Cavalrymen Pistols True West Magazine

Why did cavalrymen wear their pistols with the butts forward?

Christopher Zimmerman
Huachuca City, Arizona

When a cavalryman sat in the saddle (or other seat), he could more easily reach across his body and pull a weapon than reach back to draw the weapon out of its holster.

During the Civil War, the pistol was a secondary weapon to the saber, which was wielded by the right hand. The gun was carried in a covered holster high on the right side, placed for a cross draw by the left hand.

Cavalrymen Pistols True West Magazine
Cavalry officers were trained to shoot with their left hand and wield their sword with their right. The butt forward “cross draw” configuration can be seen in this 1863 Timothy H. O’Sullivan photo of George Custer.
— Courtesy Heritage Auctions, December 11-12, 2012 —

This style wasn’t universal; some preferred to wear the pistol on the left side. They would reach across, under the arm holding the reins, and draw the weapon with their right hand. The left-handed style became popular during the Indian Wars.

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian and vice president of the Wild West History Association. His latest book is Arizona Outlaws and Lawmen; The History Press, 2015. If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or email him at

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