The turbulent environment of the frontier milieu served as a dramatic stage for virtually all of the arms manufactured in America from 1800 to 1900. Successive developments in the firepower of domestic weaponry proved particularly dramatic, advancing from the ubiquitous single-shot arms of 1800, through the multibarreled and revolving-cylinder repeating firearms of the 1830s and 1840s, on to the repeating magazine guns of the 1860s and following.
The numerous historical images provide something of a human dimension to the narrative.
In varying degree, all of the evolutionary advances in firearms design, production and function impacted the concurrent advance of frontier exploration and ultimate settlement over the course of the 19th century.
The gradual improvements of the ignition systems, for example, certainly bolstered the resolve of many a frontiersman for whom a rifle’s reliability might prove crucial to survival.
The greater facility of loading at the breech instead of at the muzzle allowed an increased rate of fire at a ratio of four or five to one, while the ever-growing availability of repeating arms of revolving-cylinder and magazine design provided isolated frontier parties or individuals with a decided advantage in their occasional confrontations with dangerous game or hostile adversaries.
Steady progress in applying machinery to arms manufacture also guaranteed sufficient output to meet a steadily rising demand from Americans flooding into the West.
Equally important on the other side of the historical ledger, America’s advancing frontier provided numerous domestic firearms manufacturers with an ever-expanding marketplace and a sometimes-crucial testing arena for their more innovative creations. The latter condition proved true, for example, of the early Colt-Paterson revolving pistol, which demonstrated its potential for mounted combat on the unsettled plains of Texas in the 1840s.
As cultural historian William Hosley observed in profiling Col. Samuel Colt and his deadly arm during the antebellum era, “Guns, technology, and the campaign of western expansion were overlapping layers of the same progressive tendency. Each fed and enabled the other.”
The emeritus curator of history at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Richard C. Rattenbury is the author of A Legacy in Arms, published by University of Oklahoma Press. This edited excerpt is from those pages.
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