Firearm Folio

Though it's a bit slow, this volume on Western weaponry is packed full of interesting information

The story of firearms on the frontier is "colorful and fascinating," according to Charles Worman, author of Gunsmoke and Saddle Leather: Firearms in the Nineteenth-Century American West. Like the axe and the plow, a gun (or in most cases, more than one) was a necessity, an essential tool for early arrivals to the land west of the Mississippi. The gun provided food for the cooking pot, as well as a deterrent and/or protection against both two- and four-legged predators.

Legendary mountain man Jedediah Smith in 1827 summarized how the lure of the West and the need for firepower were idealized and interwoven: "Surely of all lives the hunter's is the most precarious, (for) we endure all the extremes of heat and cold, hunger and thirst, our lives and property always at hazard, (and) when we lay down our guards must be placed, our rifles by our sides and our pistols under our heads ready to spring up at once from our wakeful sleep."

Author Worman is no stranger to the precision detail found in this 522-page volume. He and a co-author spent 13 years researching and writing another anthology, Firearms of the American West 1803-1894. "After writing those 800 pages on the evolution of firearms technology, I continued to gather data on anecdotal accounts left by the men and women who lived on the frontier," he writes. The personal recollections are intertwined with descriptions and photographs of early firepower. Text and artwork begin in the early 1800s when "most traveling west carried eastern rifles, typically flintlock long rifles with 42- to 44-inch barrels." Trappers, traders and travelers toted their iron-mounted J.J. Henry and Son weapons, which cost about $17.50, or a more elaborate fullstock made by Jacob and Samuel Hawken that sold for $25. (For the low-on-cash traveler who could trade in fur, a good gun could be had for 20 beaver skins.)

"These rifles were intended for the rigors of use on the plains, the trail to Santa Fe, and in the Rocky Mountains," writes Worman. "They typically were plain, sturdy percussion fullstocks with iron mountings of .45 to .54 caliber, heavy enough to withstand a powder charge of 100 grains or more."

As military members headed West, they brought with them improved armament--but not by much. The expression "faster than a speeding bullet" came along much later. Before the Army abandoned flintlocks in favor of percussion-cap carbines, a young lieutenant named Ulysses S. Grant noted problems with the weapons: "The infantry was armed with flintlock muskets, and paper cartridges charged with powder, buck-shot and ball. At the distance of a few hundred yards a man might fire at you all day without your finding it out."

Other chapters define personal protection carried by pioneer settlers, cow punchers and gold seekers, as well as the unique firearms carried by foreign adventurers who visited the West for its variety of game animals (see Chapter 11, "The Slaughter of the Bison"). Special focus is also given to Sharps, Colts, pocket weapons and shotguns, as well as anecdotal accounts of women as shooters ("Pistols and Petticoats"). Because of settler isolation on the frontier, women often managed for themselves. They split firewood, plowed, branded cattle and hunted, as well as defended themselves, their children and their homestead.

Many changes took place between 1798, when Eli Whitney received a government contract to provide muskets, and the 1860s, a decade of technological advances. The muzzle-loading rifle declined in popularity as soon as repeaters, which fired metallic cartridges, arrived on the scene.

The painstaking detail provided by author Worman is a testament to his expertise. He retired as deputy director of the U.S. Air Force National Museum after more than 30 years of serving as a firearms consultant and writing extensively on antique guns. It is somewhat gratuitous that the publisher included "saddle leather" in the title, because only limited mention is made of things like saddle and socket holsters, scabbards and cartridge belts.

If you've ever worn or carried a firearm and consider it a part of your outdoor lifestyle, this will be a slow, but comfortable, read, akin to learning from a text without having to visit a classroom. It's a handsome tome that would work as a coffee-table book if you enjoy heated discussions about things like muzzle velocity.

Note: Antique firearms are occasionally displayed at the Arizona State Museum, and some of the weaponry described can be found in photographs at Arizona Historical Society, Arizona Pioneers Historical Society Library and the Mining and Historical Museum in Bisbee.

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