Nerves of Steel

shooting-from-the-hipWhile much has been written about Westerners’ “tricked-out” guns, a cursory review of the hardware documented to these Old West gunmen reveals that most of their guns were left in factory stock condition—sans any lightened springs or other gimmicks to improve their rate or ease of fire.

Wyatt Earp favored several standard 1873 Colt Single Action Army (SAA) revolvers throughout his checkered career. Wyatt’s brother Virgil packed a Smith & Wesson (S&W) .44 caliber New Model No. 3, while William “Bat” Masterson liked the 43?4-inch barrel

Colt .45 and is known to have ordered some direct from the Colt factory in Hartford, Connecticut (although some of his orders did request a higher than normal front gun sight). James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok preferred 1851 Navy Colts in .36 caliber during the per-cussion years; however, on various occasions he used sidearms such as the big .44 caliber Dragoon Colt cap-and-ball re-volver, a brace of 1860 Colt .44 caliber models and a S&W Model 2 Army revolver in .32 rimfire chambering. Some gun historians report that in the mid-1870s, Hickok carried the quicker-loading and surer-firing cartridge conversions of the Army and Navy Colts.

William Pinkerton, of the famed detective agency that boasted “We never sleep,” was said to use a brace of English Tranter double-action caplock revolvers with great effect during one of his prisoner’s attempted escape from a riverboat. Sheriff Pat Garrett, slayer of Billy the Kid, employed many handguns throughout his years on the frontier as both a buffalo hunter and a peace officer. At different times, Garrett’s arsenal included a .44 caliber Merwin, Hulbert & Co. Pocket Army, a Hopkins & Allen double-action in .32 rimfire, a Model 1877 .41 caliber Colt Thunderer and a few S&W revolvers, such as a .44 caliber No. 3 Russian Second Model and a .38 caliber New Departure double-action. Garrett also owned a 71?2-inch barrel Colt SAA in .44-40 caliber, taken from one of the Kid’s gang members at Stinking Springs, New Mexico, in December 1880. In an ironic twist, the following July, Garrett killed the Kid with this same frontier six-shooter.

Through the years, I’ve handled several revolvers that were documented as belonging to some of the famed frontier peace officers. These guns included a cap-and-ball Navy Colt owned by Wild Bill Hickok and Colt Peacemakers belonging to Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, George Scarborough and Arizona lawman James E. McGee. None of these guns featured mechanical or cosmetic changes, which shows that their lawmen owners were the “real deal” and simply relied on their gun handling ability and their nerves of steel.

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