Ah, the Wild West! The land of gunslinging cowboys and outlaws. Where men openly carried their revolvers, and no home was without a rifle or two. Since March is Women’s History Month, I thought I’d look into the firearms women likely used back in the day. Sometimes they needed them for hunting, and sometimes for protection, but even back in the 1800s, women and guns were an important part of American history.
When I began my research for this piece, I didn’t expect it to be as difficult as it was to find firearms used by women during the 1800s. Seems simple, right? Well, after much effort, I’ve concluded that firearms back in those days weren’t specific to a man or a woman; instead, they were tools that would be in the home for many different purposes.
Having a rifle or pistol wasn’t a luxury; it was a necessity. Families hunted to put food on the table. They also depended on firearms for their protection. Whether you lived in town, on a homestead, or were traveling cross-country to strike it rich during the Gold Rush, the need to protect yourself and your family was of great concern. A lot of that responsibility went to the man of the family, but women often needed to handle these duties on their own.
When you think of women in the Wild West, Annie Oakley immediately comes to mind. Born Phoebe Ann Moses in 1860, “Annie,” as she’d later be known, was given her first gun at a very young age; the exact model is unknown, but it’s thought to have been an old Kentucky rifle, which she likely received around the age of 8. She became an excellent shot, providing food for her family by hunting and trapping. She became so successful at it that she’d also sell game to local restaurants. The money from those sales helped her parents pay their mortgage. While she’s best known for her shooting talent, I find it awesome that she got her start providing food and income for her family because of a firearm.
Throughout her lifetime, Ms. Oakley shot every gun she could get her hands on. I’d be remiss if I didn’t start with her first gun, the Kentucky rifle, both because it’s an iconic firearm, and it was readily available during the 1800s. (Later, she frequently used a Winchester Model 1892, introduced near the turn of the century and produced through 1941).
Kentucky rifle: First introduced in the 1700s, the Kentucky rifle, also known as the Kentucky/Pennsylvania rifle or Kentucky long rifle, was a muzzle-loading long gun. Calibers varied from .25 to .62, but .40 and .48 were the most popular. When people referred to this gun as a “long rifle” they weren’t kidding: Kentuckys varied in length from about 54 inches to more than 70. Their most common use was hunting, but they were also used for combat. Because of this, they were plentiful after the Revolutionary War, and often kept within the family and passed down.
While the Kentucky rifle was very popular, at 70 inches long it wasn’t exactly concealable. Women, even in those days, often needed something more portable, especially while working. Brothels and saloons of the wild west drew rowdy crowds and could become dangerous, so the women working in them often needed a means of protection that could be easily concealed within the folds of a dress or in a garter belt. Because of their small size, Derringers were very popular pistols for ladies working in such places.
Derringer: This super-compact pistol was developed by the Deringer family in 1825. The original was a flintlock .45-caliber. Known for being a large-caliber pistol in a super-compact frame, Derringers were popular because they were so easy to carry and conceal. Women carried them in the folds of their dresses, their purses, pockets, garter belts and even in their boots. Available in both single- and double-shot models, a Derringer was a great defensive weapon. Because of its small size, it was only accurate at close range. Of note: Somewhere along the line, the developer’s name, Deringer, was misspelled as Derringer, which remains the common spelling for the gun today.
Civil War veterans on both sides were allowed to keep their firearms. Pistols during that period were generally old military weapons. One such popular revolver was the Colt Navy revolver.
Colt Navy revolver: Manufactured by Samuel Colt between 1847 and 1873, this .36-caliber cap-and-ball revolver was originally referred to as the Ranger revolver. The Colt Navy was 6-shot single-action revolver which measured about 13 inches long and weighed 2.6 pounds. It was too big to easily conceal, but the Civil War made it widely available, and it was found in many homes.
Pioneer women had a different challenge. They were often alone on the frontier while the man of the house worked, sometimes far away from the homestead. Firearms were not only essential for protection, but also for hunting. It was common for a musket or rifle to hang above the fireplace, ready to protect the family at a moment’s notice. Muskets don’t have the spiral grooves in the barrel that rifles have; this made them less accurate for hunting, but they still provided decent protection. If the firearm was predominantly used for hunting, it was likely a rifle. Because of its popularity at the time, many of those rifles were the iconic Winchester Model 1873.
Winchester Model 1873: Introduced in 1873, this lever-action rifle was so popular that it’s commonly referred to as “The Gun that Won the West.” This rifle was Winchester’s first center-fired cartridge, the .44-40 WCF (Winchester Center Fire). The Winchester 73 introduced several features that are still popular; the Model 73 produced by Winchester today is very similar to the original. Because of its popularity, many homes had them; because of that, they would have been readily available to the women of the house for hunting and protection.
The list of pistols, rifles and even shotguns that would have been available to the women of the Wild West is vast. The 19th century was a period of invention and innovation in the firearms industry. Designs were introduced, produced, revamped and revised. I’ve highlighted a few of the choices that these women would have had access to, but one thing is for sure: Firearms and strong, independent women are an important part of our American heritage. Times weren’t easy in the Wild West for the ladies, but firearms helped level the playing field. We at Women’s Outdoor News salute our sisters in arms who helped blaze the trail.