Without a doubt, firearms were among the most important tools used in the settling of the West.
To quote Jeffrey Richardson, the Autry National Center’s Gamble curator of Western history, popular culture and firearms, “Firearms were used in all aspects of life on the American frontier, and they were featured prominently in the re-creations of the West that took place on stage and screen. Firearms are thus a means to tell the story of the West—its history, its myths, its captivating personalities. These artifacts provide entrée to an earlier time.”
To exhibit the Autry’s extensive firearms collection and inaugurate its new Gamble Firearms Gallery, which highlights George Gamble’s generous gift of about 50 incomparable Western guns and related materials, the Los Angeles museum kicked off its “Western Frontiers: Stories of Fact and Fiction” exhibition last July 27, as part of the Autry’s commemoration of the National Day of the Cowboy. Besides the firearms from the Gamble donation, coupled with the Autry’s own impressive collection, this display features artwork, historical documents and cultural artifacts that tell the colorful story of America’s Western history.
The firearms, which are the main focus of the show, run the gamut from a circa 1807 Kentucky flintlock rifle up through the repeating rifles and revolvers of the late 19th century. Remington and Smith & Wesson revolvers, derringers, Sharps rifles and numerous other firearms represent the West of fact and fiction.
Exquisite arms in the show include a truly unique J&S Hawken rifle; an elaborately engraved and silver-plated Henry rifle (serial no. 9) that was presented to U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, under President Abraham Lincoln; superb examples of every frontier-era lever-action Winchester rifle, ranging from the 1866 model through the Model of 1895—including a scarce “One of One Thousand” 1876 model; an array of Colt revolvers that encompasses the famous company’s guns from the early Paterson five-shot percussion revolver through the later metallic cartridge six-shooters—including the rare Walker model and several elegant examples of percussion “revolving pistols.”
Adding to the flavor and authenticity of the display are the personal guns from legendary Western personalities, such as President Theodore Roosevelt’s Nimschke-engraved 1876 Winchester and Colt Single Action revolver, as well as his floral carved holster, canvas cartridge belt and his spurs. Visitors will also see firearms from Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Wild West show performers Annie Oakley and Capt. Jack Crawford, saddlemaker Edward H. Bohlin and actor Steve McQueen.
I had the pleasure of attending the opening of this ongoing exhibition and meeting Gamble; I personally thanked him for his generosity in sharing his amazing collection of beautiful arms and artifacts with the public.
Thanks to Gamble and the Autry National Center’s dedication to preserving and showing the importance of firearms in our nation’s past, this display highlights the finest examples of the firearms that played a vital part in the settling of the American West. If you find yourself in the Los Angeles area anytime, this is an exhibition not to be missed!
Phil Spangenberger has written for Guns & Ammo, appears on the History Channel and other documentary networks, produces Wild West shows, is a Hollywood gun coach and character actor, and is True West’s Firearms Editor.