following is the second in a series of in-depth articles on the
firearms of the Old West, their history and lore, and the
remarkable men and women who carried them... excerpted from
Jesse’s full-color book Old Guns & Whispering Ghosts
Click here to read the first
article, Hideouts & Sneaky-Guns: Concealed Carry In The Old West.
doesn’t have to be a gun enthusiast to appreciate the
aesthetic and appearance of a Model 1873 Winchester.
The outline of its heavy hammer is suggestive of elk
antler or buffalo horn. The
dip in the receiver, the graceful curving of its raised
side-plates, the complimentary juxtaposition of its sculpted
lines could make it an art show contender in any known era.
The Winchester’s design flow is not unlike the
classiest of 1920’s and 30’s cars.
Its recessed planes – and the way the plates are
overlaid – evoke metal sculpture or hand carved furniture more
than the ungainly machines upon which it was made.
from the factory, this famous lever action would have featured
handsomely blued barrels and a receiver case hardened in caustic
chemicals to create a brilliant array of mottled colors.
But for many reasons I prefer the grayed metal and
imperfect wood of an arm that’s seen plenty of use.
favorite carbine has a lever burnished deep from being
repeatedly jacked open and closed by its owners’ anxious
hands. The walnut
stock has a dish-shaped wear mark on the left side, likely
caused by years of riding in a saddle scabbard, rubbing against
the rolling shoulders of a succession of well traveled horses. The designation “MAG 2” has been neatly burned in near
the butt, indicating it was once part of an inventory of weapons
secured in a government or company storage facility sometimes
called a “magazine.” I’ve
often enjoyed wondering if it was issued by a state militia or
lesser known frontier freight company.... imagined it hanging on
the saddles of crusty range detectives or being handed out by a
railroad “super” to his closely shaved guards.
It could have been in such service that it suffered the
gouge long ago scarring the stock’s right side.... or a chip
from a subsequent hunting trip, or damage inflicted during a
bumpy Model-T ride.
an up to date forensic investigator or clever Victorian sleuth,
one can read a lot about a gun’s past owners and the different
purposes it was put to if we can first determine how it was
handled and cared for. But more than that, each scratch or ding is a scar marking a
specific event and a certain moment in time, the same way that
the rings on a fallen tree map its history of experience: the
night it suffered a near fatal lightning strike, and those
periodic Summers it bore the hot licks of swirling grass fires.
The fortunate wet seasons when it grew the fastest, and
the difficult periods of extended droughts.
the wrinkles on a woman or man, like the water marks on canyon
walls, like the wind blown tracks of a passing animal, the wear
on a firearm paints a chronicle of feelings as well as events:
Successes and failures on the field of battle, or while
chasing wild meat year after year.
Episodes of violence and virtue, avarice and justice,
tragedy and tenderness, resistance and rescue, damage and
physical and emotional scars describe not only what we’ve
suffered but what we’ve survived, and what we’ve
accomplished as well as endured.
The absence of such markers of significance and
experience suggest a person too young, protected or divorced
from reality to to be counted on for insight, wisdom or
judgment. Such a person likely has a potential to express, but not much
of a story to tell.
a new gun hasn’t had a life yet, and a valuable arm that’s
been maintained in perfect condition for a hundred or more years
makes for a boring tale. Its
history is one of cardboard boxes or wooden presentation cases,
of bank vaults and gun safes, closets and attics.... instead of
struggling wagon trains, gunfights and buffalo hunts.
Beautiful as such rifles, pistols and shotguns can be,
they’ve had to sacrifice the scent of crisp outdoor mornings
and saddle leather for the smell of dehumidifying crystals or
protective cosmoline. Saved
from the so-called ravages of age, they’ve also been deprived
of the chance to fulfill their intended function as firearms, to
prove their mettle under pressure, to be held in the hands of
men and women as they face the serious moral and existential
choices in their very real lives.
A gun with wear is personalized, as thus particularly
mind you, this individuation is different from carving one’s
initials into a stock, or deliberately “notching” a rifle to
mark the number of deer it has killed.
It was seldom anyone’s intention to either disfigure or
treat their guns roughly, and in the Old West their care and
maintenance could spell the difference between dinner and
hunger, victory and defeat.
dropped down a cliffside or trampled by a shying horse, even the
worst maintained arms will long outlast their shooter. They potentially remain both functional tools and
repositories of significance and meaning for a succession of
owners. In this sense we don’t possess a gun or other artifact so
much as caretake it for either the period of our interest or the
length of our life, and we have a degree of responsibility to
both those shooters who came before and those sportsmen,
collectors and re-enactors who will follow.
A responsibility to a gun’s visionary designers, its
heroes and its common folk.
To its future buyers or heirs.
responsibility includes the proper cleaning and storing of
vintage arms. Pieces
kept locked away can develop surface oxidation unless thoroughly
coated with grease. I’ve also seen rifles with one side of their receiver in
excellent condition, but with the side that hung for years
against the wall now hopelessly rusted.
When we obtain an old arm with preexisting damage or
clumsy alterations, this responsibility (the “ability to
respond!”) may include prudent and careful restoration.
far too many classic arms have been unnecessarily vandalized for
the sake of vanity, experimentation or imagined
“improvement.” During the 1960’s and 70’s, for example, huge amounts of
Winchester Model 1892’s were rebarreled with Numrich
and other barrels, and rechambered for the then state of the art
.357 and .44 magnum cartridges.
While still credible shooters, these custom mutts gave up
historic credibility for only a small increase in terminal
effectiveness over the original .38-40 and .44-40 (.44 WCF)
generation Colt Single Action “Peacemaker” revolvers
are getting as rare as hen’s teeth, and even those with shot
out bores and mismatched serial numbers fetch high prices from
collectors. Yet in
the mid to latter part of the 1900’s an embarrassing number of
them were plated with nickel so thick you can no longer read the
letters or make out the trademark “rampant colt” logo.
Others had adjustable S&W sights specially
fitted to their topstraps, or were dickered with for the then
popular recreational sport of “fast draw.”
offer for your consideration the following rule of thumb:
Restore that which has already been messed with, bringing it
back as much as practicable to its original form.
If an arm was modified during or shortly after its
historic period of use, you may want to consider keeping it just
as is. Leave all
other vintage arms unaffected, except for the careful removal of
surface rust (using solvent and a rag only, and no abrasives),
and a light oiling of wooden stocks and forearms.
Thus we’re moved to replace an incorrect ejector
housing on a Colt .45, or the hacksawed rear site on a
Winchester ‘94 with a buckhorn site from a period parts gun.
Non-period add-ons get pitched.
A stock that has been mercilessly sanded down or reshaped
can be replaced with either a hard to find old one or a well
fitted and properly oil-finished chunk of new wood.
rare arm with the bluing naturally worn off has more
integrity– and will tend to retain more financial value– if
retained in that condition.
We call such arms and their existing wear “honest.”
However, an older rifle or handgun that has been ingloriously
reblued (or even “cold-blued,” heaven forbid!) can and
probably should be polished down by a professional
restorationist, and reblued or case hardened using vintage
formulas and processes that approximate the original factory
colors and hues. Grossly
nickeled specimens can have their plating stripped, and then be
kept in a natural looking “gray” (or “in the white”)
or cracked grips are preferable to replica replacements.
Any additions such as tang or peep - please share it with
whoever you can. Your
shoulder slings and so forth should be not only old but of the
period– and for Western enthusiasts, it should be likely that
they saw actual Western use.
When in doubt, leave it out!
Holsters and rifle scabbards are a different matter
entirely, since few vintage specimens have survived and those
that have are most often too fragile for continued use.
While an antique gun can be kept (and used) as original,
unchanged, a shooter likely has to pack his antique iron in a
quality reproduction holster.
arms, clearly marked or otherwise obviously of modern
manufacture, are honest recreations of period models.
They are generally more affordable, dependable, and
easier to find parts for. Given
the large number of rounds regularly fired in cowboy action
matches and other competitive events, it would obviously be
better to use a quality replica on occasions rather than wearing
out an antique gun. The
main problem with newly made models has been their shiny
out-of-the-box look, and some contemporary companies have
started producing revolvers with a dull gray finish, historic or
martial stampings and “weathered” stocks.
This is a decided improvement so long as they are marked
as to their real make, or are otherwise clearly of modern
fake, on the other hand, is unconscionable.
All too often we hear of older period arms with a
cleverly aged patina or artificially induced wear, intended to
fool a gullible buyer into plopping big cash down for a
counterfeit “frontier” piece. Supposed “outlaw” guns have been big business ever since Jesse
James’ mother started selling buckets full of cheaply
bought revolvers she claimed had once belonged to her murdered
son. Any beat up
wall-hanger can have some old brass tacks added and be sold as
“Indian owned.” Mind
you, faux is anathema to history itself– built as it is upon
authentic lives and events, laughter and hope, tears and blood.
The proliferation of clever fakes demonstrates rank
disregard for those feeling, fallible mortals who came before
us.... dishonoring those whose efforts and sacrifices have
helped make our own lives and freedoms possible.
called “upgrades” are a stickier situation.
Gunsmiths have long felt inclined to make changes or add
embellishments to various fine shotguns, particularly Parker
Brothers doubles, in order to bring a gun up to the
specifications of the next higher (more expensive) grade.
This seems reasonable when accompanied by papers
verifying the condition it was originally shipped in, and the
fact and date of its alteration.
The only problem is that the papers can then be
“lost,” and the arm sold for a unfair amount in subsequent
the case of most antique guns we might ever buy, actions can
reasonably be tightened, internal parts replaced, and the arms
made functional and shootable again.
But In most cases the best thing we can do is to do
nothing at all. It’s
the same whether we’re talking about relationships, the
natural world, or an old firearm at our disposal: when one
doesn’t fully understand the ramifications and possible
results of making changes, it’s better to leave them alone.
with plastic surgery and real estate development, firearm
“enhancement” can sometimes do more lasting damage than
good. What appear to be relatively recent and shallow scratches
in a stock or grip can be judiciously removed with a light
sanding, but I can tell you from experience that it is all too
easy to ruin the wood to metal fit, or to begin scraping away
the deeper aged marks that are graphic witness to a firearm’s
which we honor for itself, for its authenticity and its inner
beauty, we may not be so anxious to change or redefine.
When we accept that we are intrinsically worthy, the only
real “self improvement” we need is to become ever more who
we really are, in touch with our real needs and the ways we can
most naturally and effectively serve.
And by extension we can help others to be more who they
really are, ultimately helping the world be more its whole and
cosmetics don’t look nearly so important, next to the story a
Western firearm has to tell.... nor in the face of a person’s
love, or in the presence of their deeds.
it is with these old guns, it is for us.
As the years and then the ages pass the once polished
stocks are worn, and steel resolve turns into a faded blue.
These are not flaws: the cracked fore end and graying hide of
Great-Grandfather’s favorite Parker side-by-side.
In the same way, the deepening creases in our foreheads
are neither shameful disfigurements nor simply the peculiarities
of age. Over time,
wrinkles create a roadmap of sadness and delight, worry and
surprise, intent concentration and heaving breath. Like our
scars they tend to indicate just how fully one does or doesn’t
live, between the glad hour of one’s birth and the sad
occasion of their death.
the nicks and scratches on vintage guns, the marks and lines on
our faces are the accumulating evidence of our continued
presence, our involvement, our effort, and our past.
Any lines sprouting at the corners of our eyes will be
the result of not only our earthly trials, but our undeterred
relentless love. Our
L. "Wolf" Hardin
This article is adapted from Hidden Thunder, a chapter in Jesse’s
book Old Guns & Whispering Ghosts: Firearms Of The Old
here to read Boge’s review of this book.
To order a copy
specially signed to you, go to www.oldgunsbook.com.
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