Hollywood is famed for playing fast and loose with historical fact. This is evidenced nowhere more than the props selected for use in films set before 1900. Rather than complain about errors, this series of posts will focus on cases where Hollywood, and other pop-culture outlets got things right.
Samuel Colt patented the percussion, or “cap and ball”, revolver in 1835. Several forms of revolving firearms had been around prior to Colt’s first revolving pistol, Colt’s design had reached a tolerable state of perfection at a critical moment in time, and history would never be the same.
Hollywood and dime novels put Colt’s 1873 Model P Single Action Army, aka “The Peacemaker” in every holster of the “Old West”. The truth is very different.
By the time the Colt Peacemaker was introduced, most of the great westward migration had already occurred. Texas had won her independence from Mexico, and joined the United States. The Mexican-American War was won. The California gold rush was over. The War of Southern Independence had been fought. The Pony Express had come and gone. The Transcontinental Railroad was old news. The majority of the revolvers carried by the participants in all of these great endeavors were percussion revolvers made by Colt, Remington, Star, Spiller & Burr, Whitney, and others.
Many percussion revolvers have made historically accurate appearances in film and TV. As an amateur historian, the historical accuracy of the props make the difference between a good film, and a bubblegum Western in my opinion.
Colt’s ’51 Navy, 1860 Army, and others
Clint Eastwood used multiple percussion revolvers in the “Outlaw Josey Wales”. The examples include the Colt 1851 Navy, Colt 1860 Army, and a pair of Colt Dragoons. The pistols Eastwood used in his “Spaghetti Westerns” were mostly percussion revolvers that had been converted to fire cartridges. Percussion revolvers converted to fire cartridges are historically correct in the late 1860’s as Colt tried to use up stocks of parts for the older models before releasing the Peacemaker.
The Colt Dragoon was the most powerful repeating handgun of the day. It was not eclipsed in power until Smith & Wesson introduced the .357 Magnum in 1934.
The first successful version of the Dragoon was the Colt “Walker” introduced in 1847, and used by the Texas Rangers. A massive pistol weighing almost 4 pounds, the guns were referred to as “horse pistols” being carried in scabbards slung over the saddle horn and extending down in front of the rider’s knees on either side of the saddle.
The Starr Double-Action Revolver
Although it did not see much screen time, the revolver Eastwood carries in “Unforgiven” is a Starr revolver. The Starr has been overshadowed by the names Colt and Remington, but it was widely used during the War of Southern Independence. This is not a true double-action revolver because the lever that resembles a trigger in actuality only cocks the hammer and rotates the cylinder. The trigger is a small button located at the back of the trigger guard. The trigger is depressed by a bump on the back of the cocking lever when it reaches the end of its travel.
France’s LeMat Revolver
The LeMat revolver was one of the more unusual pistols used in the War of Southern Independence. A lever located in the hammer nose allowed the pistoleer to switch between the cylinder chambers and the shotgun barrel. Unlike the other revolvers featured here, the LeMat revolver leaped straight into the future. Bruce Willis carried a LeMat in the science-fiction film “12 Monkeys”. Adam Baldwin carried a heavily accessorized LeMat in his role as Jayne in the TV series “Firefly”.
One of the coolest things about working at Heritage is the ability to see original artifacts up close. Knowing the object in front of me is “real” history, often belonging to someone of legendary stature like Buffalo Bill is a real kick.