Monday, March 29, 2010

Sharps, Remington & Winchester -- rifles that won the West

The Pedersoli Sharps rifle. Sharps was the quintessential buffalo gun. Christian Sharps's first breech-loading rifle came out in the late 1840s. The British government kept him in business with an order for several thousands of the rifle in the 1850s. By this time, the rifle was a favorite in the west as well. Civil War sharpshooters preferred Sharps weapons, mainly model 1859. America's buffalo herds rued the day the big Sharps .50 was produced, for it, along with the Remington rolling block rifle, was the main cause of the animal's near extinction. Sharps Big Fifty was accurate to at least 1,000 yards.

Remington rolling block rifles, although single-shot breechloaders, became one of the most popular rifles in the westward movement. They were also used abroad by the armed forces of Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Mexico, Egypt, and others. Of course the U.S. Navy, Army, and several state militias used the rifles as well. The Remingtons were simple, reliable, and came in several calibers. One famous story about Remingtons is the cattle drive from Texas to Montana, ramrodded by Nelson Story. Somewhere between Fort Laramie and Fort Reno, a band of Sioux ran off some of the cattle. Story had a case of Remington rolling block, which were among the first in the West at the time. He broke the guns out, distributed them to the drovers, and set out to get his beef back. The Indians stopped at what they felt was a safe distance and butchered one of the cattle. Story found them there, outgunned them with the Remingtons, and retrieved all his cattle but the butchered one.

The first famous Winchester repeating rifle was the Yellow Boy, model 1866, with a bronze gunmetal receiver. It used .44-40 rimfire cartridges.

To back up for a minute, the first sort-of cartridge was patented by Walter Hunt in 1848. It consisted of a conical lead ball filled with powder and sealed with a primer disk. The ammunition was produced in Norwich, Connecticutt by Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson (Smith & Wesson), but the Volcanic ammunition didn't catch on.

Volcanic Repeating Arms Co. was founded in 1855. One of its investors was Oliver Winchester. Two years later, the company failed, and Winchester took over, taking the Volcanic patents to the New Haven Arms Co. New Haven produced the Henry repeater in 1860, which fired a .44 caliber rimfire cartridge. This is the gun that the Southerners said could be loaded on Sunday and fired the rest of the week.

The first Winchester came after the company changed its name to Winchester Repeating Arms Co., the famed Yellow Boy model 1866, which also used rimfire .44 cartridges.

The next big innovation came in 1873. Winchester model 1873, most often just called Winchester '73, starred in the movie of the same name, along with co-star James Stewart. All the guns were factory fired, and the most accurate were inscribed with One in a Thousand on the receiver. They would cost $100 where the run-of-the-mill '73 could be had for $20. But some thought the price well worth it. One in a Hundred Winchester '73 rifles sold for $40.

With the 1873 Winchester came the centerfire cartridge in .44-40. The final tally shows that 720,610 Model 1873 Winchesters were made and sold.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Making of Guns of Ponderosa -- Part XI Final

The hired gunslinger is nothing new in a western story. In Shane, Jack Palance nearly upstaged Alan Ladd as he played gunman Jack Wilson, one of the original men in black.
We saw the same kind of hired gunslinger in Crossfire Trail, too. And then John Wayne faced a bevy of professional gunmen in The Shootist.
I liked the way the late Robert B. Parker handled the professional gunmen in his novel Appaloosa and how Ed Harris did it in the film of the same name. Specifically, that guns for hire were known amongst those on both sides of the law, and that there was a kind of unwritten law between them that whatever shooting was to be done would not be from ambush or in the dark of night, but on mutually agreed killing fields and at a mutually agreed time. Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch faced two gunmen, Matt Stryker, Tom Hall, and young Dan Brady faced three. Tom, however, was not in the initial gunfight. To find out how the final face-off turned out, you'll have to read the book.
And that's how Guns of Ponderosa was made.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Making of Guns of Ponderosa -- Part X

Richard Wheeler wrote a western novel entitled Drum's Ring. The heroine, Angie Drum, is a frontier woman who took over her husband's newspaper after his death. She uses the paper to expose graft and corruption in the town, including that of her own son, the mayor.

My Prudence Comstock is a young Angie Drum. She has found her niche in the newspaper business, and loves writing scorching pieces about the town, from her viewpoint. In reporting happenings, she also climbs on the soap box to preach to her readers about the kind of town she believes Ponderosa can be.

Although Prudence did not come to the same end as Angie, she did come very close.

Women in the west were no pansies. Take Lee Whipple-Haslam, for example. (notice the last name, lol). She was hired by Wells Fargo to ride a frequently robbed stagecoach. She was to provide detailed descriptions of the robbers. That she did. Height. Size. Clothing. Blood seeping through one man's glove. Cataract in another man's eye. Lee's testimony convicted the robbers. Lee was a typical westerner. She wanted revenge, was very aware of class distinctions, hated Chinese, and was all in favor of linchings. Information about Lee and other women in the west can be found in So Much to Be Done, a book edited by Ruth B. Moynhan, Susan Armitage, and Christiane Fischer Dichamp. You can find the book here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Making of Guns of Ponderosa -- Part IX

Lieutenant Amiel Whipple (died as a general in the Civil War) surveyed a railroad route across northern Arizona to California in 1853. This route was finally used by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railway, which eventually became the largest railroad company in the United States. In my part of the country, the AT&SF came through in 1881. They received a tremendous amount of land from the government to finance their railroad -- every other section on both sides of the track for something like forty miles (I'm writing this off the top of my head).

Until the railroad came in, the town on the Little Colorado river that eventually became county seat of Navajo County was called Horsehead Crossing. The railroad renamed it Holbrook. The spur line that ran from Holbrook south to Snowflake and on into the White Mountains to terminate in McNary (Ponderosa) was built by the AR&SF. It first hauled beef, sheep, and wool to eastern markets, then massive amounts of rough-cut lumber from Southwest Forest Industries.

The railroad brought the people, true, but it also carried out the produce and brought back the money. Because of that spur line and the stands of mighty Ponderosa pine in the White Mountains, the town of Ponderosa flourished.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Photo from Chuck Hawks' article on American Double Guns.

Shotguns played as big a role in the West as did rifles and sixguns. At the saloon, you could figure the barkeep had a scattergun behind the counter. More than one lawman carried a sawed-off shotgun as well as a pistol. Doc Holiday used a shotgun in the gunfight at OK corral. Wells Fargo had shotgun riders on every stagecoach carrying a strongbox. The list goes on.

Although Colt made a revolving shotgun in the pre-Civil War days, the side-by-side type were most often seen. In Appaloosa and Resolution (haven't read Brimstone yet), Everett Hitch carries an 8-gauge shotgun. The monster Vigo carried in the movie may well have been a W.W. Greener. The reason I think so is that certain Greeners cocked when the breech was broken to eject the spent shells and reload. It seemed when Vigo snapped the 8-gauge shut, there were no hammers to pull. Am I right?

The photo above is a Winchester 21, one of the fine American shotguns and a favorite. Other well-known scatterguns included Parker, A.J. Fox, Ithaca, LeFever, and L. C. Smith brands.

Where I tend to have my characters carry Greeners because I like the sound of the name, it might as well be an Ithaca or a Smith. I'll have to think about that.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Cowboy poet Paul Hatch, an old high school classmate

Back in September of 2009, the graduating class of 1959, Snowflake Union High School, held its 50th anniversary reunion. I was there. Class president Joe Spear was there. VP Larry Butler, Secretary Kathy Rogers, and a bunch of class members that included Phyllis Carlyle, school teacher and rancher's wife, Johnny Gonzales, who was the coolest dresser in the class, Gary Bigler the singer, and Paul Hatch, the cowboy poet. Catch Paul's cowboy poetry right here.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Making of Guns of Ponderosa -- Part VIII

Let's talk about guns.

In fiction, Sam Colt's revolvers play a larger role than any other handgun. Clair Huffaker's Guns of Thunder Mountain featured Civil War era Joslyn side-hammer revolvers, but Colt's were by far the most popular. Louis L'Amour used a 12-shot revolver to save one protagonist's life, unfortunately I don't remember its name. Some gunnys used Remingtons and some Smith and Wessons, but Colt reigned supreme.

In Guns of Ponderosa, Dan Brady, the young deputy, uses Dragoon Colt, so I thought I'd talk about that type of revolver. Actually, the first Dragoon Colt was responsible for keeping Sam Colt in business.

War started with Mexico in January 1846. General Zachary Taylor's troops were armed with flintlock muskets and Model 1841 .54 caliber caplocks known as Mississippi or Jaeger rifles. Their pistols were caplock single-shot horse pistols and a few Paterson Colts. Mounted troops soon realized they needed more firepower, and a young captain named Samuel Walker, a former Texas Ranger, was sent north to negotiate with Sam Colt for a heavy repeating handgun similar to the Paterson. The result was the 1847 Whitneyville-Walker Dragoon in .45 caliber.

The 4-pound monsters reached American troops late in the war with Mexico, unfortunately after Captain Walker had died in the battle for Huamantla. These big pistols were carried by US Mounted Dragoon troops for the rest of the war, and the order for the pistols from the War Department put Sam Colt firmly in the repeating arms business.

Another smaller Colt Dragoon pistol was produced from 1848, but the one Dan Brady carried was a converted Whitneyville-Walker Dragoon from the War with Mexico.

This photo is from Age of the Gunfighter by Joseph G. Rosa and published by the University of Oklahoma Press. The top pistol is a Whitneyville-Walker Colt. The pistol directly beneath it is an 1948 Dragoon Colt. The partially visible pistol is an Model 1860 Army Colt, and the pistol fitted with a stock is a Third Model Dragoon .44. The guns are the property of the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Making of Guns of Ponderosa -- Part VII

Ponderosa was a company town. Directly or indirectly, most of the townspeople earned their living from the Comstock Log and Lumber Company. In my boyhood days, the McNary general store is where even people from Show Low, 15 miles away, went for dry goods, especially work clothes. The only hospital in the area was in McNary (read Ponderosa), too, and I had a hernia repaired there in 1955.

Thus, when Matt Stryker starts making things difficult for Nate Cahill and his cohorts, Cahill naturally turns his attention toward the major company in town. A rat tells Nate of a large amount of money to be sent to Wells Fargo in Holbrook. So Nate decides to rob the train, as that's the logical way to send a big bunch of cash. Not.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Brand new start

At last I'm started on a new BHW. The working title is A Man Called Breed. The story begins at La Paz on the Colorado River and moves out into the Mohave Desert. Breed is a man who shuns sixguns in favor of a 14-inch Bowie knife and a one-in-a-thousand Winchester '73.

In Arizona military history, there's a half-breed scout named Mickey Free. My man Breed is not based on Free, but the scout was a well-known breed. Another well-known half white, half Indian family was the Tewksburys, who lived in the Tonto Basin near the Mogollon Rim.

Now I have my character and his complication. A girl is in the equation all ready. We'll just have to see where it all goes.

Photo of Mickey Free: Sharlot Hall Museum.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Making of Guns of Ponderosa -- Part VI

What about the naming of Ponderosa? The town's not named after the Cartwrights' famous TV ranch. Actually, in the first draft the town's name was Sponsellorville. One of my readers said no one would remember the town's name, that it was too difficult. Well, Pete Sponsellor ran sheep on the mountain near the town, and his sheep were shipped to market on his own siding which we all knew as Sponsellor's Siding, so I naturally thought Ol' Pete wouldn't mind if I named my fictional town after him. After the reader complained, though, I renamed the town Ponderosa, after the tall pines that Comstock Log and Lumber cut into planks to help build the West.
The photo's from the Show Low Historical Society and is a little later model of engine than the one that would have run in Guns of Ponderosa, but the atmosphere is the same.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Making of Guns of Ponderosa -- Part V

The first thing a town-taming marshal does is publish a set of rules. Wyatt Earp did it. Bill Hickock did it. It's stock in trade.

I've never seen a set of "marshal's rules" that didn't include a "no one's to wear guns in town" restriction. That's one of the things Matt Stryker did with his "laws" in Ponderosa. And enforcing those rules led to a new lesson for Dan Brady. Enforcing them also led Prudence Comstock to periodically write blistering editorials against the star-bearing men of the law.

A well-known photo of Wyatt Earp

You'll also notice at each altercation, the man known as Breed seems to hang back a bit. He also voices his conviction that men should not hurt women early on. We'll get back to that later.

Matt gets the town quieted down, but feels uneasy about Nate Cahill's seeming lack of action. Then Comstock comes with a proposition.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Making of Guns of Ponderosa -- Part IV

Matt Stryker is just like the Magnificent Seven. Remember what happened after Eli Wallach ran the Mag7 out of town the first time? He gave them their guns and told them to leave well enough alone.

Nate Cahill heard that Matt Stryker was coming to tame his town. He paid a bunch of rowdy cowboys to partially castrate Stryker's Arabian stallion and to rope Stryker himself and bring him to Cahill's lair, the saloon Old Glory.

Cahill beat Stryker with a formed piece of lead in his right fist. The extra weight behind Cahill's punches crushed the bones in Stryker's face and tore it dreadfully, marring the bounty hunter's visage for life. Still, Cahill made a fatal mistake, just as Eli Wallach did. He didn't kill Stryker, he rode him out of town on his own Arabian stallion, sitting backwards in the saddle.

Matt Stryker was not a man who could be humiliated so; he would and did return to bring Cahill's card house down.