The guns of Gilpin

The impact of guns during the mining days

By Forrest Whitman

There were a variety of guns around the mining camps and mining towns along the Front Range. Gilpin County was typical of how each new type of gun affected life in the 1860s and 70s. Hunting, law enforcement, and other aspects of life were changed as the types of guns available changed.

Hunting with the Long Rifle

  During the early part of the Civil War the most common battle gun was one version or another of the long rifle. This gun had been in use since the American Revolution, though it was somewhat improved. It was fairly light, weighing only about nine pounds. You measure the caliber of a gun by the inside of the bore of the muzzle. For instance, if you look at a .32 you’ll see 32/100 of an inch in the muzzle. Each gun was handmade, so this dimension would not be standard. That meant the bullet had to be adjusted in advance. It worked well for hunting because it was quite accurate and lethal at long distances. The most common projectile, a lead ball, had to be inserted down the muzzle. This normally allowed for only one shot at an elk or deer. The long rifle provided much of the meat in the early mining camps, but didn’t allow for error.

The minie ball was the most used projectile of the different lead ball varieties. It had an advantage because it expanded. Cone shaped, it expanded to fit up against the barrel, so some tiny variation in barrel size could be tolerated. Many a Civil War veteran brought home one of these firearms and some of them ended up in Gilpin County. They were not the most common in the Civil War after the big battles began, however. That quickly became the Springfield or the Enfield musket. These had a bayonet attached so could be used in a charge where hand to hand fighting erupted. Apparently when troops mustered out of the army, these Springfield rifles were normally taken back by the quartermaster, so were uncommon here. Near the end of the Civil War the muskets were being replaced by the repeating rifle, especially the Spencer rifle. Repeaters changed everything.

The Spencer Rifle for Hunting Bear

  Repeating rifles were new in the West in the 1860s. The Henry repeater fired 16 shots, was fairly lightweight, and was easy to reload due to the magazine being attached below the barrel. These were .44 caliber and blew a big hole in the animal. No one used to hunt for bear much with a long rifle, but the repeater made that hunt possible. Now a bull moose could also be brought down with a half-dozen quickly repeated shots.

The most reliable repeater was the Spencer rifle. This repeater had been employed in the second half of the Civil War with deadly accuracy. How many Spencer rifles were in civilian hands at the end of the war is hard to judge. Early hunting painters often pictured this gun, but they were not common. The miners and ranchers of Gilpin would have liked to own one perhaps, but the Spencer was an expensive rifle. The miners and mill workers of Gilpin County had kids to feed and houses to manage and wives to make happy. Few could afford the luxury of a repeating rifle, so most hunting was still done with the old muzzle loaders. In fact, it’s estimated that only about a third of the mill workers and miners owned any kind of a gun. The cowboys were more likely to have one, but not all were armed. The rifle was a tool and so regarded. The cost of any tool had to be figured in based on need.

The Advent of the Colt Revolver

  The early marshals of the gold region usually carried Colt Model 1860 revolvers, a muzzle-loaded cap & ball .44-caliber revolver used during the American Civil War and manufactured from 1860-1873. The weapon was a single-action, six-shot weapon accurate up to 75 to 100 yards. That is, when marshals carried any firearm at all. Mostly they didn’t have their guns with them. Rather they relied on their position in society to demand compliance with the law. If pistols were carried, it was nearly always the Colt .44. These guns had six chambers and were dubbed “six-shooters.” The Colt Model 1860 was most often loaded by using paper cartridges. These cartridges consisted of a pre-measured load of black powder and a ball, wrapped in nitrated paper (paper that had been soaked in potassium nitrate and then dried, to make it more flammable). To load each chamber, one only had to slip the cartridge into the front of the chamber and seat the ball with the loading lever ram. Then a percussion cap was placed onto the raised aperture, called a nipple, at the back end of the chamber. Single-action was a safety measure. The gun could not fire until the hammer was cocked back. That meant it couldn’t accidentally go off as the lawman or outlaw rode along. I say lawman or outlaw, because very few ordinary citizens could afford a specialized gun like that. The ordinary mill worker or miner simply had no practical use for one with a cost of approximately $20, so was rather expensive during the 1860s.

It is true that most of the legendary bad men of the west carried a Colt single-action. Earlier pistols had all been slow to load. You put a percussion cap at one end of the cylinder while the powder and ball were loaded in the other end.

The next generation of pistol was the Smith & Wesson .44 revolver which featured a metal cartridge that carried all three components in one casing. Primer, bullet, and powder were pre-inserted in the cartridge. The new design was completed in 1869 and the company began marketing it in 1870. The Model 3 American was the first large caliber cartridge revolver and established Smith & Wesson as a world leader in handgun manufacturing. This is probably the pistol Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were holding when they met their glamorous end in Bolivia (though like so many facts about those outlaws this is debated).  A new book about the life of Buffalo Bill Cody is out. In this book, Louis S. Warren describes how Cody hired Wild Bill Hickok briefly. Hickok also used the Colt and it was said that he could outdraw anyone. Actually Hickok never claimed to outdraw others. Rather he said he stayed calm and always shot on the upstroke as he pulled out his gun. “Always shoot first,” was his advice. In the movies about bad men it’s either a Colt or a Smith & Wesson .44 that’s in the scene. The 1873 Single Action Army (or Peacemaker), the most famous revolver ever, heralded Colt’s move into the metallic-cartridge era for convenience and speed of reloading. By 1878, the Colt Frontier double-action six-shooter trumped the single-action revolver, also using modern metal cartridges.

Shoot-outs in Central City

  The shoot-outs on Main Street Central City are often somewhat based on the most famous of all shoot-outs. On October 26, 1881, in the lawless Tombstone, Arizona Territory is where the famous “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” took place. That showdown featured Town Marshal Virgil Earp, Assistant Town Marshal Morgan Earp, and temporary lawman Wyatt Earp aided by temporary Marshal Doc Holliday. The Earp’s were often common criminals, but also were sometimes working as law enforcement. This time they were up against Outlaws Tom and Frank McLaury, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Billy Claiborne. It was a movie western shoot-out. Why didn’t we ever have anything like that in the Front Range mining country?

The answer to that concerns market forces. Gamblers like Doc Holliday, and sometime bad men like the Earps did make brief appearances. But there were never the kind of high stakes card games, especially faro games, that drew them. The miners blew off a bit of steam on Friday night, but were never huge patrons of the saloons. Outlaws, turned cops, turned outlaws, like the Earps simply had no place to work on the Front Range, and instead they gravitated to lawless towns like Tombstone and Dodge City.

The Second Amendment

  Today there’s a gun “background check” debate hotly happening in Colorado. That was happening in Tombstone in the 1880s too. Gradually the town council cleaned up the town by insisting that all guns be checked in at one of three locations. It seemed to take the fun out of gunfights when you had to go and present your claim check to get at your gun.

No one seemed to argue that such ordinances were in violation of the Second Amendment to the U. S. Constitution as they would today. Constitutional law is well beyond the reach of this column. But, it’s true that every one of the rights in the Constitution are (and have long been) subject to modification by the courts and legislatures. For instance, we have the right to free speech, but lawmakers and courts have all outlawed some kinds of speech. You really can’t yell “FIRE!” in a crowded theater. Or, as my Dad used to say, “You can’t yell “theater!” at a crowded fire.”

Gun fights on Main Street

  I always enjoy the gunfighter pictures here in the Register-Call. Even if we never had any big shoot-outs on Main Street, the re-enactments are great. It’s interesting to see how the evolution of guns changed life in the West.

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