The loyal gun is regarded as the best friend of the western settlers. But now a historian corrects the myth of the Wild West: He says the colonists couldn’t even handle firearms.
WEAPONS IN AMERICA
They were daredevils who could manage everything, tough pioneers at the border of civilisation. Bears, Indians and bandits were lying in wait for them in the prairie. And if they wanted a rost for meal the colonists in the plains just had one chance: they had to use their firearms.
The man’s best friend was his gun –unnummerable western movies and tales tell this− even some historians think so. Having the gun always at the ready, ready to kill and sure of his target, the man in the west felt the smell of broke gunpowder like air he needs to breathe. „Of course, there was at least one rifle in every cabin, maybe even one or two revolvers or pistolsone was regarded as man only if one knew a great deal about firearms“, this is what the expert William C. Davis said not long ago.
But now people will have to change their opinions. Michael A. Bellesiles , historian at the Emory University in Georgia is sure: the settlers joy of shooting was not up too much. Sabres, axes and first of all hunting knifes where useful enough for them. Most of the settlers didn’t even have the faintest idea of how to use firearms, many of them regarded their use as ungodly and unworthy anyway.
Bellesiles became suspicious when he took a look at some old inheritance papers. Just in every seventh paper listing the belongings of the deceased white men before 1800, a rifle was enlisted. But nearly the half of these weapons were useless and rusty. Could this be the truth? The historian learned much about rifles and their spreading, he checked state records, newspapers and import documents. The result he got contradicted the historians opinion of the violent pistolero settlers. The westward moving colonists didn’t even have money nor time for guns in the early years. Owning firearms was regarded as pure luxury. An old but still functioning musket, mostly imported from Europe, would have costed the poor emigrants more than the wages of two months.
When the state Connecticut wanted to establish an armed company in 1758, not even every tenth man brought a rifle. Even two men in higher social positions, who wanted to duell each other in 1767 in the old european way had to borrow the pistols. But the duelling didn’t really have to fear each other: It is true that firearms were really expensive, unwieldy and dangerous, but seldom deadly for the adversary. By comparison with the widely spread sabers, one had to have a great many of experience to handle firearms.
First they had to be loaded troublesome, the hammer had to be cocked. Now the flint fixed on the hammer had to make a spark in the „fire pan“. The spark had to fire the powder trough the fire hole and ignite the powder in the barrel. Regularly this technique didn’t work: In the rain the powder got wet, a bad manufactured bullet could even stuck in the barrel and blast the rifle. If one hit the target over a distance of about 20 metres he was regarded as crack shot. Regularly the barrels had to be cleaned and oiled, if not done so, they began to rost. Experienced armorer were rare. And even the best rifle was ready for the srcap heap after just 10 years.
In very early times Indians ran away, when the white men used their banging tools. But soon they noticed that nearly none of the bullets really hit them, and they changed their tactics by keeping one ’s distance. Sometimes they just had to wait until the white men had no more powder, then they attacked with volleys of arrows.
In addition to the tactical disadvantages there was the inexperience. The settlers were out of shooting practice, none of them would have used a rifle to hunt for food. They rather set a trap for venison, or they just slaughtered a cow or a pig. Only as lever against the slaves the guns where suitable – the Black where forbidden to own weapons under penality of death.