At one point in history, firearms evolved from rudimentary, though often quite elegant, single and double shot pistols and long guns, to more affordable and efficient revolvers, revolving rifles and shotguns. It wasn’t until the Civil War that further developments came to the forefront, like the Henry and Spencer lever action rifles. War was a driving force, but in the period from the late 19th century to the early 20th, armsmakers made remarkable strides in the development of semi-automatic handguns and rifles. While the American West was still very much a dynamic in this country, from the mid west to the pacific coast, and along our borders with Canada and Mexico, firearms designs literally surpassed the needs of the times. Imagine the Texas Rangers, who had been created in an era of flintlock pistols and rifles moving into the new century armed with semiautomatic Colt Model 1911s. (The gun pictured is a customized Swiss Arms CO2 model along with a copy of an early 20th century western drop loop holster made for the Colt semi-auto.)
I can’t speak for everyone who likes western guns, I can only speak for myself and the handful of people I know who shoot CO2 powered Single Actions and Lever Action Rifles, and among that group there is a need for more new guns in this category. But what exactly is a western gun? And when did the Old West really come to an end? Certainly not when the calendar flipped over to January 1900; it might have been a new century but the wild and often untamed American West of the 1870s and 1880s held fast to its ways well into the early 1900s.
The latest guns of the early 20th century were overlapping with the end of the American West as automobiles slowly began to replace horses, the electric light illuminated city streets at night, and telephones allowed the fastest means of communication. As a firearm, the Colt Model 1911 was the embodiment of those modern advancements for lawmen, the military, and civilians alike. That it overlapped the last two decades of the American West (which most historians will agree was still recognizable well into the mid 1920s), is evident in how such commonplace items as holsters adapted to the new guns without sacrificing their Western heritage. The original design of this holster dates back to 1915 and R.T. Frazier Saddlery in Pueblo, Colorado. The reproduction was made in Spain by Garcia Bros.
Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Montana, Kansas, Wyoming, Colorado, and parts of California, still had their share of rough and tumble cow towns. New Mexico and Arizona were still territories until 1912, becoming the 47th and 48th states, respectively. It took territorial legislators and a band of heroic U.S. Marshals operating out of Ft. Smith, Arkansas, to bring law and order to the Oklahoma badlands before Oklahoma could achieve statehood. That took until 1907, and yet, the Oklahoma oil fields and surrounding towns were still as wild in the 1920s as they had been in 1880s and 1890s.
A similar design was worn by Texas Ranger Edwin DuBose around 1915. He was among the first Texas lawmen to begin carrying a Colt Model 1911.
Automobiles, telephones and electric lights brought conveniences, they didn’t bring civility or change the ways of men and women who had been born in the West of the late 19th century. Most of the senior lawmen of the day had honed their skills in the 1880s, and much the same could be said for the outlaws, ruffians, and miscreants of the era.
One other thing had changed, not for everyone, but for most, the types of guns that were being used. So by the 1920s, what exactly was a Western gun? The lead photo for this article answers that question to some extent.
The idea was simply to allow a modern weapon to work within the confines of contemporary gunleather. Lawmen that carried the 1911 in the early part of the century often carried a Colt Single Action revolver as well as a lever action Winchester.
We consider Tom Horn a figure of the American West, yet when he escaped from the Laramie County, Wyoming, jail in 1902 (where he was being held on a murder charge), he took Deputy Sheriff Richard Proctor’s pistol, a .32 ACP FN Model 1900 semiautomatic, and found himself essentially unarmed against his pursuers, because Horn had no idea how to work the Browning pistol, which Proctor carried with the safety set.
On the subject of Winchester lever action rifles, we are fortunate enough to have a very accurate copy of the Model 1894 from Umarex to round out late 19th and early 20th century Western guns. The model pictured is a sample of a proposed special edition with a polished and hand engraved receiver, that would be in an edition of 100 in the tradition of the famous Winchester One of One Hundred models. If this piques your interest, please write a comment.
Due to the design and manufacturing of the Umarex Legends Cowboy Lever Action, the only part of the gun that can be worked on is the receiver and Adams & Adams have proposed a polished finish with period Winchester engraving and borders. You can find pictures of original guns with this very same design.
When legendary 19th century frontier lawman, Bill Tilghman, was shot and killed on November 1, 1924, while serving as City Marshal of Cromwell, Oklahoma, a wild and almost lawless oil town, he was carrying a Colt Model 1908 semi-auto. His killer, Wiley Lynn, is reputed to have shot the Marshal at point blank range with a .25 ACP Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket Model semi-auto, while Tilghman was trying to arrest him. The times hadn’t changed, just the guns. Had Tilghman been carrying his Colt Peacemaker he probably would have buffaloed Lynn with the barrel of the gun, and things might have turned out differently.
This early 20th century Western lawman actually has a 9mm Luger strapped to his hip in a modified Mexican drop loop holster. Not exactly what you think of when you talk about Western guns, but sure enough, in the early 1900s lawmen were using them.
It is surprising how well a Luger fits in some types of soft leather holsters like this old style whip stitch design. The gun is an Umarex CO2 model.
By the early 1900s, even though the majority of lawmen and law breakers still carried Colt Single Actions, there were Colt and Smith & Wesson double action revolvers in use, and Colt and various European semi-autos being carried, either as a primary sidearm or a backup. One early 20th century lawman in the Southwest carried a new 9mm German Luger in a western-style holster; the Sheriff of Anadarko Oklahoma (still a territory) had among his guns a shoulder stocked Model 1896 Broomhandle Mauser semi-auto.
In the early 1900s, lawmen from Oklahoma to the Mexican border were arming themselves with the latest weaponry. Mingled with this posse’s lever action rifles and single action revolvers is a shoulder stocked Broomhandle Mauser. Look closely, it is between the top cartridge belt and one of the lever action rifles.
Like the drop loop holsters made to fit the Luger, holsters were also made to accommodate the shape of the Broomhandle Mauser. The Umarex models are so accurate in their dimensions that with the magazine removed, they will fit a holster made for a C96 model.
Of course, with the magazine removed the gun doesn’t work but it only takes a moment to insert it and make the Umarex Model 712 functional. (Pyramyd Air also sells a holster that fits the gun with the magazine attached).
And lest we forget the Single Actions that are available in CO2 like the deluxe Nimschke hand engraved model from Adams & Adams. These are much pricier than the standard 5-1/2 inch nickel models, but they make a handsome CO2 pistol.
Engraved versions of the Bear River Schofield are also offered by Pyramyd Air, making this one of the most original looking of all CO2 models.
So, when we say we need more western guns as CO2 models, we actually have a few more than we realize! This is not to say we still don’t need a couple of new Schofield designs from Bear River, or a 4-3/4 inch Peacemaker or 2-1/2 inch barrel Sheriff’s model from Umarex, but you might think about finding a western rig for an Umarex P.08 Luger or Model 712 Broomhandle. They, too, have histories well rooted in the American West.