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Western Book Reviews: Gunsmoke and Saddle Leather

January 23, 2006 | Comments: 0 | Views: 70

It ain't necessarily an easy gig, writing western history. There's just somuch cultural freight behind the genre, so much expectation. Unlessyou're Bernard de Voto, how do you make an appeal to the generalmarket without losing the respect of your peers? Unless you're WallaceStegner, how do you indulge the professorial without seeing yoursubject turn bland as Ovaltine? Charles G. Worman's new coffee tablebook Gunsmoke and Saddle Leather: Firearms in the Nineteenth- Century American West (University of New Mexico Press, $55) goes along way toward striking that difficult balance between authenticity andamusement, elbowing its way onto the short list of entertaining texts thatnevertheless manage to make some contribution to their disciplines.

Seventeen chapters and 522 pages, heavy as a gym plate and thick asa cheap couch cushion, there's no curling up in bed with this sumbitch.No, Gunsmoke is meant to be browsed, read randomly while you'rehunched over your knees in the stacks, flipped through in the search fora familiar, faded face (Calamity Jane, "with a Stevens pocket rifle withdetachable skeleton stock.") or guns associated with famous names("This Burgess [a 12 gauge folding shotgun] passed to Pat Garrett,famed as Billy the Kid's killer, who served as US customs collector in ElPaso...Garrett had this gun with him when in 1908 he was gunned downby one of his tenants...") Despite the imposing size, the book is an easyway to kill an afternoon, a heavy hodgepodge of distracting tidbits.About the development of repeating rifles, for instance, Worman writes,"Manufacture of the Henry repeater ceased in 1866, shortly before thedemise of the Spencer. Oliver Winchester and his associatesrecognized the need for improvement in the Henry's magazine design.The solution was patented in May 1866 by Nelson King, a spring- tempered loading gate set in the right side of the brass frame...Loadingwas accomplished merely by inserting the cartridges one by onethrough the gate." For anyone with the least knowledge of firearms,these few sentences represent a treasure trove of learned trivia. Henry'sstopped production when? And Spencer's? And that side loadingmechanism that you remember from Uncle Earl's old 30.06? Turns out itwas an 1866 patent. For a firearms enthusiast or amateur historian,anyone with the least interest in Western history, it don't get much better.

The academic value of the book arises from Worman's considerable,nearly encyclopedic expertise, his thorough knowledge of the subject.He takes a particular delight in writing captions, explaining that thefuzzy, nearly indecipherable handgun on the hip of a drover is not onlybeing carried butt forward, but it's a Colt Model 1878; that the interior ofa cow puncher's bunk shows us a Winchester Model 1873 rifle, adouble-barrel shotgun and a holstered Colt Model 1878 revolver. "A pairof hand weights on the floor beside the boots indicates the owner musthave been health conscious." The various chapters, while arranged inrough temporal sequence - chapter eight, "The 1860s," precedeschapter nine, "Trailing Cattle," and chapter eleven, "The Slaughter of theBison" - nevertheless can (and perhaps should) be read as stand aloneessays.

This particular arena of western history, of course, is clotted with titles,each one clamoring for its share of attention. Winchester has a book, forinstance. Colt has a couple, Remington. Under their own bargainimprint, Barnes & Noble has released a whole scad of coffee tablebrowsers (A History of Arms, etc.). But Charles G. Worman's effortmanages to stand out. A firearms specialist and, previously, the co- author of the two volume, Firearms of the American West, a retireddeputy director of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force and aFellow of the Company of Military Historians, Worman is an able andentertaining guide, a scholar with no real agenda aside from thecommunication of his passion. His book is a skilled and valuableaddition to a difficult genre.

Allen Jones is Books and Writers Editor for New West Network.

Source: EzineArticles
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