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The heyday of the Mountain Men and mountain man guns was very short, beginning with the return of the Lewis and Clark expedition to St. Louis in 1806, peaking in 1820, and ending when the market for beaver fur collapsed in 1840. Estimates of their numbers range from 1,000 to 3,000. A very few survived into old age. A great many died young, frozen or starved, dead by mishap, or killed in one of a thousand un-named fights.
Mountain Men were minimalists. They carried a flint and steel, a number of knives, a tomahawk, steel traps, an axe, and above all, a rifle. Cowboys said that a man on foot was half a man. Mountain men would have added that a man without a rifle was a corpse still walking. That was all that stood between a trapper and death by starvation or arrow. Here’s a look at those guns.
Mountain Man Guns: Table of Contents
- The Model 1803 Harper’s Ferry Musket
- The Plains Rifle
- Mountain Man Guns: Handguns
- Mountain Man Knives
Mountain Man Guns
The Model 1803 Harper’s Ferry Musket
The Corps of Discovery was under the command of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark, both officers of extraordinary competence. The Corps was a United States Army unit and was supplied by the Army. It was issued the very first examples of the Model 1803 Harper’s Ferry (Arsenal) Musket, along with spare parts, gunsmith tools, and 200 pounds of gunpowder sealed in lead barrels that could be melted down and used for musket balls when they were emptied.
The Model 1803 was the first rifled long gun ever made by an American arsenal. It was a .54 flintlock with a half-stock, a 33-inch barrel, and brass furniture. It was handy and accurate. Everyone who used it liked it, and it was a major influence on the Plains Rifles that would shortly follow.
The Corps of Expedition discovered immediately that the animals of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains were bigger, tougher, and taken at much longer ranges than the critters of the eastern forests. And then there were the grizzlies. The Corps, collectively, was petrified of the bears, which were aggressive and difficult to stop with the rifles they carried. (The Corps’ records mention that a rifle had to be taken out of service when its stock was smashed against a grizzly’s skull.) One griz that tangled with the Corps was finally killed only after being shot eight times.
The problem lay in the round balls then in use. Sphero-conoidal bullets did not arrive until the advent of the Minie ball in the early 1850s, and round slugs were much lighter than pointed projectiles. A .54 round ball weighed 230 grains. The .58-caliber Minie ball used in the Springfield Rifle Musket that fought the Civil War was only slightly larger in diameter, but it weighed 500 grains. The round ball could be driven to 1,500 fps, but the .58 could do only 1,000 fps or a bit more. On the other hand, round balls penetrated poorly, while Minie balls went in a straight line, creating much deeper and more massive wounds.
The Plains Rifle
In 1807, Jacob Hawken, then in his 20s and trained in the East as a gunsmith, set up shop in the village of St. Louis. Carl P. Russell, in his book Firearms, Traps, and Tools of the Mountain Men, speculates that he could have met Lewis and Clark veterans, and heard their high opinion of the Model 1803 rifle as the ideal mountain man gun. Hawken’s first rifles, which were loosely based on the Kentucky rifle, showed its influence. They were shorter and handier than what Daniel Boone carried and dropped the full stock in favor of the half-stock.
Jacob was joined by his brother Samuel in 1822, and they built rifles until Jacob died in 1849. Samuel ran the shop until 1861 when he sold it to an employee named J.P. Gemmer, who kept it in operation until 1915. It was a fantastically long run for a small gunmaker, and can be credited to the high quality of what the shop turned out.
Not all Mountain Men carried Hawkens. The rifles’ reputation was unequaled, but their price was high. At the most, the Hawken shop turned out 200 a year. If you could not get one, you used a Model 1803, or a Kentucky with a re-bored barrel, or an Indian trade musket, or a Plains Rifle from one of the dozen or so gunsmiths back East who made them.
By 1822, the classic Hawken pattern was set. The brothers would build you a fancy rifle, or a small-caliber rifle, but the typical Plains Rifle was a large-caliber working gun, designed to stand up under hard use and, on occasion, horrendous charges of powder. Horace Kephart, a 20th-century authority on the Plains Rifle, owned a 10 ½-pound .53 Hawken that he loaded with a 226-grain bullet and 205 grains of black powder. The recoil, he said, was about like that of a .45/70 breechloader. Mountain Men would adjust their powder charges for the distance; a light charge was good out to 150 yards; a heavier charge would take you to 250 or so. Going to the maximum made 400 yards possible.
The most common Hawken caliber was .54, and .58 was popular. If you wanted, Hawken would make you a .60-caliber rifle, or even bigger. In a time when most rifle makers used a 1-66 twist, the Hawkens used 1-48 because it shot more accurately with mild loads, allowing the boys in buckskin to save powder.
Until 1835, all Hawkens were flintlocks. Even after percussion locks replaced them, Mountain men were reluctant to switch. If you ran out of caps in the wilderness, you were out of business. But if your flint went bad, you picked up another hunk of flint, or any of a half-dozen other kinds of stone, and knapped it to shape.
Kentucky rifle barrels were rarely shorter than 40 inches, with some going over 48. Hawken barrels were rarely longer than 33 or 34 inches. However, Plains Rifles were not light. Most went 9 to 10 pounds, and there were monsters that weighed 15, much of the weight being in the barrel. The sights were a front blade made of brass or a melted and re-cast silver coin, and a fixed rear V made of iron. Double-set triggers were much preferred.
Where a Kentucky rifle was stocked in fancy maple, the Hawken brothers used maple or walnut, but as straight-grained as possible, preferring that their stocks didn’t break. No one seems to know for certain how they were finished, but the likely candidate is varnish. The ornate brass furniture of the Kentucky gave way to iron or steel and was left unpolished, since sunlight glinting off a brass patchbox could be your death warrant.
The best guess is that the Hawken shop turned out a thousand rifles, start to finish. Comparatively, few have survived. Probably, most were simply used to death; shot out and never re-barreled, or made obsolete by repeating rifles and left to rust. They were best summed up in Jeremiah Johnson: “But damn, it was a genuine Hawken, and you couldn’t go no better.”
Mountain Man Guns: Handguns
A trapper could work in one of two ways: He could go it alone, or join a “brigade” of 40 to 60 men who would have a boat equipped with a swivel cannon on the bow. This was safer, but when it came time to actually trap, the brigade was broken up into two- or three-man teams. Then it was perilous in the extreme, as we learn from the story of John Colter.
Colter was a member of the Corps of Discovery who had proved so valuable that he was given a Model 1803 rifle by way of recognition when he was discharged. He opted for trapping, did a year as a solo trapper from 1806 to 1807, saw what the odds of survival were, and joined a brigade from 1808 to 1810. His time with the brigade was one long, running Indian fight. When he returned to camp one night and found the other two members of his team had been killed by Blackfeet, Colter figured he had pushed his luck as far as it would go, returned to civilization, took up farming, and died of jaundice in 1813.
Much of the danger came from the muzzle-loading rifles themselves. Mountain Men had one shot before they had to reload, which took about 15 seconds. So prudent trappers would carry either one or two pistols, military guns preferred, caliber of .60 or above, flintlocks, and brass-bound grips that came in handy when you grabbed the barrel and used the pistol as a club.
We have very few specifics about mountain-man sidearms because they were hardly ever written about, and if so, not in detail. But use them they did, and those one or two quick follow-up shots might have saved a few mountain men to trap another day.
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Mountain Man Knives
Along with mountain man guns like the Harpers Ferry Musket, all mountain men carried knives and would turn to them as a last resort, but avoided using them as weapons because there was almost no way to come out of a knife fight with all your body parts attached—and if you were crippled you were as good as dead. The trappers did not carry Bowie knives. The Bowie is a fighting knife, and not very useful otherwise. The average Mountain Man packed a skinner, a patch knife, a butcher knife, or, after 1834, a Green River Works knife, made in Massachusetts by the John Russell Company.
Green River Works knives were simple and inexpensive, and at the height of their popularity, the John Russell Company sent 60,000 a year to the frontier. The knives were of such high quality that “Green River” became a synonym for thorough work, as “He done it up to Green River.”
Mountain Men lived lives of hardship and unending danger, and none of them got rich. But on the other hand, they were free to a degree that we can’t even imagine today, and saw sights that we can only dream of. If you’re looking for a way to think of Mountain Men, envy will do very nicely.