Guns on the American Great Plains Frontier - circa. 1850-1870

Last updated: 10 October 2017

Introduction

I have always been inspired by the toughness, will power and ability to survive by the Pioneers who went West in America during this time period. The long arms and pistols they selected and carried were essential for protection and survival in the vast spaces into which they ventured forth. The emphasis here is on the period following the War with Mexico (1846-1848) -- the expansion of "Manifest Destiny"; the Wagon Train migrations to Oregon and California; the Gold Rush of 1849; the conflicts with the great plains native American tribes and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. The firearms used during this time were muzzle loaders, initially flintlock ignition, then percussion cap ignition with many flintlock ignition firearms being converted to percussion. Cartridge firearms were not used on the American western frontier until around 1870 and then not very often due to the general unavailability of ammunition in remote locations. The firearms featured here are those typically used on the great plains by hunters, trappers, prospectors and wagon train migrants.

Fowlers/Shotguns


Flintlock fowler converted to Percussion

Flintlock fowlers were the first firearms made in America and their use, especially by Homesteaders and Farmers, goes back to before the Revolution -- in fact, many were used in the early days of that conflict by volunteer militiamen. This was a much liked and used shoulder arm because of its light weight and versatility -- it could be used as a shotgun for shooting fowl and small game, or with a solid ball as a rifle, the usual large caliber (over .50") making it suitable for hunting all but the largest animals such as elk, buffalo and grizzly bear. They often found a place in the covered wagons of western bound Migrants, along with regular shotguns, and were used almost daily to kill fowl and small game to feed their families along the trail.

A great many Flintlock Fowlers were manufactured, and eventually converted to percussion ignition, in the New England area and New York State.

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Rifles


Lancaster Pattern Plains Rifle

As the name implies this style of rifle was made specifically for use on the Great Plains where the shooting distances were great and the game was frequently large and hard kill. Calibers were almost always over .45" with heavy octagonal barrels designed to withstand the substantial powder charges used in them.

Most of these rifles were manufactured by prominent St. Louis Gunmakers such as Samuel Hawken and Horace Dimick, or Lancaster, Pennsylvania, gun makers such as J. J. Henry, James Henry and Son, Tryon & Co. and Henry E. Leman. The latter two makers also manufactured locks, barrels and fittings for sale to lesser known western Plains Rifle Gunmakers particularly those located in St. Louis.

Like Flintlock fowlers, these guns often found a place in the covered wagons of western bound Migrants being used for protection and shooting larger game such as Deer and Antelope.

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Trade rifle, .50" caliber with 28" barrel

During this time period the US Govt supplied the Great Plains Indian tribes with Lancaster pattern percussion trade rifles that were mostly made by Phiadelphia gun makers such as Edward Tryon, J.J. Henry, James Henry and Son and Henry E. Leman. Calibers were mostly .50" to .58". These were plain and sturdy "no frills" guns that featured straight grain maple or walnut stocks with thick wrists, substantial barrel securing keys and heavy octagonal barrels that were often field shortened to 28" or so in length for use on horseback. These rifles were usually stocked and sold, or traded, to both Indians and Anglo Pioneers at Trading Posts throughout the western Frontier.

Pistols

[photo of British Light Dragoon pistol]
British Light Dragoon Pattern Flintlock Pistol c. 1813

Large caliber pistols were frequently carried and used by Frontiersmen as weapons of last resort. Because they were not used as frequently as shoulder arms, especially in hunting, pistols of older design and function often saw extended use over long periods of time. As with shoulder arms, many flintlock ignition system pistols were eventually converted to percussion in the 1840s in order to use the widely available and popular percussion caps.

Military style pistols, particularly those of British manufacture, were often purchased by Frontiersmen from purveyors of surplus military equipment especially following the War of 1812 and the War with Mexico.

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Accoutrements


Selection of Accoutrements c. 1850 ~ 1865

On the left: Bowie knife with belt sheath made by Wade & Butcher, Sheffield, England.

To the right, top to bottom:
Hand made and scrimshawed Buffalo Powder horn dated 1857
Iron bullet mold
Soft tanned deerskin flintlock priming powder/percussion cap pouch
Hand shaped skinning knife made by I. Wilson, Sheffield, England.
Sioux Indian trade bead bracelet

These typical accoutrements were the ones commonly used by Frontiersmen. A Bowie knife carried in a sheath on a belt was a popular item for general use. Hunters especially, carried a skinning knife the blade of which they shaped to their personal taste. Numerous knives of Sheffield, England, manufacture were used due to their reputation of having blades of superior steel that would hold a sharp edge for a long time. Powder horns were often hand made by Frontiersmen and were sometimes scrimshawed or otherwise decorated by them. Bullet molds were usually purchased matched with the firearm or carefully made to match the rifle bore by frontier blacksmiths. A pouch made of soft tanned leather was used to hold powder with which to charge the pans of flintlock firearms and/or to hold percussion caps.

A Native American made bracelet is included because Fur Traders, Trappers and Hunters often wore such adornments having acquired them from Indians through trade or barter.


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