Did Jesse James Really Pack Eighteen Handguns? Setting the record straight.

jesse james handgun true west magazine
Jesse James.

A True West reader was reminiscing the other day:

“All my life I’ve heard that and many times in the Midwest that Jesse James wore six to eight handguns, including two on his hips, two in front, two in long coat and sometimes two in back of his belt, and reports of eight in his saddlebags four in each side and two Walker Dragoons on his guerrilla saddle?

“That’s sixteen to eighteen handguns. I remember hearing that in the war; he would shoot out a gun and just drop it, pull another one, shoot it out and just keep going like that and when it was over go around, get all the guns, load up and move out.  I’d love to hear your input on this.

“Also, I’ve heard that Frank James was shot and or stabbed so many times that he had to wear a thick bullhide vest, laced up both sides and across the top of both shoulders, to pull his body and gut up.  And that the bullhide, from being sweated and dried so many times, the vest was hard in the shape of his body?  Is there any truth to that?”

Some of those folks in the Mid-West must be smokin’ moldy alfalfa. Sixteen to eighteen handguns is a bit of a stretch. Not only would it make mounting and dismounting befuddling, if he ever decided to ride the river he’d sink faster than a blacksmith’s anvil.  It’s said men like Jesse and Bloody Bill Anderson carried up to six so they wouldn’t have to stop and re-load however, they didn’t toss ‘em away when they ran out of bullets.

frank james true west magazine
Frank James.

The favorite pistol of the guerrillas during the Civil War was the Colt. Navy 1851 model .36 caliber pistol. The weapon often times didn’t inflict a fatal wound so they’d have to execute with a head shot after the battle. He might have packed an 1860 Colt Army .45.

With the advent of the metallic cartridge the Colt 1873 Peacemaker was Jesse’s weapon of choice. It was necessary to pack only two pistols.

Other favorites of the James-Younger Gang were Remington’s and Smith and Wesson Scofield .45 pistols.

The gang was also known to carry ten or twelve gauge shotguns for close quarter fighting in town. They also carried Henry’s and Winchester rifles. Unfortunately for the gang they didn’t have those rifles at the ill-fated Northfield robbery.

As far as I know, Frank was never shot or seriously injured so the stories of his numerous knife and bullet wounds are plausible as is the story of his bull hide vest.

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 marshall.trimble@scottsdalecc.edu.