The Reality of Guns and the Wild West

The Old West conjures up all sorts of imagery, but most often the term involves imagery of prospectors, horses, pueblos, cattlemen, madams of brothels, and six-shooter-packing cowboys in small frontier towns – such as Tombstone, Deadwood, or Dodge City. And, while the term cowboy now enjoys almost universal admiration as one who lives by a code of conduct while preserving and protecting the heritage of the American West, the term cowboy had only begun to come into wider usage during the 1870s.

In that place and time, cowboy was synonymous with cattle-raiding rustlers. Cattle thieves frequently rode across the border into Mexico and stole cattle from Mexican ranchos, which they then drove back across the border and sold in the United States. Some modern writers consider them to be one of the first and earliest forms of organized crime syndicates in American history.

And, as we know, in the Old West as with modern times, with crime comes guns. Or as some believe, with guns comes crime. Whether you are a proud gun owner, are on an anti-gun crusade, or are somewhere in between, one thing is certain: guns have been a part of American culture since the early days of the Republic well before the writing of the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

Guns become the focus to reduce crime on the frontier

To reduce crime in the frontier town of Tombstone, Arizona Territory, the city council passed an ordinance requiring anyone carrying a bowie knife, a dirk (think, a short pocket knife), a pistol or rifle to deposit their weapons at a livery or saloon soon after entering town.


To Provide against Carrying of Deadly Weapons

Section 1. It is hereby declared unlawful to carry in the hand or upon the person or otherwise any deadly weapon within the limits of said city of Tombstone, without first obtaining a permit in writing.

Section 2: This prohibition does not extend to persons immediately leaving or entering the city, who, with good faith, and within reasonable time are proceeding to deposit, or take from the place of deposit such deadly weapon.

Section 3: All fire-arms of every description, and bowie knives and dirks, are included within the prohibition of this ordinance.

The ordinance was the legal basis for City Marshal Virgil Earp’s decision to confront a group of outlaws on the day of the shootout at the O.K. Corral. And, while some have pointed to a supposed rigid set of gun control measures in the Old West as a modern-day solution to the issues of crimes and mass shootings, injecting these frontier laws into the modern gun debate seems to me to be ill-advised, especially if they are used to argue that “disarmed” societies are necessarily safer.

Most of the gun control laws in the Old West, if they existed at all, had nothing to do with confiscation or restrictions on gun type. They had more to do with gun use by restricting and prohibiting firing pistols in city streets. And, while few opponents of gun control today would object to limitations on discharging firearms in a busy intersection, gun control laws of this extent were largely unheard of in most American cities. In fact, they were even unusual in the Old West, and using the gun control ordinance from Tombstone as an example, they were proven ineffective.

The lesson of gun control measures at the O.K. Corral

Tombstone, Arizona Territory in 1881. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The gunfight at the O.K. Corral was a 30-second shootout between lawmen and members of a loosely organized group of outlaws called the Cochise County Cowboys that took place at about 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 26, 1881, in Tombstone. It is generally regarded as the most famous shootout in the history of the American Wild West. The gunfight was the result of a long-simmering feud, with the Cochise County Cowboys on one side and frontier lawmen, including the famous lawmen of Wyatt Earp, and  Doc Holliday on the other side. At the end of the half-minute shootout, three of the Cochise County outlaws were killed, and three ran from the fight. The lawmen, too, sustained injuries with the exception of Wyatt Earp who was unharmed. Wyatt is often erroneously regarded as the central figure in the shootout, although his brother Virgil was Tombstone’s city marshal and deputy U.S. marshal that day, and had far more experience as a sheriff, constable, marshal, and soldier in combat.

The shootout has come to represent a period of the Old West when the frontier was virtually an open range for outlaws, largely unopposed by law enforcement officers who were spread thin over vast territories. It was not well known to the American public until 1931, when a well-received biography of Wyatt Earp was published. Since then, the conflict has been portrayed with varying degrees of accuracy in numerous Western films and books, and has become an archetype for much of the popular imagery associated with the days of the “wild” west.

Most of the gun control laws in the Old West, if they existed at all, had nothing to do with confiscation or restrictions on gun type.

There were other frontier towns with gun control restrictions similar to Tombstone. Most made it unlawful to carry in the hand or upon the person any deadly weapon within the limits of said city, without first obtaining a permit in writing. But, in those towns, as in Tombstone, in the closest equivalents to a “gun-free zone” in the 19th century, such gun control measures did little to stem gun violence, and likely provoked the infamous kerfuffle at the O.K. Corral.

Lots of guns, not a lot of crime

Mass violence, like what took place at the O.K. Corral, was actually infrequent. Moreover, the Old West reputation for lawlessness is unwarranted, despite, at times, an elevated number of homicides.

Crime such as rape and robberies occurred at a much lower rate than in modern America—certainly lower than in the 1970s and 1980s, when the nation was wracked by a surge in criminality. It is also worth noting that crime and gun violence has fallen steeply since the 1990s, even as gun ownership has increased dramatically.

The crimes that did take place in the Old West were often violent confrontations between young men who were drunk or who got into a personal confrontation; it goes without saying that young men under the influence of whiskey and rye tend to be a little more violent than others. Hence the restrictions on gun usage that took place in some frontier communities matched the proliferation of saloons.

For instance, historian Robert McGrath, who wrote a book about crime in the most notorious Old West towns, found that “robbery, theft, and burglary occurred infrequently,” and that “bank robbery, rape, racial violence, and serious juvenile crime seem not to have occurred at all.” And, “while the homicide rate was high,” McGrath wrote, “the killings were almost always the result of fights between willing combatants.”

The few gun control-type laws that existed were poorly and inconsistently enforced. Additionally, McGrath concluded that it was widespread gun ownership that deterred criminality in these areas in which law enforcement had little authority or ability to combat crime.

“While the homicide rate [in the Old West] was high, the killings were almost always the result of fights between willing combatants.”

– historian Robert McGrath

Modern day commenters have pointed to the fact that law enforcement is present in virtually every community nowadays in the United States. And, therefore, guns are of little purpose for personal protection. Leaving that discussion aside for a moment, what’s unquestionable is the fact that gun ownership was nearly universal on the frontier and seen as a vital element for both individual, and importantly, community protection. It wasn’t enough to merely rely on the authorities. One needed to protect himself. And that viewpoint still holds true today.

The guns of the Old West

So, if the myth that guns were everywhere in the Old West matches with reality, as is the case here, what types of guns were most often used and carried by our forebears? Essentially, what were the “smoke wagons” (as they were called) that won the American West?

Certainly, in popular history, the Winchester Model 1873 is given this distinction. While the trusty ol’ lever-action shooting iron more than earned its stripes in military conflicts, range wars and protecting the rangeland. But, in reality, no one gun can make the claim. It was a vast arsenal of different revolvers and rifles and shotguns of every conceivable design, make and model that carved this nation from coastline to coastline.

Even if there was no single gun that won the West, there are certainly some six-shooters, repeaters and other great guns that more than pulled their share of the weight during this era. With that in mind, here are the four guns you have to know from the Old West. While there were many other firearms that left their mark on this time, these were in my view, among the most important (with descriptions from

Colt Single Action Army

No other gun sums up the “wild west” like this Colt. Introduced in 1873 originally as a Cavalry revolver, the Single Action Army spread across the frontier like a prairie fire.

Perhaps no single gun hung off the hips of more cowboys, lawmen and outlaws than this revolver. The likes of Wyatt Earp, John Selman, John Wesley Hardin, Bat Masterson and many others all favored Colt’s SAA for good reason. The revolver was well-balanced, provided a fast rate of fire and had superior ergonomics. To the last two points, the six-gun’s design allowed it to rock back in the hand upon firing, setting the shooter up to cock the hammer for his next shot. On top of that, the Colt SAA packed a wallop, particularly in its most prominent chamberings — .44-40 WCF and .45 Colt.

The Colt SAA wasn’t infallible, however. Slow on the reload and only able to be safely loaded with five rounds, the gun could quickly be out of the fight and slow to reenter. But in competent hands, and there were many, there was no deadlier weapon on the American frontier.

Henry 1860

The Henry 1860 carbine. Photo: Frontier Partisans

Though limited in use, the 1860 Henry proved itself a wicked weapon in the Civil War. But its devastating effect was perhaps best demonstrated in another heralded American battle — the Little Bighorn.

Armed with the brass-receiver beauties, among other repeaters, Sioux and Cheyenne warriors utterly devastated the 7th Cavalry. Some archaeological evidence points to 134 firearms in the hands of the Indians, 62 of them Henrys.

The cavalry, on the other hand, was armed with single-shot Springfield Model 1873 rifles firing the now-notorious copper cartridges — known to expand and jam the breech. So it seems George Armstrong Custer and his men weren’t only outnumbered that late June day, they were also vastly outgunned.

Winchester Model 1873

Winchester Model 1873. Photo: Rock Island Auction Company

Arguably the most famous and recognizable rifle of the Old West, the 1873 is a true icon of the frontier. The iron-framed, lever-action rifle was ideal in a saddle scabbard or at the homestead, ready to take care of any chore a revolver couldn’t handle. And plenty of good and bad men had chores for the 1873, with the likes of William F. Cody, the Texas Rangers, Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy and a long list of other Western notables employing the rifle.

In addition to its ease of use and low maintenance, what made the 1873 a success was Winchester chambering it for a number of its proprietary pistol ammunition — .44-40, .38-40 and .32-20. This took a load of burden off a buckaroo during a period when logistics were not at the top of their game. One never knew when a desperado might highjack the latest ammunition delivery heading to the local general store thus leaving a pistol or rifle high and dry.

The rifle was also awash across the West, with some half-million manufactured before the turn of the 19th Century. Honestly, no self-respecting lawman, rancher or outlaw would be caught without one in the day, and no rancher would be caught without something similar today.

Double-Barreled Shotgun

Double barrel shotgun with exposed hammers.

Certainly, the Winchester Model 1873 rifle and the Colt Single Action Army were as abundant as tumbleweeds in the Old West; but they most likely paled in numbers to the simple double-barreled shotgun. The firearm was ubiquitous, brought in droves by pioneers heading for new lives in the West.

Double-barreled shotguns came from all corners of the globe, many rolling out of local blacksmith shops. And they made a lot of sense as a tool to tame the land, given their flexibility. Capable of bagging nearly any game known to man — be it covered in fur or feather — the shotgun also doubled as one of the most notorious defensive arms ever to bare a trigger.

There was a good likelihood every lawman had one at hand and they were heavily utilized to guard stagecoaches in their shortened coach gun variation. But the double-barreled shotgun was also the stock-in-trade for some of the wickedest men to roam the West.

Whether you are a fan of one of these iconic firearms, or a devotee of something else, one thing is for certain: guns were vitally important to the westward expansion of the United States. And, as we know from the gun debate taking place today, many believe guns are just as important in modern times.

Until next time, mis amigos, happy trails! ★