Do We Need A Cross-over Genre?
It happens in music. Can that happen with books?
This question and answer session was brought on by Angela Drakes challenge to Oghmaniacs to list things about our work in progress and Kristen Lamb’s article on deep POV. By the say, if you’re not reading Kristen Lamb you should be.
A disclaimer—right up front. There is no doubt this subject is western-centric, but you can apply it to your favorite genre.
Writing westerns is preaching to the choir—and it’s a small choir.
The biggest selling genres according to Amazon are romance, paranormal, thriller and mystery. I would add fantasy and erotica in there. Westerns are way down the list.
What makes a western and why doesn’t the mainstream reader like it? Is it portrayed in a time so far past people can’t relate? What about Longmire and Justified? Modern day westerns. Why don’t readers pick up that western novel at the store or from their favorite online bookseller? Don’t like horses? Just doesn’t grab them? Book cover? Marketing?
In real life folks with strong moral character, those who take charge and fix things with no outside help, no quarter asked nor given attitudes—get ridiculed by a large segment of the population. But, their favorite fantasy—what they read—is the opposite. It’s a conundrum. Do they want their hero to be something they cannot conceive of being? Is that what we provide?
What type western genre pull more people in? Western romance? Western mystery? Western Erotica? If we combine those, will it confuse folks? Are readers so set in their ways it’s hard to get them to change? If readers are voyeurs looking into a world, how do we get them to change their chosen destination?
Folks who claim to read a wide array of genre’s never list the western. It cannot be because of content because they’ve never read one. How do we get them to try it and bring them into the fold?
If the second largest selling genre is adventure, why not western adventure? How do we get readers to escape to our adventure? How do we get their attention? Can we?
A partial answer might be in the classic movie Tombstone. The movie was sort of factual. But the characters sold it. People loved the characters. They leaped off the screen and grabbed you by the throat. The classic lines are still quoted today. And may be quoted forever. Say when. Or, Why, Johnny Ringo. You look like someone just stepped on your grave.
I believe our characters have to be compelling as the portrayals of Wyatt and Doc.
I don’t have answers for all of the questions. I’m writing in a genre I love but am running out of time to make a dime at it—and yes, that’s important. I think it’s important to all of us.
As Casey, Gil, Gordon and yes—Kristen Lamb preach, we’re going deep.
In the short story prequel Coble Bray, I use first person to stay inside his head. In the novel Hallowed Ground, I used third person—the most popular method in the writing world. In Hallowed Ground II, I’m back to first person but may change. Probably will. Questions arise from this.
Can you get readers deep into all your character’s heads using first person? Folks have a different voice using first person. Same scene written in third person? Different feeling.
Louis L’Amour did it in a few of his novels. He mixed it up with first and third in the same book. The protagonist was in first person, everyone else in third. Sold millions. Alas, I’m no Louie.
Coble Bray is not a just a killer with a badge. He worries about that fine line that separates him from his quarry. The cost is huge. Anyone deep into his thoughts may want to run.
His new wife Maria is a woman with a past she regrets—she’s torn and vindictive. An ex-Pinkerton operative who’s impulsive and vengeful—and dangerous.
Coble’s saddle partner and scout Pete Santos is confused by his daughter Maria’s actions. He doesn’t know whether to leave or stay. He’s had Coble’s back before but things are different now. It’s more personal.
Priest has no chance of contrition—he’s a pastor who killed a man in anger, and can’t find sorrow in it. There’s no going back.
Oxford Graham is a killer with no remorse. He likes it. He’s having fun. It’s all a game. His murders are clean to the point of fetish. Tall, handsome, and slick as goose shit on wet limestone. A dandy in a Bowler hat. He’s a smooth ladies man romancing Coble’s wife. And he’s obsessed in showing everyone how smart he is.
Adventure. Mystery. Romance. Western. Crossover? Or, just a keyboard exercise?
The Frontier Garden ©
By Darrel Sparkman
Stories of westward expansion are often fraught with inaccuracies. Media and writers go with the exciting parts. “If it bleeds, it leads.” Or, “don’t waste time with boring life, just write the important stuff.” So, we get war and conflict, cattle drives, gunfights, bank robberies and the like. Tension. Conflict. There was plenty of that going on. But, there was another area of adventure seldom mentioned.
What about the settler and his wife braving the wilds for a promise of owning their own land—beholden to no one—and whose existence was on occasion protected by the exciting souls we write about and see in movies.
I want to focus on gardening. What? I know. BORING! I can visualize editors throwing paper in the air, gathering them together and then setting it all on fire. Or me, if they could catch me.
But, you know? People eat. Trail drovers often survived on beef and beans. I’ve read they’d ride miles out of their way for a little variety. Vegetables, air-tight (canned) peaches, dried apples, or bear-sign (doughnuts) come to mind. A good cabbage stew? Yuck! I’d have to be real hungry.
If the settler, or ranch owner, wanted to plant a garden for culinary variety, where did they get their seed? How did they know when to plant various crops? How do they care for them? Many of these settlers just pulled foot and left their settled homes in the east for the siren call of the west. They weren’t always farmers by nature or training. They were like people today that say, “if the world goes to pot, I’ll just grow my own food.”
Uh, no you won’t. Other than kicking the dirt with their feet, how do they get started? All good questions to avoid sore toes. A good many in the western expansion died before they learned.
One of the main staples of the American Indian was the three sisters. And for good reason. Beans, maize (corn), and citronelle’s (squash, pumpkins). Some tribes grew these to supplement the meat they harvested. Especially since they’d last up to six months in storage. Add in nuts, berries and occasional fruit and their diet was well suited for their life style. Some were mixed together to make Stanica, Pemmican, or their own version of Trail Mix.
The problem? They worked at it year-round and it took a huge area to supply their needs. Many moved to keep up with migrating herds of animals. In some cases, ref (1), the Osage would plant their crops, tend them for a while and then leave to go on a buffalo hunt. I should note that I’m focused west of the Mississippi.
The fate of the Osage veggie crop was left to Mother Nature. I can imagine the beasties of the forest just loved that. They still do. When I walk away from my garden, I can see their beady little eyes staring at me from the fence row. And the trees. And peeking around the garage. And in the sky as their shadow crosses the land. Ahem.
As a side note—necessity is always the mother of invention. By 1829 some 3500 eastern Cherokee had already moved willingly to Arkansas from their lands east of the Mississippi. Add that number to the several thousand Osage and Delaware, you can see how that would deplete the supply of ready game. The Cherokee brought their farming skills with them. In a census done that year, they had 22,000 black cattle, 1300 slaves, 2000 spinning wheels, 700 looms, 31 grist mills, 10 sawmills, 8 cotton gins, 18 schools and one newspaper. (ref 1) They were getting it done.
A funny thing. This same type census collected in 1811 also reported 20,000 hogs. In 1829 none were reported. Clerical error? Dunno. Now we know where all those Arkansas razorbacks came from.
So, while some Native Americans often needed all that space to survive, what gave the interloping settlers a small advantage? Though playing catch-up with the Cherokee, what gave them a subtle advantage over the other tribes? Although most of this would happen west of the Cherokee lands, some should have stopped to take lessons.
Their advantage was the ability to survive on a comparatively small plot of land. Sometimes before they started a dwelling, like a log home, soddy, tent, or converting their wagon—they broke ground for a garden and brought out their precious seed.
What helped them with that? What else? Technology. Yes, even then.
Usually, at least one of the family could read. Women often had a better education than the men. Either way, the information was there for them if they could take advantage of it. There were versions of frontier Cliff Notes and How-To’s every step of the way.
Depending on when their journey started, they may have had a copy of HUSBANDRY AND RURAL AFFAIRS, printed in 1801, ref (2), by J. B. Bordley. Sitting next to the Bible, there might have been a copy of THE COTTAGE ECONOMY, printed in 1833 by William Cobbett, ref (3). Or, a little later THE KITCHEN GARDENERS, printed in 1847. The information was far reaching and accurate.
You could find information ranging from keeping the garden and small fields clean of weeds and pests, to advice for the young wife to not hang her crockery close to the door lest if fall and shatter when her husband slammed it.
Garden seed was a vital and protected commodity and hoarded by the settler. Growing it to harvest and saving seed for the next year was vital. They had to bring everything needed for survival with them. There were no guarantees of trading or buying if they happened upon a town. You can imagine the despair if they lost the contents of their wagon in a river, or other catastrophe. Seeds, plants and tools were their life.
Tending the garden, along with the homestead, was a full-time job. Once that ground was tilled, either by hoe or what nowadays we’d call a chisel plow, seeds were sown, sprouted, nurtured, cultivated and fertilized. When they harvested the crop, the plants were composted for working back into the soil as fertilizer and humus, along with any manure to be found. Many plants were double or triple cropped, like beans or shorter maturing cabbage, lettuce, or carrots and radishes. And the ever-ready staple—potatoes.
When you see scenes in movies of the men driving cattle over the ‘nesters’ gardens, don’t think nuisance and intimidation—thing starvation.
Settlers often had a few cows or oxen, maybe a horse or two. Extra animals could be butchered in the winter if needed for survival, but they’d rather supplement with wild meat or fowl if possible. Hunger always trumps everything and changes plans.
As with the Native Americans, survival for the settler was a full-time job. They did it by managing a small parcel of land with intensive labor. Of course, if they were successful—they grew. Successful operations tend to begat neighbors, and those grew into communities. If looked at closely, it’s a business model used by ‘off-the-grid’ folks and homesteaders today. Grow what you eat.
Fifty years ago my wife’s family operated a greenhouse and garden center. Most everything we sold, from produce to flowers—we grew. I can tell you, when you are looking at several acres of garden with nothing to keep you company but a sharp hoe and the baking sun, it’s not fun.
Everyone had a garden back then and we sold several thousand pounds of seed a season. Like all things, that changed. We still sell seed, but only a couple of hundred pounds. Competition? Nope. There aren’t many gardens left, or the desire to grow.
Is that a good thing? We can just go to the store and buy what we need? I hope so. If not, those old books are going to be hard to find.
In 1840 approximately 89% of the American people lived in rural areas of the country. These country folks had the skills and knowledge necessary to supply and/or make most of their food and clothes, tools and shelter, furniture and amusements. They raised crops for food and fodder, cared for livestock, used tools we never knew existed to do things we never knew needed doing. And sometimes, they wrote down their thoughts and knowledge and published them for others.
Those numbers have flipped. Since 1840 people have been leaving the farms and heading for the cities. According to the last census, there are about 81% of us living in urban areas. The skills and knowledge it took to be self-sufficient are gone. We have become more and more dependent on modern cities, just in time deliveries, and super stores. Our great grandparents did a wider variety of things before breakfast than we do all day long.
Next time we’ll see how the settlers and their native American peers spent their day.
Credit: Ruralskills.blogspot.com and D.B. Beau
Ref (1) Indians of The Ozark Plateau, by Elmo Ingrenthron
Ref (2) Husbandry and Rural Affairs Picture provided
Ref (3) The Cottage Economy Picture provided
Hallowed Ground ©
By Darrel Sparkman
Would you believe I first started working on the novel Hallowed Ground in 1997? The first chapters won a few awards. Life and other projects got in the way until 2014 when Whiskey Creek Press published it with little fanfare and predictable results. While getting great reviews, exposure was limited and it fell from public view.
With encouragement from Dusty Richards, a accomplished writer in the western genre, I hooked up with Oghma Creative Media and Galway Press. Hard work from bossman Casey Cowan and his team, including editor Gil Miller, brought us to a second publishing in 2017. Re-written with new chapters, and formatted with a great cover, Hallowed Ground is a book I’m particularly proud of. If all goes well, it will be the start of The Deacon series with Coble Bray.
Hallowed Ground is the culmination of several ideas. A famous writer said of the old west—out here you’re free to be as good as you want, or as bad as you can be. As the west became more populated, the bad came along with the good.
Untold stories of survival hide behind every moss-covered rock and clump of sagebrush. Nameless men and women often died along life's trail with no one to mourn their loss--or take note of it.
You won’t find Coble Bray in the history books. But as in all my stories, given the locale, equipment and circumstances—it could have happened.
There were many instances of killings in the 1800’s that nowadays would be classified as some type of serial murder. On the crime shows in modern media an inordinate amount of time is spent amassing evidence that will survive our legal system. From blood spatter patterns to DNA, all compiled in massive computer systems for analysis along with profiles by experts, lead the investigators to the killer. At the end the killer makes a mistake because of pressure from investigators—or their own arrogance.
Even with all the modern technology, criminal profilers say most serial killers aren’t caught. Less than fifty percent are apprehended—and that’s just the ones they know are operating. Scary.
In 1878 all the tools law enforcement would have are gut instinct or actually catching them in the act. In Hallowed Ground, Coble Bray is confronted with the fact that he knows who the killer is—but can’t prove it in a court of law. His solution is unique. Things were simpler then.
A teaser for the next novel. The killer he just caught wasn’t the worst. Marshal Coble Bray goes after the worst outlaws. He understands them—often sympathizes with them. But the challenge of unimaginable evil is just around the corner. How can he keep his loved ones alive and survive?
As a point of interest Coble Bray is the combination of two family names, part of a lineage that goes back to England in the 12th century. Ancestors of long ago might have been wearing the armor of the Knights, but more likely would have been a Welsh bowman. Perhaps fighting with Henry at Agincourt? I wonder.
Anyway, I think Coble Bray will do his ancestors proud. If he lives.
The adventure begins…
My short story Who Shot Jesus? Is featured this week on the free website Rope and Wire, http://www.ropeandwire.com
Joe Cane is flushed from his farm in northern Arkansas by the Union army and a carpetbagger banker. Seems no one in Joplin wanted him either, so he keeps traveling. He wants nothing more than to settle down and raise horses.
During a bitter cold ice storm, he stumbles into an abandoned cabin on the prairie. Two cold and starving children waiting with their dead mother lead him to a place he wasn’t sure he wanted to go—until he got there.
Why did I write this story? I saw a picture of a man riding a horse in a blizzard. Sometimes that’s all it takes. Like most of my stories, this one as has some questions imbedded. Who did shoot Jesus? Did God take a hand and bring these people together? Pure luck? And the ending? Who would have thunk it?
Read it on Rope and Wire or jump on over to Amazon.com and get the collection of stories called The Reckoning. Plus, rumor has it that these stories plus some more will come out in paperback soon. Can’t wait.
Until next time…
Useless Words to not Write
Feeling insecure today.
Do you think it’s easy to write a novel or short story?
I’ve finished a short story titled Kindness. I think it’s a good one and need to get it ready to send to my publisher, editor, or submit to the market. So, how do I make this thing ‘slickern goose grease’ and impress folks? Let’s look at some guidelines.
Looking at published criteria I can’t use really or very. So, I can’t write, “You’re a very pretty girl.” Or, if the guy (I’m assuming here) is really gob smacked, “You’re a really, really, very pretty girl.” So, I guess that leaves, “You pretty. Or, you ugly.” Short, but to the point.
We can’t use that, just, then or any instance of those (that them). Lessee, take away the ending ‘that’, then that leaves me with ending the sentence with a preposition (of), and I’ve already qualified the sentence using ‘that’ again. And ‘then’. Aw, man! I used ‘then’. And an exclamation point! Oh, God. I can’t do that.
Now we’re into the ‘ly’ words. It’s a death knell to your work if you use totally, completely, absolutely, literally, definitely, certainly, probably, actually, basically or virtually.
I cannot convey the amount of vilification heaped upon your psyche if you use start, begin, began, begun, rather, quite, somewhat, or somehow.
Neither may I use said, replied, asked, or use any dialogue tag at all, unless I ask someone’s permission.
I don’t know who. They won’t tell me.
Think that’s hard? We can’t look down, or up. Or, wonder, ponder, think, thought, feel, felt, understand or realize.
I’d grab my chest, but I can’t describe it by using breath, breathe, inhale or exhale. I can’t shrug, nod or reach. I can’t use long sentences tied together by ands, buts, or frog legs. (I’m a writer—I can tie in the frog legs.) Hell, I can’t use a non-approved font.
How on earth, or any place else, do I write a story?
I haven’t sold a ton of books. Since I write in the western genre, I thought I’d check Louis L’Amour’s stories. He’s sold millions. Just as I thought, most of those monumental mistakes are there. It’s the same for most of the beautifully descriptive prose writing western authors I’ve read.
As an experiment I started grabbing books off my shelves in all genres—books written by successful authors. When I opened a random page, I found the mistakes listed above. Not all at once. Gimme a break, here. So, if they’d done it right, would their book have sold two million instead of one?
So, why do the experts want new and fledgling writer’s submissions to look like a blank page—dry of wit and empty of beauty? Pretty girls, but never very pretty girls? Or, exceptionally pretty girls. Maybe just “damn, you nice!” is better.
When I ask about this, I’m told, “Well, you’re no Louis L’Amour.” This is very, very true. Like, really true. Absolutely true.
But then, I’m betting he was never pushed to turn in a blank page, or something so devoid of feeling it looks like the Klingon version of the users manual to the Starship Enterprise.
I’ll just keep muddling along and do the best I can. Even if I use euphemisms and attention grabbing qualifiers… and go broke. Can’t afford to be a writer anyway. The conferences alone bust my budget.
One thing I do know. For every published writer, there are at least two experts telling them how to do it.
Maybe some of them are correct. Surely, (snicker) they have our best interests at heart.
And don’t start throwing your degrees in English at me. I made a D in high school English. My teacher cried a lot, but was quick to tell me it wasn’t my fault.
I’ll keep writing. I must. Life goes on.
Assignment: levity. Look it up. We need more.
A Troubled Nation ©
By Darrel Sparkman
This opinion piece is my own and does not reflect the opinion of anyone else including those I work for, am associated with, or related to.
I read a post on Facebook where someone was lamenting the loss of a friend of over 40 years. Because of politics. Were they really a friend? Are the feelings that deep? Will they come back? Should they let them?
We are a nation divided.
We are standing at the cusp of that division. Not only do I see it on social media, I actually speak to people. You know… like, away from the computer.
I have friends on the left who are rabid liberals and in their progressive mindset are sure they know what is best for the unwashed deplorable people on the right. Or, flyover country.
Friends on the far right talk armed rebellion if things don’t go their way. Not kidding. Don’t take that lightly.
The rest of us are puttering around in the middle of all that.
For most Americans, there is no straddling the fence on this one. This great melting pot of cultures is about to boil over. Past presidents managed the melding of that pot through immigration law. No more. Personally, I can see another civil war looming on the horizon if things don’t change.
So, what’s the problem?
When I look at the world, all I see is chaos. The U.N is watching because they’re afraid the money train is about to stop. European socialism is a shambles and wants a bail out. Germany was about the only country in Europe with any money, but surrounding European Union countries are bleeding it dry—not to mention the immigrants. Countries embracing the theocracy of Islam are fighting everywhere. Democratic Socialist countries like Russia and Communist China are in turmoil.
Where do we look for leadership?
Let’s forget the democrat/republican terminology for a moment. In most cases, there’s no difference between the two. There are two sides in this country—Progressives and Conservatives. With, of course, shades of grey in each. Watch what they do—not what they say.
The progressive mindset looks to big government for everything. Big government is smarter than you are and has all the answers. Got a problem? Make a law. Big brother will take care of you. This is on top of polling across both parties that put our confidence level for gov/congress/state/federal in the low twenty percentile. That’s whom we put our trust?
Conservatives believe in a smaller government footprint, especially on our backs. If they have a problem it’s up to them to fix it. Personal responsibility.
This isn’t new.
It’s been that way since 1776. After all, only about 15% fought for independence.
When our government is so corrupt even the most casual observer can see it, something is wrong. We have a justice department that is dirty. The FBI is dirty and agents are leaving in droves. Have you noticed that when the government investigates itself, it can find no wrong?
Trust in God?
Yes and no. Oh, I’ll take flack for that one. I’ll post this after I go to church. I pray for this country every day. I know many people do. But, half of the people in this country don’t believe in God, or any other deity. And, they vote too. For those that believe in nothing, they are their own God. If, from what I see in other countries and in our own, this is God’s will—we’re in for a long day.
John Kennedy was a flawed man, but still a good one.
Still… what to do.
My two cents. We need to take care of America first. It’s all well and good to try to take care of every bad thing in the world, but not while our own country is floundering. We can’t help others if we can’t help ourselves. We can’t give aid and monies to countries that have more money than we do, just for political favors. We cannot police a world that does not want it. We cannot feed starving children—bad as that sounds—while our own poor are undernourished or hungry. We cannot take in a million refugees while our citizens are suffering. It’s wrong. We’re going broke trying to do it.
I realize nationalism has been made into a bad word. Well, globalism isn’t so hot either. There has to be some homefolkism in there somewhere.
For a protracted amount of time, we need to take care of us. Fix our problems. All of us together. Then, we can go forth.
We have choices.
I’m conservative. That’s obvious. I have a couple of ‘hot button’ items that decide how I vote. No, I won’t tell you. They’re my buttons, not yours. I vote.
For as much as we think our vote doesn’t count, it does. Each one. The choices this cycle are not good ones. We have to vote for our future and our children’s future. With that in mind, there are only two choices. If we split the vote with third party, then it’s watering down the vote. And we have to vote in numbers to counter all the dead people that are voting. J This is levity. Look it up.
A founding father once said:
"When the people find they can vote themselves money,
that will herald the end of the republic." Benjamin Franklin
We are at war with ourselves.
So vote your conscience.
Where do you want the country to go and how do we get there? Put hatred aside and vote with your brain.
Do we go with corruption or drain the swamp.
And no, that’s not an endorsement for the Donald. I’m like most Americans who believe we should fire them all and start over. We can begin that process by voting. No Wednesday morning quarterbacking or hand-wringing. Whatever the outcome—make it work.
We are divided. My friends are divided. My family is divided. Vote for the path you think will bring us together.
If you’re somewhere in the middle, think of your country.
If your vote is socialism, go for it.
If your vote is conservatism, go for it.
But, go for it.
Why Did I Write The Reckoning?
In an article published in Saddlebag Dispatches, and my last blog post, I explored the fast draw in the old west, or modern times. Sometimes, folks shade the truth a bit. In modern times, history is written by media—be it television, movies, You Tube, or whatever. So we get their version. Some are accurate—some are not.
It’s easy to say something never happened in a particular way, or folks just didn’t do that. The stylized gunfight with two adversaries squaring off in the middle of the street may have happened a few times. But why? To see who’s the better man? I don’t like your hat? Yo mamma wears combat boots? Why would they do that? Pride? Fair Play? Um… I don’t think so.
The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his. General Patton.
The Reckoning shows another version of the gunfight. When Billy Tyler walks into a saloon looking for his brother and finds Tom had been dead a week, he really didn’t know what to do or how to act. He’d buried his pa about the same time a maniacal sheriff murdered his brother. A dusky temptress holds his hand and a sheriff demands he come outside for a shootout. He may be country poor and shy on book learning, but wasn’t about to be stampeded into a fight on someone else’s terms. Or, be another notch on a gunman’s pistol.
The Reckoning is a compilation of short stories about people you might know—just down the lane, and as real as I can make them. You can laugh, or maybe bust a tear or two—but you’ll finish. Enjoy!
Comanche Moon is a rollicking story of a marshal on the hunt. When he stops to rescue a fair maiden, he gets more than he bargained for. A lot more.
He shook his head in wonder. “So, they killed everyone and took you captive?”
“Oh, hell no. While the warriors were trying to decide what to do about their fallen chief, those four-flushin tinhorns and wannabe bad men jumped on the stage and tore out of there like their tails were on fire, leavin me standing with my petticoats flappin in the wind. It was a might awkward.”
Latigo Jones – a sheriff with a conscience.
He stared at me a long moment, trying to catch my gaze. “That killin really got to you, didn’t it?”
“Why’d he do it, Mac?” I stared into my coffee cup, but found no answers. “There was no reason for him to grab that gun. None at all.”
Red Headed Trouble – One redhead is enough, but six of them?
I’ve seen some mad women in my short life, they tend to get that way around me, but I thought this one was going to blow up. She stood staring at me, with her fingers doing a little drumbeat on the butt of her pistol. I thought she was going to drag iron and I had a queasy feeling in my gut wondering what I’d do if she did, but instead she grabbed that paper and wrote on it.
I pulled it to me and turned it around so I could read it. I could feel my face turning red. Young ladies, and I always assumed lady unless proven otherwise, just didn’t talk that way in my neck of the woods. And, I wasn’t sure what she suggested was physically possible.
Who Shot Jesus? Alone. Freezing. Starving. Their mama dead in the next room.
The shaky, high-pitched voice came again. “Mama said Jesus would come to save us.”
I turned to see a miniature version of the dead woman. She looked to be about five years old, dressed like the boy in every stitch of clothing they could find. Tears coursed down her cheeks. Then whatever was left of my heart—she stomped on it.
“You took your sweet time getting here.”
Were there fast gun artists in the old west? Sugar Guns? Quick as the blink of an eye? Hollywood would have us think so.
I’m visualizing two steely-eyed antagonists facing off in the street, hands hovering over their shootin’ irons and honoring the code of the west—waiting for the other to make the first move. Both have killed men. Neither have a drop of sweat on their palms. Confident. Deadly.
Then, Val Kilmer totally blows out all your nerve endings and turns your legs to jelly with his little smirk and famous, “Say when.” Or, Clint Eastwood saying, “You going to pull them pistols, or whistle Dixie?”
Along about this point someone realizes their challenge issued wasn’t just a real good idea.
Reading accounts and journals of “Ye Olde West”, the stylized standoff in the middle of the street rarely happened—and why should it?
Now, all you old west gun experts don’t start railing on me. I get the NRA gun of the day news feed too. There were a plethora of firearms for just about every use. These are the one’s I’m choosing to talk about. Run of the mill, readily available shootin’ irons.
The cap and ball pistols, and later conversions to brass cartridges, were heavy and cumbersome. A case in point is the .44 mag pictured here. It’s close in size and weight to older cap and ball pistols and weighs in at three pounds and change. Until the shorter barreled pistols came on the market, the longer pistols like the Dragoon Colt and Remington were just plain hard to get out of your holster, pants, or coat pocket. If you thought it was going to be needed, like as not it was already in your hand.
Folks carried pistols in a variety of ways, because for most it was a tool, for varmints and such—or an occasional runaway horse. If you’re dumped from the saddle and your boot is caught in the stirrup, you better hope you can get to your pistol.
But when it comes to arguments between men it’s like the old adage says, “don’t strap it on unless you’re willing to use it—don’t use it unless you’re prepared to kill.” And, that could happen by accident.
Think of trying to shoot the gun out of the hand of your opponent, happens all the time in the movies, right? Well, a little harder trigger pull might move the barrel of your gun over a fraction and you’ve just punched his ticket.
Or, you might start fanning the hammer and hit him, his uncle Jake, three bystanders standing by the saloon, and the team mascot in the butt. Is that six? Of course, you might miss them all.
However, even with the inception of Sam Colt’s finest—all men are not created equal. I’m sure there were plenty of lawmen and outlaws whose eye-hand coordination was a sight to see, unless it was the last thing you saw.
But, did it really happen like Marshal Dillon on Gunsmoke? Rarely. Some accounts tell of troublemakers showing up saying they’re going to kill the marshal, or what they’ll do if he shows up. Typically called a loudmouth—we’ve all seen them. Then the lawman steps out with his gun already drawn and shoots the poor misguided soul with no warning. Unfair? Depends on your point of view.
I can just see it now. A gambler or gunman steps out in the street with his Peacemaker .45 or sheriff’s version—they’re short barreled and you can get them out fast. The other gunman is standing about fifty yards away with a long barreled Dragoon, or Remington—maybe that Buntline Special. Much more accurate. As a case in point:
GUNFIGHTERS OF THE OLD WEST
by Norman B. Wiltsey
From the 1967 Gun Digest
In his celebrated duel with Dave Tutt in Springfield, Mo., in 1865, Wild Bill displayed the cool nerve and accurate marksmanship his legion of admirers claim was always his. The shootout even went off according to fictionalized protocol, to a degree. After an argument each warned the other that the next time they met there’d be powder burned.
Hickok killed Tutt at an estimated range of 75 yards the next day; Bill on one side of the town square, Dave on the other. Tutt, tensed and nervous, drew first and got off 4 shots – all misses—before Bill, steadying his 1860 Army Colt with both hands, fired one shot that drilled Tutt dead center.
That would have been a Dragoon Colt with a long barrel.
Or, maybe out steps Chuck Connors with his rifle. Well, that’s not fair!
For more information on Hickock and Tutt you should mosey over to Tom Rizzo’s blog page. http://tomrizzo.com/duel-to-death/ Or, his Facebook page . Good stuff either place. https://www.facebook.com/thomas.rizzo.writes
From the marshal’s point of view, his job was to keep the peace and rid the town and territory of riff raff... not engage in some kind of contest about who has faster hands. There were a lot of cranky lawmen and it wasn’t smart to say anything bad about them that might catch their attention. Many bad guys and law officers alike were shot in the back just for that reason.
But, it goes farther than that. Anyone that goes into harm’s way will tell you—if they need someone to watch their back, they don’t care if that person CAN shoot, how many trick shots they can make, or how proficient they are with a firearm. Give me someone who WILL shoot. I think that was the difference between the normal cowboy and the badman. That line in their mind was already crossed by one of the men. While the normal person was thinking, the gunman was already doing. He didn’t need to be fast.
This question is explored in my western Hallowed Ground. Is it murder to kill a man that you know isn’t as fast or good as you, even if they are trying to kill you.
A not so famous frontier character was Frank ‘Pistol Pete’ Eaton. He reportedly killed eleven men by the time he was sixteen. At seventeen he was a U.S. Deputy Marshal working for Judge Parker out of Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Just to the west of Ft. Smith the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad (Farther north I think this was the KATY) was the start of no-man’s land, or Indian Territory—later to be Oklahoma. Posters tacked on trees stated any law officer would be killed that came that way.
This outlaw territory was patrolled by Eaton, and the likes of Heck Brunner, Bud Ledbetter, Grant Johnson, Bill Tilghman and sometimes Pat Garrett. These men served warrants into the territory frequently.
Quoting from the U. S. Marshals service: On April 15, 1872, eight deputy marshals were shot and killed in what came to be known as the Going Snake Massacre, which occurred in Tahlequah, Indian Territory.
In 1872 it was reported over a hundred marshals died serving warrants in the territory. Some reports put it at two hundred. Now, I’m betting these marshals that survived didn’t walk up to the bad guys and challenge them to a shootout on a dusty street. I’m thinking the badman was cut out of the herd, one way or another. Logic tells me the lawman would have the ‘drop’ on them and give them a choice to surrender or die. Many times I’m betting there was no choice given at all, since all they had to do to take the outlaw off Judge Parker’s list is provide some identification, in some cases even ears, as proof.
I heard it said by a Marine General, “Anyone engaging the enemy in a fair fight is showing a serious lack of preparation.” I’m thinking that would be a good rule for ‘way back then’, and today. Think James Garner in Support Your Local Sheriff. Now there was a man prepared. I can still see him blowing up Madam Orr’s house.
Oh, by the way, Pistol Pete died at the ripe old age of 97.
Does ‘ripe old age’ mean old folks start to smell? I need to do a sniff test.
So, back to the fast draw.
Google Cowboy Fast Draw and you’ll find tons of information. There are several clubs and associations for quick gun artists today. Everything is about weight, no trigger guards, aluminum alloy barrels, and types of holsters. Body angle and least amount of movement play a big part. Methods of firing go from fanning the hammer of the revolver to thumbing and ‘slap cocking’.
Looking over the listed times, the fastest seems to come in at about a third of a second to a quarter of a second.
So there you are. That’s fast. Real fast. Sugar guns. In the blink of an eye. Especially if the other guy is wondering if the loop is still on his hammer.
Could those fast draws have been duplicated in the old west? Maybe.
Maybe it depends on how scared they were.
This is NOT your old Daisy Air Rifle.
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The Wind Rifle
I never put myself out there as any kind of gun expert—old time or new. However, I know what I like to shoot and see a lot of stuff in pursuit of the western/frontier/apocalyptic, and contemporary novel. I get surprised once in awhile.
Some firearms you just use and never think about their origin. I have an air rifle that I like a lot. It’s not your normal pellet gun or BB gun. It’s a break-barrel Gamo Whisper with a scope and suppressor (sort-of). Now this sweet little gun pops out a .177 pellet and 1275 feet per second. For a rough comparison, my trusty old .22 long rifle travels at roughly 1200 feet per second. Yeah, I know the bullet is heavier and it has more power behind it—but, you get the idea. To hit a target fifty to a hundred feet away with a pellet half the size of a pea (Little Marvel or Snow King for those with their caliper out) is no easy endeavor, but it’s easy with the right air rifle.
Imagine my surprise when I read that the Lewis & Clark expedition, circa 1804, used an air rifle. Ok, my feeble mind tried to wrap itself around that tidbit. Was it kind of like my air rifle? Knock down the occasional rabbit or squirrel? Oh, I don’t think so.
The Girandoni air rifle was the real deal. Designed by Bartholomaus Girandoni (we’d call him Bart around here) around 1779. The German’s called it a wind rifle and no, I won’t go there. The Austrian army used this thing until around 1815, before they scrapped it for more reliable weapons that go boom instead of pffft. Napoleon sure didn’t like it used against him. It is said he ordered the execution of any soldier caught with one.
For those who think it might’ve been a toy, think of this. Capable of firing 20 shots as fast as they could work a little lever and drop another ball into the firing chamber. I’m thinking one shot every five seconds would be a good number—compared to about one a minute by a very good operator with any of the muzzle loaders or other contemporary firearm. Think of this—a person with one of these rifles firing fifteen shots a minute( I’m sure that number is VERY arbitrary ) could be devastating to any attacking force, especially in the rain or snow when it’s hard to ‘keep your powder dry’. And, it came with extra air chambers that could be changed very quickly. Not charged quickly, but changed.
How powerful? It would shoot a .46 caliber ball through a one inch pine board at 100 yards. However, with each shot, the power would drop. After about 20 shots you might as well start throwing lead balls by hand, or start running.
Unfortunately, this instrument needed a lot of care and support system. The slightest ding in the air bladder could cause it to lose air, and the leather seals were prone to drying up and not working. It also took about 1500 cycles with a pump, similar to a bicycle pump, to fill the chamber. Imagine having the bad guys coming over the wall with you holding up your hand and yelling, “Hang on, guys. I’ll be with you in just a minute. Only got 500 pumps to go.” No, not good.
I won’t go into all the technical aspects of this gun, but if you’re interested, look it up. It’s fascinating reading. There’s a lot of supposition about how the gun was used by Meriwether Lewis, but anything is possible.
There are also many powerful air rifles on the market today that can be used in large game hunting—deer, wild boar and buffalo were mentioned.
One thing to consider. In the forests of the frontier 1800’s, or in an apocalyptic world in the future, the key to survival is silence. You don’t want anyone to know where you are or that you exist, especially when you’re hunting for food. So, if you’re trying to pull a sneaky Pete, slinking through the landscape, high tech bow and arrow notwithstanding—would you rather have something that goes Boom or pffft?
Note: A really great video of this air rifle is shown on the NRA website.
That’s all for now.
Darrel Sparkman, Frontier Writer