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The Evolving Weapons of Legendary Lawmen

Following the Civil War there were a great number of armed men roaming the country. This presented an opportunity for Law Enforcement positions as well as Criminal opportunities, depending on the disposition of the men. Several mail stagecoach/carrier/courier companies were created to move valuables and payrolls from town to town and the need for armed (honest?) men flourished. This helped two firearm manufacturers in general: Colt and Winchester. The Wells Fargo stagecoach guards were armed with both Winchester rifles and shotguns but it was the Colt .45 Peacemaker that became their preferred sidearm.  Colt also supplied arms to the Adams Express Company (and countless smaller companies). Adams ordered the .45 Single Action Army in large numbers.

It must be noted that the end of the Civil War was not the end of armed military conflict in the United States. Starting in 1861 eastern American Indian tribes began being displaced by settlers and were pushed west. Reservations were formed and the government tried to move the tribes into Oklahoma and the Dakotas.  Since the Indians didn’t necessarily want to go (in most cases) this resulted in continuous armed conflict (and the need for more firearms production) until the Army’s massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890.

The first civilian force to issue a firearm was probably the Texas Rangers. They initially favored the “Texas Patterson” revolver but would later carry the Colt Single Action Army (and Winchester lever action rifles).  It’s interesting to see that, even over 100 years ago, the handgun was viewed as a secondary weapon; the one that was conveniently always with you.  The long gun – a rifle or shotgun – was the primary and preferred weapon if any kind of conflict was expected.  Single action revolvers, lever action rifles, and shotguns have been around a long time.

Lest you think that there were no true innovations following the war, I present to you the Colt 1877 Lightning. The Lightning was Colt’s double action revolver manufactured from January 1877 until 1909. Offered in three calibers, resulting in three unofficial names: the Lightning, Thunderer and Rainmaker (don’t laugh… they were unofficial) in .38 Colt, .41 Colt and .32 Colt, respectively. Because the internal workings were complicated and delicate these pistols were often relegated to single action only. In fact, in the 2001 issue of Gun Digest this revolver design was referred to as having “the worst double-action trigger mechanism ever made.” That didn’t stop many a man from carrying them however. Outlaws Billy the Kid (.41 Thunderer) and John Wesley Hardin (both .38 and .41 models) were known to favor these pistols.

Colt’s Model 1889 Navy was truly notable in that it was the first manufactured revolver to incorporate a swing-out cylinder. Smith & Wesson had previously designed a simultaneous ejection system for cartridge removal but it featured a top break frame. The swing-out cylinder is basically the same system we see in revolvers today. Winchester Arms had done some experimenting with the system but it was Colt’s William Mason who filed the first patents in 1881. Mason would eventually move to Winchester and Carl J. Ehbets and Horace Lord would continue designing and refining the swing-out system. This refinement brought us the Official Police, an improved version of the Army Navy pistols. It was in production until 1949 and produced some 425,000 units.

The Official Police model produced variations to include the Officer’s Model (including a target model), the Pocket Positive and the Police Positive (both in .32 caliber) and snubnose versions (Detective Special and Bankers Special). A special series was also produced in .22 caliber (for training perhaps).  We are finally starting to see pistols that not only resemble those of today but with mechanical internal devices that have been in continuous production. As police forces began to increase in size there was a need to standardize training and issue weapons. That resulted in large contracts and large sums of money at stake. Colt and Smith & Wesson (being able to withstand the Great Depression) were in excellent shape to take advantage of this need. Colt would also refine their designs and with the beginning of World War I would begin to produce the single-action semi-automatic handgun also.

So we see that the single action revolver dominance of the late 1800s gradually changed over to semi-automatic pistols and double action revolvers through the beginning of the 1900s.  In my next column we’ll continue to review the evolution of law enforcement sidearms and the impact had on that evolution by the wars of the 20th century.


About The Author:

Charles Bennett was born in our Nation's Capital and grew up in the Maryland suburbs. Mr. Bennett has been working in all aspects of the publishing industry since the late 1980s primarily in the fields of commercial photography and magazine production. Moving to California in 1992 to attend college resulted in B.F.A and Masters degrees. California also supplied Mr. Bennett with his wife. The two of them are avid sports persons and participate in shooting, scuba diving, surfing, running and bicycling. As a long time hobby Mr. Bennett has studied the legends of American law enforcement which led to his writing these columns.