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Pawnee Bill Ranch

Historic Firearms


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<Introduction Music>

[00:05] Thank you for downloading the Pawnee Bill Ranch podcast, brought to you by the staff of the Pawnee Bill Ranch.

[00:15] Hello, I am Anna Davis, Pawnee Bill Ranch historical interpreter, and I am Erin Brown, curator at the Pawnee Bill Ranch. Welcome to the Pawnee Bill Ranch podcast.

[00:23] Erin Brown:
The American West is probably one of the most popular and romanticized periods in American history. Wild West Shows, like Pawnee Bill’s, became popular because they acted out the drama of the events and people associated with the west that was quickly changing. People hungered for a depiction of an unspoiled land before barbed wire and railroads and the removal of American Indians to reservations.
Wild West Shows painted a glamorous portrait of the west that the paying public bought into. Firearms of this era, likewise, have a special fascination, and guns are inextricably tied to the historical drama of the United States of America.

[01:01] Anna Davis:
That’s right. You really can’t have a Wild West Show without guns, either then or now. You can’t really imagine an America without guns for that matter. Guns have supplied Americans with the ability to participate in the sport of hunting and have provided pioneers and modern citizens with weapons for personal protection. For varying reasons, there are a lot of people in this country that are fascinated by firearms, and today, specifically, we are going to be talking about historic guns associated with the Wild West Show.

[01:28] Erin Brown:
So because Anna and I aren’t gun experts, we have brought in a “big gun,” so to speak. We have with us today Dave Kennedy from the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center. He has previously worked at the Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Regional Heritage Center. Welcome to the podcast, Dave!

[01:45] Dave Kennedy:
Thanks for having me. Very glad to be here.

[01:47] Anna Davis:
Well, we know May Lillie once famously said that Pawnee Bill’s wedding gift to her was a pony and a Marlin .22. Obviously guns were central to the Lillie’s way of life. We assume that during a Wild West show a trick shooter would have had something different than a stagecoach driver. I can imagine that there would have been a variety of different guns being used during a show, so can you tell us what kind of guns would have been used in a Wild West show like Pawnee Bill’s?

[02:11] Dave Kennedy:
Any gun and every gun. The people in the Wild West shows would have used any guns they would have liked to use. Anything from the .22 that May Lillie received from Pawnee Bill to .45-caliber Colts and .44-caliber Smith & Wessons to a wide variety of different carbines and rifles made by Winchester, Marlin, and any other manufacturer that they wanted.

[02:37] Erin Brown:
So is there any particular reason why they would have been chosen, or was it just mostly personal preference?

[02:42] Dave Kennedy:
A lot of it was personal preference. A lot of these guns they had the same capabilities as the others. The big thing is which gun fit best to that shooter, what guns the person might like to use. A lot of the guns would have been modified maybe to fit either the physical stature of someone - if he were shooting a shotgun, especially if you were someone like Annie Oakley who was known for your prowess shooting trap, you would quite often have a shotgun built to your specific body size that would fit you best. If you were using something in the way of a handgun, you might have a special set of grips built for that particular pistol.

[03:22] Anna Davis:
Okay, so if you went to a Wild West show, and you were seeing people like Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, Pawnee Bill using a particular pistol or a rifle, how likely was it that a member of the public would go out and buy that same type of rifle?

[03:37] Dave Kennedy:
The shooters for the shows they were used quite often in the advertisements. Annie Oakley was a regular face in advertisements for Marlin firearms, for example. A lot of times the people would end up using, though, whichever gun their name ended up getting associated with.  People over time began associating Colts - Colt handguns - with particular shooters or Smith & Wesson handguns with particular shooters, but quite often the shooters themselves, they just used whatever. They would change with their particular opinions, also, on guns.

[04:10] Erin Brown:
Okay, so I’m looking at a 1909 program, and it has an advertisement in it that says, “For over twenty years, the far-famed hunter and peerless scout Colonel W.F. Cody, “Buffalo Bill,” has used Winchester rifles and Winchester ammunition,” and there’s an extract here from a letter of Cody’s. “As you know I always use Winchester rifles and Winchester ammunition. I have used both exclusively for over twenty years for hunting and in my entertainments.” And then I’ve got another excerpt from a 1905 program where it says “Iver Johnson revolvers used exclusively by this show.” So how common was it for there to be like celebrity endorsements for firearms during this time?

[04:54] Dave Kennedy:
It would happen all the time.

[04:55] Erin Brown:
All the time?

[04:56] Dave Kennedy:
Anytime that...

[04:58] Erin Brown:
It was kind of the pre-Michael Jordan Nike type situation?

[05:00] Dave Kennedy:
Right. Anytime that somebody of any amount of fame would order a gun from a company, they would always - they would contact the company either on their own letterhead or have their show manager contact the company, and they would order these guns from the companies directly, knowing that they would be treated very, very well and the quality would be second to none. And any correspondence that would extol the virtues of that particular product would be kept aside by the company so they could use those in their advertisements. Today if you tried to do the same thing, you would have to have a contract someplace or people would be very careful what to say, except for tweeting about it sometimes.

[05:41] Anna Davis:
So when you start talking about rifles during this time period, there’s obviously different - I don’t know if you want to call it classes or makes or models - I know especially during, with the 1892 Winchesters, you have a sporting rifle, a carbine, a half-magazine carbine, and a musket. What are the differences between these and would any specific one of these have been actually used in the show above the others?

[06:04] Dave Kennedy:
There are a few different differences. Essentially they’re all the same gun. What it comes down to in a lot of cases is the furniture and the barrel length in most of those cases. The carbine is essentially a shorter version of the rifle. The rifle in a lot of cases would have a 24-inch barrel and a full stock; the carbine would have a 20-inch barrel and accordingly a shorter stock. The musket was designed to look, in a lot of cases, as if it were a military rifle, so you would have a 24- or 26-inch barrel just like on the regular rifle, but the stock would be completely to the end of the barrel as you would see with military rifles from the time. The half-magazine carbine that you mentioned - some people refer to that as a button magazine - that would just be a standard carbine that just has a shorter-than-usual magazine, and the main purpose, why a lot of people would go with a shorter magazine, is it would actually move the center of gravity for the gun to the rear and would allow the gun to move around a little bit easier as they were trying to acquire their target or trying to turn to the point to a shot.

[07:06] Anna Davis:
So you could have actually seen all these different varieties being used in a show, theoretically?

[07:11] Dave Kennedy:
Yes, you could. Typically, though, you would only be seeing either just a standard carbine or a standard rifle.

[07:15] Erin Brown:
I can imagine that there would be particular guns that would have been desirable on horseback versus being like a ground-shot trick shooter. Is that true?

[07:25] Dave Kennedy:
In some cases, yes. For a lot of the shooters for these shows, if they were shooting from horseback, the only choice for most of them would have to be a revolver of some sort. Some of them would like to shoot from horseback using a carbine just simply because it was smaller; it was easier to handle. Most of the carbines would have a what’s called a “saddle ring” on the side that a lanyard of some sort would go through that to attach it to a sling that the rider would have so they wouldn’t have to worry about dropping the gun in mid-performance, and so they would typically end up using a handgun though if they were mounted. If you were standing, you would use pistol, rifle, shotgun depending on what you were trying to show off.

[08:06] Erin Brown:
Did your ammunition vary between acts?

[08:08] Dave Kennedy:
Yes, it would. Quite often in a lot of the shows shotguns, the shot that would be used would just be your standard shot as if you were doing anything normally. With the rifles and with the handguns, especially the large caliber rifles and handguns - .32, .38, .44, .45 caliber - the performers would quite often use shot cartridges. So essentially you are looking at a pistol cartridge and invariably they would be using firearms, whether a handgun or a rifle or carbine, that would be firing a pistol-type cartridge. They wouldn’t be shooting a full, like a .45-70 which you would associate with shooting bison or a .30-30 cartridge which you associate with shooting deer; they would be using .44 or .45-caliber revolver-type cartridges, or they would be using .32s and .38s, but they would have a small amount of shot that would be in the cartridges and that was solely for the safety of the audience. They did not want anyone to be hurt. There were a number of different cases of different Western performers, up to and including Buffalo Bill, who actually shot members of their audience in mid-performance when they were using regular cartridges, because the regular cartridge from a handgun, it could travel thousands of feet if not farther. So if you’re in a small arena or an amphitheater, and you’re shooting and your cartridge misses the target, remember that that cartridge bullet itself is going to continue to travel and many of these performances were in largish towns up to full-on cities. Buffalo Bill had one of his, one of the best shows of his career was in Chicago during the 1893 World’s Fair. He was right next door to the World’s Fair in the middle of Chicago, and they were not going to be sending bullets into town, so they would have shot cartridges that the whole purpose of that was for the safety of the audience and with also at some points it would also help affect the accuracy. If you were shooting at small glass bottles with a handgun at a range of 40-50 yards, if you’re just the slightest bit off, if you’re firing a shot that’ll actually kind of help improve your chances of hitting the target.

[10:17] Anna Davis:
So talk about sharpshooters in these shows. It must have been extremely important to have a reliable weapon, number one, one that would also operate smoothly but also allow you the speed to shoot at aerial targets. I’ve read some examples of performers favoring a smooth bore, and I’ve also seen examples of them filing down or making modifications to the hammer spurs, the triggers, in order to make these weapons fire faster. How often was a modified gun used in these shows?

[10:46] Dave Kennedy:
It depends on who the performer was. Many of the performers used the standard guns; the only modification that would be made would be to affect the fit of the gun to the shooter. If you have a poorly fitting gun, it’s not going to help. If you have a gun that fits your hand, fits your shoulder, just fits your body better, you have a much better chance of more ease of using the tool, and to a lot of these performers it really was a tool. When you are looking at any of the other modifications - mechanical modifications - some of those, you mentioned the smooth bore, that would work very well if you’re using shot cartridges, you would want the smooth bore. If you have a rifled bore, and you’re shooting shot cartridges, it will actually produce a different pattern with a shot. In some cases providing a halo effect which will end up, would end up meaning that your shot will travel everywhere except the center of the shot where you want it to hit. It depends on the distance; it depends on what kinds of cartridges you are using. For the ease of ability to shoot the guns faster, a lot of that was just simply practice. I’ve heard different stories, people made claims that there was no way Annie Oakley or Pawnee Bill or Buffalo Bill or any of the other major performers could shoot the way that they did, but it was just simply that they would shoot hundreds of thousands of rounds a year at targets doing that exact same thing, whether it was in practice or on the shows. If you watch the Olympic shooting competitions that take place, there were just some amazing performances by people like the American Kim Rhode, who took the gold in Women’s Skeet. She went out and she just nailed almost every single clay; I think she missed one clay out of 500, maybe 2 or 3 clays out of 500. This is a girl who fires 50/100,000 rounds a year out of her shotgun at clay targets. It’s just these people are always getting trigger time, and they always go out and so they’re just - their muscle memory is such that it’s not a hard thing for them to do.

[12:50] Erin Brown:
We have May’s pistol on exhibit, and it’s a Smith & Wesson that was modified from a .22 to - from a .32 to a .22 Rimfire, professionally modified. Why would that have been advantageous for May?

[13:04] Dave Kennedy:
That might have been advantageous because she may have just liked a .22, and she liked that particular handgun. The particular model of Smith & Wesson you’re looking at was produced in .32 caliber. It was not produced in .22, and so she may have just liked .22 specifically for her target shooting. It was a well-made pistol but, that - I should say revolver - it was a well-made revolver, but it was just one of those things that was not available at the time in a .22 Rimfire. If she really like the gun, if it fit her hands well, it’s kind of hard to increase the size on the .22s that were being made at the time because each particular cartridge had a particular-sized style of gun that was made for it when that particular gun came out, and it wasn’t until later that people really started to appreciate the use of something like a .22 cartridge in a larger handgun.

[13:54] Erin Brown:
Since guns were such a large part of Wild West Show culture at this time, it wasn’t uncommon for performers to give rifles and pistols as gifts. How common would it have been for a gun to have been engraved with a personal message or have a plaque attached to it?

[14:10] Dave Kennedy:
The appearance of personalized firearms with different engravings or plaques or things like that would have been pretty common amongst the well-to-do, amongst the people with money. Granted, you’re only talking a few dollars at that time to get some of those different modifications made, but it’s that few dollars would have been something that’s a little bit too much when you think about that most of the people who were going to be carrying those guns - if they’re spending $25 on a Winchester rifle, that’s most of their salary for a couple of months, and they’re going to be putting that hard-earned money into a tool that they’re going to be using to feed their family or defend their family. If it’s something that’s going to be engraved, that’s going to be something that’s a demonstration piece; that’ll be something that’ll be special and very well taken care of, and so we’re looking at two different, two different styles of use, two different styles of appreciation.

[15:05] Erin Brown:
As you know, Dave, there are many gun collectors today, and I’m sure as it is with anything of a historical nature that a person collects, if you can have a gun associated with a historically significant event or a person, the more special that artifact is. We see a lot of firearms out there in auction houses and in private collections that are billed as being used, as having been used, by Pawnee Bill or May, and some of them we can tell right away aren’t the real thing because, for instance, there are about eight identical Flobert .22s floating around the US in the last few years. They all had a plaque attached, and all the information was inaccurate. So it was easy for us to figure out that these guns could have never been used by a legitimate showman.

[15:49] Anna Davis:
Yeah, other times it’s not so easy for us to tell. Everybody wants to own a tangible connection to the past, but really nobody wants to get cheated; so how can the normal person, a layman, tell whether or not a gun that is being marketed as a historically significant gun is the real deal?

[16:08] Dave Kennedy:
The buyer has to educate themselves. One of the constant themes I’ve seen in any story I’ve heard of a gun buyer getting swindled or just getting a bad gun is the failure to educate themselves. Whether that’s educating themselves about the gun; the gun company; the history; the manufacturer of the gun; how different modifications were made by the factory versus some gun guy fixing things up the way he likes them in his garage; education about the different shooters; the different events that took place. I had a woman try to convince me that this, that the gun that she owned was given to her late husband’s uncle by Buffalo Bill. When I found out what it was, I realized it couldn’t have been because the gun was made in 1925 and Bill Cody died in 1917. And that led to a whole other conversation, but what it comes down to is a lot of these people are buying the story, they’re not buying the gun, and if the person wants to go along with the story, by all means they’re buying the story, and they’ll pay whatever they want to. But if you’re buying the gun as an investment, if you are buying it to be a serious collector, there is nothing more expensive than buying your first bad gun. That’s the most expensive part of that education that makes you realize that going out and spending $5- or $10,000 on the bad gun is a whole lot more expensive than buying about $3- or $400 worth of books and going around the gun shows and talking to the collectors and looking at all the different variations. The number of gun shows, especially antique firearm shows, across this country, there is a great resource; there’s a lot of professional, well semi-professional, collecting organizations that are based around each of these different manufacturers - Cole, Winchester, Marlin, Smith & Wesson. Many other gun companies, they all have their collector’s organizations, and these people would love to talk to collectors, especially starting collectors, to let them know what they need to do to educate themselves. In the case of things along the lines of the Flobert .22s you’re talking about, that’s not uncommon, also. Anything that can be given value, people will do something to give it value, and with guns it’s a real easy way if you can just put some sort of little attribution onto a gun, you might run the value from $100 to $500. You might run it from $500 to $2,000. You might run it from $2,000 to $10,000, just by the application of a few judicious stamps, maybe some fake engraving, some aging of a new gun to make it look old, and you can really convince people they have something special, and that’s really what a lot of people are paying for is that something special.

[19:00] Anna Davis:
So say you go to one of these many gun shows that are hosted around this area, and you find a gentleman who has a Theodore Roosevelt gun or a Buffalo Bill Cody gun, and you’re very interested in it. What are some of the questions that you can ask this dealer about these rifles?

[19:16] Dave Kennedy:
I would ask him or her if it has a factory letter. Most of the different major gun companies have the factory records still accessible in different areas. Colt Firearms Company has their records. Smith & Wesson has their records. The Winchester and Marlin records are at the Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming. You can find out information on a lot of these different guns just by what’s in the information. Whether that ranges from “Does the gun still match the configuration in which it left the factory?” to “Is there some sort - do you have an idea where the gun was shipped when it left the factory?” Not all that information will always be there but that’s the first step. The second step is if it is something that is tied to a specific personality, I would talk to the person to find out “Where did you verify this or do you have any letters from any authorities on the subject of Buffalo Bill, Pawnee Bill or Theodore Roosevelt to say where this gun is or where the gun came from? What’s your proof that this person owned the gun?” Find out what the provenance on the gun is. Who owned it before you? Who did you buy it from? Who did they buy it from and backtrack that because, especially when you start talking about the names Cody or Roosevelt or some of the other different names, Jesse James - there’s been more Jesse James guns sold around this region than almost anything else. Jesse James’ mom, after he died, had a barrel full of old guns sitting in the back of their house. She would tell visitors a sob story about how she was broke and all she still had was Jesse’s old guns sittin’ in back, and well, if that person might have $20, she can part with the gun. So, there are a whole bunch of people who left Missouri thinking that they owned Jesse James’ gun, and so you just have to try to follow the stories and a lot of these stories are known really well by a lot of people within the gun collecting community, and they can even help you figure out who to trust, who not to trust, which way to go. And then you can also talk to some third-party people who are not collectors; some of the people in the museum field who are not collectors. Some of the people who are in the gun press who are not collectors but know who you may or may not want to go to, and just try to find out who’s got the financial interest in whether or not that gun gets sold; that may be one of your best bets. Even once you get past that on, that’s the boring side doing all the research, the fun side’s when you actually get to look at the gun and you can start looking for different marks. If you see modern tool marks, if you see things on the gun that just don’t quite add up - for example, if it is a silver finish or a nickel-plate or a gold-plate or something like that, that just looks like it was brand new and done, that’s a mark that maybe something is wrong. If you see all the stampings from the factory are kind of dull and shallow, that’s a mark that something may have been done after it left the factory. If you are looking at the gun and they’re trying to talk to you and sell it as an original gun that hasn’t been modified or messed with or changed, yet there’s no crud stuck down in between the wood and the metal, that’s something to watch out for because if they’ve had to clean the daylights out of it, who knows what else has happened. And so there’s a lot of different things you want to watch out for, and a lot of it just comes back to education and is part of that experience.

[22:35] Anna Davis:
Now we don’t really want to, you know, scare the listeners away from maybe starting a collection of historic guns, the fear that you might have that it is a fake. What percentage, do you think, of guns out there are the market today are the real deal versus these that have been faked by people who are trying to make a quick buck?

[22:52] Dave Kennedy:
I would say the real deal is probably upwards of 75%. The ones that are remaining I would think a small number of those have been faked or modified for financial gain, a lot of them, the guns would show up, like somebody would buy a gun through mail order, the gun would go out to wherever that person was, and if they didn’t like something about it - say, I’d mentioned earlier about people wanting to have a shorter magazine because they wanted the balance on the gun to be a little bit different - they could write back to, say they have a Winchester 1892, they write back to Winchester saying I would like a new magazine, a shorter magazine, for my Winchester 1892, and they would find out it’s say $2.00 and so they would send that piece back out and the person would switch the piece out. And so all of a sudden they have a brand new button mag rifle - which is another name for the half magazine. Just it’s a little bit more complicated than that but if somebody made those changes in the 1890s, it’s going to look period. It’s going to look as if it left the factory that way even though the factory record may show it as a full-length magazine, so there’s different things like that where people in the field, whether it was a gunsmith or blacksmith in whatever area they were in would change the gun to make a slightly different configuration or just different things would take place in the usage of that gun over time. So, a lot of the guns that are different nowadays, a lot of them were just because people used them, and there was no bad intent on any of that.

[24:26] Erin Brown:
So is there a specific place that is better than others to purchase a historic gun; for instance, are gun shows better than auction houses or is it - or does it not matter?

[24:35] Dave Kennedy:
It doesn’t really matter. You’re going to be finding a little bit different selection of guns. You’re going to be able to find a different selection of buyers and sellers in all of those different places. It has kind of gone mainstream, almost Walmartish to a certain extent, because of companies like Cabela’s and Bass Pro. You can go to Bass Pro Shops or Cabela’s, and they’ve got these big high-end gun rooms but a lot of the guns there, they’re going to be pretty good. They usually get the factory letters on all their guns, but they’re also going to have a pretty good-sized markup because they know that there will be people through there who don’t know any better and realize that they can spend a whole lot of money on a gun, and they won’t think anything of it; whereas if you go to a gun show, you’re going to find some really special guns but there might be a little bit different price range there, there might be a little bit more of an ability to deal, there might be a little bit more of an ability to be sure you’ve got some good stuff. That’s a good place to go, probably, if you want to start getting some starter guns, like on the bottom end - the $500, $1000, $2000 guns just to start out your collection. If you start to get to the point where you’re really looking at serious serious guns, by that point (I’m talking in the range of $10,000 or more) you’re going to be knowing a few people who are really good suppliers or collectors of those that you can talk to and you can maybe buy directly from those people, or you’re going to be going to the major auction companies. ¬†There are some major auction companies that deal specifically in this type of thing, whether you’re talking James D. Julia on the east coast, Little John’s Auctions on the west coast, Rock Island Auction Company up in Illinois and Iowa. There’s a few others - Cowan’s Auctions - there’s a bunch of different companies that deal with a lot of Western Americana or other things like that, and they’ll have large auctions pretty regularly, and they’ll have just some amazing stuff there and the truth rule out in those cases. If something shows up in a catalog, and it’s a bad gun, they’ll find out about it real fast because somebody may have seen that gun and they may know something, and quite often those auctions get talked about. I think one of the worst places you can buy a really, really special gun from is gunbroker. If you’re going to go out and buy a gun for personal protection or for shooting ducks or deer, gun broker is a great place to go because you can find some really decent deals. If you start looking at specialty firearms like Winchesters, Colts, especially when you start to tie them into personalities, that’s a really bad place to go because there’s a lot of really bad guns that show up on there. If somebody - if a gun’s a legitimate famous-name gun, and somebody’s really serious about selling it to the right crowd for the right amount of money, it’ll be at a major auction company or going through a reputable dealer. It’s not going to be on gunbroker.

[27:22] Erin Brown:
So the moral of the story is just educate yourself.

[27:25] Dave Kennedy:

[27:25] Erin Brown:
Do your research. Do your homework.

[27:27] Dave Kennedy:

[27:27] Erin Brown:
So you don’t get taken.

[27:29] Dave Kennedy:

[27:30] Erin Brown:
That’s a good lesson for many areas in life. Well, thank you, Dave. We appreciate your knowledge. I know I’ve learned a lot in this podcast because I certainly don’t know anything about guns.

[27:42] Dave Kennedy:
And if you guys want to know any more about guns, just let me know. I’ll be more than happy to come back to Pawnee.

[27:47] Anna Davis:
Thank you very much.

<Closing Music>

[27:53] Anna Davis:
The Pawnee Bill Ranch is owned and operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society. For more information, go to www.pawneebillranch.com or find us on Facebook under Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum.