Tuesday, February 10, 2015

History Lesson - Firearms Of The Texas Frontier

In addition to the weather - 82 degrees yesterday, and not a cloud in the sky (I played golf in shorts and a short sleeved shirt) - here is yet another reason why I love living in Texas. We have cool history, and cool historical exhibits, such as this one.

Those of you with an interest in Old West and firearms history will recognize several familiar names in the following story. If you're like me, you'll learn something new about the relationship between historical firearm makers and today's companies.
An antique firearms exhibit at the Alamo makes for a gee-whiz encounter and a journey through changing technology of the Old West.

The exhibit, “Firearms of the Texas Frontier — Flintlock to Cartridge,” which runs through April 15, traces the evolution of rifles and handguns in the 40 years that followed Texas independence ... firearms were the most important commodity for Texans on the frontier.
Ector (cq) Aguilar, Alamo Living History Coordinator, fires a flintlock pistol in Alamo Plaza in October as part of the opening of the exhibit "Firearms of the Texas Frontier: Flintlock to Cartidge (1836-1876). (Robin Jerstad /For the Express-News)
About 50 guns from several collections are grouped by period, giving the visitor a feel for improvements borne by necessity before, during and after the Civil War. Displays also include gunpowder flasks, old photos and other related artifacts, as well as about 20 replicated versions of historic firearms that visitors, including children with parental consent, can hold and handle in an interactive area. (emphasis added)
Cue liberal exploding heads in 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...
Jerry Patterson (former Texas official in charge of the state-owned Alamo complex and author of the state’s concealed handgun license law) invited visitors when the exhibit opened in the fall to “see firsthand the weapons used to topple a tyrant and change the world.”

“Early Texans proved that a well-armed people are citizens, not subjects,” Patterson said in an October release.
Amen, brother!
The firearms exhibit starts with flintlock weapons similar to those used by Texians in the mid-1830s, often with more accuracy than the muskets of troops under Mexican Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna. The rifles and pistols operated with a piece of flint striking a steel plate, producing a spark to ignite gunpowder and fire the weapon.

But wind, rain and moisture could make them fail. After one discharge, the operator would measure and pour powder, then ram it and a lead ball down the barrel for another shot.

“If you were fighting the Comanches, they would have the advantage. In the time it took to load your rifle, they could get off 12 to 15 arrows from 50 yards away,” (Alamo historian Bruce) Winders said.
Alamo Historian and Curator Dr. Bruce Winders holds a Colt Walker pistol from the "Firearms of the Texas Frontier, Flintlocks to Cartidge (1836-1876)” exhibit, which will be on display in the Alamo Shrine through April 15. (Robin Jerstad /For the Express-News)
Revolvers came to Texas in the late 1830s, ushering in a new age of weaponry, as American inventor and industrialist Samuel Colt’s assembly-line production made them available.

One of the firearms now on display in the Alamo Shrine as part of the "Firearms of the Texas Frontier: Flintlock to Cartridge (1836-1876). (Robin Jerstad /For the Express-News)

Another historic firearm currently on display. (Robin Jerstad /For the Express-News)

“Colt needed customers, and Texas needed weapons. You’re seeing technology, but also marketing,” through newspaper reports, handbills and endorsements by prominent local figures, who often were given demonstration models by Colt’s company, Winders said.
I didn't know that. Wish they'd still do it today. I wouldn't mind having a demo model of Colt's latest and greatest.
U.S. Army Capt. Samuel Walker, now buried at Odd Fellows Cemetery on the East Side, helped design the Colt Walker Revolver, introduced in 1847. It fired .44-caliber lead balls from a six-chamber cylinder, and was designed for soldiers on horseback.

“This was the 'Dirty Harry’ handgun of the period. It remained the most powerful handgun up until the 1930s,” Winders said.

The metal on the 4.5-pound Walker was not strong enough, and the gun at times exploded, prompting Colt to come back in 1848 with the Dragoon Revolver with a shorter cylinder and smaller powder charge.

The exhibit also captures the evolution of cartridge weapons, including the 1855 Volcanic Repeating Pistol by Oliver Winchester, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson, whose Volcanic Repeating Arms Co. went out of business. Winchester received most of the company assets, and brought in gun designer Benjamin Tyler Henry.
More "I didn't know that" info, first about the exploding Walker revolvers, and then about the Volcanic Repeating Arms Co. trio of Winchester, Smith, and Wesson. I was, however, vaguely familiar with the role of Benjamin Henry. But I didn't realize the flaws of his Henry Repeating Rifle (below). I thought the evolution to the Model 1873 was just a natural result of technological advances, not a response to a problematic design.
The 1860 Henry Repeating Rifle had a more powerful cartridge, fired up to 17 shots and was used by Union soldiers in the Civil War. But it sometimes malfunctioned, with a magazine that tended to catch when firing. Its metal barrel sometimes got too hot to hold, and had a channel that collected dirt. So Winchester came up with his Model 1866, nicknamed the “Yellow Boy,” with a brass frame and wooden stock, followed by a Model 1873 with more powerful cartridges and a cover to keep dirt from entering.

The 1873 Colt SAA (Single Action Army) revolver was “the game-changer,” Winders said.

“This was the iconic gun that was seen as the one that won the West — whether it did or not,” he added.

For those who don’t easily connect guns to history, Winders references movie westerns. “Unforgiven” (1992) features a character, the “Schofield Kid,” who carries a Smith & Wesson Schofield Revolver, similar to one in the exhibit. A Sharps Sporting Rifle like the one in “Quigley Down Under” (1990) is displayed. The Mattie Ross character in “True Grit” carries a Walker in the 1969 version, and a Dragoon in the 2010 remake. “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976) carried two Walkers.
Another example of Art imitating Life.

Gordon Rasmussen, left, and Allen Haversang, both of New Jersey, look at weapons in the "Firearms of the Texas Frontier" exhibit at the Alamo. (Carolyn Van Houten /For the Express-News)
Ain't Texas history wonderful?


Bag Blog said...

This is an exhibit that even a girl would want to see.

CenTexTim said...

Something for everyone...

Old NFO said...

I need to get down there and see that... sigh

CenTexTim said...

Better hurry. The exhibit closes on Tax Day - April 15.

Bear said...

Currently trying to talk the lady into a return trip just to see this, and currently failing...