EVANGELINE GETS HER GUNS

The Colt Dragoon Revolver is a strangely romanticized gun.  While it is exciting as ranking among one of the first true six shooters, its true history, brutal intentions and grim design are no Wild West fantasy.  And yet it shows up in John Wayne and Clint Eastwood Westerns,

John Wane teaching Mattie about Colt Dragoons in the classic True Grit
Old silver screen True Grit 
Mattie in the latest True Grit squaring off with her Colt Dragoon
New silver screen True Grit 
Clint Eastwood brandishing a pair of Dragoons
Does this need a caption?

Charles Portis’ True Grit,

Bookcover of Charles Portis' True Grit

Cormac Mccarthy’s Blood Meridian,

Bookcover of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian

and on and on.  It is a sexy-ugly  gun in our pop culture it seems.

A collaborative creation between Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers and Samuel Colt, the Walker Colt – the Dragoon’s forefather – was commissioned for the Rangers to use in close range battle without dismounting. 

Pencil Sketch Portrait of Samuel Colt
Samuel Colt
Pen and Ink portrait of Captain Samuel Walker
Captain Samuel Walker

Captain Walker needed a handgun that was extremely powerful in close quarters, could be carried in a saddle holster like a pistol, but it must be a revolver to allow its wielder to fire multiple shots without reloading.  He wanted to increase the weapon’s caliber from .36 to .44 or .45 if possible so as to destroy both the enemy the horses they rode on.  In 1846 the world saw the first 6 shooter.  Named after the man who commissioned it,  the handgun was known as the Colt Walker.

Full photo of Colt Walker Revolver
1846 Colt Walker

It was as powerful as Captain Walker could have asked for.  In fact it was more powerful than any other handgun in existence, using nearly twice the gunpowder charge of any handgun in each of its chambers.  The Walker Colt was the most powerful handgun bar none between 1847 and 1935 when the first .357 magnum came on the stage.

Of course there were design flaws.  The loading lever, a slim hinged rod attached beneath the gun barrel that tamped each round into its chamber over gun powder, was not secured well.   With the recoil of each shot the lever often fell, jamming the action and necessitating a “Walker slap” to return the lever to place.  The cylinders, the barrels containing the bullet chambers, were extremely long and prone to overloading with black powder by troops who had never seen much less used a revolver before.  All of this combined with Rangers often loading the new conical bullets backward and the untrustworthy metallurgy of the time led to a wide spread problem of ruptured cylinders.  Not to mention they were simply enormously heavy, weighing in at 4 lbs 9 oz.

close up of loading lever on a Walker or Dragoon that would be used to tamp bullets into their chambers
loading lever

Nevertheless the popularity of the original Walker Colt and its slight variation (the Whitneyville Colts) as it found a method of “mass production” through a subcontract with Eli Whitney Blake, was rampant.  Blake was nephew to the cotton gin inventor.  But Whitney senior went far beyond that first invention to pioneer in manufacturing, inventing the modern assembly line, and promoted the concept of interchangeable parts.  His nephew assisted him in building their gun factory at Whitneyville, Connecticut.

With the great success of the Whitneyville Walker Colts, the Colt reputation was made and Samuel was later able to build his own Colt factory.  Over the next few years Colt would refine the weapon that made his name.  Between the Walker and the first model Dragoon there were roughly 240 improved models produced, all between 1847 and 1848.  The Dragoon itself began life as the Colt Model 1848 Percussion Army Revolver.  It solved many of the problems of the Walker.  The loading lever catch was redesigned to clamp it tightly through the hardest recoil.  The barrel was reduced from 9 to 7.5 inches to lighten the gun’s weight and make it less unwieldy.   The chambers were smaller, allowing about 15% less gunpowder to reduce the issue of ruptured cylinders.  Originally ordered for the United States Mounted Militia (known as “Dragoons”) this model was popularly known as the Colt Dragoon.

diagram of a dragoon showing chamber and bullet interiors as welll as the dragoon's barrel, butt, and hammer layout
a wide shot of the dragoon showing the full dimensions beside a period appropriate holster of rough leather
a close up of the dragoon's chamber showing the basic design and almost clunky plainness.
a close up of the Dragoon's cylinder, showing the metal peppered with notches from the  rough cast process.  No pretty polish on these guns.

Now don’t go imagining this was the six shooter as we know it today.  These handguns were much closer in the family tree to muskets than the high noon quick draw pistols we think of as revolvers.  Just prepping this baby for combat was an exercise in patience. The Dragoon’s 6 chambers had to be carefully loaded, one at a time with the correct amount of gunpowder, count those grains – too much powder and cylinder goes boom in your hands.

A powder flask used for carrying gunpowder and a spray of blackpowder ready to be poured into each bullet chamber

  Believe me I’ve watched this done – it’s excruciating and what comes next is even worse.  Each conical bullet can now be placed into the chambers over the powder, making sure that they face pointed tip out – tip pointed wrong way and it jams – cylinder goes boom in your hands. Once the cylinder is loaded and rolled back in place, the loading leaver is unclipped from the barrel and used to tamp each bullet firmly into its chamber.  After this is done 6 mind-numbing times the lever is clipped back in place and caps are placed on the nipples that protrude behind the rotating chambers.  Now the hammer can be locked back in placed. Yee Hah!  You are now ready to shoot em up.  Better make those 6 shots count.  How the hell you’re going to reload in the heat of battle is way beyond me.

The Dragoon would go on to evolve at least twice more before Colt moved on to develop the next handgun series the Colt Model 1860. But here I’ll stop with the handgun history.  I’m really only interested in the early Dragoons and our fascination with them in fiction.  I’ll be honest I like the rough, almost vulgar directness they seem to imply with just the way they look.  The plain pitted iron attached to a simple wooden butt – no fancy carving or curlicues for this weapon.  This tool is for one thing only, killing.

Which is weird because I’m not a gun person.  I don’t own any.  I don’t shoot them.  They sort of scare me on most levels.  But reading about them in books and watching Westerns or any combination of Western/Sci-Fi/Horror movie…love it.  What is that about?  Fertile soil for all you self-styled shrinks out there.

So of course this leads to Evangeline.  You didn’t think I’d fill my brain with all of this stuff for general gun enthusiasm purposes.  She’ll be using some firepower in her fight against evil.  A matched pair, a la just about any Clint Eastwood Western I can think of.  I chose the Colt Dragoon for its plainness, its ruthless power, and because it was a gun that was roughly period appropriate. Yeah I’m tweaking things a bit but I’ll try to make the tweaks part of the story whenever possible.

It just feels like a weapon Evangeline would choose.  Something no nonsense to get the job done, and boy does she need to get it done.  Of course the bullets she’ll be using will be special order.  But that’s something I’ll be saving for the book.  

NATIVE NORTHERN CALIFORNIA PEOPLE/The Wild Wild North West

Everyone writes stories about the Wild West, including California.  Not many mention Northern California except in reference to the Gold Rush and the miners.  But there were indigenous Native American cultures distinctly different from the Midwest and North East tribes everyone learns about in school.  Well before the Gold Rush, Russians built a trading fort along the Sonoma coastline in hopes of cornering the market on seal skins.

San Francisco was a city built on sand and mud – snatched from the elements by its Spanish conquerors. It literally grew from an adobe Mission, military fort and clapboard lean-tos strewn over the beaches.  Later there were unpaved streets that would suck boots from feet, buildings with plank floors and canvas roofs.  This was all before earthquakes and fires and the things you see in tourist guide books.

The massive redwood and pine forests, the hills broken by sudden toothy outcroppings of rock, the billowy fog that can roll in at a moment’s notice in some places and never be seen in others; none of these things ever appeared in stories I read about the “Wild West”.  What a pity.

I suppose as a kid I was slightly disappointed with our “Indians”.  Yeah, it was the ‘70s so they were “Indians” then.  I apologize to all the Native Americans out there reading this.  We were dumb then, me included.  When I was a kid, I had seen all the westerns, all the bone breastplates, all the feather headdresses, braids with feather wrappings, fringed buckskin leggings, beaded moccasins, buffalo robes, and on and on.  And then we had our assignments in grammar school about American History before European Settlers.  Lucky me I was assigned Northern California Indians.  Oh boy, when I saw the hand out with the mimeograph line art picture attached.  What kind of Indians had round faces, wore sack like dresses made of willow bark and beaded skirts, apparently rode no horses, and lived in tepees made of huge chunks of cedar bark?

There was a lot of stuff written about the baskets the Costal Miwok wove and used for storing food which they made out of acorns, grasshoppers, and mussels.  There was a lot about making food out of leached acorns – soup, cakes, bread, less about hunting deer, elk, or black bear as though that didn’t happen often.  The acorn staples seemed to be rounded out by fish and small game – jack rabbits and quail. Oh and they gathered a lot of interesting things like buckeye nuts, mushrooms, bulbs, seeds, berries, and seaweed (considered a tribal delicacy).  This did not satisfy the romantic image of the Wild West Indian I had seen in movies and TV and children’s books I’d already absorbed at that time.

It would not be until my twenties that I would begin to grasp how our Native American tribes were rich in their own traditions, their own unique characteristics and history.  By then I would be grateful for the fact that there were some places in Northern California to still learn about and explore how these people first made their mark on the place I call home.

The Costal Miwok I saw were as dramatically exotic in their own right as any Apache thundering across the plains on his war horse.  They had elaborate customs involving facial tatoos.  There were ceremonial dances where men wore broad feather headresses over their eyes in flapping swaths.  It was something to rival any Star Wars costume design.

Costal Miwok Native American in Ceremonial Regalia, colorful swath of woven feathers across eyes, beaded neck band and arm bands
Costal Miwok Ceremonial Regalia

Miwok Bark Houses

A broad low circular construction built of cedar bark over sturdy logs, looking as if it has emerged from the ground, blending so completely with the earth.
Miwok Ceremonial Roundhouse

Interior Miwok Roundhouse

The Miwok were only one of the tribes living in Northern California before the Russians or Spaniards came calling.  The Pomo ranged into our area.  These were also exemplary basket weavers.  Some baskets were so tightly woven the stitches could not be seen without a magnifying glass.  They used them for cooking, trapping, cradling their babies, dishes for eating, and hats among other things, some of them were even used as boats.  They weren’t farmers any more than the Miwok; they gathered and hunted the same roots, wild produce, and game.  Their religion though was something that caught my attention in my adult years (as a kid – it was “more baskets and acorns?”).  The Pomo participated in shamanism which includes a great many exciting details (elaborate costumes, ceremonies, puberty rites) but most thrilling to me was the concept of shamanistic intervention with the spirit world.  What a rich vein to mine for historical fiction!  But it turned out they were actually influenced by a much more complex tribal religion.

two examples of the Northern Pomo who would have been closer to Sonoma. They wear sealskin hats adorned with birdwings, one carries a slender bow.  Both are bear from the waist up.
Kashaya Pomo

Pomo Warior

a painting of a beautiful pensive young woman, ruddy brown complextion, dark hair that falls only to her shoulders, a massive feathered headress unlike the plains native americans - it explodes in a profusion of possible turkey feathers straight up and out from the top of her head, banded at the bottom with a red beaded crown. She wears a rough woven or fur shift.
Pomo Young Woman

On the fringes of these two tribes were the Wintu, a tribe that ranged between us and the Sacramento Valley.  The Patwin tribe which was closest to our area, were much like the Pomo and Coastal Miwok in many ways, hunter gatherers, basket weavers, ate a lot of acorns.  The men wore less clothing as in usually none except for the occasional deerskin kilt.   The women wore long grass skirts decorated with beads and shells.

Patwin Women

Their religion was deep and stirring.  Spirits were present in all things and could be acquired by dreaming, going to a sacred place and engaging in ritualistic behaviors.  Prayer, charms and magic could all be used to influence the spirit world which in turn affected the material.  Bear shamans could destroy enemies.  Their ominous power was derived from arduous 5 day initiation ceremonies conducted by an assembly of master shamans.  Their cures included soul capture and sucking out of a disease causing object.  Many of their secret societies that performed shamanistic ceremonies were open to high-status women as well as men.

Bear Shaman

Kuksu Ceremony Adopted by the Pomo from the Patwin

Needless to say, by the time I’d started doing research for my novel I had a fantastic new respect for the Native Americans that first populated Northern California.  And there are still places you can go in Northern California to see and learn about these people.  The Coast Miwok Village at Point Reyes National Park is wonderful as is the small museum.  Follow this link to read and see more with directions included https://www.nps.gov/pore/learn/historyculture/people_coastmiwok.htm

On the Sonoma coast’s Fort Ross is an absolutely worthwhile trip and a gorgeous drive to boot.  The fort is part preserved/part reconstructed Russian trading post.  It is a fascinating thing to explore.  All the bunks the soldiers slept in, the Fort Manager’s house (surprisingly elegant by contrast to the other buildings), the Russian Orthodox Chapel and all the amazing history of Native American involvement.  The museum there is comprehensive in its coverage of the Native Americans along the Sonoma coast line, their life before the fort and their lives during and after.  To read and see more including directions follow this link https://www.fortross.org/

The Wild North West is a place that is every bit as thrilling as the westerns I grew up with as a kid in the 70’s.  In fact it kind of makes those look dusty and faded in comparison.  I am more than excited to write something about this time and place.  It’s been a blast just learning and touring the sites listed above.

Stay tuned gentle readers.  There’s more to come.