Western Book Reviews: Gunsmoke and Saddle Leather

It ain’t necessarily an easy gig, writing western history. There’s just so

much cultural freight behind the genre, so much expectation. Unless

you’re Bernard de Voto, how do you make an appeal to the general

market without losing the respect of your peers? Unless you’re Wallace

Stegner, how do you indulge the professorial without seeing your

subject turn bland as Ovaltine? Charles G. Worman’s new coffee table

book Gunsmoke and Saddle Leather: Firearms in the Nineteenth-

Century American West (University of New Mexico Press, $55) goes a

long way toward striking that difficult balance between authenticity and

amusement, elbowing its way onto the short list of entertaining texts that

nevertheless manage to make some contribution to their disciplines.

Seventeen chapters and 522 pages, heavy as a gym plate and thick as

a cheap couch cushion, there’s no curling up in bed with this sumbitch.

No, Gunsmoke is meant to be browsed, read randomly while you’re

hunched over your knees in the stacks, flipped through in the search for

a familiar, faded face (Calamity Jane, “with a Stevens pocket rifle with

detachable skeleton stock.”) or guns associated with famous names

(“This Burgess [a 12 gauge folding shotgun] passed to Pat Garrett,

famed as Billy the Kid’s killer, who served as US customs collector in El

Paso…Garrett had this gun with him when in 1908 he was gunned down

by one of his tenants…”) Despite the imposing size, the book is an easy

way to kill an afternoon, a heavy hodgepodge of distracting tidbits.

About the development of repeating rifles, for instance, Worman writes,

“Manufacture of the Henry repeater ceased in 1866, shortly before the

demise of the Spencer. Oliver Winchester and his associates

recognized the need for improvement in the Henry’s magazine design.

The solution was patented in May 1866 by Nelson King, a spring-

tempered loading gate set in the right side of the brass frame…Loading

was accomplished merely by inserting the cartridges one by one

through the gate.” For anyone with the least knowledge of firearms,

these few sentences represent a treasure trove of learned trivia. Henry’s

stopped production when? And Spencer’s? And that side loading

mechanism that you remember from Uncle Earl’s old 30.06? Turns out it

was an 1866 patent. For a firearms enthusiast or amateur historian,

anyone with the least interest in Western history, it don’t get much better.

The academic value of the book arises from Worman’s considerable,

nearly encyclopedic expertise, his thorough knowledge of the subject.

He takes a particular delight in writing captions, explaining that the

fuzzy, nearly indecipherable handgun on the hip of a drover is not only

being carried butt forward, but it’s a Colt Model 1878; that the interior of

a cow puncher’s bunk shows us a Winchester Model 1873 rifle, a

double-barrel shotgun and a holstered Colt Model 1878 revolver. “A pair

of hand weights on the floor beside the boots indicates the owner must

have been health conscious.” The various chapters, while arranged in

rough temporal sequence – chapter eight, “The 1860s,” precedes

chapter nine, “Trailing Cattle,” and chapter eleven, “The Slaughter of the

Bison” – nevertheless can (and perhaps should) be read as stand alone

essays.

This particular arena of western history, of course, is clotted with titles,

each one clamoring for its share of attention. Winchester has a book, for

instance. Colt has a couple, Remington. Under their own bargain

imprint, Barnes & Noble has released a whole scad of coffee table

browsers (A History of Arms, etc.). But Charles G. Worman’s effort

manages to stand out. A firearms specialist and, previously, the co-

author of the two volume, Firearms of the American West, a retired

deputy director of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force and a

Fellow of the Company of Military Historians, Worman is an able and

entertaining guide, a scholar with no real agenda aside from the

communication of his passion. His book is a skilled and valuable

addition to a difficult genre.

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