Gunsmoke and Saddle Leather: Firearms in the Nineteenth-Century American West (Book Review)

6/12/2006 • Book Reviews

Reviewed by Johnny D. Boggs
By Charles G. Worman
University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2005

Charles G. Worman is probably best known for the two-volume series Firearms of the American West 1803-1894, which he co-authored with Louis A. Garavaglia. That 14-year project was first published in 1984 and reissued by the University Press of Colorado in 1998. Gunsmoke and Saddle Leather: Firearms in the Nineteenth-Century American West is anything but a rehash of that monumental work chronicling the evolution of firearms used by soldiers, civilians and Indians in the West.

This time, Worman aims at the role weapons played with the men and women on the frontier. Even most of the photographs didn’t appear in the earlier tome. Worman divides his narrative into historical segments, beginning with "Trappers, Traders, and Other Travelers," and the early rifle makers such as J.S. Hawken of St. Louis. Other segments include "Gold Seekers," "Trailing Cattle," "The Slaughter of the Bison" and "Guns of the Native Americans." Colt advocates will find a lot of ammunition, as will readers interested in the old reliable Sharps rifle and the Winchester ’73 repeating rifle.

Yet Gunsmoke and Saddle Leather isn’t really a history of firearms. Rather, it presents the impressions of weapons from the people who used them on the frontier. These observations sometimes pack a punch. "There are probably in Texas about as many revolvers as male adults," landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted noted in 1854, "and I doubt if there are one hundred in the state of any other make [than Colt]." In 1863 miner and hay rancher George A. Whitney wrote from Nevada, "We pack six-shooters and derringers for fear of the knave." A Montana private noted in 1877: "Some years ago when bows & arrows were principally used instead of the Remington & Sharps improved rifle, they used to bury them with the warrior….As strong as an Indian[‘s] belief is, he don’t believe in sending many $50 rifles…to that happy land."

In addition to 559 halftones on more than 533 pages (The two volumes of Firearms of the American West totaled 815 pages), the book includes a list of various public exhibits of 19th-century firearms and a shooting-arms chronology beginning with Eli Whitney’s musket contract in 1798 and ending with the Spanish-American War of 1898. There’s more information on guns than saddle leather, but the straight-shooting Worman has scored another bull’s-eye.

Tags: ,