Book Reviews

Western Book Reviews: Gunsmoke and Saddle Leather

It is not necessarily easy to write the history of the West. There is so much
a lot of cultural freight behind the genre, so much waiting. Unless
you’re Bernard de Voto, how do you appeal to the general
market without losing the respect of your peers? Unless you’re Wallace
Stegner, how do you do for the professorship without seeing your
does the subject become bland like 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
a long way to go to achieve this difficult balance between authenticity and
fun, working their way through the short list of entertaining texts that
nevertheless manage to make a contribution to their disciplines.

Seventeen chapters and 522 pages, heavy as a gym plate and thick as
a cheap sofa cushion, there’s no curling up in bed with this bitch.
No, Gunsmoke is meant to be browsed, read randomly while you are
bent over your knees in the stacks, leafing through looking for
a familiar, faded face (Calamity Jane, “with a Stevens pocket rifle with
detachable skeleton stock.”) or weapons associated with famous names
“This Burgess (a 12-gauge folding shotgun) passed to Pat Garrett,
famous as the killer of Billy the Kid, who served as a US Customs collector in El
Paso… Garrett had this gun with him when in 1908 he was shot
by one of its tenants…”) Despite its imposing size, the book is
way to kill an afternoon, a heavy hodgepodge of entertaining treats.
About the development of repeating rifles, for example, writes Worman,
“Manufacturing of the Henry repeater ceased in 1866, shortly before the
disappearance of the Spencer. Oliver Winchester and associates
recognized the need to improve the design of Henry’s magazine.
The solution was patented in May 1866 by Nelson King, a spring-
hardened loading door located in the right side of the brass frame… Loading
was accomplished simply by inserting the cartridges one by one
through the door.” For anyone with the least knowledge of firearms,
these few sentences represent a treasure trove of scholarly anecdotes. at Henry’s
stopped production when? And Spencer’s? And that side loading
mechanism you remember from old 30.06 from Uncle Earl? It proves
was an 1866 patent. For a firearms enthusiast or amateur historian,
whoever is the least interested in Western history, it doesn’t get much better.

The academic value of the book stems from the considerable contribution,
quasi-encyclopedic expertise, his in-depth knowledge of the subject.
He takes particular pleasure in writing captions, explaining that the
a fuzzy, almost indecipherable handgun on the hip of a herdsman is not only
be worn end to end, but it’s a Colt Model 1878; that the interior of
a cow puncher’s berth shows us a Winchester Model 1873 rifle, a
double-barreled shotgun and a Colt Model 1878 revolver in its holster. “A pair
dumbbells on the floor next to the boots indicates that the owner must
concerned about their health.” The different chapters, although organized
approximate time sequence – chapter eight, “The 1860s”, precedes
chapter nine, “Trailing Cattle”, and chapter eleven, “The Massacre of
Bison” – nevertheless can (and perhaps should) be read as stand-alone

This particular arena of Western history, of course, is peppered with titles,
each claiming their share of attention. Winchester has a book, for
example. Colt has a couple, Remington. Under their own market
imprint, Barnes & Noble has released a whole series of coffee tables
navigators (A history of weapons, etc.). But Charles G. Worman’s effort
manages to stand out. A firearms specialist and previously the co-
author of two volumes, Firearms of the American West, a retired
deputy director of the National Museum of the US Air Force and a
A member of the Company of Military Historians, Worman is an able and
entertaining guide, a scholar with no real agenda apart from the
communication of his passion. His book is a skilful and precious book
in addition to a difficult genre.

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