The use of brass or iron tacks to decorate gunstocks, whether for religious or strictly decorative purposes, was a practice of the American Indian as far back as at least the early 1800s.
One colorful example of Indians using metal tacks to decorate weaponry comes from an 1860s Sioux war chief, Pawnee Killer. Eyewitnesses, who reported the chief stood “six feet four, broad shouldered, and [weighed] 240 pounds…,” stated, “For every Pawnee Indian he kills, a brass-headed tack is driven into the stock of his Winchester rifle, which now contains no less than 130. Hence the name conferred upon him.”
Tacking or applying nail shanks to adorn weaponry was not unique to the American West as this art form can be traced back to some of the earliest firearms worldwide. Nonetheless, with the appearance of the white man’s goods on the frontier, Indians quickly found that these tacks, which were intended for holding cloth coverings on trunks or furniture, were ideally suited for personalizing firearms, tomahawks, war clubs, smoking pipes and other tools. Brass tacks rapidly became staples of the Indian trade up through the end of the century.
Although iron tacks can be seen on examples of firearms and gear, brass tacks were by far the most popular type of tack used for embellishment, undoubtedly because of its showy gilt coloring and the fact that it could be polished brightly—and this yellow metal retained its color without rusting! (One word of warning when encountering brass tacked weapons; modern tacks, often used to simulate an Indian-owned arm, are sometimes brass plated, rather than having solid brass heads.)
This Indian practice was occasionally employed by white frontiersmen. Famed explorer Kit Carson was but one of the better known whites who adorned at least one of his rifles with both tacks and other metal inlays.
Although round headed tacks most often dressed up Indian arms, tack shanks were sometimes hammered in instead. The head was then sheared off flush with the object’s surface, leaving just the tip of the shank to show, allowing the use of many “spots” spaced closer together, which formed an intricate design.
Regardless of whether round headed tacks or their slender shanks made up the artwork, a weapon’s adornment could range from a single tack to mark its owner’s identity to dozens of studs that represented popular motifs such as the U.S. Federal government shield, the Christian cross, the five-pointed Texas star, human or animal figures and sunburst or arrow designs.
Other forms of decoration were also used to repair broken stocks or for protection of the owner’s hands against extremely hot or cold metal parts such as gun barrels. These additions included rawhide wraps, paint, animals skins or hanging charms, like beads or even human trigger fingers.
Brass tacking, though, was by far the primitive man’s favorite form of bedecking his arms. While more documented Indian-owned firearms are unadorned, the cool looking weapons that have been studded with tacks have often come to boldly epitomize the “Indian gun.”
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.