A Brief History of The American West

By Philip McCormack


 Once America was discovered by the Europeans, it was host to violent activity. The colonists fought the Indians, and also fought amongst themselves. Then, as other nations laid claim to territory, the colonists fought them also. During the reign of George III the American War of Independence was fought (1775–1783). And in 1812 America was again at war with Great Britain (1812-1815). Then there was the Mexican war (1846–1848). However, the war that holds the greatest interest for the writer of Western novels is the Civil War (1861–1865). The bulk of Western novels are set during the years that followed the end of the Civil War up until the end of the century.


The Civil War and the Development of Weaponry

It was during the Civil War that dramatic advances in the weaponry available both to soldiery and to civilians occurred. Initially the rifles and pistols used in the Civil War were nothing more than improved versions of the ones used in the Revolutionary War. These original weapons gradually became more accurate; they had a longer range, and were more powerful. The guns were also much more efficient to use. The Civil War introduced the world’s first rifle and pistol cartridges and the first repeating rifles. This made reloading much easier and gave the soldier the ability to shoot faster. The most common weapon in the Civil War was the rifle, which was redesigned so that it was able to use cartridges. Another improvement over the smooth bore was the invention of the rifled barrel, which made the new weapons more accurate. The rifling in these new guns put a spin on the projectile as it left the barrel and this gave the rifles great accuracy. These latest rifles were also designed to use a new type of projectile. Prior to this the smooth-bore muskets used a round ball, whereas the new rifled muskets used a minie ball. The new bullet was designed with a pointed end and, as well as being much more accurate, inflicted a lot more damage.

All of these improvements in weaponry placed the odds greatly against the survival rate of the soldier. In the fighting during the Revolutionary War a musket took on average two minutes to load compared with the seconds it took to insert a cartridge in the new improved rifles. More fire power meant more combatants died. In fact, more people died in the American Civil War than in all of America’s wars put together.

Once the Civil War began in earnest it was imperative that both armies kept ahead in the arms race, which meant issuing the new rifles to replace old smooth-bore muskets. Some of the weapons used in the war entered into the folk history of the Wild West. The names of these weapons will have become familiar to the regular reader of Black Horse Westerns.


  • The SHARPS rifle was one of the finest rifles ever built and was deadly accurate in the right hands. This weapon was a breach-loader and could be loaded and fired much more rapidly than the muzzle-loaders it replaced.
  • The SPENCER was favoured by cavalry as it was lighter and shorter and could be fired from atop a horse or even lying on your front under cover.
  • The SPRINGFIELD model 1861 rifle was one of the last muzzle-loaders to be used. It was light and easy to use and, as it was a single shot, it meant that the soldiers using it could not be so wasteful of ammunition. The reader can imagine the inexperienced recruit in the heat of the action rapidly emptying the magazine of his repeater and constantly calling for more ammunition.
  • The HENRY rifle was designed to fire a .44 cartridge, which was much bigger and heavier, roughly half an inch in diameter, and had the power to inflict a lethal and deadly wound. Initially the gun was issued mainly to Northern soldiers. There was limited use by the Confederate forces as they did not have the manufacturing capability to make the cartridges. Capable of holding sixteen rounds in its magazine, the Henry was a rapid firing weapon and could fire up to twenty-eight rounds per minute.


Infantrymen were not issued with handguns, which were carried only by officers. It should of interest to the reader that regardless of the actual date of the revolver manufacture, that model was produced for years after its initial concept, but retained the original model number including the year. For example, the Colt 1860 Army Model started production in that year but kept the model number 1860 right through until it ceased being manufactured in 1876.

Incidentally the Colt Army Model 1860 was produced in huge quantities and was one of the most extensively used of all handguns in the Civil War. It was regular issue for the US cavalry during the war and bought in large quantities by the government. This gun was used as a pattern for many of the guns that were manufactured afterwards.


The Consequences of War

Once the war was over thousands of ex-soldiers were released back into the general population. Some returned home and settled down, but for others the war had destabilized their way of life. The peace that was established left the South devastated. That big money spinner, the cotton industry, was struggling due to the shortage of slaves required to harvest the cotton.

Charlatans and conmen flocked to the conquered South seeking to take advantage of the chaos that ensued. These became known as Carpetbaggers as they arrived at their destination with only a bag carrying all their possessions. That very brief history takes us into the setting of the Wild West. The bulk of Western novels are set during the years that followed the end of the Civil War up until the end of the century.

From out of that period of turmoil emerge legendry gunmen like Jesse James, the Younger brothers, Quantrill, and even a female outlaw, Belle Star. Other names perhaps not so familiar to the general reader are Jim Reed, Jim Cummings Clark, Archie Clement and Allen Parmer.

As the nineteenth century progressed, many more outlaws and gunmen stalked across the plains and deserts of America. These gunmen, outlaws and lawmen passed into legend, becoming household names. Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, Doc Holliday, the Sundance Kid, Butch Cassidy, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill Cody – the list is long. The writers of Black Horse Westerns endeavour to recreate that world of rugged men and resilient women who forged a new and exciting life in the wilderness aptly named the Wild West.


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