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Firearms of the American West, Volumes 1 (1803­1865) and 2 (1866­1894)

by Louis A. Garavaglia and Charles G. Worman, University of Colorado, Niwot, 1998, $59.95.

When Frank Collinson encountered Billy the Kid in 1878, he reported: “He was supposed to be about 18, but looked older when you saw him closely. He was sunburned and not much to look at. There were scores just like him all up and down the Pecos. Everything he had on would not have sold for five dollars–an old black slouch hat, worn-out pants and boots, spurs, shirt, and vest; a black cotton handkerchief tied loosely around his neck; the ever-ready Colt double-action .41 pistol around him and in easy reach, and an old-style .44 rim-fire, brass-jawed Winchester. He had a pair of gray-blue eyes that never stopped looking around.”

When Billy was finally captured by Pat Garrett and his posse at Stinking Springs, New Mexico Territory, in December 1880, the Kid was carrying a single-action Colt .44. Billy the Kid’s reputed preference for the smaller-frame double-action Colt Model 1877 was not exclusive.

Jesse James owned a pair of Colt single-action revolvers, a Smith & Wesson Schofield .45, a Merwin & Hulbert .44 and a Winchester Model 1873 carbine. When he was slain by Bob Ford in 1882, Jesse was packing a Smith & Wesson First Model Schofield .45.

In this well-illustrated two-volume history, Louis Garavaglia and Charles Worman explain graphically how important guns were in the West not only to outlaws such as Billy the Kid and Jesse James but also to lawmen, soldiers, cowboys, Indians and settlers. It is a monumental work–encyclopedic in detail and epic in scope. The authors show that, while Colt, Smith & Wesson, the Springfield Armory and Remington predominated in the assorted arsenal of the Old West, many Westerners favored foreign weapons, like the double-action, self-cocking Webley Bulldog revolver (.38- and .45-caliber). George A. Custer of the 7th Cavalry carried one; Bob Dalton used one during the Dalton gang’s aborted holdup of two banks in Coffeyville, Kan.; and English-born rancher John Henry Tunstall, whose murder touched off the Lincoln County War, was never without “my British Bulldog five-shooter.”

Michael D. Hull