Webb’s Great Plains: Firearms

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.

7 thoughts on “Webb’s Great Plains: Firearms

  1. “Fill your hands, you SOBs!” Cowboy movies show mounted men using revolvers. Rifles are almost only used for prepared ambushes. Pistols only need one hand, leaving the other for handling the reins. And it’s easier to level one arm and aim while bouncing, than trying to coordinate both together. (There’s still a fine tradition of young men practicing their pistol and shotgun skills on road signs from moving trucks, is there not?)

    I will admit that, when I carried both through hostile country, I would favor the pistol for an immediate threat within about 50 yards. The rifle was for longer shots, or when we would have more time to prepare.

  2. Mr. Webb has a point. One can confirm it by looking at cavalry during the Civil War. A large number of “irregulars” (e.g. guerillas in Missouri or Kansas, locally raised militia in several Southern states, etc.) used weapons that were particularly suited to melée warfare. It wasn’t uncommon for guerillas to carry four, even six revolvers (due to the slowness of reloading a cap-and-ball weapon). This is well illustrated in Clint Eastwood’s movie “The Outlaw Josey Wales”. They really did carry that much armament. Similarly, many early cavalry regiments (before their equipment was standardized) carried double-barreled shotguns loaded with “buck and ball” – a musket ball topped by three or four buckshot pellets. Fired from a moving horse, at close range, this was deadly; and the spreading buckshot meant that, if accuracy wasn’t perfect, there was still the chance of getting at least some sort of hit on the enemy.

    If one examines the tactics of the US Cavalry after the Civil War, in the wars against the Indians, there are also tell-tale signs that Webb was right. The Colt “Peacemaker” is more properly known as the Single Action Army revolver, and was ordered specifically to equip the cavalry. It was the preferred weapon for charges. The saber was still issued, but was largely ignored by those with real fighting experience as opposed to parade-ground soldiering or “book learning”. Their single-shot rifles and carbines served the purpose of ground fighting – dismounting, having the horses led away, and the soldiers taking cover behind natural features and firing slowly and deliberately. The Winchester and other repeating rifles were used in the same way. Consider famous incidents such as the Wagon Box Fight or the Hayfield Fight (see Wikipedia). In almost every case one can find, rifles were used from the ground, not from horseback. Even Custer’s last stand saw the 7th Cavalry dismounted, firing from a better shooting position than would have been possible on horseback.

    As an aside, the reason for the inclusion of a grip safety on the Colt 1911 pistol was specifically so that it would be “drop safe” in the hands of a cavalryman. If he dropped it, this automatically engaged the grip safety, so that the gun would not go off on hitting the ground during a cavalry charge. It was considered definitely politically incorrect to shoot your own or a comrade’s horse by making a mistake of that sort!

  3. Well, Peter beat me to it, as usual. 🙂 One innovation, if you will, that tried to address the issue was the Winchester saddle ring carbines. They were developed as an ‘answer’ to the what happens if I drop it scenario, by going to a shorter barrel (16 or 14 inches, and attaching a saddle ring that could be tied to the saddle with a piggin string. But the all out preference was pistols (one hand for you, one for the gun)!

  4. I seem to recall John Wayne using a rifle one-handed in “True Grit”. Being a movie, though, does not lend credibility to the effectiveness of that practice.

    • The other one-hander that most certainly was a “made for TV” weapon was the sawed-off (stock and barrel) “Mare’s Leg” carried by Steve McQueen in “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” An article I read about it pointed out that the armorer had to have special permission to make it because it was by then an illegal firearm, there were special handling requirements when it was in a shot, and if McQueen had ever tried to fire a real load, it would at best have knocked him head over tea-kettles from the kick.

      • And now there is a popular imitation Mare’s Leg sold by Rossi/Taurus. An absolutely useless gun in my opinion, but they are apparently popular enough to keep making and selling them.

        Thank you for this post, by the way, I know I’m a day or two behind right now.

        As an aside, I have used rifles quite a bit one handed, I have probably shot close to as many bears with my 45/70 firing it “like a pistol” one handed as I have with it properly shouldered. That stock they sawed off the Mare’s Leg is VERY handy when firing a rifle one handed. It lays back along your forearm and counterbalances the weight of the barrel and tube, making it relatively simple to point the rifle like an extension of your arm (if your rifle is a carbine model that isn’t too long and barrel heavy). For quick shots between 3 and 10 feet I prefer the rifle used like far more than a pistol. Besides the extra umph of most rifle rounds over practically any pistol round, at least in my hands a carbine is much faster and more accurate in a one handed point and shoot situation like this where you are not looking down the barrel. In fact many times with the added extension of an 18″ rifle barrel plus action you more than half the distance between the muzzle and your target. The big caveat here, and the reason that I would agree with the point about using revolvers from horseback is that it is faster and more accurate for One Shot, chambering another round is not easily done one handed with rifle unless it is either a semi-automatic (which have other issues) or a fairly rare revolving rifle.

  5. Later the Tsar’s Cossacks carried Smith & Wesson .44 revolvers, which they reloaded with Prideaux speed loaders, and Winchester leverguns, which could be operated equally well when shooting right or left. That was an awesome amount of firepower when “state of the art” was a 5-shot bolt action rifle.

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