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  • August 21st, 2020


By Joel M. Vance


I’ve owned but one hand gun in my life, a .22 caliber Colt replica in miniature of the famed six shooter carried by the many Western heroes of the black and white movies of my childhood when my eight-year-old peers and I haunted the local movie theater on Saturday, hollering at the screen bad guys, sticking our Juicy Fruit wads under the seat, dissolving Milk Duds and our teeth in almost equal proportions.


Fast forward half a century or more when I bought my Colt handgun. I somehow acquired a leather holster and ammunition belt, similar or identical to those worn by my childhood heroes, Hopalong Cassidy, the Durango Kid, Tex Ritter, Duke Wayne, and, of course, Roy and Gene.


I began practicing fast draw in our basement, the gun unloaded of course–I was stupid, but not completely unhinged–and decided to try it for real in the local National Guard armory shooting range.


I was the battery commander of the Guard unit and had access to the range anytime I wanted, plus an unlimited supply of .22 caliber shorts. So, I showed up at the armory and explained to the master sergeant office manager that I was going to pop a few rounds on the range.


I went into the range, pinned a couple of targets to the bracket at the far end, and backed off to the 10 yard firing line. I practiced a few quick draws to warm up and then decided it was time to join the ranks of my movie idols. I loaded all six cylinders of the pistol, snapped it shut and nestled it in my holster. I visualized Jack Elam, The quintessential Western movie bad guy, snarling at me, his hand hovering over his sixgun, daring me to go for it!


I saw him grab for his hog leg, and, adhering to the unbreakable code of the West which dictated you couldn’t shoot a guy until he went for his gun first, as quick as a striking rattlesnake, I grabbed my trusty sidearm and fired–right into the overhead ceiling light fixture which exploded in a shower of broken glass.


There was a deafening and protracted long silence, during which I carefully unloaded the gun, put it back in the holster.  Finally, after several centuries of embarrassment, the door opened and the sergeant. walked in and took one look at the debris scattered in front of me and quietly said, “Jesus Christ, Sir.”


Shortly after, I traded the pistol and a bunch of cash for a 12 gauge over/under shotgun. I can’t hit anything with it but at least I haven’t shot out any more overhead lights.


Having demonstrated that I was a menace to overhead lights with a pistol, I switched to the armory’s .22 caliber rifles that were set up for target shooting. I was pretty good with a rifle (certainly light years better than I was with a pistol) and began shooting the clothespins that fastened targets below a wire–more of a challenge than a paper target with a big ‘ol bullseye. My sergeant would come into the range after I finished demolishing his clothespins, regard the splintered remains, and say quietly, “Jesus Christ, Sir.”


The incident with the pistol convinced me that the idea of, like Gene Autry, shooting the pistol out of the hand of a bad guy, without otherwise injuring him, was impractical in the old West, more likely to result in Clean Gene being slung over his saddle on Champion and hauled to Boot Hill for burial.


Besides which, if some old West gunslinger was able to shoot the bad guy’s pistol out of his hand, the result almost certainly would’ve been severe damage to the hand, and there were no orthopedic surgeons in those days to make ligaments and tendons all better again.


The truth is that most old West gunslingers were notoriously poor shots and those fabled shootouts in the local tavern probably killed more innocent bystanders than they did the intended targets. More often than not, two guys would face off six feet apart, both draw, and blast away futilely without hitting anything other than the bartender, a couple of the ladies of the night, and the afore-mentioned innocent bystanders.


Discounting the fact that many gunfights resulted in more stray bullets than they did in effective ones, some of the reports of sharpshooting desperados are exaggerated but almost true (never forget that tall tales from history often are elevated in height by adding colorful details).


Reportedly Butch Cassidy could hit a coin thrown in the air (although I’m sure it was a silver dollar rather than a half dime). And both Butch and the Sundance Kid reportedly entertained visitors by drawing and shattering thrown beer bottles before they hit the ground. Another story is that Wild Bill Hickok once killed a running man with a pistol shot at 100 yards. I suspect more than a little inflation in that tale because, given the range and muzzle velocity of a cap and ball pistol, chances are at 100 yards, even if Wild Bill hit his target, it wouldn’t do more than at most leave a bruise.


I actually do have another pistol, an 1860 .44 caliber Army Colt that supposedly belonged to my great grandfather. The story is that he carried this pistol during a brief career as a Union militiaman in a Civil War company formed by his brother my great grand uncle, known as Vance’s Rangers.


Despite its heroic moniker, the Rangers were no more than a bunch of farm boys who got together to play soldier and found they knew as much of military tactics as the Keystone Kops knew about police work in the early movie comedies. The Rangers began life in the spring of 1863, and in the fall they deployed to Glasgow to defend the town against the real army of Confederate General Sterling Price. The general, who had been Missouri’s governor, but who chose the Confederate side, sent a detachment to Glasgow where they proceeded to capture the entire Rangers company in about an hour.


The Johnnys Reb, paroled my great grandpa and his brother and the rest of their motley crew and I’m sure in the custom of the day where parolees were involved, allowed the enlisted men to keep their rifles, but confiscated the sidearms of the officers.


Thus, I should not have a pistol belonging to my great grandpa. Perhaps he didn’t have it when he was captured or he bought the gun later after he ignominiously went home, possibly as a protection against the depredations of Bloody Bill Anderson, a Confederate sociopathic killer whose bloodthirsty band of bushwhackers was roaming the very same territory as Price’s Army at the same time as the Glasgow “battle”.


Nonetheless, I have the old Colt and have never fired it and never will. Family story is that my grandfather used to unlimber  the pistol on July Fourth and salute the nation’s independence by banging away, but I never saw it happen.


I managed to mess up the firing mechanism after I inherited the gun, and took it to a gunsmith to have it repaired and supposedly it is operable once again, but I have no desire to find out the hard way–the hard way being if the gun explodes when you squeeze the trigger, or the gun “chain fires”, a spectacular explosion by all six loads, each one setting off the next. The result of that is going to be at least equal in damage to the shooter’s hand, as to what happened to the bad guy in old Gene’s cowboy movies.


The Colt .44 Army and its smaller cousin the .35caliber Navy Colt were the choice weapons for many of the bushwhacker outlaws up until 1873 when Colt unveiled the first practical cartridge revolver. The older Colts and all their pistol cousins were cap and ball, almost impossible to reload in the middle of the pell-mell horse mounted gunfight. There were attempts to develop a dependable cartridge gun before and during the Civil War, but none were reliable enough to be useful in robbing a train or a bank.


Cap and ball shooting irons meant that once you shot six times (hoping the gun didn’t explode in your hand) you were out of firepower. Thus, many of the outlaws carried multiple guns–Jesse James was reported to have carried as many as six. The Colt cartridge gun, commonly known as the Peacemaker, was a revolutionary update for the arsenal, not only of peace officers, but also for the bad guys.


But the bad guys of the cap and ball era were, in every sense, often really bad guys, exemplified by those who rode with Bloody Bill Anderson during the Civil War, like Frank and Jesse James. Apparently Jesse was sick and not present, but Frank was when Anderson and his estimated 300 ruthless killers descended on Centralia, Missouri, September 27, 1864.


First, the bushwhackers stopped a train containing 23 Union soldiers headed home on furlough and killed them all , no doubt using cap and ball six shooters which was their weapon of choice.


Later that day a detachment of Union soldiers, from the39th Missouri Infantry Volunteers under the command of Major A.V.E. Johnson showed up in Centralia and, determined to exact revenge, pursued Bloody Bill’s bushwhackers. They sound about as competent as Vance’s Rangers, described as being mounted on horses and mules “most of them old brood mares and plow horses with some indifferent mules.”  Tellingly, only the officers had pistols.


There were 147 troops, five officers and three others. Foolishly, they charged into Bloody Bill’s ambush and came out of it with 108 fewer. Johnson thought his rifle armed troops could prevail over the bushwhacker pistols. That “we got ’em boys!” attitude was echoed some years later when George Custer charged over the hill to his doom at the Little Big Horn.


I still have the shotgun I traded the frontier Colt for many years ago and I haven’t shot out any overhead lights with it, but I have used it to frighten countless upland game birds. On one hunt, my dog caught two rooster pheasants before I managed to kill one–it doesn’t say much for your shooting prowess when your bird dog bags more game than you do.


At least I was one ahead of him when it came to shooting out overhead lights.






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1 Comment

  1. William Clark

    August 23rd, 2020 at 10:34 am



    You get better with age. Keep on keeping. One of these days when it is safe to break bread, we’ll go to Steve’s – or I may whisk you off to Ms. Kitty’s at St. Elkizabeth – a favorite spot\.

    I have lost contact with the Outdoor writers group. ASfter several nhundred bnird coluimns and defense columns for the MDC, I’m still qualoified – I think.

    I’ve agfreed to do a writing column aghain for Osher Lifelong Learning. It wikll be oln Zoom – if I don’t screw it up too bad. Do you use ZXoom? If so, I’d love to have you sit in one day – for which I’ll buy the usual lunch.

    Let me know. The class begins Sept. 24 and runs for eight Thursdays at 9:30-11.00 a.m.

    I’ve done 75,000 words on the weightolifting history book and have at elast that many to go – probably double that. It is a good l.ook at a history no one cares aboiut except me and not more than a dozen others.

    Hang in there.


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