find a way to arm themselves. Before the advent of cartridges, repeating rifles just weren't practical. That's what made revolvers catch on. If I understand correctly: at the end of the Civil War, there were quite a number of fellows drifting westward that were armed to the teeth with battle-field pick-up weapons. Having survived the war, (with no small assistance from revolvers), they were changed men. Once good repeating rifles were readily available, the revolver became a little less important. Until the Indians were subdued, being armed was a matter of life or death. Many of the Indians were both hostile and very well armed. Custer was not only out-numbered; the Indians were better armed. Guess what? The Oregon Trail was dangerous. Here's what was on the way:
Quote:
Isaac Coates, General Winfield S. Hancock's surgeon, observed a verbal confrontation between Hancock and Roman Nose outside Fort Larned in April 1867. Coates wrote in his journal; "of all the chiefs, Roman Nose attracted the most attention. He is one of the finest specimens, physically, of his race. He is quite six feet in height, finely formed with a large body and muscular limbs. His appearance, decidedly military, and on this occasion, particularly so, since he wore the uniform of a General in the Army. A seven-shooting Spencer carbine hung at the side of his saddle, four large Navy revolvers stuck in his belt, and a bow, already strung with arrows, were grasped in his left hand. Thus armed and mounted on a fine horse, he was a good representative of the God of War; and his manner showed plainly that he did not care whether we talked or fought..."
Here's a good link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Nose In an armed conflict a percussion revolver has advantages over muzzle loading rifles that must not be overlooked.
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Old February 8, 2011, 09:17 AM   #19
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I have my Great Grandfather's "cowboy gun" from when he was a ranch hand in the Dakotas in the late 1890s and early 1900s...

It's a .32 Smith & Wesson made by H&R.

Apparently he never had much use for guns of any type.

I wonder if the other cowboys teased him....

Actually, I suspect that a LOT of cowboys actually owned little inexpensive revolvers like this, not the brace of fancy engraved S&Ws in the Mexican tooled low ride belt that the movies show.

As others have mentioned, a large-frame Colt or Smith & Wesson very well might cost a quarter year's salary, whereas one of these little guns would cost less than a month's salary, saving money that could be put toward a truly useful and necessary firearm - a rifle or shotgun.

The myth of cowboys being armed with a hogleg at all times - in town, in the saddle, in the bunkhouse - are just that, especially when rounding up cattle, branding, etc.

In those situations when you're working with a rope and a thoroughly ****** off chunk of beef, a handgun in a holster could be a significant liability if the rope got caught behind the holster.

It's also not uncommon to see period photographs of cattle drives where a few of the members might be armed, but most are not.
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Old February 8, 2011, 03:42 PM   #20
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check out these prices from 1875:


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Old February 8, 2011, 05:27 PM   #21
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More prices from 1875 (check out the prices of the old cap and ball revolvers).
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Old February 8, 2011, 07:20 PM   #22
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It's important to keep in mind that several of the trail's end cow towns enacted gun carry restriction ordinances within town limits. Did cowboys wear hoglegs? Apparently enough did to be a problem!
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Old February 8, 2011, 08:54 PM   #23
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I'm not saying nobody wore them. I originally said a lot didn't.
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Old February 8, 2011, 09:52 PM   #24
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A cowboy going into town to blow off steam, get drunk and blow a couple months wages is a LOT different than a cowboy working on the range.

The 1875 ad... What model Colt pistol would that have been? New Line? New House? Those were all spur trigger revolvers, weren't they?

I'm assuming that they're also referencing the .38 Long Colt, which came out in 1875...
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Old February 8, 2011, 09:54 PM   #25
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Here's the ad (if you can see it)
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