Old Guns & Whispering Ghosts:
Firearms & Those Who Used Them
By Jesse L. Wolf Hardin
Foreword By Bob “Boze” Bell
Old Guns & Whispering Ghosts
Old Guns & Whispering Ghosts
Bringing to life for you the legendary firearms and amazing landscape, dramatic events and irrepressible spirit, characters and contradictions of the Old West – like none before – whether you are an “in the know” antique arms enthusiast, or a history buff with little previous interest in guns. Enjoy the story of the West’s legendary firearms and the fascinating individuals who carried them... some who are justifiably famous, others shamefully forgotten. For a good taste, read the author’s Introduction at the bottom of this page.
“A meandering journey through the American West of many decades ago, replete with long story-filled nights around the fire, a visceral sense of the land and climate, encounters with some of the most colorful and legendary figures from Western history, amid thoughtful consideration of the arms of the day.” –Jim Supica Author of Standard Catalog of Smith & Wesson, Contributing Editor American Rifleman, Blue Book Of Gun Values
Spectacular photographs, frontier tintypes and inspiring text powerfully describe the period of rapid firearms development and cultural change occurring between 1866 and 1916, and the undying Western dream... including:
• Frontier kids & early .22’s
• John Wesley Hardin, & the lonely truths about “shootists”
• The Story of Ol ‘81: the Marling 1881, the Apache Wars, and the Army’s resistance to repeating rifles
• Indian Arms: Homelands, Lances & Trains
• Buffalo Guns: Ritual, Waste & Return... and the mystique of the long-range single-shot rifle
• Scatterguns: Smoothbores & Highwaymen
• Fallen Angels: frontier prostitutes, women and guns, and the development of the derringer
• Hidden Thunder: pocket guns, sneak guns and cane rifles... and the matter of self defense
• The Feel: Aesthetics, Design, History & Appearance
• Annie Oakley, role busting sharpshooter, plus the roots of American Target Shooting and Wild West Shows
• Ben Lilly, one of the last of the mountain men, and the lore and history of the bear hunt
• Teddy Roosevelt: Guns, Guts & Gumption... cowboy hunter and conservationist
• Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, 1916: the real “last Indian battle”... and the end of an era
• The Vintage Hunt: Ritual & History... getting close and intimate, then and now
• Scars, Nicks, Scratches & Restoration
• Elfego Baca & the most uneven gunfight in Western history, in a tribute to pluck
• The romance and reality of the West; the importance of a code of honor, today as much as back then
I could have written 50 pages about this fine work, using words such as fascinating, interesting, informative, and even exciting. But suffice it to say that Hardin has composed a valuable work on the Old West written in a fetching style that rivets the reader to each page. Yes, the book is about old guns, but the sub-title, "Tales and Twists of the Old West," reveals the spirit of the work. The photographic illustrations add greatly to the charm of the text with fine color work, but also frontier tintypes along with art. Hardin's love for his subject exudes from every page. This is an easy book to recommend. And recommend it I do."
“Beautifully written, historically insightful, and very entertaining. Author J. L. Hardin makes history come alive with his inspiring prose and artful photography.”
"Keeps you captivated as you read each chapter. I learned even more about the history of the Old West."
From The Introduction To
“It was a land that had to be seen to be believed, and perhaps it has to be believed in to be seen.”
Listen! You can almost here it, the approach of galloping horses, the distant ring of gunfire. And the whispers rising from the abandoned fort, the quiet field, the long empty hunting camp.
There’s an attractive, in some ways more authentic world that calls out from the periphery of our dreams. It’s partially obscured by the white lace of time and the curling trail of gun smoke. By the sinuous billows of rock-lined campfires, steam blown out the bottom sides of resting locomotives, the opaque exhaust coiling upwards from saloon cigars, and those thin white clouds snaking out of the bores of sated Colt’s arms. It’s a world infused with the active images from our childhood at the matinee, and yet grounded in an ancient memory of a world that is decidedly real.
As up to date and civilized as we might be, we find ourselves tempted by what we imagine to be a time of adventure and a world of honor. A place where being a “character”– the acting out of one’s true self– is rewarded instead of punished. A place where one is fairly tested, with an equal opportunity to become a hero in the eyes of the dusty little children following behind. A place of freedom that speaks of and to God, a place too big for fences. A place of git-fiddles, sun bonnets and cowboy hats.
And a place of old timey guns! They’ve served unapologetically in the scabbards of horseback riders, in the hands of the hungry young and next to the kitchen doors of aging homesteaders. In the holsters of lawmen, patriots and scoundrels. In the pockets of timid clerks, and the fur muffs of willful maidens. Whatever your opinion on firearm ownership in this age of gangster-ridden cities, one must recognize the significant role that they have played in the lives of our predecessors and the destiny of the Americas.... grant them their place of influence in our evolving collective psyche. They’re witnesses to personal and global drama, telltale tools of the evolving human experience.
“....you feel and demonstrate the polar opposites bound up together in one self, and they struggle inside one heart and skull.... and it is this twist, the resultant continuous twist in the gut of this relentless “love of things unreconcilable” (Hart Crane) which provides the lava, the moving power of great Lit.”
The American frontier could be defined as the unsettled portions of this country stretching between Spanish held California and the unexplored plains and mountains a stone’s throw west of the original English colonies. For the existing indigenous populations of Indians there was no frontier per se, only “home.” The concept, and hence an entire era thus begins with the arrival of the first European explorers, trappers and traders. For many historians it ends with the overall subjugation of hostile Indian tribes, in the 1890’s. For the purposes of this book I’ve chosen to focus primarily on weaponry likely to have seen actually use in the West in the 50 year period between 1866 and approximately 1916: the era of Western expansion and dramatic change stretching from the concluding moments of the American Civil War until right before America’s entry in the conflagration we call World War I.... prior to the general proliferation of semi-automatic and full-auto firearms, and the uncharacteristic gentrification of this onetime frontier.
There are any number of other fine books already available on both the historic West, and the shooting and collecting of antique guns. I’ve sought to make this effort unique by blending noble sentiment and historical fact, the literary qualities and poetic lyricism of classic outdoor writers and the multiple twists of the modern psychodrama. I write not as a researcher or scholar but as a recanter, a teller of tales who takes unusual pleasure in exposing the meanders and intersects of the ever evolving human story. And the reason real life makes such a great story is that it involves painful paradox, uncertainty and ambivalence as well as assuredness and righteousness– dramatizing the benefits, the costs and the unexpected ramifications of every choice made. It is said that one must learn from history in order to avoid repeating its mistakes.... and it is in the twists that we find inevitably find our greatest lessons.
I’m fascinated by the reasons why people risked their lives to wander with no more than a good shotgun and rifle into unmapped and unpredictable new places. I’m interested in what made one-time outlaws settle down and take jobs as frontier marshals and sheriffs, or what inspired professional “law-dogs” to hang up their badge and enter into a life of crime. Herein we explore the struggles against the railroads and banks, by the under fed and fed-up poor..... and what kind of emotional state might cause a hounded John Wesley Hardin to stand with his back to the barroom door. The necessity and morality of self defense, and risking one’s life for a belief or cause. Together we’ll take a deeper look at the implications of loyalties and alliances, attitudes and beliefs, prejudice and race– and the mindset of the pistol packin’ prostitute, hiding her sorrows behind her laughter and a thickly painted face. We’ll empathize with what were in some ways a sad and tragic lot: those who moved West to escape the confinement and conformity of swelling seaboard cities.... then found they’d inadvertently helped subjugate and tame the very challenges, magic and wildness that they’d sought.
“Hold fast to dreams, for If dreams die,
I grew up with a glad ache for the frontier past, for natural places and wagon traces. I wore “cowboy” booties before I knew what either a cow or a boy was. The highlight of all my many trips to the shopping mall came when Hopalong Cassidy showed up to sign enthused children’s autographs. My desire to stay up until 10 PM came from wanting to be awake to watch an episode of the television show Bonanza again. And I never quit straining at the reins, until at age 25 I bought and settled into the kind of special place I’d grown up longing for. It’s here where I’ve learned what it is to be really, fully alive.... and it is here that I someday will die.
I am fortunate to be writing this book less than 100 yards away from a river made sacred by the ancient Mogollon Indians, that was once stalked by the Apache “renegade” Victorio and hunted by the famous Ben Lilly. It flows past the scene of Elfego Baca’s heroic stand shortly before passing through our property, and only 20 miles further downstream it irrigates the hayfields of the WS Ranch– one of Butch Cassidy’s old haunts. A smattering of people from around the world come for idyllic wilderness retreats, a sweltering native sweatlodge, or storytelling tours of the immediate region. We’re a day’s ride from hundreds of historic historic shootouts and battles in Eastern Arizona and New Mexico including the Lincoln County War, Geronimo and Victorio’s raids, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Pancho Villa’s attack on Columbus..... as well as the cities of El Paso and Albuquerque, where an aging Buffalo Bill performed on his final tour of the West.
Our cabin is fashioned from lumber sliced from local trees killed by a lightning ignited fire, on an antique outdoor sawmill that’s run by a living example of the old ways. It’s been decorated with old photographs and even older guns, a rusted lever action receiver dug up in a wash, a lock made in the 1850’s, and toys played with by early 20th Century girls and boys. Spurs that “jingle jangle,” an ivory handled lady’s button hook, a 1902 canteen, and a weathered Stetson hat with that “been there, done that” look. Such are the artifacts of an earlier time, the accessories and accomplices to an irrepressible dream.... a dream of a certain landscape, and a particular way of being, called the West. And it is far, far more than just one of many locations for the playing out of our national past. It was– and is– the enduring home of wisdom, wit and wish, the desert and mountain port of possibility and hope. It’s a place outdoors, so far outdoors, that it exists beyond the scope of the modern cultural norm. A place beyond all limits– on freedom, on movement, on expression, on fulfillment and desire. I have a serious “hankerin’” for it. I aim to have it. I’d ride the trail there alone if I had to.... but thankfully you’re on this journey with me.
“Perhaps.... it’s just the simple desire to have some part of our heart remain that of a child’s, one who doesn’t yet know that you can’t always reach the stars, or, at the very least, ride beneath them wherever you want to go.”
They don’t call our destination the “Wild West” for nothing! The word “wild” stems from the archaic “wilder ” which means “raw and untamed:” the land and creatures existing outside the proscribed certainty of our early walled urban centers, our original native context– the nurturing, formative and informative wilderness. The intensity and strength of American wildlands were traits readily embodied by native tribes, and emulated by the mountain men and settlers who followed. Note that our predecessors weren’t intent on looking back to some previous “golden age,” nor were they obsessed with the artifacts and arms of an earlier era. They lived for– and fought for– the experiences and rewards of an intensely invigorating, adventurous present! And so will we! Cowboys, Indians and outlaws alike were outfitted– almost without exception– with the best bedroll they could afford, and the most proficient firearms they could find. But paradoxically, we are happiest carrying and shooting the historic arms they left behind.
We’ve all heard the expression that if only some thing “could talk, oh what tales it could tell!” Nowhere is this any more true than with vintage arms, having won our freedom on the field of battle, supplied the meat that sustained the earliest explorers of this continent’s interior, been appropriated by the Native Americans for their own assertive defense, accompanied miners and gamblers and soiled doves in the “civilizing” of the West. Looking at an ingenious if inaccurate Allen Pepperbox it’s none too difficult to picture the hand-tailored coat pockets they once inhabited, likely silk lined and worn over a buttoned wool vest. Imagine the bumpy ride heading out of St. Louis in the entertainment car of a smoke-billowing train, or in leather lined coaches pulled by a brace of heavy horses. Pick up an old single-shot rifle, then imagine its bluing being rubbed off on countless belly-filling hunts. Palm a tiny Remington Vest Pocket pistol, and it’s immediately clear it was better suited for carry in a garter, being unmanageable in the hands of most men. We wonder what unwanted moves such a minuscule companion might have diverted, inspiring some cad’s blood to shift from his less relevant loins, into his racing head and feet.
Handling any old piece, one literally holds history in their hands. It is a history of largely common citizens, herders and sod busters, mercantile managers and mule skinners, townsfolk and country folk drawn to a longarm or handgun that caught the eye and filled the hand.... then carrying it for real use in the very real world. Long after the smoke has cleared, we can still hear the echo of rounds expended at measured targets and at game, often in pleasure and occasionally in righteous anger. The reverberations continue still, existing as we do in a land that is the product of its past, largely shaped by human vision, tempered by struggle, and tested under fire. An old gun is a story from a book of living history, held open to the page by the weight of its undiminished presence. And the great telling continues.
I suspect one can hear stories in Virginia or Maine, in deserted camps and game lodges silent in their off season, similar to what we might hear out West. Like a child who still believes in spirits and tooth fairies, I have faith that any weathered firearm has the power to trigger those ancient winds that make their words audible. My ghosts wear soft plaid hunting shirts, and sip cups of thick coffee while talking in hushed tones about things like the famous Indian raids on Pinos Altos and the work Lem always did on dove with his L.C. Smith double. They talk up the deer that got away, and some of the ones that didn’t. Together they evoke the smells of oiled leather and sizzling venison, heroes dead and gone or immortalized in song, the pleasure of old habits, and the accouterments of our shared dreams.
Let us quiet for a moment our busied modern minds– halt the mad rush of “progress” long enough to notice the cool touch of a ghostly wind on our Westward gazing faces. To derail our constrictive habits and suspend our disbelief. To understand, sympathize with and learn from the lessons resident in our vintage arms. To understand, my reader friends, that things are not always as they seem. To join those who came before us in furthering this grand adventure. To learn to be as kids again, doing whatever it takes to fulfill our dreams. To do our best to always be “straight shooters.”
Ssshh! There’s a wilder spirit entering the room, that some might have thought was missin’. To discern its whispered spectral tales– one need only stop to listen...