Tales of Wells Fargo Part 2

Tales of Wells Fargo Part 2

Barra recreates the 5-inch Schofield model

By Dennis Adler

Wells, Fargo & Co. became the nation’s largest carrier of mail, gold, currency, and other valuable property between the early 1850s and the 20th century. It was also the largest target of highwaymen and train robbers in the late 19th century; a veritable who’s who of famous outlaws. In turn, the company pursued those who held up Wells Fargo shipments relentlessly with large rewards and a team of trailblazing late 19th century detectives. By the 1870’s, Wells Fargo agents were armed with refurbished military Schofield revolvers that had their barrels shortened to 5 and 5-1/2 inches.

The first guns used by Wells, Fargo & Co. field agents (investigators) were Colt’s 1848 Baby Dragoon and improved 1849 model.Both guns were essentially scaled down versions of Colt’s new First Model Dragoon and featured a full octagonal barrel in 3-inch, 4-inch, 5-inch, and 6-inch lengths without loading lever. The new lightweight Colt pocket pistol could dispense five .31 caliber balls with deadly accuracy at close range. The 1849 Model Colts requested by Wells Fargo without loading levers came to be known as the Wells Fargo Model. That title was not attached to any other gun until the Schofield was taken up by Wells Fargo agents in the 1870’s.

In the early years, the company’s field agents were armed with small caliber Colt’s percussion pistols. Wells Fargo & Co. had made the original request to Colt’s for the improved 1849 Model only without a loading lever like the 1848 Baby Dragoon. This was specifically for field agents, who often worked undercover. The gun pictured is an early reproduction (close to 30 years old) that was manufactured in Italy by A. Uberti. The Italian-made parts were used by Colt’s for the 2nd Generation Baby Dragoon from 1981 to 1982 and by Colt Blackpowder Arms Co. for their 3rd. Generation 1848 Baby Dragoon, manufactured from 1998 to 2002 .

Wells, Fargo & Co. had been established in 1852 by Henry Wells and William Fargo to offer banking (buying gold and selling paper bank drafts as good as gold) and express (rapid delivery of the gold and anything else valuable). They opened their first office in the gold rush port of San Francisco and soon Wells Fargo was expanding to branch offices in cities across the West. In the boom and bust Gold Rush era Wells Fargo earned a reputation of “trust by dealing rapidly and responsibly with people’s money.” During the Civil War and postwar years that reputation continued to grow with the Western Expansion demanding more from Wells Fargo than ever before. The company took on the mail and delivered it by the fastest means possible whether by stagecoach, steamship, or railroad. In the first years after the Civil War Wells Fargo combined all the major western stage lines and stagecoaches bearing the name Wells, Fargo & Co. rolled over 3,000 miles of territory, from California to Nebraska, and from Colorado into the mining regions of Montana and Idaho. After the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 Wells, Fargo & Co. began using the railroads as the fastest means to deliver mail, gold, currency, and valuables across the nation. These shipments also became the target of outlaws and highwaymen, but a Wells Fargo shipment was not easy pickings!

To quote the company’s written history, “Gold dust, gold bars, gold coins, legal papers, checks, and drafts traveled in the famous green treasure boxes, stored under the stagecoach driver’s seat. Loaded with bullion, they could weigh from 100 to 150 lbs. ‘About as much as one likes to shoulder to and from the stages,’ wrote John Q. Jackson, Wells Fargo agent, in an 1854 letter to his father. Because they carried the most valuable assets of the West, these sturdy boxes of Ponderosa pine, oak, and iron were more prized by highway bandits than anything else. But the real security of the treasure boxes came from who was guarding them — the Wells Fargo shotgun messengers. They were ‘the kind of men you can depend on if you get into a fix,’ according to Wells Fargo detective Jim Hume. If thieves were foolhardy enough to try and steal a treasure box in transit, they would find themselves staring down the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun, loaded with 00 buckshot.’” Even so, criminals often found Wells Fargo’s treasure boxes and railroad cars too tempting to resist.

Here is an actual nickel plated 5-inch Schofield marked Wells, Fargo & Co. The nickel plated guns were fewer than blued guns but regarded as less prone to rust and wear in the field. This is a First Model Schofield with the earlier latch designed by Major George Schofield. The Second Model latch was designed by Horace Smith. (Photos courtesy Rock Island Auction Co.)

In addition to the famed Wells Fargo messengers, who rode shotgun on stage coaches, and inside locked rail cars, hold ups and train heists occurred, and to pursue criminals after a robbery, the company hired a small force of special agent investigators. These agents helped build Wells Fargo’s reputation. And the company backed them up by offering substantial rewards for the capture of anyone robbing a Wells Fargo shipment. When there was a successful robbery, the Wells Fargo agent in the town nearest the scene reported the robbery to company management, organized law enforcement pursuit, and printed reward posters enlisting the aid of local citizens. A typical reward for the arrest and conviction of a robber was $250, plus one-quarter of any treasure recovered. Wells Fargo special agents like James B. Hume (pictured below) and John N. Thacker pursued robbers themselves and often assisted local sheriffs and law enforcement officers. Although they held no arrest powers, Wells Fargo agents were armed and had a keen eye for evidence, sharp investigative techniques, and a reputation for dogged pursuit.

In the 1870s, Mississippi merchant Louis Hoffman was marketing the Hoffman “Royale” spring clip holster, which could be carried without the use of a gun belt. The Hoffman was one of the earliest known concealed-carry holsters. It used a steel spring clip device to hold the holster and gun close to the body and could be positioned in such a way as to be easily covered by a coat and thus giving the appearance of being unarmed. Hoffman began making them as far back as the Civil War; this Royal (original on the left) is a circa 1874 model. The holster on the right is a copy made by Alan Soellner of Chisholm’s Trail. Also shown is a cabinet card of one of Wells Fargo’s top special agents, James B. Hume, who started creating mug books of known outlaws. The Pinkerton Detective Agency also used this same practice.

By the 1870’s Wells Fargo agents began carrying larger caliber, cartridge-loading handguns, and the refurbished Schofields with their 5 and 5-1/2 inch barrels were ideal for either open or concealed carry, more so the latter for investigators armed with the .45 S&W Schofield caliber revolvers.

As unlikely as this sounds, concealed carry over the waistband holsters had been in use since the 1860s and among the most famous makers was Vicksburg, Mississippi, merchant and arms dealer Louis Hoffman who began selling a variety of holsters designed for short-barreled SA revolvers that attached to the pants waist with a metal clip, thereby eliminating the presence of a gunbelt and lending to the appearance that a man was unarmed. One of the finest Hoffman rigs from the 1870s-era was marketed as the Royal, an original of which is pictured with one of the new Barra Wells Fargo design 5-inch Schofields. The Royal was produced for a variety of guns and barrel lengths, this model suitable for a Schofield with a 5-inch barrel marked model 124¾  and featured handsome border stamping, a deeply recurved pouch and a distinctive rosette stamping below the word ROYAL. Once attached over a pants waist two metal prongs on the inside of the plated metal clip grabbed the fabric. It was actually much more of a chore to remove the Hoffman holster than put it on, and one did not want to bend the metal clip riveted to the back of the fully lined holster. Alan Soellner of Chisholm’s Trail used the original in this article to make a new reproduction based upon the Hoffman design which fits the Barra 5-inch Schofield.

How good is the Barra 5-inch Schofield for authenticity? Here it is compared to an original Schofield Wells Fargo model. (1870s Wells Fargo Schofield photo courtesy Rock Island Auction Co.)

Proofing a new gun

We will conclude today’s article with velocity tests for the new Schofield Wells Fargo model. It comes with six BB loading cartridges (extra cartridges are available) and even though this is still a smoothbore model it also shoots quite accurately with Webley MKVI pellet cartridges. (The 7-inch guns are sold by Pyramyd Air in a dual cartridge package with six of each). Unfortunately, just like the actual Schofield models from the 1870s, the CO2 version can’t chamber the same shells as the CO2 Peacemakers. History repeats itself in odd ways.

While the Barra and former Bear River Schofields are all smoothbore guns, they work exceptionally well with pellet loading cartridges (top six rounds) that fit the Webley MKVI CO2 revolvers. The BB shells load the BB in the front, while the pellet shells follow the Umarex Colt style with the pellet inserted at the back like a primer in an actual cartridge.
The pellet shells are easy to load, and can even be reloaded without removing them from the cylinder.

I have shot the 7-inch guns (which are currently in stock in nickel or aged finish) with the BB cartridges but find the accuracy better with pellet shells and lead wadcutters. Going back to the 7-inch model’s velocity tests with Meisterkugeln pellets, average speed through the chronograph was 387 fps to 402 fps, and accuracy from 21 feet for 12 shots measured 2.28 inches center to center with a best six covering 0.875 inches. I do not expect the 5-inch barrel model to be any less accurate and likely with not much variance in average velocity.

My velocity with the new 5-inch Nickel gun averaged 406 fps with the 7.0 gr. lead wadcutters. I had an impressive high velocity of 438 fps and a low of 396 fps, so right in the ballpark with the 7-inch model using pellet shells and Meisterkugeln. I then ran a second test with lightweight H&N Sport Match Green 5.25 gr. alloy wadcutters and velocity jumped to a whopping 482 fps average with a high of 501 fps. (Now I have to go back and shoot the 7-inch with H&N).

Using Meisterkugeln lead wadcutters the 5-inch Schofield delivered velocity and accuracy equal to the 7-inch guns. My first time shooting the 5-inch I put six shots a little off center but still inside of an inch from 21 feet.

The first accuracy tests (all shot through the chronograph) put six Meisterkugeln lead wadcutters into an even 1.0 inches, but with most a little low and slightly left of the bullseye. Six of the smoken’ hot H&N alloy wadcutters slammed into 0.843 inches. No bullseyes here, either, but pretty tight. A little more practice and the 5-inch Barra Schofield with pellets will be a Single Action tack driver.

My big surprise was shooting H&N Sport Match Green 5.25 gr. alloy wadcutters which pushed the gun’s average velocity into the high 480 fps range. This six shot group from 21 feet is under an inch fired off hand through the chronograph screens. With a little practice and the lightweight H&N pellets the 5-inch smoothbore Schofield might be a serious challenger to the accuracy of the rifled barrel Umarex Colt Peacemakers!

When we conclude the advance tests of the new Barra Schofield 5-inch next week, we head to the outdoor range and find out what the Wells Fargo can do in some Old West shooting scenarios.

4 thoughts on “Tales of Wells Fargo Part 2

  1. As expected, the Wells Fargo models did not disappoint. These are right up there with the Peacemakers. I had suggested to the new owners of Barra that they offer rifled barrel versions with the option of purchasing g an auxillary cylinder compatible with the Umarex pellet Peacemaker shells. Even as is , as the smooth bore shows , they are nicely made accurate revolvers. The high velocity with alloy or even lead pellets makes these suitable for 10 yard reactive target shooting


    • I think the Barra Schofields are firmly resting in Peacemaker territory and 10 yards will be part of the last shooting test. Once can only imagine how accurate the rifled barrel Schofields due early next year will be. Would be nice since it is a topbreak with easy access, if Barra could offer a rifled barrel refit kit for the earlier guns.


  2. If Barra won’t retro fit barrels , it could be done. There is a guy on you tube who fitted pellet barrels to bb Peacemakers.Think he used Walther Lothar barrels. That nickel WellsFargo would look nice with pearl grips



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