Sunday, February 21, 2021

Mouseguns, Then and Now

A frequently-encountered fixture at the gun store is the crusty old dude leaning on the doesn't matter if he's leaning on the employee side or the customer side, he's there somewhere...and intoning that all these new-fangled nine millimeter pistols are silly and calibers don't count for self defense unless they start with "four".

Given the persistence of this hoary myth, where did all those .38, .32, and even .25 handguns come from back in the good ol' days?

For starters, dispel the myth of the Old West being someplace where people walked around all the time with spurs a-jingle-jangle-jinglin' and the big iron on their hip. While it wasn't the network of strict gun control laws that revisionists try to paint it, nor either was it the open-carry paradise of Hollywood myth.

In mid-late 19th Century America, walking around a town or city setting with a full-size horse pistol stuffed in your belt would be seen as eccentric as it would in similar surroundings today. Perhaps more so, since 19th Century Americans didn't grow up watching old John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies on cable. On the other hand, guns were everywhere.

"But wait, Tam!" you say, "I thought you just said people mostly didn't walk around with the big iron on their hip!"

Well, generally they didn't. First, a Colt's M1873, the Peacemaker of Hollywood lore, went for around twenty bucks over most of the time period of the Old West. They made about 175,000 of them, including military contract guns, over that period. (Smith & Wesson, by comparison, made almost twice that many of the big No.3 top-breaks, for what it's worth.)

Twenty bucks was a lot of dough, relatively speaking. About a tenth the cost of a good saddle horse and the equivalent of a pretty nice AR-15 these days. Since cowboys and miners around the various cowtowns and mining boomtowns were overwhelmingly young, single men with fairly low-overhead lifestyles, it wouldn't be amiss to think of the Colt Peacemaker and well-saddled Quarter Horse in 1870s Dodge City as the equivalent of a Daniel Defense carbine and Ford Raptor in 2010s Midland-Odessa. I have no idea what the 19th Century equivalent of truck nuts was, and considering that male working horses are almost uniformly geldings, I'm not sure I want to.

Meanwhile, there were literal millions of .22, .32, .38, and .41 pocket guns, rimfires and centerfires, sold over the same period. Human nature hasn't changed much over the years, and I didn't see no metal detectors at that saloon in Tombstone. Most every person had a gun for pocket, purse, or nightstand and, probably like most gun owners today, carried it if they felt like they were "going someplace they might need it."

In its original black powder format in tip-up Smiths, the .32 Rimfire Short essentially duplicated the ballistics of .31 caliber cap & ball pocket revolvers.

Thing is, most of the little black powder guns really were anemic. An old Colt 1849 Pocket Model, a .31 caliber cap'n'ball number, struggled to hit 600fps with a 50gr round ball and normal loads. The .38 S&W black powder cartridges used in top-break Smiths fired a much heavier bullet, albeit at about the same velocity. The .41 Rimfire Short, used in Remington Derringers and some pocket revolvers, barely got its 130gr conical bullet up over 400 feet per second; I've seen one go through a cardboard target, only to fail to penetrate a hardwood stump a dozen or so yards downrange deeply enough to lodge itself firmly in the wood.

Reel West vs. Real West: Guns like this S&W .32 Single Action and Colt New Line .38 rimfire are a lot more typical of the period than the Peacemaker.

When the French introduced smokeless powder, everybody went a little gaga over the higher velocities offered by the new, small, metal-jacketed bullets. Velocities for pocket pistols were topping 800 or 900 feet per second with the new .32 cartridge from John Browning. Equipped with FMJ bullets, cartridges like the .32ACP and .380 had no problems with penetration, at least compared to the pocket pistol rounds of the black powder era. Newer revolver cartridges, like .32 Smith & Wesson Long and .38 Special, were reaching these dizzying velocities with lead bullets.

I'm sure in the early 1900s you could find someone leaning on the gun counter at the local hardware store speaking in Authentic Frontier Gibberish about how "they didn't make a .46!", no doubt. But that didn't stop the Russians and Japanese shooting each other in job lots in the trenches of Port Arthur and Mukden with service revolvers chambered in cartridges whose bullet diameters would have caused Gun Counter Guy to curl his lip in involuntary disdain, but which were viewed as modern because of their higher velocities relative to the black powder rounds they supplanted. (9mm Type 26's for the Japanese versus 7.62x38 M1895 Nagants for the Russkies.) Heck, gun store guys like Teddy Roosevelt, right? Well, when he had revolvers issued to the NYPD, they were .32 Long Colts.

But, hey, if there's one thing we've learned about the Old West, it's that when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.