Monday, August 26, 2013


The concept of a "gunslinger" is almost entirely a Hollywood creation.  In fact, the word "gunslinger" was coined in films.  During the 19th century these types of men were usually referred to as gunmen.

While the infamous face off scenario did happen they were extremely rare.  There was nothing romantic about a gun fight.  Movies use them to depict the classic good vs. evil climatic battle but reality is a little less feel-good.  Consider: most frontier men carried weapons for protection and there wasn't much of a law presence in many small towns.  So it was easy for petty rivalries to escalate and get out of hand after a few drinks or a bad game of poker.

A gun fight usually consisted of one man drawing first and the other returning fire.  Usually both of them would dive for cover in the process and it was not at all uncommon for bystanders to get killed since multiple rounds were being fired.

Some men did acquire reputations as gunmen.  What this really meant was they had been in several gunfights and lived to tell the tale.  If they were the ones to start a fight it also probably meant they were a little off their nut.  Not many sane individuals would choose to start a gun fight for fun.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Getting Paid

Imagine, if you can, a time before cellphones.  Remember the days when you went to the grocery store no one could get a hold of you?  So if something happened, you might not hear about it for several hours.  Now, times that by, say, 100 and you have the postal service during the American Civil War.

What we need to really understand here is that during Civil War, the United States was not one country but two.    There were two armies, two ways of life, two forms of currency, two different everythings.  So post Civil War, everything on the losing side was thrown into chaos.

To top it all off, the mailing system was dicey at best.  Sending mail from battleground to battleground or even from the city to a battleground was not a reliable business.  Buildings being set on fire and, with them, the paper records they contained made accounting and records incomplete.

In a nutshell: the soldiers didn't always get paid.  And the confederate soldiers that did get paid may not have received money that was worth anything by the end of the war.  They fought and risked their lives yet many of them had nothing to show for it.  No money and possibly nowhere to live if their hometown got ransacked.

The Civil War basically created this population of desperate men and women.  With nothing left for them at home, it's no wonder they were willing to brave the dangers of settling uncharted lands.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Infamous Six-Shooter

Any kind of research into the Old West will inevitably lead you to the "six-shooter" (more properly termed revolver).  It's pretty tough to avoid, in fact.  It's a staple of this era.

But why?

The huge technological advancement that made the revolver popular was its ability to fire multiple rounds without reloading.  Just prior to the revolver (this means for the entire American Civil War) guns, including handhelds, could only fire a single round.  This means that the wielder had to fire, go through a lengthy reload process, and then fire again.

You can imagine how effective this was in battle (read: not very).  It's also why guns were frequently paired with some type of sword or bayonet.  If the person fighting couldn't reload fast enough they were going to have to have another weapon option available, fast.

While the revolver as a technology existed before the Civil War, it wasn't until Samuel Colt's percussion cap revolver and, later, Smith & Wesson's cartridge revolver that this style of gun started to have mass-market appeal.  The cartridge contains both the bullet and the gunpowder which saves the user a considerable amount of reload time.

In a nutshell: revolvers made the handheld gun an efficient weapon.  A person with a revolver no longer needed a gun plus weapons x,y and z to compensate.  He just needed a gun.  To top it off, a gun was capable of killing just about anything it was pointed out, a useful feature for those that were trying to settle the great unknown with untold number of dangers.

Being small, lightweight, easy to use and deadly, it's no wonder the six-shooter became a trademark of this era.

Friday, April 5, 2013

East vs. West Coast Mentality

One really interesting thing going on during the "Old West" is this very distinct division of east coast vs. west coast mentality.  Keep in mind that original thirteen colonies were British.  So even though the colonies won their independence from the British in 1776, many of the inhabitants were still heavily drawing cues from their former rulers a mere 70ish years later.  The United States of America was the new kid on the block with no distinct cultural identity.

So on the one hand we have the east coast which, by that point, had quite a few major cities.  It was "civilized" and there was a strong sense of class/society levels despite the lack of nobility.  Manufacturing was taking place which make quite a few individuals wealthy.  In order to gain status, the "new money" would travel to Europe and try to marry titled spouses.  The fact that marrying the daughter or son of an earl counted for something in the eyes of American society is significant.

On the other hand, you have the people heading west to make a fresh start, either from desperation or a craving for adventure.  Cities were crowded and smelly.  Plus it was no easy task climbing your way out of the lower classes.  So the prospect of becoming a landowner was appealing.

Both the east coast and the west coast produced a breed of self-made men.  One came from dealings with the old world and the other came from starting completely from scratch.  At the time the points of view seemed almost incompatible but really what was happening was the beginning of what would be the American identity.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Texas Ranger Division

I love the Texas Rangers. They're just so hardcore! From a storytelling perspective, exaggeration seems unnecessary because these guys did it all. The Texas Ranger Division is a law enforcement agency based out of Austin created (unofficially) in 1823. It took another ten years for them to be officially recognized.

You have to think that in the mid 19th century communication between cities was not going to be fast, especially for an area of land as large as Texas (over 200,000 square miles).  The area was developed by a hodgepodge of cultures (Spanish, Mexican, American settlers and Native Americans) and in dispute for quite some time.  For over 200 years it was controlled by Spain.  Then in a very short span of time it changed hands to the Mexican government, became its own Republic and then eventually joined the United States in 1845.

The culture in Texas was not exactly what one would call civilized.  There's a lot of conflict arising for the various cultures and most cities were self-governed out of necessity rather than choice.  A judge would have to be sent for in order to conduct a fair trail which meant there could be a delay of several days to several weeks.  Frequently the occupants of a town took justice into their own hands.

The Texas Rangers were established to act like the FBI.  They had jurisdiction over all of Texas rather than be limited by a city's limits.  They were called in to solve crimes or apprehend criminals that were beyond what the typical town sheriff was capable of dealing with.  This meant that they had to handle anything from murder investigation to riots to political espionage.

So you can image what type of a man it would take to work for the Rangers in the 19th century.  He would be constantly travelling and would probably have worn an article of clothing until it disintegrated.  Survival meant that he would have had to have been street smart and intelligent.  He would have also had to be above average in weapon/gun skills.  In my mind, these types of skills would have most likely been acquired from a hard upbringing.

Not a set of men you want to mess around with, basically.  The Texas Ranger Division still exists to this day in a similar law enforcement capacity.  Though I imagine today's modern day job has much better perks.  

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Civil War Paving the Way

There are three time periods in American history that became so well-known and influential that I think a lot of people separate them in their minds .  There's the American Civil War which happened in the mid-1800s and spawned all sorts of Civil War buffs.  Then from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s we have what has been fondly termed "the Old West" (like that's when all the cowboy movies take place). And then the early 1900s marks the beginning of the American Industrial Era (also very important).

The Old West has since been romanticized by books and movies as this magical time where men where men and the town sheriff was a man of integrity.  The "cowboy" became the American version of Arthor and his knights.

A facet that I find really interesting about the second half of the 19th century is that the Civil War basically produced the type of men that ended up settling the rest of the country.  Many settlers and cowboys were ex-soldiers hardened by war.  Broken families, desserters, soliders, formerly rich Southerners whose plantations were burned... all people desperate enough to risk the unknown.

Of course, not all were like this.  But many were.  And I think this is something to keep in mind when considering how American attitudes were formed.  It was unique at the time to have another chance to rebuild one's life.  With Europe mapped out and portioned, it would be nearly impossible for a farmer to just pick up everything and find new land to work.

But Americans did have that option.  It's really no wonder that the idea of freedom was so idealized and this population of people was so fiercely protective of their claims.