History viewed through gunsights

  • Courtesy James H. Earl

    At left, John Selman Sr., constable of El Paso, with his son. Selman rode both sides of the law -- he once led a band of outlaws.
  • The 1866 Winchester rifle that belonged to Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce.

    Courtesy National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution
 

Famous Firearms of the Old West: From Wild Bill Hickok's Colt Revolvers to Geronimo's Winchester, Twelve Guns That Shaped Our History
Hal Herring
189 pages,
hardcover: $24.95.
TwoDot/Globe Pequot Press, 2008.

 

Chief Joseph was carrying a lever-action Model 1866 Winchester rifle that fired .44 Rimfire cartridges when he led the Nez Perce against the U.S. Cavalry in an epic "running war" that stretched from Oregon to central Montana. When the tribe was cornered at the Bear's Paw Battlefield in October 1877, Chief Joseph not only spoke the famous words, "I will fight no more forever," he also handed his rifle to the cavalry leader -- thus earning its nickname as the "Surrender Gun."

The .44 Rimfire cartridge has its own fame. It was a technological breakthrough that allowed rapid firing, and it was used throughout the Indian Wars and clear up to the 1930s. It became so popular that even today, "in plowed fields and cutbanks across the West, the old metallic cartridges, with the distinctive H stamp on their heads, can still be found, relics of an era of explosive change."

Hal Herring's latest book, Famous Firearms of the Old West, is full of such juicy tidbits. The enthusiasm of the author -- who also covers wildlife, hunting and gun politics for High Country News and other magazines -- will stir readers. "America was a nation born yelling, in a cloud of black powder smoke," he writes, explaining why he decided to profile key historic figures through the stories of their guns. "The weapons in this book were primary tools of survival in that anarchic world."

His targets range from Pancho Villa to Joseph Smith to Tom Horn. Buffalo Bill Cody's personality, for instance, is revealed in the nickname he gave his rifle, a Springfield Model 1863: "He named it Lucretia Borgia, after the murderous and beautiful Italian noblewoman in the Victor Hugo play." When Cody was hired to supply meat  for the crews building  the first transcontinental railroad, he used Lucretia Borgia efficiently, killing more than 4,280 buffalo in an eight-month period that ended in May of 1868. Famous Firearms also has photos of the historic guns, which are as enjoyable as the author's lively writing style.