Pioneer Guns


The men who came to California during the great Gold Rush, and those who followed, brought with them an astonishing number and variety of firearms.  Many came with the firm belief that they would be engaging in mortal combat against not only Indians, Mexicans and foreigners, but also some of their lawless countrymen as well, and they armed themselves accordingly.


Although the flintlock was passé, a few still carried those obsolete arms because some type of native flint could usually be found to fire them, whereas in the wilderness lost or damp caps would render the newer percussion models useless.


Single shot percussion pistols were often carried in pairs, or braces, with the comforting thought that if the first shot missed its mark one would still have “something in reserve.”


Many equipped themselves with revolving “pepperbox” pistols capable of variously discharging – sometimes simultaneously it is said – from four to nine shots in rapid order.  Because such weapons were usually operated double-action, that is a pull of the trigger simultaneously revolved the barrels, cocked the arm and then discharged a shot, they were often inaccurate; however, their formidable appearance often offset that disadvantage.  A few true cylinder revolvers, mostly Colt military models, also arrived during the first two years of the Gold Rush; but this efficient type of arm did not become common until the smaller belt and pocket models were introduced in the early 1850s.  The 1851 Navy Colt percussion revolver then became the preferred side arm of the miners.

A “single-action” type revolver, it was normally cocked with the shooter’s thumb prior to each shot.


Gold seekers brought heavy-barreled single-shot rifles whose weight, after lugging them overland through the deserts and across the mountains, led some to regret their choice.  Probably the most popular of all arms was the sturdy, dependable double-barreled percussion shotgun which could be used for both bird and beast, and when required, even against that most dangerous of all game, man.  At short range, loaded with buckshot or a single ball, it could be more deadly than a rifle.


The first sheriff of Tuolumne County, George Work, is said to have enforced law during his term of office with the heavy .44 cal. Colt dragoon percussion revolver.  A rough and ready man, Work survived many dangerous episodes as county sheriff only to be killed in August, 1854 at Adamsville, Stanislaus County, during a drunken gunfight with a well-known California desperado of that era named Early Lyons.


Americans constantly experimented with firearms to make them more accurate, extend their range, expedite loading and increase the number of shots that could be fired before reloading.  Men often carried more than one arm.  When single shot percussion pistols were superseded by reliable repeating weapons, many purchased them in sets also.  In addition, smaller pistols such as the derringer types were sometimes carried as auxiliary, hide-away arms.  The bootleg pistol was so named because it was commonly carried tucked in a boot top convenient to reach by a seated man.


The preference for supplemental firepower extended to percussion long arms as well.  The three-barreled rifle for instance, gave the bear hunter odds of three to one, an edge not to be sneered at when after grizzlies.  Some pioneer hunters prepared themselves for field potluck by carrying a double-barreled combination rifle and shotgun.


Pepperbox revolvers, named because of their resemblance to that common kitchen item, were generally avoided by experienced shooters.  Later, cartridge pepperboxes were also made, but instead of the barrels turning, the firing pin in the hammer revolved to fire each barrel in turn.


Among the cheap, hence popular, cartridge revolvers at the end of the 19th century, were known as “bull dogs.”  Those desiring armament superiority could purchase the “Texas Bull Dog,” a massive arm with ornate grips.


The dependable Colt Single Action Army Revolver was the most popular cartridge side arm.  Competing large-caliber revolvers were also made by Merwin, Hulbert & Co. and Smith & Wesson.  A special Smith & Wesson target model came with its own reloading tools.  Colt and Smith & Wesson also competed with double-action revolvers.


Target shooting was a common form of pioneer recreation, and several communities supported rifle teams.  Originally percussion arms were used, many of them made In Tuolumne County by Horace H. Rowell and marked with his name using a steel stamp.  Later cartridge rifles were used, such as the Sharps-Borchardt mid-range rifle and the Remington-Hepburn.  Some target rifles were used for hunting as well.


Ex-military arms such as the U. S. musket, the Sharps & Hankins naval carbine, the U. S. Springfield and Spencer repeating carbine were also used for sporting purposes.  Hunters eagerly bought lever-action repeating rifles as soon as they were introduced, commencing with the famous Winchester Model 1873.  In 1876, the Winchester Arms Company came out with its centennial model, a heavier, more powerful version of its popular 1873 model.  A decade later an improved 1886 model was introduced.  Equipped with the latter rifle and the same company’s 1887 lever-action repeating shotgun, sportsman of that era had the most up-to-date firearms available.


The 20th century was ushered in by repeating firearms designed to shoot the more powerful smokeless powder cartridges. 


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