This article covers the sort of weapons you’re likely to see in an Old West story (also known as the Western or Wild West genre). These tales are usually set in the US during the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s – the 20-30 years that follow the Civil War.
As always in Weapons Locker articles, we’re focusing on *fiction* and the way firearms work in these stories. A lot of the technical aspects of using XIXth century firearms are elided in Old West stories, which do not generally have the focus on gear found in techno-thrillers.
This article is dual-statted for both DC Heroes 3rd Edition and Mutants & Masterminds 3rd edition. Neither of these systems is oriented toward fine-grained distinctions, and a set of stats can easily cover an entire category of weapons.
This also means that this article isn’t about long lists of guns – they’d all have the same stats !
The illustrations in this article mostly come from two sources — the Internet Movies Firearms Database and the Italian replica gunsmiths at Uberti . We own the copyrights to absolutely none of it, and encourage interested parties to visit these sites.
Return of the caveat
As noted above, and as heavily emphasised through the article, this text is about firearms as depicted in comics books, action movies and video games plus some related genres like pulp novels. This is all about fictional things.
It is not meant to cover anything like real world weapons, which behave differently, and makes no claim whatsoever about realism.
The article does provide some useful facts and figure about how these things work, but this is all intended for verisimilitude, not realism. When the common depiction fiction is very different from the real world we’l mention it, but the goal is not explain how it works in real life.
The tone and content of the article are probably clear enough that this disclaimer isn’t necessary, but many people have a rigid stance on the subject. Better safe than sorry, heh ?
What you need to know, padnuh
The XIXth century sees numerous changes in firearms technology. It starts with the black powder muskets of the Napoleonic wars and ends with semi-automatic clip-fed 10-shot handguns.
We’re certainly not going to detail every bit, but here is what you need to understand so the article can move at a brisk pace.
Smoothbore vs. rifled
The barrel of early firearms is basically a smooth tube. It is later discovered that having grooves inside the barrel, which makes the bullet spin around its axis, means bullets that fly truer.
This remains somewhat impractical until the mid-XIXth century, where a new bullet design results in guns called “rifled muskets” that are the most common kind during the Civil War. Weapons without grooves inside the barrel – “rifling” – become known as “smoothbores”.
In practice, by the time of the Old West, “smoothbore” means either shotguns, or obsolete muskets. Everything else has a rifled barrel.
Muzzleloader vs. breechloader
Originally, the only opening of a barrel is the muzzle. To reload such a weapon, you need to insert the powder and the bullet into the muzzle and ram everything all the way to the back of the barrel, using a rod-like tool (“ramrod”).
Once it’s there you can put the rifle back to your shoulder, aim and fire. Most soldiers during the Civil War still used muzzleloader rifles.
With breechloaders, it is possible to open the back of the barrel to directly put the powder and the bullet there, then close the barrel and fire. This is faster and more convenient.
Flintlock vs. percussion cap
Flintlock is the technology popularly associated with Age of Sail and Napoleonic black powder weapons. A piece of flint mounted on a mechanical hammer strikes a piece of steel, the resulting spark hits a small charge of fine gunpowder that catches fire, and the fire ignites the main powder charge.
It’s not exactly fast, things can easily go wrong (the expression “flash in the pan” is the description of a common problem) and humidity is your enemy.
During the 1820s this gets replaced by a “percussion cap” – a tiny marble filled with an explosive called mercury fulminate. A mechanical hammer crushes the marble, the marble explodes, the explosion sets off the powder.
This is faster, more reliable and far less sensitive to humidity. Practically all guns during the Old West era use percussion caps.
Single-shot vs. repeater
Early firearms only hold one bullet and one dose of powder, and you need to go through a lengthy reloading procedure to fire another shot. By contrast, a “repeater” is a gun that can fire several times before you need to prepare everything for firing again.
“Repeater” is not a specific technology – a revolver (usually holding six shots) is a repeater, but so is a pump-action weapon, a lever-action weapon, a bolt-action weapon, etc. since they all can quickly fire a series of shots stored within the weapon.
Loose powder vs. cartridge
In early single-shot firearms, one puts the powder into the gun manually, relying on training and experience to pour a suitable dose. The powder is held in a sort of flask (a “powder horn”) and you pour from that into the barrel, then pack the powder so it explodes properly, and add the bullet.
Enterprising souls soon decided it would be faster to prepare the doses of powder ahead of time, with the bullet attached for expediency. This is what a “cartridge” is.
Loose powder from powder horns continues to be used during the Old West era, for instance by hunters and marksmen who want to adjust the power of a given shot and are not pressed for time – but combat arms use cartridges since forever.
Paper cartridge vs. metallic cartridge
Early on, most cartridges store the powder and bullet in a lil’ two-part container made of greased paper. You tear open the part holding the powder (usually with your teeth), pour it in, pack it in, tear the part with the bullet, put it in — all that’s missing now is the detonation mechanism, such as a percussion cap.
Soldiers prepare their own cartridges in the field, and usually cast their own lead bullets.
By contrast, metallic cartridges are industrially produced. A brass cylinder holds, from head to toes, the bullet, a measured and packed dose of powder, and the percussion cap. In 1990s parlance, this is plug-and-play, and metallic cartridges are even less sensitive to the environment and humidity than paper cartridges.
Metallic cartridges are an important evolution of the mid-XIXth century, with old guns being converted to accept these shiny new rounds.
Single action vs. double action
This is a technological difference among revolvers. With a single action revolver, pressing the trigger releases the hammer and shoots, but you have to manually cock back the hammer to take the next shot.
With a double action revolver, the hammer is automatically cocked back and you can just pull the trigger again to fire. Since revolvers are a signature Old West weapon, this will be covered in more practical details below.
Black powder vs. smokeless powder
Chemistry and industry keep refining the quality of powder, but during the Old West era guns still use black powder. It is significantly less powerful, gram-for-gram, than modern gunpowder, and it gives off a white, acrid smoke when used.
The smoke is unlikely to play a role when it comes to a few gunslingers, but in mass battles (or a lengthy indoors gunfight) breathing, and especially seeing what’s going on, becomes problematic.
During the late 1880s powder formulations that do not produce smoke and are generally of better quality and power reach the US, but at this point the conventional Old West era is practically over.
Old West handguns generally do not have credible safeties. You usually carry a single-action revolver with the hammer down on a empty chamber – which means it has but five shots but won’t go off accidentally.
Double-action can’t even do that, but are less likely to fire accidentally due to the stiffer trigger pull.
Generally, good handgun safeties are a XXth century thing, with the 1907 Colt Police Positive (whose name comes from how the safety works) being one landmark.
These are the main points about how modern small arms emerged. The XXth century will have further evolutions such as burst fire and machineguns, but the big changes took place during the 1800s.
Though Old West era firearms are much better than most of their predecessors (particularly for the sort of small-scale fights that occur in most movies, comics and RPGs) they are none too powerful, fast, reliable or accurate. It was entirely possible for even an experienced gunman to empty a revolver at combat ranges without hitting anything he aimed at.
However, as with all Weapons Locker articles we go for the fictional version – so the game stats will depict weapons that can be fired quickly and accurately by movie-style gunmen, and bullets that will immediately take out unimportant characters.
Likewise, black powder weapons with period powder need a lot of maintenance to get powder residue out of the rifling, especially rifled muskets. If these residues accumulate accuracy and range will soon drop, and there might even be risks of explosion.
In fiction, however, maintenance considerations are usually abstracted out – so don’t bother.
In Old West stories, firearms are often identified in a very vague way – at best it’s “a Colt” or “a Winchester”, and everybody knows that it refers to the most iconic model from these companies (the Single Action Army revolver and the 1873 rifles and carbines, respectively).
The weapons described in this article will follow this convention whenever possible, so your characters can simply have “a Smith & Wesson” or crew “a Gatling” without bothering with the exact specs and models. It’s a Wild West story, not a techno-thriller.
As with our Weapons Locker – Modern Firearms articles, we’ll start with the core weapon types in these stories, then walk through more niche weapons.
A large, powerful handgun – the exemplar in this category weighs a bit more than 1kg (2.3 lbs.) and is a bit longer than 30cm (12”), whereas a common handgun in modern movies (a Beretta 92) is about 2.1 pounds and 8.5” long.
Slang terms include “big iron”, “sixgun”, “six-shooter”, etc.
“A Colt” usually refers to the iconic Colt Single Action Army of 1873 – the quintessential Old West weapon, often called the Peacemaker. It is entirely OK if 70% or more of the characters in a story have a Peacemaker – this happens all the time in movies and comic books. And if the story happens before 1873, this is no big deal, as anachronistically sporting this weapon is also very common.
This weapon uses metallic cartridges. The typical calibre in stories in .45 Colt, though in real life the Peacemaker was produced in a mess of calibres.
It is a single action design. Thus, pressing the trigger makes the cylinder rotate to the next chamber then releases the hammer, which strikes the percussion cap for that chamber. Before shooting anew, it is necessary to manually force back the hammer to its cocked position.
The two common approaches to do that are to use your thumb to press on the hammer and lower it back, or to “fan” it – keep your free hand held flat over the back of your revolver, and slap the hammer back between shots. This is a distinctive gesture – here is a photo of Chris Adams (Yul Brynner) fanning a Colt SAA in The Magnificent Seven.
Here’s a 24 seconds clearly showing a single-action revolver being fanned :
And here is a brief video clearly showing the action of a modern Brazilian replica, how the .45 Colt ammunition looks, and using the thumb to cock back the hammer between shots.
In movies and comics, the drawbacks of single-action weaponry tend to be ignored, and in expert hands the Colt will perform very much like a semi-automatic handgun.
The GM might require an Automatic Action (DC Heroes) or a Move Action (DC Adventures) to be spent to recock the hammer, but this is more of a campaign rule than a drawback of the weapon since it will affect practically all guns. This makes Old West gunfighters less mobile than modern gunfighters who keep shooting in slow-motion mid-leap with both guns as doves fly away in the background.
Likewise, the physical stress of repeatedly firing these weapons is usually ignored — whereas in the real world badly hurting your thumb or hand (or ruining your aim by slapping the hammer too hard out of stress) was not uncommon. The Colt Peacemaker was often called the “thumb-buster”.
Professional fighters will often carry two guns, because reloading these revolvers can take a while – we’ll discuss this in more details just below.
The second gun might be carried “cross-draw”. For a right-handed shooter, this means the gun of the left side of the belt will have its handle pointing forward, so it can be rapidly grabbed and used by the right hand. This is also called a cavalry draw, since this is what works best when sitting on a horse.
DCH Colt Single-Action Revolver [BODY 03, Rec. STR 03, Projectile weapon: 04, Ammo: 06, R#04, Drawback: Very Long Reload, Note: may require an Automatic Action to work the action unless this is waived by the GM for this campaign]
M&M Colt Single-Action Revolver [Ranged Ballistic Damage 3, Quirk (very long reload), Note: may require a Move Action to work the action unless this is waived by the GM for this campaign]
There were numerous models (and unofficial names for these), but here are two common barrel lengths. The Single Action Army Artillery has a 5½” barrel, and this specific model has wooden grips.
Versions with a 4½” barrel are often called a Colt Single Action Army Quickdraw – with the shorter barrel it clears leather faster.
Smith & Wesson Revolver
Smith & Wesson dominated the early era (1855+) as they introduced to the US revolvers firing metallic cartridges, whereas previous weapons used paper cartridges. Their handguns thus were quite common during the Civil War.
A generic Old West S&W revolver is less powerful than a Colt – their Model 1 fired .22 rimfire and the Model 2 fired .32 rimfire, which are weak rounds by modern standards.
Even though the Model 3 (often known as the Schofield) fired .44 rounds, it was still seen as less powerful than Colt handguns, which crammed a lot of powder in their cartridges (so much than an early model, the Colt Walker, had a propensity toward exploding).
On the other hand, the iconic S&W will be more reliable (as people associate it with more modern cartridges with a reasonable powder load), and benefits from the Smith & Wesson ejector system. The latter is an important asset once six shots have been fired.
The normal procedure for reloading an Old West revolver is to open the cylinder, punch out the empties one by one using the cylinder rod, load each chamber individually with fresh cartridges (presumably taken one by one from ammunition loops on your belt), then snap the cylinder back in position and ready the hammer.
With combat stress, this can easily take twenty seconds and there’s a chance of fumbling.
By contrast, the generic S&W has a gadget that ejects all empties (that is, the brass casings that used to contain powder and a bullet) at once. The game stats below exaggerate this asset, making the S&W reload dramatically faster than the Colt.
DCH S&W Revolver [BODY 03, Projectile weapon: 03, Ammo: 06, R#03, Drawback: Long Reload, Note: may require an Automatic Action to work the action unless this is waived by the GM for this campaign]
M&M S&W Revolver [Ranged Ballistic Damage 3, Note: may require a Move Action to work the action unless this is waived by the GM for this campaign]
Here is a Smith & Wesson Model 2 – which is indeed the second model the company produced, though their smaller Model 1 went through several revisions. This gun will chiefly appear in stories set during the 1860s.
The other iconic model is the S&W Model 3, particularly in its Schofield Army-revised version. It never quite had the success of the Colt Single Action Army, but Wyatt Earp and Jesse James both famously used one. If an Old West character has “a Smith & Wesson”, it is presumably a Schofield.
This one-minute video shows how a Schofield is reloaded. The presence of the ejector can’t be missed, really.
The silhouette of the Remington New Model Army (1858, revised to fire a metallic cartridge in 1875) is almost as famous as that of the Peacemaker. When it appears in movies, it is usually treated as a Colt, being another large .44 sixgun.
A notable characteristic of the New Model is that its cylinder could be quickly removed and replaced by a new one – presumably pre-loaded. The shape under the barrel is actually a lever, and pulling it back is the main action to take when switching cylinders.
While this is usually overlooked at least one major movie (Pale Rider) features the lone hero using a number of pre-loaded spare cylinders during the climactic gunfight.
Reloading this way is far less convenient than using a modern revolver speedloader – the engineering is much less precise, and there’s the matter of carrying spare cylinders loaded with period percussion caps. While the mercury fulminate in these caps is less temperamental than nitro (or even early dynamite), it is not C4, and accidental discharge can easily occur if a spare cylinder is banged against something.
Still, a fictional character using this feature of his Remington New Model will presumably have the training, practice and narrative immunity to negate these problems. In the game stats below, the reload time has been compressed in a cinematic manner.
DCH Remington Revolver [BODY 03, Rec. STR 03, Projectile weapon: 04, Ammo: 06, R#04, Drawback: Long Reload, Note: may require an Automatic Action to work the action unless this is waived by the GM for this campaign]
M&M Remington Revolver [Ranged Ballistic Damage 3, Feature (switchable cylinder), Note: may require a Move Action to work the action unless this is waived by the GM for this campaign]
Here is a New Model Army :
This one-minute video shows and explain how to change the cylinder on a 1858 Remington. Hey, it might be handy in case of a time travel accident.
This is either a full-sized revolver used by mook and rable, or a small revolver carried by a capable pistolero as a backup weapon. Likely calibres include .32, .31 or even .22 rounds.
As usual, we suggest assigning lower stats to weapons used by goons even if these look just like the guns used by the heroes, to make sure they remain within their narrative role.
As to the holdout, a good example is the Preacher in Pale Rider having one of the Pocket versions of the 1858 Remington on his belt. One such gun is illustrated below.
DCH Mook/Holdout Single-Action Revolver [BODY 02, Projectile weapon: 03, Ammo: 06, R#04, Drawback: Very Long Reload, Note: may require an Automatic Action to work the action unless this is waived by the GM for this campaign]
M&M Mook/Holdout Single-Action Revolver [Ranged Ballistic Damage 2, Note: may require a Move Action to work the action unless this is waived by the GM for this campaign]
A concealed pocket gun, only effective at very short range and usually holding but one or two bullets.
The gunsmith behind these tiny pistols was called Henry Deringer ; the spelling with two r’s was adopted by other manufacturers to ride on the popularity of his product. Derringers are the usual choice for those who want to go armed in areas where openly carrying is not accepted.
DCH Derringer [BODY 02, Projectile weapons (Diminishing): 03, Ammo: 02, Miniaturisation: 02, R#03, Drawback: Long Reload]]
M&M Derringer [Ranged Ballistic Damage 2, Diminished Range 3, Limited 1 (Two shots), Feature 1 (Tiny size)]
Below is a 1866 Remington – the archetypal gambler’s gun. It fires .41 rounds and features over-under barrels.
These lever-action rifles and carbines are the most common long arms in the hands of Old West heroes. The lineage starts with the 1866 model, with regular upgrade releases (1873 model, 1876 model, etc.).
The lever in “lever action” is the metal frame next to the trigger – it is pushed forward then pulled back to eject the spent casing then chamber a new round. The ammunition is stored in a tube running under the barrel – so the shorter, convenient carbine format (usually intended for the cavalry) means fewer rounds since the tube is shorter.
These weapons usually shoot .44-40 rounds, though by the 1876 model they have become robust enough to fire more powerful .45 rounds.
A full-sized rifle might hold up to 17-ish rounds (depending on the specifics), while a radically shortened carbine might be down to 7 or so. 15 is a good stock value for rifles, and 12 for carbines.
Needless to say, a gun that can fire 15 times in a row is a huge advantage against single-shot rifles – except in a massed fire situation due to the gunsmoke problem.
Since so many settlers bought this excellent weapon, it is often called “the gun that won the West”. John Wayne’s Sheriff Chance famously wields a Winchester rather than a pistol in Rio Bravo.
DCH Winchester [BODY 03, Projectile weapon: 05, Ammo: 12, R#03, Drawback: Very Long Reload, Note: may require an Automatic Action to work the action unless this is waived by the GM for this campaign]
M&M Winchester [Ranged Ballistic Damage 4, Note: may require a Move Action to work the action unless this is waived by the GM for this campaign]
Here is a 1873 carbine :
The first two minutes or so of the following video clearly show how a period lever-action rifle is loaded and used. There is also footage of pistols being fanned and other things relevant to this article in general.
By far the most common Old West shotgun will be a 12-gauge side-by-side break-open model — that is it has two barrels sitting side-by-side, each holding a single shell.
Once a shell is discharged it can be ejected and replaced from the back of the barrels – there is a sort of hinge in front of the trigger to tilt the barrels downward and expose their rear end.
These simple, reliable, easy to maintain weapons are what ordinary people will likely have available. It’s sufficient to shoot varmint, do ordinary hunting and protect against most animals.
This sort of shotgun was also used by security men deployed by companies such as Wells Fargo on coaches – hence the expression “riding shotgun”.
The main reason is that person on a speeding coach attempting to hit a person on a galloping horse needs all the help they can get, and the spread of buckshot goes a fair way in improving the odds of hitting something. This is doubly true in most fiction, where shotguns have a much broader spread than in the real world.
DCH Side-by-side Shotgun [BODY 04, Shotgun blast (Range: 03): 06, Ammo: 02, Recommended STR: 02, R#02, Drawback: Long Reload]
M&M Side-by-side Shotgun [Shotgun Blast 4, Quirk (two shots)]
Side-by-side shotguns pretty much all look the same at a distance, but here’s a Stevens & Co. 1878 one.
Civil War Rifled Musket
Most soldiers fought in the Civil War with these somewhat obsolete muzzleloaders. This generation of firearms is confusingly called “rifled musket” in that they are built like muskets but have a rifled barrel.
This was the result of a French technological development called the balle Minié (often called the “Minnie bullet” in the US back then) which made rifled barrels much less of a pain to load and clean. Rifles shooting Minié bullets thus had the advantages of both muskets and rifles.
Numerous older muskets had their barrels rifled to benefit from the advantages of “Minnie bullets”, and even weapons developed with rifled barrels were called “rifled muskets” for a while.
The Civil War was generally expected to be a short and limited affair when it started, and through a mix of conservatism, logistical constraints, problems with retraining, difficulties in buying and shipping enough weapons, etc. the two sides mostly operated rifled muskets.
It was also commonly thought that a slower rate of fire put emphasis on proper aiming and marksmanship and encouraged soldiers to be efficient.
While most grunts thus struggled to reload their Springfield .58 rifled musket (or Enfield .58 for the Confederacy) and some units even had old muskets, rifles that could fire far more quickly were available – for instance the lever-action Spencer carbine in 1856, or the best-selling Henry .44 repeater of 1862. Generally, the War saw a bewildering variety of weapons in use.
DCH Enfield/Springfield Rifled Musket [BODY 03, Projectile weapons: 05, Ammo: 01, R#04, Drawback: It takes five Dice Actions plus twelve Automatic Actions to reload for a trained soldier]
M&M Enfield/Springfield Rifled Musket [Ranged Ballistic Damage 4, Limitation 2 (muzzle-loader))]
Illustrated below is a Springfield 1861 rifled musket. These rifles tend to all look very similars for people who aren’t muzzleloaders hobbyists and/or reenactors.
The same lad who shot one of the videos we used for the Colt made a video showing how a Civil War rifled musket is operated, how a Minié bullet looks, etc. which is exactly what we need for this article :
Years after the war, the US Army rearmed with more modern rifles, but remained one technological wave behind and adopted black powder one-shot breech-loaders. The Trapdoor is so named because the top of the breech block is hinged and can be opened like a, well, trap door to access the chamber.
Once the chamber is open you can put a metallic cartridge in it then slam the “trapdoor” shut. This is way faster than operating a rifled musket, and is much easier to perform while sitting – for instance if you’re riding a horse.
Springfield Trapdoors arm infantrymen during much of the Old West era (historically, from 1873 onward). The Cavalry often upgraded its arms earlier, and in movies and comics are usually seen wielding Winchesters as they heroically save the day in their dashing uniforms and moustaches.
DCH Springfield Trapdoor Rifle [BODY 03, Projectile weapons: 05, Ammo: 01, R#03, Drawback: Long Reload Time]
M&M Springfield Trapdoor Rifle [Ranged Ballistic Damage 4, Quirk 2 (reloading takes two Move Actions]
The following short video clearly shows how a 1884 Trapdoor is operated.
Sharps Big Fifty
A high-end single-shot breech-loading rifle firing the powerful .50-90 Sharps round. The “Big Fifty” buffalo rifle was emblematic of the most successful bison hunters, whose activities resulted in the near-extinction of this important species in an amazingly short time.
Though not a military weapon, this 1874 rifle was occasionally employed in battle since the .50-90 had significantly more power and range than most contemporary rifles.
Most buffalo rifles used a less massive round – though in game terms the difference is not significant.
One way to represent the mythology of the “Big Fifty” is to lower the reliability threshold in the DC Heroes, as the rifle was sometimes called the “Old Reliable”.
For an even more cinematic version of the Sharps, see the next section.
DCH Sharps Big Fifty Buffalo Rifle [BODY 03, Projectile weapons: 06, Ammo: 01, Recommended STR: 02, R#02, Drawback: Long Reload]
M&M Sharps Big Fifty Buffalo Rifle [Ranged Ballistic Damage 5, Quirk (one-shot breech-loader)]
The following brief video is grainy, but it shows the operation of a Big Fifty… and gives a sense of the recoil.
The resurgence of rotating barrel assemblies for machineguns has made the appearance of this XIXth machinegun familiar.
Gatlings are operated with a hand crank ; turning the crank aligns one of the barrels with a chamber, detonates the ammunition in the chamber, then ejects the chamber. Each round comes in its own lil‘ chamber, which are reloaded between engagements.
The whole contraption’s objective is to avoid the heat buildup, which XIXth metallurgy cannot deal with. A 1858 Gatling having 6 barrels, each only gets heated by one round out of 6, and has a brief time to cool down before it is aligned with a chamber again.
The chambers being used but once until manually reloaded, they don’t have a heat problem either. These objectives are more or less reached, but in practice these weapons are less than reliable.
Despite its taste for jamming, the Gatling remains a machinegun – it can spit a hail of .58 bullets much faster than individual riflemen can fire (especially in the hands of an experienced operator), it can keep firing without ever stopping (well, until it jams), and its fire can rake a fairly large area.
The sight of a machine made to kill men through a mechanism, rather than shooting each other man-to-man, also apparently came as something of a shock to those exposed to it for the first time.
With its wheeled carriage and ammunition, a Gatling gun weighs well past 400 pounds – hence the wheeled carriage. They can be mounted on vehicles – or even on large steed such as a camel or an elephant.
DCH Gatling Machinegun [BODY 04, Projectile weapons (Area of Effect 0 AP): 07, Ammo: var., R#05, Drawback: Long Reload]
M&M Gatling Machinegun [Ranged Ballistic Damage 6 (Area of Effect 2 (Line)), Note – prone to jamming (a Complication)]
The following picture illustrates a number of Gatling machinegun mounts, including the infamous camelback hardpoint.
At 5 minutes, the following video is a bit long for this article, but it covers the history of this weapon and has footage of reproductions being fired.
These are very long, very heavy revolvers used by cavalry (“dragoons”). At more than 4 pounds apiece, with a total length of about 14” and shooting a round loaded with 50 or more grains, these are not meant to be carried by the shooter – but stored within easy reach on their saddle.
These weapons are otherwise similar to the Colt – since these are fictionalised Colt Dragoon revolvers with something of its less successful predecessor, the Colt Walker, thrown in. However, the best example of an “Old West magnum” (so to speak) would be Colt Peacemakers with the 7½” barrel and chambered for the .44-40 rifle round.
This category is rarely seen in Wild West fiction, but it exists. The Peacemakers used by Johnny Madrid in From Dusk ’till Dawn III are depicted as having this level of power. This famously huge and powerful pistol was also used by Mattie Ross opposite John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (1969). And of course, in a RPG context, somebody is bound to want a bigger gun than the other boys.
A detachable wooden stock can be on for the Dragoon, basically turning it into a carbine. This increases Range (1 more AP of Range in DC Heroes and 1 Rank of Increased Range in DC Adventures).
DCH Dragoon Revolver [BODY 03, Rec. STR 04 (03 if on a horse), Projectile weapon: 05, Ammo: 06, R#04, Drawback: Very Long Reload, Note: may require an Automatic Action to work the action unless this is waived by the GM for this campaign]
M&M Dragoon Revolver [Ranged Ballistic Damage 4, Quirk (requires a STR of 2 (1 on a horse) or becomes Inaccurate 1), Note: may require a Move Action to work the action unless this is waived by the GM for this campaign]
James Reid Knuckleduster
This derringer is a minuscule revolver with no barrel — it fires straight from the chambers — and whose grip can be used as small brass knuckles to reinforce punches.
It fires a .32 round, and the inscription above the cylinder reads “My Friend” followed by the patent date.
The Knuckleduster is a variant of a common design of concealed gun called a pepperbox. The pepperbox are the same thing in a variety of calibres, but without the punch-reinforcing functionality.
Pepperboxes are not generally reliable, and there’s always the possibility that a stray spark from the chamber being fired getting into another chamber, likely setting off a chain reaction where the pepperbox is uncontrollably emptied.
DCH James Reid Knuckleduster [BODY 02, Projectile weapons (Diminishing): 02, Ammo: 06, EV 01, Miniaturisation: 02, R#05, Drawback: Long Reload]
M&M James Reid Knuckleduster [Ranged Ballistic Damage 1, Diminished Range 3, Feature 1 (Tiny size), Close Strength-Based Blunt Damage 1]
Here’s a two-minutes video showing a James Reid Knuckleduster being loaded and fired.
LeMat Combination Revolver
This cavalry-sized revolver (about 14” and 3.5 pounds) holds nine rounds in a medium calibre (usually .42), plus an additional barrel under the main one – loaded with a 18-gauge shotgun round.
This sort of contraption was reportedly popular with Confederate officers — perhaps due to the advantage that a buckshot round has in duels — and is the sort of weapon that usually attracts role-players.
DCH LeMat Combination Revolver [BODY 03, Rec. STR 03, Projectile weapon: 03, Ammo: 09, R#04, Drawback: Very Long Reload, Note: may require an Automatic Action to work the action unless this is waived by the GM for this campaign] plus [Shotgun Blast: 05, Range: 02, Ammo: 01, Drawback: Long Reload]
M&M LeMat Combination Revolver [Array item 1 — Ranged Ballistic Damage 2, Note: may require a Move Action to work the action unless this is waived by the GM for this campaign ; Array item 2 — Shotgun Blast 4, Diminished Range 1, Quirk 2 (one-shot)]
This 8-minute video details a LeMat sort-of-replica (that is, it is not a completely faithful reproduction of the historical gun) and how to operate it.
Pressing the trigger of a double-action revolver means that the cylinder rotates, the hammer strikes the chamber that just aligned itself with the barrel, *and* the hammer cocks itself back (one could argue that it’s a triple action). Pressing the trigger again thus results in another shot.
Curiously, these weapons are seldom seen in Old West stories, despite the fact that they were sold during the 1870s. One gets the feeling that on Earth-Westerns, the double-action revolvers appeared about a dozen years later than in the real-world.
Admittedly, the early models had problems – the trigger was very stiff since it needed to transmit the full force necessary to cock the hammer back, which makes accurate shooting difficult.
Nevertheless, these were historically used – for instance Billy the Kid carried one, albeit one gets the impression that it was the backup for his Winchester.
In game terms, there isn’t much difference – just like action heroes can work single-action revolvers with great alacrity and accuracy, they can shoot early double-action revolvers quickly and accurately. They might favour rapid fire at close range rather than aimed shots at longer range, though.
DCH DA Revolver [BODY 03, Projectile weapon: 03, Ammo: 06, Rec. STR 02, R#03, Drawback: Long Reload]
M&M DA Revolver [Ranged Ballistic Damage 3]
Here is a 1877 Colt Lightning in .41 Colt.
Here is a 1½ minute presentation of the Colt Lightning (this one in .38 Long Colt). It is a gun shop commercial, but it has what you need to know and shows how it works.
Basically a proto-Winchester, sold from 1860 onward. The Henry rifle is a high-capacity lever-action .44 rimfire affair, and many Union soldiers bought one with their own money.
While not practical for massed fire, lighter units such as scouts and raiders found its rapid action and ammunition capacity far superior to the rifled muskets in common issues.
However, it is a early design – the rimfire round was much weaker than later centerfire rounds, and the action was rather fragile. The design was considerably strengthened to become the 1866 Winchester, which fired a stronger round – making the Henry repeater rifle obsolete.
DCH Henry Repeater [BODY 01, Projectile weapon: 04, Ammo: 16, R#04, Drawback: Very Long Reload, Note: may require an Automatic Action to work the action unless this is waived by the GM for this campaign]
M&M Henry Repeater [Ranged Ballistic Damage 3, Quirk (easily damaged), Note: may require a Move Action to work the action unless this is waived by the GM for this campaign]
The sawed-off version of side-by-side shotguns is less common in Wild West stories that in stories set in later eras. The main reason is that most Wild West characters can go around armed, removing the need to conceal their shotgun.
Furthermore, during the era when most classic Old West movies were shot, the Hollywood Shotgun mythology (and the attendant notion that making it smaller makes it more dangerous) hadn’t developed yet.
For the classic feel, use the stats for the side-by-side above, with 1 less AP of Range in DC Heroes) — or 1 Rank of Limited Range (in DC Adventures).. More recent Westerns using more modern Hollywood aesthetics may picture sawed-offs with the stats in our Weapons locker – Small arms article.
Sawed-offs usually appear wielded by stagecoach drivers. One famous example of such a coach gun is used by Taw Jackson (played by John Wayne) in War Wagon.
The shotgun below is a 1878 Colt model, shortened using an unusual gunsmithing tool (namely Photoshop™).
Pump-action shotguns seem a bit incongruous in Wild West stories since they seldom get featured in classic Western movies – but historically there were widely-available models even during the 1880s, and such models can be seen in more recent films such as 3:10 to Yuma.
Lever-action shotguns, broadly similar to the Winchester lever-action carbine, were more common. This similarity isn’t amazing – the exemplar of this category was a Winchester, the 1887 model.
This very successful weapon was the first credible repeater shotgun – but oddly enough it is best remembered by action cinema fans as the weapon wielded by a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator II). He used a much-enlarged handguard for cinematic reloading – see “Rapid-Fire Winchester” below.
Paul Newman was also portrayed with a latter model of this shotgun as Judge Roy Bean in the 1972 eponymous movie.
For both actions, use the standard repeater shotgun stats in our Weapons locker – Modern firearms v2 (part 2 – Small arms) article ; in DC Heroes these weapons hold five rounds.
Below is an early pump-action, the Spencer 1882, followed by the lever-action Winchester 1887.
The following is commercial for the same guns shop as the Colt Lightning, but a/ it’s short (1½ minute), b/ it clearly shows the weapon and its action, and c/ the demonstrator knows how to speak to a camera, which is rare on YouTube.
Sharpshooter’s Revolving Rifle
Scoped rifles did exist during the war, with the slim scope often running for the entire length of the barrel ; a magnification of x4 would be reasonable. Since the scope makes the weapon look deadlier, use the game stats for a Sharps Big Fifty and add a scope.
If looking for a distinctive sniping weapon, one possibility was seen in recent Westerns 3:10 to Yuma (the remake), Hell on Wheels and Jonah Hex ; a very similar one based on the carbine version of the Remington 1858 was used in Wild Wild West – one is seen in the right-hand images column.
In this arrangement, a sharpshooting scope is mounted on an early sort of repeater rifle – a Colt rifle from the 1850s which sports a revolver-like cylinder. The 1855 Colt Revolving Rifle is usually chambered for a .44 round, making it less powerful than an infantry rifle but able to quickly engage several targets.
DCH Repeater Sharpshooter’s Rifle [BODY 03, Projectile weapons: 05, Ammo: 05, Telescopic Vision: 02, Drawback: Very Long Reload]
M&M Repeater Sharpshooter’s Rifle [Ranged Ballistic Damage 4, Senses 1 (Extended Vision), Enhanced Critical 1]
Here is a four-minute presentation of a vintage Colt 1855 revolving rifle.
Cinematic Marksman’s Rifle
This is the rifle used by Tom Selleck’s character in Quigley Down Under, a Western film set in Australia. As it happens, this impossibly accurate and powerful breech-loading single-shot rifle is amply detailed and photographed on the IMFDB page about the movie , so there’s little need for further exposition.
Despite Quigley’s astounding precision, this close relative of the Sharps Big Fifty doesn’t have a scope – though it has long-range sights.
DCH Cinematic Marksman’s Rifle [BODY 03, Projectile weapons: 06, Stagger: 06, Range: 08, Ammo: 01, Drawback: Long Reload, Limitation: Neither Projectile Weapons nor Stagger have a Range, both use the listed Ranged instead, Bonus: Projectile weapons and Stagger are Combined.]
M&M Cinematic Marksman’s Rifle [Ranged Ballistic Damage 6, Enhanced Critical 1, Extended Ranged 1]
Here is the scene where Quigley talks about his rifle.
This strange 1854 design never played an important role by itself. However, this design resulted in the .22 rimfire metallic cartridge – or .22 Long Rifle, the most common round of ammunition in the world. The Volcanic business venture and this metallic cartridge also became the assets that allowed Smith & Wesson to be born.
The Volcanic is a lever action pistol – being a shortened and modified version of the Volcanic repeater rifle. This is part of what gives it its unusual looks, and the Volcanic is an excellent prop for stories that include some sort of steampunk or Weird Science pistol.
In such stories, the Volcanic would presumably be a forerunner for later semi-automatic pistols, and the lever would just be a fancy trigger guard instead of being the action.
The game stats below assume such a fantasy/steampunk semi-auto version of the Volcanic.
DCH Volcanic Pistol (fantasy version) [BODY 02, Projectile weapon: 03, Ammo: 07, R#03, Drawback: Long Reload]
M&M Volcanic Pistol (fantasy version) [Ranged Ballistic Damage 2]
A radically shortened Winchester lever-action carbine with an enlarged handguard, which can be shot one-handed in a pinch and fits into a pistol-style holster.
This weapon was the signature gun of Steve McQueen’s Josh Randall in the late-1950s TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive, and several shows have since referenced it – for instance Gina Torres’ Zoe uses one in Firefly, as does Sheena Easton’s Crystal Hawks in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr..
The notion of heavy blaster pistols in Star Wars being cut-down blaster carbines might also have been inspired by this weapon, though the one used by Han Solo was based on a Mauser C96 pistol.
The Mare’s Leg is used like a very short carbine, if only due to the necessity of working the lever action. It is cinematically depicted as being quite powerful despite the shortened barrel, though the shortened tube magazine under the barrel can only hold so many .44-40 rounds.
DCH Mare’s Leg [BODY 04, Projectile weapons: 05, Ammo: 06, Drawback: Long Reload]
M&M Mare’s Leg [Ranged Ballistic Damage 4]
Here is the beginning of a Wanted: Dead or Alive episode showing the mare’s leg both holstered and shot.
A relative of the Mare’s Leg is the Winchester lever-action carbine used by rancher Lucas McCain (played by Chuck Connors in late-1950s TV series The Rifleman).
It also had an enlarged D-shaped handguard, but is full-sized. More importantly, the trigger is automatically pressed by a pin whenever the handguard is fully brought back against the body of the weapon.
This means that the carbine can be fired extremely quickly by just working the lever action back and forth – in fiction and demonstrations it is as fast as a semi-automatic gun and accuracy isn’t impaired in the least by rapidly working the lever.
Another bit of coolness is that the enlarged handguard allows a trained person to chamber a new round by spinning the carbine in a specific manner – a move most action cinema fans now associate with the aforementioned lever-action shotgun used by the T-800 in Terminator II.
This is useful both for flourish, and when a second hand is not available to hold the body of the carbine while the lever action is being worked (say, whilst riding a horse).
DCH Rapid-fire Winchester [BODY 04, Projectile weapon: 05, Ammo: 12, R#03, Enhanced Initiative: 02, Drawback: Very Long Reload]
M&M Rapid-fire Winchester [Ranged Ballistic Damage 4, All-Out Attack]
This video demonstrates the “Rifleman spin” and shooting a replica of the show’s signature weapon.
The fictional footprint of this gun is basically one scene in A Fistful of Dollars (and one in the original, obscure Django), but it was a memorable one.
The prop used in the movie is based on a Belgian design, the mitrailleuse Montigny, which was secretly adopted by the French military as the mitrailleuse Reffye in 1866. This design was much less successful than the Gatling gun, however.
A mitrailleuse has multiple barrels packed together in a metallic cylinder (37 barrels for the Montigny, 25 for the Reffye). It is a breechloader – a metallic plate bearing 37 or 25 large-calibre bullets is attached at the rear of the gun, loading all barrels simultaneously. A hand crank is then turned to fire all barrels in rapid succession, then the rear loading plate is replaced with a fresh one.
This design is a light artillery piece, with the loaded gun being almost 800lbs without the wheeled carriage.
DCH Mitrailleuse [BODY 04, Projectile weapons (Area of Effect 0 AP): 08, Ammo: var., R#03, Drawback: Very Long Reload]
M&M Mitrailleuse [Ranged Ballistic Damage 7 (Area of Effect 2(Line)), Quirk (very long reload)]
The following weapons are from the turn of the century, after the classic Old West era is over. Though it is not uncommon for late designs to be anachronistically featured (weapons from the 1870s in stories set in the 1860s, or from the 1880s in the 1870s) the following weapons look and feel too much like XXth century weapons and do not appear in Old West stories.
They might, however, appear in rarer stories set at the turn of the century, which is a sub-genre. The video game Red Dead Redemption and the movie The Great Silence are two examples ; A Fistful of Dollars probably also counts.
In practical terms, the first semi-automatic pistol. This weapon is quite visibly the direct ancestor of the 1908 Parabellum pistol (“Lüger”), though as an early design it was less robust and more awkward to use, and its action was much larger.
Still, it fires very quickly, and is reloaded with a eight-shots clip, making it a sort of preview of the XXth century. That also makes it good for alternate history stories.
DCH Borchardt [BODY 02, Projectile weapon: 04, Ammo: 08, R#04]
M&M Borchardt [Ranged Ballistic Damage 3]
Here is a short (less than 3 minutes) presentation of the Borchardt:
A landmark semi-automatic pistol, whose unique appearance is still well-known today.
The highly-demanded Mauser was essentially a modern pistol with a ten-shots capacity, a rapid and reliable action, and a round (7.63x25mm Mauser) with excellent performances.
The only obsolete characteristic that is readily noticeable is its stripper clip – it doesn’t use a detachable box magazine (“clip”). Instead the magazine is built into the weapon, and you run a strip of metal with ten bullets attached to it through the magazine. As you do the bullets are detached from the strip and stored into the magazine.
See our Weapons Locker (Handguns) articles for stats.
An important rifle design from 1893. It’s a five-shot bolt-action rifle reloaded with a stripper clip and shooting the high-velocity 7mm Mauser round.
When American soldiers armed with older weapons ran into Spanish soldiers equipped with the Mauser they fared very poorly – an incident that helped with the demise of the US military’s habit of using older guns.
One of the advantages of the Mauser is the use of smokeless gunpowder – originally deployed by the French in 1884 for their Lebel rifle as the poudre B. (short for “white powder” as opposed to the traditional black powder).
It allows for a more powerful (and thus more accurate and longer-ranged) round, and soldiers can just keep shooting without disappearing in a white, acrid cloud.
DCH Spanish Mauser [BODY 04, Projectile weapon: 06, Ammo: 05, R#02, Misc.: an Automatic Action is needed to ready the next round by working the bolt]
M&M Spanish Mauser [Ranged Ballistic Damage 5, Quirk (a Move Action is necessary to ready the next round by working the bolt]
The Krag-Jørgensen is the Danish design — produced in the US as the Springfield 1892 — that equipped US Army infantry from 1892 to 1903.
It is a bolt-action .30 Army rifle employing smokeless powder cartridges – the first Army rifle to do so. However, Mauser designs soon made this rifle somewhat obsolete, as became obvious during the Spanish-American War.
The .30 round was outshone at long range by the remarkable 7mm Mauser, and the Krag-Jørgensen has to be reloaded bullet by bullet rather than run a stripper clip through the rifle and resume firing.
A “Krag” can be reloaded at any point – just insert fresh bullets in the integral magazine. This is useful since you can open fire immediately even if you were busy reloading. The Krag-Jørgensen action is also reputed for its smoothness – this rifle would still be a good hunting weapon.
DCH Krag [BODY 04, Projectile weapon: 06, Ammo: 05, R#02, Drawback: Long Reload, Misc.: an Automatic Action is needed to ready the next round by working the bolt]
M&M Krag [Ranged Ballistic Damage 5, Quirk (a Move Action is necessary to ready the next round by working the bolt]
Wild West lingo in stories
A proper Wild West comic book (and less commonly movie) character speaks a thick accent. Any such thematic character, such as Hells on Wheels’ Cullen Bohannon (although, granted, his accent isn’t that pronounced !) or Jonah Hex, should receive a Role-Playing Award for using these following type of pronounciation :
I = ah ; my(-) = muh(-) ; your(-) = yore(-) ; you are = yo’re ; him = ’im ; himself = hisself ; that = thet ; them = ’em ; the (accusative) = them ; there is, there are = thar’s.
the = th’ ; what = whut ; that = thet ; there = thar’ ; where = whar’ ; every = ever’ ; maybe = mebbe ; for = fer ; is not, are not = ain’t ; come on = c’mon ; out of = outa ; left of = lefta ; one of = one’a ; less than = less’n ; might have = mighta ; during = durin’ ; before = a’fore ; to = tuh ; from = f’um ; and = an’ ; any, and = an’ ; for = fo’ ; about = ’bout.
old = ol’ ; father = pa ; known = knowed ; catch = ketch ; forget = fergit ; suppose = s’pose ; damned = damed ; were = wuz ; also, all -ing endings should be pronounced -in’.
This accent is often thought of as a “Southern” one, though that is not linguistically accurate. This presumably comes from of a conflation of various rural American accents with the South.
The narration of the mostly-spoken-word song The McKenzie Brothers, by the band Rednex, is a good example of diction for an Old West story. Here it is :
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Helper(s): Darci, Roy Cowan, Pufnstuff, Adam Fuqua. Old West Lingo addendum by Dr. Peter Piispanen, with Jobe and Adam Fuqua’s help.