Old West firearms – Weapons Locker
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. So, 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*. Most technical aspects of using XIXth century firearms are usually 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. Therefore, a set of stats can easily cover an entire category of weapons.
This also means that this article isn’t a long lists of guns. They’d all have the same stats ! It’s more like a guided tour about the bang-bang you see in westerns.
The illustrations in this article mostly come from two sources :
- The Internet Movies Firearms Database .
- The Italian replica gunsmiths at Uberti . Eagle-eyed readers will be able to spot the photos of replicas, I reckon.
We own the copyrights to absolutely none of it, and encourage interested parties to visit these sites.
This article is pretty large. In no small part because of all the photos and videos. And because we cover some pretty strange weapons.
Therefore, it is presented in three parts. If only for the sake of those with lower-powered smartphones on bad networks.
- Technical basics and core weapons. This here article.
- Miscellaneous weapons part #1.
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.
It 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’ll 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. It 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. Then, a new bullet design results in guns called “rifled muskets” – 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. Then ram everything all the way to the back of the barrel, using a rod-like tool (a “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.
- The fire ignites the main, coarser 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”. This is 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. So 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, then add the bullet on top.
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 — such as 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. So 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 lack 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 revolvers can’t even do that. But these 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.
In these stats we are nevertheless going to assume six shots for most revolvers. Since that’s what is usually seen in comics, movies, etc..
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.
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. Yet they are none too powerful, fast, reliable or accurate.
It was entirely possible for even an experienced gunfighter to empty a revolver at combat ranges without hitting anything they 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. It is 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. 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.
- To “fan” it – keep your free hand held flat over the back of your revolver, and slap the hammer back between shots.
Fanning a revolver 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. 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” (14 cm) barrel, and this specific model has wooden grips.
Versions with a 4¾” -12 cm)barrel are often called a Colt Single Action Army Quickdraw. With the shorter barrel they clear 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 called the Schofield) fired .44 rounds, it was still seen as less powerful than Colt handguns, as these crammed a lot of powder in their cartridges. So much so that 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. It also 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).
- Snap the cylinder back in position.
- Ready the hammer.
With combat stress, this can easily take 20 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.
But 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 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. 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. It is only effective at very short range and usually holds 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.).
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.
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.
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. 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.
Helper(s): Darci, Roy Cowan, Pufnstuff, Adam Fuqua, Ethan Roe, Brent Walters. Old West Lingo addendum by Dr. Peter Piispanen, with Jobe and Adam Fuqua’s help.