Wild West Guns

Museum display of Wyatt Earp's 44 Colt Pistol

Those Wild West guns, the firearms of the old west really were an essential for numerous reasons. A variety of shooting irons found their way into the Western frontier of the Americas. Settlers found them useful for a number of reasons. You could even sort of say that…

Guns Helped to “Win the Wild West”

Remington Arms Rifle Ad detailing inner workings
Old West Gun Ad in Breeder and Sportsman, Page 51: Published in 1882

Why exactly can that be said? A variety of firearms found their way onto the Western frontier of the Americas. Settlers found them useful for an assortment of specific objectives.5

They were essential for basics like bringing in food. Not only while they made their travels by Prairie Schooner. Even once settled in final destinations, often they were living in areas where “grocery” type mercantiles didn’t offer much in the way fresh meat. A good source of protein. In the wild west hunting with a gun was the tool for providing this sustenance, such as rabbit, wild fowl or deer.

A gun also helped with animal management in those wilder natural Western surroundings. That included dangers faced by the undomesticated variety: venomous snakes, charging bears or cougars, etc.

If their own animals became injured beyond cure, they would need to be humanely “put down.” In the wild west, the gun was definitely the most merciful method to carry out that unfortunate task.

Then there was physical protection. Firearm usage could be in either defensive or offensive situations.

Think of possible encounters with rustlers, or the chance of stagecoach robberies. Some lines of work in the wild west could bring a person into those presumptive circumstances.

Individuals traveling from one town to another may be worried when hearing of clashes with some resident Native American tribal warriors. They would carry a gun as defensive protection for themselves and/or their families.

Those visiting saloons on a rare occasion could also face happenstance miscellaneous drunken gunfight antics, personal physical attacks, or become involved in or near various official armed conflicts.

What Wild West guns were In use?

A wide variety of firearms were used in the Wild West. Some were more popular. But there’s not one that was absolutely the most in use. Colt produced a number of the popular ones.

The Colt Single Action Army was one of the mainstays. Names you’ll recognize from the 1880s favored it: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, John Wesley Hardin. It first came out in 1873 for the U.S. Cavalry. It was well liked for capable fast action, and a good feel in the hand.5

Colt Army pistol from 1860
Colt Army Model – from 1860

Another popular brand was the Smith & Wesson. Wyatt Earp is said to have used one at his renowned Tombstone Gunfight. The most popular, Model 3, also fancied by Pat Garrett (infamous for killing Billy the Kid). It was a fast reload 6-shooter. Something the single-shot Colt Army couldn’t do.

Museum display of Wyatt Earp's 44 Colt Pistol
Wyatt Earp’s .44 Model 3 – Located at the National Museum of Crime & Punishment, Washington DC – Photo Credit: David from Washington DC

Shotguns Were Also Popular in the Old West

One brand of wild west gun that has become a well sought after collector’s item, is the L.C. Smith Double Barreled shotgun. Made with a side lock. They began manufacturing it starting in the early 1880s. The 12 gauge was the most common. It was the type of wild west gun found throughout many households of pioneering families.5

The original company owner, L.C. Smith sold out in 1888 to John Hunter of Fulton, NY – who continued the line. L.C. then actually went into business with that new-fangled invention: typewriters!8

L.C. Smith 12 Gauge Shotgun
L.C. Smith 12 Gauge Shotgun Popular in the Wild West

What gun did Doc Holliday prefer?

Doc – John Henry – Holliday learned shooting along with his cousin. They practiced using guns their Great Grandfather had used in the American Revolution.9

The first gun that Doc Holliday regularly employed as an adult was a gift from his uncle. It was an 1851 Colt Navy revolver.8 This pistol was named for the Texas Navy’s 1843 victory over the Mexican Fleet. There was a gramograph engravement of the victorious battle circling the cylinder. A popular wild west gun used during the Civil War. It balanced and handled easily.10 These are characteristics for Doc to have liked it.

In the photo below, is one of Doc’s most relished weapons. It’s one of two he most often used a little later on in life. Those two were:

  • The .41 caliber Colt Thunderer. A nickel plated double action gun. (below)
  • The other he often carried was the .38 caliber Colt Lightning. Another double action favorite.
A firearm Doc Holliday Favored: the 41 Caliber Colt Thunderer – Photo Credit: TennesseeWanderer

Some myths have Doc using shotguns. But with his tuberculin illness, his lack of strength would never handle that weapon’s strong kick-back.

Only at the OK Corral did Doc inevitably fire one shot with such a weapon – since as they were approaching the cowboys Virgil Earp handed it to him. That shot hit Tom McLaury on his right side, ending in his death soon after he ran down Fremont St.9

Then Doc ditched it quickly, as it was cumbersome for him. He retrieved his own Colt Thunderer pistol and aimed at Frank McLaury. Frank blared out “I’ve got you this time” and began shooting at Doc. He got the reply “Blaze away! You’re a daisy if you have.” One of Frank’s bullets hit Doc’s holster. Morgan Earp joined in firing at Frank. Soon Frank McLaury fell to his death from a stomach hit and head wound.9

Doc Holliday’s firearm choices reflected his physical capabilities. As a person suffering from Tuberculosis, he was thin and sickly. Though only 30 years old at the time,9 he was in poor health. The oxygenation that his body needed was suffering, and continuously deteriorating. This physiologically contributed to dysfunction in many other life-sustaining organs. He self-treated with alcohol, which wasn’t helpful.

Therefore his choice of weapons were those that were well balanced and easily maneuvered. A shotgun would not be in that category.

Wild West Gun Advertising

Vintage newspaper Advertisement by a gunsmith for repairing firearms
Gun Repair ad from Arizona Star – Sat. Feb. 21, 1880

With rugged regular use, often in dusty, sometime damp – even rainy conditions – servicing of essential tools was necessary. Many in the wild west knew gun maintenance had to be a consistent task, and they usually took care of it themselves.

No matter the type, or brand of gun they owned, it was important to clear grime, dust and foreign matter from its inner workings. Their firearm’s parts also needed to move smoothly against each other, so regular oiling was vital. Assurance that no areas would clog up was crucial. The importance of this regular chore helped ensure accuracy in shooting, and the dependability of the weapon.2

Overall Research on Wild West Guns

Some of the first wild west guns that made their way around were leftovers from the Revolutionary War, when the U.S. became a country winning its independence from Britain. The earliest ones came from Europe, and from England itself – the Flintlock pistol. The style was used for about 300 years, until more effectual firearms were designed.

Some made their way into the U.S. Civil War. If they still worked, were usable, people hung onto them. They carried them out West with them. However they weren’t the most efficient firearm, especially once better choices came along.

Cowboy hat with a flintlock pistol, set of spurs and a bandana
Some Cowboys Held Onto Their Flintlocks

The ball (bullet) needed to be placed into the barrel, pushed in securely to the end with a ramrod. Gunpowder was also loaded into the pan area called a frizzen. A spring lever holding flint was cocked half-way to be ready for firing (thus the term “half-cocked”).1

Readying it for immediate use meant pulling the lever fully back, then pulling the trigger. The cocked lever then sprung forward pushing the flint onto the frizzen making a spark. The gunpowder erupts for an explosion in the small area of the gun barrel. Creating volatile pressure sending the bullet through the only outlet it had – out through the gun’s barrel.1

Serious Western researchers agree that there were many, many firearms produced during the Old West. Some really seem to get the most attention and publicity. They were quite popular for specific reasons. Like those we have mentioned here, and  others you may have heard of…

  • 1873 Winchester Repeater5
  • 1874 Sharps Buffalo Rifle7
  • The Peacemaker6
  • The Deringer Pocket Pistol7
Stevens 511 Shotgun - the type Annie Oakley used
Stevens 511 Shotgun: The Type Annie Oakley Trusted Most For Her Trick Shots

Joshua Stevens started his J. Stevens Arms & Tool Co. in 1864. By the turn of the century his operation employed over 1000 people, specializing in the production of sporting firearms. They were popular in producing stable, single-shot target practice pistols. But he also manufactured rifles and shotguns.3

A key feature was their focus on the accuracy of their shooters. Perhaps a rollover from their precision tool production area. They’d won a creditable number of world records by the turn of the century.4

Drawing of a target shooting pistol from a vintage newspaper ad
From the Arizona Republic – August 28, 1903

The phrase the “Gun that Won the West” has been used as an advertising ploy for firearm companies Colt and Winchester. Both have a history of wild west gun production.6 Still, there is no ONE particular Wild West Gun that can really be said to have “Won the Wild West!”5


1 Military Factory (2003-2021). Historical flintlock firearms. Infantry Arms| The War Fighter. Retrieved from militaryfactory.com/ smallarms/flintlock-guns.php

2 Silva, L.A. (2011, June). Old west gun owners knew to keep their bores clean and powder dry. Historynet. Retrieved from historynet.com/old-west-gun-owners-knew-keep-bores-clean-powder-dry.htm

3 Bodinson, H. (2019). Stevens single shot pistols: Elegant, simple and still eminently shootable. Guns Magazine. An FMG Publications Production. Made by Sidekick. Retrieved from gunsmagazine.com/guns/handguns/stevens-single-shot-pistols/

4 Kyser, C.C. (1970). Story of Stevens Pistol. American Society of Arms Collectors Bulletin 21:21-25. Retrieved from americansocietyofarmscollectors.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/1970-B21-Story-Of-The-Stevens-Pistol.pdf

5 Schweiger, Ch. (2019, Oct. 2) History of the American West: The reality of guns and the Wild West. Medium. Retrieved from chipschweiger.medium.com/history-of-the-american-west-the-reality-of-guns-and-the-wild-west-151af6e0a055

6 Haar, D. (2006, Jan. 22). Gun that won the west: Two claim bragging rights. Hartford Courant. Retrieved from courant.com/news/ connecticut/hc-xpm-2006-01-22-0601210317-story.html

7 Royal Armouries (2019). ‘Wild West’ guns. Royal Armouries Museums. Retrieved from royalarmouries.org/stories/our-collection/guns-of-the-old-wild-west/

8 Hunter, T. (2017, Feb.) Today in history: L.C. Smith & Brothers Typewriter Company purchases site for Syracuse factory. Onondaga Historical Association. Skä•noñh Center. Retrieved from cnyhistory.org/2017/02/lc-smith-brothers-typewriter-co/

9 Tanner, K.H. (1998). Doc Holliday: A family portrait. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

10 Fort Smith (2015, April 10). 1851 Colt Navy revolver. National Park Service. Department of the Interior. Retrieved from nps.gov/ fosm/learn/historyculture/1851-colt-navy-revolver.htm

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *