In the mid-nineteenth century, Colt nearly had a corner on the revolver market. They were the biggest seller of pistols to the Army in the Civil War and were a popular choice for civilians who needed a weapon. But the winds of change were blowing.
Competitor Smith and Wesson had bought the rights to a patent for bored-through cylinders that allowed the use of fixed (what we would think of as “regular”) ammunition. The pistol market was about to change in a big way, and Colt found itself on the wrong side of the power curve.*
Colt needed to offer a cartridge version, but they had to avoid infringing on the patent - the solution was a crazy front-loading cartridge named for its creator, F. Alexander Thuer. It was a metallic cartridge that loaded from the front of the gun, just like then-standard paper cartridges did. A special cylinder was required which contained a firing pin and an ejector - once the gun was fired empties were ejected out the front. It was kind of a nifty idea, but it was far from ideal.
Today there is no true Thuer conversion; they remain a historical oddity and they were so cumbersome to load and shoot that few would be interested in having a reproduction, so the reproduction market has focused on the slightly later cartridge conversions.
Until now. Gary Barnes, a gunsmith in TX who specializes in cartridge conversions of the old percussion revolvers, developed what he terms a “Modern Thuer.”
Gone is the front-loading metallic cartridge that relies on an unreliable friction fit to stay loaded. Still there is the loading ring with the tab. Gary uses a rimless cartridge (45 in my case) that loads from the rear through a simple cut in the recoil shield - no formal loading gate. He also modifies the original percussion loading lever so that it pops right out to use as an ejector rather than attaching an ejector rod as was done on later conversions. This creates a weapon that very closely imitates the look of a historical Thuer conversion while deftly avoiding all the untenable features of its actual design. Pretty ingenious, really.
I love the Colt 1860 Army. It is, in my opinion, the finest revolver produced. Ever. It’s small and handy, but powerful. It has horrible sights, but makes up for that by having the best balance and most natural pointing of any other revolver before or since. It is an elegant weapon, for a more civilized time (okay, that may be a stretch).
The downside of a percussion revolver is the percussion ignition system. You must load loose powder into each chamber, then a ball, then grease it for lubrication, and finally cap each nipple. If all goes well it takes a few minutes to reload . . . if all doesn’t go well you get misfires. You can load paper cartridges to speed things up, and this helps quite a bit, but it’s still a somewhat tedious process. After twenty years with my Colt, I found myself not shooting it so much because of the hassle. So I sent it off to Gary Barnes. Here’s what I got:
The Good, The Bad, & The Upshot
The good thing about this conversion is that it works! It’s easy and pretty user-friendly; you load your cartridges, switch the conversion ring to “fire” and away you go. Once fired, you flick the conversion ring to the other side, dismount the loading lever and use it to dislodge the fired cases.
This conversion is unique in that it maintains the overall lines and beauty of the original 1860 Army Colt and retains fidelity to the image of the original Thuer conversions without all the additional hassle of their peculiar loading system.
For SASS and NCOWS shooters, this is a super cool option because it’s NCOWS approved for its historical authenticity.
There are only a couple of downsides to this conversion system - the first and most important is its ammunition. Because it uses a rimless 45 Colt, users must grind down cases before they can load them (or ask Gary to supply some brass!). Now, grinding the rim off of 45 Colt cases is an inconvenient project, but that’s not all - because what it means in the long run is that you can no longer use your fancy Lee or Dillon press to reload your ammo - the shell holders won’t grip your cases anymore!
You’re back to the old Lee Loader. Now I used one of these as my primary reloader for literally years, and it’s not a big stinkin’ deal, but man, it is a tedious process. Is it more tedious than making paper cartridges for a percussion revolver? I think not . . . but it’s close. The saving grace here is that a tediously loaded brass cartridge is still more reliable on the range than a tediously loaded paper cartridge and percussion cap.
If I had my druthers, I’d prefer to see this chambered in a more standardized rimless cartridge so that one could reload on a press rather than using the Lee Loader. But I see why Barnes chose not to do it this way; using a standard modern rimless cartridge lowers the historical authenticity and could impede its acceptance among NCOWS and SASS shooters, who are likely his primary client pool. Also, only the largest, like the 45 Winchester Magnum, would hold the volume of black powder to equal the original 44 Colt loads, and this brass is neither “frontier” nor commonly available. Neither of which would please many of the clientele Gary serves.
The upshot is that Gary Barnes has hit upon a brilliant new way to convert a percussion revolver to shoot cartridges that gives shooters a very authentic and historic looking weapon that closely imitates the original Thuer conversions without any of their liabilities in design. Should you be in the market for such a conversion, drop Gary a line at his website http://cartridgeconversion.com/
*This is sort of funny, because Rollin White offered his idea to Colt in 1867, but Sam Colt turned it down.
I’ve reviewed several movies here, but not yet a book (except for talking up my own, which is still available on Amazon … just sayin’). I thought to begin book reviews with a recent effort from the incomparable Larry McMurtry titled The Last Kind Words Saloon (2014).
This latest work from McMurtry has gotten some mixed reviews, and I suppose that’s what I intend to do as well. As the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Lonesome Dove, McMurtry surely knows how to spin a tale, and his writing remains tight, his pacing solid and dialog oftentimes delightful. But what in the hell are Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday doing in this novel?!
The characters are solid, believable as far as it goes, except that they bear no – NO resemblance to their historical counterparts. McMurtry goes so far as to put them in Tombstone and in tense relationship with the Clantons and McLaurys, and yet there is no gunfight at the OK Corral, only a few hard words.
The Last Kind Words Saloon is exactly why I have pause concerning historical fiction in which famous figures serve as the benchmarks or guideposts for a fictive tale. If you put a famous historical figure in your novel, he or she had better pay off for those history buffs who will read your work specifically because their favorite historical character is in it, and an author who plays fast and loose with genuine history does so at his peril. McMurtry knows this; his previous books (even Lonesome Dove) often featured real historical characters, but they were strictly walk-on parts, which kept them believable and – here is the important part – didn’t distract from the story McMurtry was telling. In Kind Words, the historical figures are the protagonists, and it is highly distracting that their narrative arc wholly ignores their actual histories. As a reader, I continued to expect the plot to weave itself into the real history at some point, but alas, the book ended without that payoff.
The only exception to what I’m formulating as a rule here is when authors write speculative fiction that consciously subverts the actual history, a “what if Hitler didn’t die in his bunker” kind of scenario. I believe many history buffs give this a pass because the novel does not pass itself off as a real history of any kind, but McMurtry doesn’t give his readers any guideposts in this way, leaving them to muddle through the book on their own.
The books is worth a perusal on its own merit, if only the reader can trick themselves into substituting “Bill” and “Ted” for the historical names as these original characters sally forth on their Big Adventure.
Westerns are back, in full force this year, and critics can’t stop talking, not only about the individual films, but also about the cultural phenomenon of westerns making (yet another) comeback. “Back from the dead,” they all cry, as though this is an astounding feat.
It gives me some pause, as though the western genre is some redheaded stepchild that no one thought would amount to much, and everyone is amazed when one makes a good showing of itself. But there is a history to this narrative, and part of the answer to why everyone is so surprised lies in the very nature of the genre itself.
Way back in the mid 1970s, a literary critic named John Cawelti wrote The Six-gun Mystique (1975), and part of his work was to declare the western dead – he writes that once a genre has been spoofed, it can no longer be taken seriously, and it will no longer resonate with audiences as it had previously. He wrote this shortly after the brilliant Mel Brooks had done Blazing Saddles (1974), and if one watches this film and considers the historical moment in which Cawelti made this prediction, it makes perfect sense. But … he was wrong. So wrong. In fact, he was proven wrong almost immediately with the release of The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976), a film that much of Hollywood thought would tank because everyone knew the western was dead, and yet it became an instant classic, and remains so today. Oh, great film. He was also wrong in a larger sense, because Mel Brooks went on to spoof the horror genre with Young Frankenstein (1974) as well as the sci-fi genre with Spaceballs (1987), which had zero affect on the success of the continuing Star Wars franchise. So the lingering question is why do so many critics, critics who likely have not read what is now an obscure reference work, seem to fall in line with his thinking?
I believe the answer lies in the very nature of the western genre and its attitude toward, and treatment of death. The western invites ruminations on death and the transience of our worldly existence, and is in fact largely self-reflective about such matters by the very nature that the mythologized “West” was contained inside a historical period of roughly one generation. The heroes of our frontier were born on the cups of a created West, and lived to see it decline and be taken over by civilization – indeed; many of the frontier icons were active agents in the civilization of the west, which is perhaps one of the genre’s best ironies. The world that made people like Buffalo Bill Cody, William “Bat” Masterson, and Wyatt Earp famous was already gone long before their own deaths. Masterson died as a newspaperman in NYC, and Earp positioned himself as a Subject Matter Expert in early films, following the mythologizing example of Buffalo Bill Cody, who became a caricature of himself and turned his own biography into a commodity for Eastern consumption. In some ways, one might argue that he sacrificed his own actual history for the creation of a mythic history of the western frontiersman.
The West was never meant to live on. Its demise was always already deeply embedded within its own story, and this is seen even in some famous examples of the genre. Movies like Tom Horn (1980) and Monte Walsh (1970, 2003) explicitly address the passing of the frontier and the necessity or resistance of characters to change with the times. Sometimes the movies eulogize the passing of a way of life, like the cowboy culture in the aforementioned films, or the codes of the gunfighter in The Shootist (1976), or even an entire way of life, as in Dances With Wolves (1990).
So it makes some sense that the progressivism that superceded the frontier, and even appears in many of the western films that acknowledge it, would be embraced by critics. Surely, the story goes, our contemporary culture is far too sophisticated to bother with such horse operas. And yet, as critics ranging from Slotkin to White have demonstrated, the western is a highly variable genre that manages to both remain true to its benchmark traits while also reinventing itself for new audiences. So ride on, cowboy, ride on.
This past week marked a watershed moment for civil rights, in which the Supreme Court determined that the 14th Amendment protected same-sex marriage. This is wonderful news for all Americans, as any extension of civil rights helps to protect everyone’s civil rights.
This got me to thinking, as it often does, of westerns. Westerns are considered by many, including myself, as something like “America’s Genre.” The western is the quintessential American story, and it really represents to me an embodiment of all the best that our country has to offer.
But wait, many will say, isn’t the western simply a genre rife with the romanticization of White oppression and the colonization of native peoples, essentially a genre of white hegemony? Well, yes, and also no.
The Western, firstly, is many things. As Richard Slotkin has argued in his trilogy of the genre, the western has changed and morphed to suit and reflect the times in which it was made. The westerns of the 1950s were very clear-cut, and reflected the certainty of their age, while the westerns of the late 1960s and 1970s demonstrated a much more nuanced treatment of the western hero, and indeed offered a new protagonist, the “anti-hero,” most notably of the spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood. Richard Etulain calls these “gray westerns” because the boundary between good guy and bad guy is much more difficult to ascertain. It was in the ‘70s that we got such notables as “Little Big Man” and later, in the 80s, “Dances With Wolves.”
But back to same sex marriage and gender roles in the western. The Western has long been a bastion of conservative values in some respects, but if we look to the literature and the history of the late 19th century, a couple of things stand out. First and foremost, the West of real life was a good bit more diverse than the Hollywood West that emulated it. Some figures put white cowboys in the minority, especially in the desert Southwest, where much of the cowboy terminology owes a great debt to the Spanish and Mexican vaqueros. Secondly, the western, as a genre, is capable of housing a multiplicity of viewpoints while still remaining a clearly identifiable western (staying true to popular genre markers), and so the tales that the western tells are not only chronicles of conquest and power, but of understanding and coexistence, and sometimes even forgiveness.
Bret Harte was an early “local color” writer whose work preceded (and some may say enabled) the success of Mark Twain. One of his notable short stories is “Tennessee’s Partner,” which is based on a real-life pair of men in California. In the short story, Tennesee runs off with his partner’s wife, only to return without her. In an unexpected twist, the partner forgives and accepts him back. In real life, the same thing happened, but the two men, Chaffee and Chamberlain, continue to live together for 54 years. While they were not exactly “out” by modern standards, the local community seems to have considered them a couple, and accepted them as such. People who had no particular acceptance for homosexuality accepted these two men.
Which brings me to my point. The frontier west was a vast space with relatively small population densities, and although it was rough and tumble, people also had to work together, and the openness of the frontier created social spaces for coexistence that did not exist elsewhere. Women, for instance, had voting rights in Wyoming from 1869, and most of the states west of the Mississippi granted women the right to vote prior to the 19th Amendment in 1920. People might not like a certain ethnicity, or gender or religion, but in the old west they couldn’t remain ensconced in insular Facebook chat rooms of like-mindedness; they had to exercise tolerance and a certain amount of acceptance, even among people with whom they disagreed. Some western stories, like “Tennessee’s Partner,” demonstrate this point. You can see this story, and others, in the collection below.
I do not for a moment suggest that the west of history or literature is really a misunderstood land of progressive thinkers masquerading as rough and ready gunfighters, but do think that it’s a good example of how people can live and even thrive together in spite of their differences, and how a good western can often show us how to do it.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several western states had Ranger companies, mostly formulated on the model of the Texas Rangers, which were perhaps the first and are almost certainly the most famous. Colorado, New Mexico, California, and Arizona all had Ranger organizations. Virtually all of them are now defunct.
The Arizona Rangers were founded in 1901 to combat rustling and lawlessness that was giving the territory a bad reputation and stood in the way of the territory’s bid for statehood. The rangers, 26 men in all, were tasked with law enforcement over the entire territory. They mostly worked alone, often undercover, and had to provide all their own equipment. It was a tough way to make a living.
The Arizona Rangers don't get nearly the publicity of their Texas brethren, probably due to their short tenure, although Bill O’Neil did write a fine history of the Rangers; see the link below.
They were disbanded in ’09, having either arrested or chased off most of the real rowdies, and Arizona came to statehood in 1912. The territorial rangers moved on to other work, but in 1957 several of them decided they saw a need for a community service organization, and they reformed the Arizona Rangers as an all-volunteer law enforcement auxiliary. The new Arizona Rangers have been serving their respective communities and raising and donating money to children's charities ever since.
Today they are a recognized 501(c) (3) non-profit organization with four goals:
1. Render aid and assistance to law enforcement when called upon
2. Provide support for youth organizations
3. Support community activities that benefit all involved
4. Keep alive the traditions of the old west
I am proud to be associated with the Arizona Rangers, serving my local community and raising money for our children.
Join me as I postulate about literature, popular culture, martial arts, and who knows what else.