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Famous Firearms of the Old West

by Hal Herring, The Globe Pequot Press, Guilford, Conn., 2008, $24.95.

Firearm guide books, like their subject, can be useful tools in the proper hands. Such books are worth their weight in lead to researchers and collectors. But to the layman, a jacketed gallery of guns can come across as cold as a John Wesley Hardin head shot.

Famous Firearms goes beyond the typical reference to present the stories of “12 guns that shaped our history,” the very weapons wielded by such Western legends as Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill, Geronimo and Chief Joseph, Pancho Villa and Bill Tilghman. Each profile includes photos of the gun and its owner (where possible), with background about the specific weapon, a history of that model and a relevant biography of its owner. Author Herring, a contributing editor at Field & Stream, claims an upbringing spent “in the company of good guns and great storytellers.” He uses that background to good effect here, presenting diligent research swept along by often-lively narrative.

“America was a nation born yelling, and in a cloud of black powder smoke,” the author explains in the preface. “The weapons in this book were primary tools of survival in that anarchic world that defined us, wielded in the service of evil, some of them, others in the service of righteousness; most were used in both.”

The iconic armory includes the Sharps Model 1850 that Kansan John Brown used on several Free-Soiler raids and then traded in toward 1,000 pikes for his envisioned slave rebellion. The pair of ivory-handled Colt Navies found on Hickok’s body after Jack McCall gunned him down in Deadwood (see “Hickok’s Last Gunfight,” in December Wild West) fetched a quarter each at auction that August 1876. Pages apart are the Winchesters that Chief Joseph and Geronimo surrendered to federal troops in 1877 and 1886, respectively—Nelson Miles present in each instance. Two of Hardin’s dreaded double-action Colts strut their stuff. Here, too, is Cody’s beloved Lucretia Borgia, the .50-70 trapdoor Springfield used to down more than 4,000 buffalo for Kansas Pacific work crews in the late 1860s, thereby earning Bill his moniker.

The most compelling account follows “cattle detective” Tom Horn, who used a state-of-the-art smokeless Winchester Model 1894 to snipe rustlers from long range in Wyoming’s Chugwater Valley. “The rifle shot that followed was a clear, short bang, lost so quickly in the immensity of sand rock and dry grassland that [the victim] could not tell where it came from.” As Herring puts it, “This really happened.”


Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.