Guns Of The American Mining Camp
Mining History by Harold Hough
Watch any western worth its salt, and you will see Colt Peacemakers and Winchester lever action rifles. But were these the guns of the mining camps? Not as much as you think.
Recent scholarship indicates that the firearms of the mining West were much more eclectic than we thought. And, much depends on what timeframe we look at. There was the “anything goes” period of the early California gold rush when 49ers brought anything they could find. Then there was the cap and ball era, which went from the 1850s to the end of the Civil War. Finally, there is the self contained cartridge era that we commonly associate with Colt and Winchester.
The first rush of California fortune seekers were in too much of a hurry to think about their firearms needs for their trip out west. Everything from flintlock rifles and shotguns to a few Colt revolvers went out to the California gold fields. In many cases, it was the shotgun, which was common on Midwest farms that made the trip west. It not only was a good defense weapon, it could also bring down game for food.
But there were few Colt Revolvers in this first gold rush. The Colt Patterson had been a failure and Colt had only gone back into business in 1845 with a production rate of 1,000 revolvers a year. Consequently, there were only a couple of thousand Colts in existence when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848.
However, it didn’t take long for gold prospectors to discover that the six shot Colt was ideal in the lawless wilderness of the West. And, they were willing to pay for it. A Colt that sold for $15 to $25 in the East would go for $500 in California. Both the Colt Pocket Model of 1849 and the Colt Navy were to become popular models out West.
But Colt wasn’t the only revolver in town. After failing miserably in trying to produce a lever action firearm (a company which they sold to shirt maker Oliver Winchester), two partners Smith and Wesson also started to design and build revolvers. Unlike Colt and his ball and cap design, Smith and Wesson went with self contained cartridges, which are the basis of most firearms today. This was easier to load and was waterproof, which miners obviously preferred. By the late 1850s, some small caliber self contained revolvers were slowly making their way to the gold fields.
During and after the Civil War, Smith and Wesson ruled the Western revolver market thanks to its patents and the Smith and Wesson Model 3 American. It wasn’t until the Legendary Colt Peacemaker came on the scene in 1873, that Smith and Wesson had real competition.
However, neither the Smith and Wesson American or the Colt Peacemaker were the dominant guns of the mining camps in the post Civil War era. Although many Civil War veterans brought their guns out West, other companies were competing with Smith and Wesson and Colt. They included names like Remington, Bacon, Harrington and Richardson, and Pond. But one of the biggest competitors was from England – Webley. It was the Webley that was worn by General George Armstrong at the Battle of Little Bighorn. It was also a popular gun brought by English immigrants in the late 1800s, including Cornish tin miners. Other guns from Spain and Belgium also came across the Atlantic to arm the post Civil War miner.
So, what type of firearms could you expect to see in a mining camp? Here are some examples:
SHOTGUN. This proved to be a popular firearm in the mining camps and was the premier weapon used to protect gold and silver shipments. The phrase, “riding shotgun,” came from the practice of a shotgun armed guard sitting up front with the driver. Their wide pattern of shot made it easier to hit the bad guy even when the stage couch was moving.
DERRINGERS AND POCKET PISTOLS. Their limited capacity and short range didn’t make them as attractive to prospectors who needed a firearm for food and protection. However, their small size made them popular in mining camps amongst the gamblers and “professional ladies.”
WINCHESTER LEVER ACTION RIFLE. There will always be speculation about how smart it was for Smith and Wesson to sell their lever action firearm company to Winchester in order to focus on revolvers. However, by the 1870s, it looked like Winchester may have gotten the best part of the deal. The lever action was popular for hunting and its fast firing meant it could hold off the bad guys too. In fact, one Western rancher Teddy Roosevelt considered it his favorite rifle.
The Winchester remains a popular American firearm even today and it is claimed that the Winchester lever action has killed more deer than any other firearm.
COLT. It took awhile, but Colt did become one of the most popular guns out West. Many of the first Colt revolvers that came out to the mining camps came after the Civil War, when the government allowed veterans to buy their service revolvers. The 1870s saw tough competition between Smith and Wesson, Remington, and Colt for the self contained cartridge revolver market. Needless to say, the Colt finally won out and built onto its reputation with the Colt Lightening and Colt New Service.