Gunning for the West

Rifles, shotguns and pisols on the road west

Travel on the road west is, in the popular mind, inextricably associated with the possession of firearms. And that association is firmly grounded in fact. Most adult male members of a wagon train armed themselves with those weapons most readily available. As a result, the types of weaponry varied considerably.

Reprinted from The Tombstone Epitaph, The Daily Jeffersonian (Cambridge, Ohio), and The Bridgeport News-Blade (Bridgeport, Nebraska).

G.W. Thissel described some of the types of guns, “… there were firearms of all descriptions – double and single-barreled shotguns and smoothbore and double-twisted rifles. The favorite gun was the old Kentucky rifle, with a barrel three feet long, that carried sixty balls to the pound.”

Possession of firearms did not necessarily imply proficiency in their use, nor much understanding of the capabilities of a particular weapon. The result, with frightening frequency, was firearms accidents – a danger of the trip west usually underemphasized.

Sometimes the result could be humorous, as was the case with would-be buffalo hunter Jim Stoakes. He owned a “blunderbuss of the War of 1812” which was “short, light, and handy. It was a dangerous looking gun. It looked as if it would kill everything it was pointed at. It was a smooth bore and carried a half-ounce ball.” Jim became impatient to try his gun, and turned it loose on the buffalo. They were not one-fourth of a mile away.

Jim got under the bank of a creek and crept up to within fifty yards of them. He took sight with both eyes open, and, shaking like a trembling aspen leaf, he pulled the trigger. It was a flint lock, and it misfired. Jim picked the flint and took aim once more, expecting to blow a hole clear through that buffalo. There was a roar, then a crash, and Jim landed in the bed of the creek, while the gun lay on the opposite bank. When the smoke cleared away, Jim looked for his buffalo, and was just in time to see the herd go over the hill a mile away. Not a hair on their hide had been hurt.

Through a lack of proper care or because of faulty equipment, occasionally a gun would burst upon firing. Sometimes the physical, if not the psychological, effect of the accident was slight, but there was always the possibility of a serious wound. Benjamin Cory provides an illustration of the former – “A rifle was burst but did no damage except slightly bruising one man.”

A much more serious accident was described by Pierson Barton Reading. “One of the hunters, McIntosh, and a half breed Cherokee Indian was badly wounded in the thigh and arm by the bursting of his gun.” But most firearms accidents were caused by careless handling.

The image of the sharp-shooting “long rifle from Kentucky” is deeply ingrained in America’s mythic memory. And splendid rifle-men there indeed were! Prior to the Civil War, however, a surprising number of emigrants obviously had little, if any, sophistication in their use of weapons. The result, though tragic, is not surprising. Overlanders shot each other and themselves with astonishing regularity!

Near the Big Blue River, William Johnston received a report “giving information that at this place . . . John Fuller had accidentally shot and killed himself whilst removing a gun from a wagon. The mode was the usual one — never yet patented and open to all — the muzzle was toward him and went off of itself.”

Sometimes the circumstances of fatal accidents were not reported. Mrs. E.D.S. Geer noted simply, “Today when our hunters came in they brought one dead man; he had shot himself last night accidentally. He left a wife and six small children. The distress of his wife I cannot describe. He was an excellent man and very much missed.”

The report of Jospeh Rhodes is a model of brevity: “To-day we drove 10 miles where we camped on Little Blue River. It is a butiful (sic.) stream. The grass is very short, dry and hot. One man accidently shot himself through the head. He died instantly. His train was just behind us.”

Non-fatal accidents, which occurred with equal frequency, resulted in wounds which ranged from negligible to very serious. A young man in the party of Jacob Snyder was “accidently shot, the ball passing through his side, making a fresh wound and lodging in his arm.” This accident led Mr. Snyder to observe that “Guns should always be uncapped when brought into camp.”

In addition to rifles and shotguns, pistols were also a not unusual accoutrement. Henry Allyn told of a young man who pulled a revolver from a wagon (apparently barrel first) when “it got hitched and sprung the lock, discharging and nearly ruined one arm.” Dr. Benjamin Cory described another case: “A young man by the name of Lynzz discharged a ramrod and bullet from a pistol through his right hand which fractured the bones a good deal. His hand will be useless for months.”

Finally, a companion of William Johnston “met with a painful accident which deprived him of the use of a hand during the remainder of the journey. In putting his pistols into their holsters, through some careless handling one discharged its contents through the palm of his left hand.” If the complete record were totaled up, it seems likely that more wagon train pioneers were killed and wounded by themselves and each other than by the warrior tribes through whose land they were passing!