A Life in a Year – 25th February, The Colt 45 and Being a Cowboy

On February 25th 1836 Samuel Colt was granted a patent for his pistol the Colt 45 which became the most popular handgun in the American wild-west and popularised in dozens of cowboy movies.

When I was a boy the western was also really popular on television and there must have been a programme virtually every night of the week on both channels.  Just some among my favourites were Wells Fargo, Lone Ranger, Cheyenne, Bronco Lane, Maverick, Wagon Train, Stagecoach, Tenderfoot, Laramie, Rawhide and The Dakotas and as well as these there were many more throughout the 1950s and 60s.

Like most boys my age I liked westerns because of the image, then as now,  of the tough cowboy ‘doing what he’s gotta do’, dressed in buckskin, leather boots, jangling spurs, wide brimmed Stetson hat and a Colt 45 strapped firmly to his thigh.

The Colt 45 was a single action handgun with a revolving cylinder holding six rounds and referred to for obvious reasons therefore as a six-shooter. The revolver was favoured by cowboys, ranchers, lawmen, and outlaws and, influenced by the movies and the TV shows, toy replicas were popular with young boys like me who liked playing at being cowboys, shooting redskins, holding up the stagecoach and having a regular quick-draw shoot-out!

A single-action revolver required the hammer to be pulled back by hand before each shot, which also revolved the cylinder.  This left the trigger with just one ‘single action’ left to perform – releasing the hammer to fire the shot – so the force and distance required to pull the trigger could be minimal.  In contrast, with a self-cocking revolver, one long squeeze of the trigger pulled back the hammer and revolved the cylinder then finally fired the shot.  They could generally be fired faster than a single-action, but at the cost of reduced accuracy in the hands of most gunmen.

Actually, it turns out that the romantic image of a Wild West filled with countless gunfights was a bit of a myth generated primarily by dime-novel authors in the late nineteenth century. There were some gunfights of course and the most notable and well known of these took place in the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas but the truth is they weren’t taking place every day on every street corner as the television programmes seemed to suggest.

 

Most gunfights are portrayed in films as having two men square off, looking mean, narrowing their eyes and waiting for one to make the first move.  This however was rarely the case.  Often, a gunfight was often spur-of-the-moment, with one drawing his pistol, and the other reacting.  Often it would develop into a shootout where both men sensibly bolted for cover.  Other times, one or both were drunk and missed several normally easy shots.  Many times the shootout was little more than one taking advantage of the other’s looking away at an opportune moment.  

In popular folklore, men who held noteworthy reputations as a gunfighter were anxious to match up against another gunman with the same reputation. On the contrary, in cases where two men held a similar reputation, both reputable gunmen would avoid confrontation with one another whenever possible because a gun fight simply carried too many risks.  

Stating the obvious here but the risk was being seriously injured, maimed or outright killed.  TV western stars could do all sorts of things with a Colt 45 that in reality it was simply not possible to do.  Unless it was a complete fluke, real cowboys couldn’t shoot a man’s Stetson clean off his head, remove his gun belt with a well aimed shot at the hip or conveniently disarm a man by shooting the gun out of his hand and the reason for this was that these weapons were just not that accurate. The other reason that they couldn’t do these things was because the six-shooter was a low velocity weapon that was simply not powerful enough and the speed of the bullet wasn’t sufficient to rip through the leather of the gun belt. 

Human flesh however is an altogether different matter and even at relatively low velocity a soft lead bullet can do an awful lot of damage.  Being hit in the arm or the shoulder and being able to carry on firing and fighting would be most unlikely.  Handgun bullets wound primarily through the size of the hole they produce and the hole could be quite substantial because as soon as the gun was fired and the bullet sent on its way down the barrel it was beginning to sluff and deform into an irregular shape that would flatten on impact and cause significant damage to soft tissue, muscle and sinews.  Any sensible gunslinger would anyway aim for the torso rather than the arm and after bouncing around in the body for a while and ricocheting of ribs and bones like a pin ball machine, if the bullet fragments struck vital internal organs such as the liver, spleen or kidneys it would almost always prove fatal because of the severe loss of blood.  If it struck a man in the heart or it blew his brains out then he was dead even without bleeding to death.

So shooting someone or being shot yourself was a pretty messy business but this wasn’t made especially clear in the movies or on television.  Men would take a bullet and carry on, bullets would miraculously pass straight through the body (highly unlikely) without causing any damage whatsoever and there was a curious absence of any blood with only just a tiny trickle to indicate that someone had been wounded.

Playing with toy guns is frowned upon now of course but when I was a boy it was quite normal to have a gun belt and a holster, a silver six-shooter and packet of caps to create the authentic sound of a gunshot but if the movies had more accurately portrayed the life of a gunfighter and the consequences of fooling around with guns then I wonder if we would have found it quite so glamorous.  Probably yes, I have to say!

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