After some thought, I decided to make this a separate post.
The question arose last week, about why Walter Prescott Webb gave credit to the culture of the Great Plains for favoring the handgun over the rifle. It seems a bit counter intuitive, since rifles could drop a buffalo and a handgun really didn’t do so well. Rifles are long-distance weapons compared to pistols, and if there’s one thing the plains have it is distances. But Webb is thinking like an Indian or a Texas Ranger, and to that he attributes the preference of the revolver over the rifle.
Starting on page 167 of the Bison Books reprint of The Great Plains, Webb considers firearms. He has been describing how the Indians, then the Spanish, and then Anglo-Texans adapted to the Great Plains, what worked and what failed. He credits the need of the Texans light-cavalry—the Rangers—with the rise of the revolver as the plains weapon after 1840. As Webb says, “[The long rifle] developed in the woods for service in the forests and glades when the user had both feet planted firmly on the ground.” (168) You have time and stability on your side. Neither of those were available to the light cavalry of the plains.
And the Rangers need something that was faster to reload, could be handled on horseback or on foot, and didn’t need as much time and skill at aiming while on the run. The Comanche shot arrows from horseback at full speed, and trying to use the rifles and pistols available to the early Texans* led to a number of losing encounters. The Comanches had a very definite advantage when all parties were mounted. Thus Samuel Colt’s invention appeared, was greeted with luke-warm interest in the forests, and rabid enthusiasm on the Texas plains (171-173). Revolvers made it easier, some said made it possible, to defeat “a mounted Indian in his own particular mode of warfare…” (175) As Webb writes “It enabled the White Man to fight the Plains Indian on horseback.” (179)
Rifles, cavalry carbines, and other long-guns never disappeared. But the revolver grew up on the Plains and became associated with Texans and the open grasslands following the Mexican-American War, an association that continued through the cattle-driving days. Once the early technical problems were sorted out, revolvers worked better than other options, could be dropped and wouldn’t break (as easily), and tolerated dirt and dust better than some designs.
That’s Webb’s argument. I’m sure we could pick it apart in detail today, but it fits into his overall thesis about how the environment of the Great Plains changed the cultures that encountered it, and how they adapted.
Webb, Walter Prescott. The Great Plains. (Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 1981. First published Boston: Ginn, 1931).
*Actually, using J. Frank Dobie’s definitions, these were Texicans and Texians. Dobie used “Texan” to refer to the then current generation (1930s and on). Webb sometimes followed Dobie and sometimes went his own way.