February 25, 2021
A while back, an interesting question arrived from a reader. At what point, he asked, did matchlocks finally fade from use? Were they used in the American Revolution?
That was a question I couldn’t answer, but a flintlock-specialist friend offered the opinion that by 1776, the flintlock had firmly shoved the matchlock out of the picture. This set me to wondering.
We assume that when a new technology came along, everything that went before was swept aside—that users abandoned the old and gleefully reached for the new, the way it is now with digital gadgets. But such was not the case. In the world of handguns, particularly, there has always been considerable overlap.
One famous example is Wild Bill Hickok, the “prince of pistoleers,” and the Colt 1851 Navy. Hickok clung to his percussion revolvers long after the Peacemaker came along in 1873. Reportedly, he liked the Peacemaker, but the 1851 Navy remained his favorite. Why would this be, one asks, when the Peacemaker was so much quicker and easier?
Balance? Familiarity? Who knows? When your life is on the line, there must be tangible benefits beyond simple habit, and because of his reputation, Hickok’s life was on the line every day.
Obviously, Hickok was not alone. The 1851 Navy was so popular that Colt kept it in production right up until all percussion revolvers were discontinued in 1873, even though the newer 1860 Army and 1861 Navy had long-since rendered it obsolete. The 1851 Navy just had that special something, and Colt was still selling it as late as 1880.
Today, many experienced men insist on carrying the Colt Model 1911 when more “modern” semiautomatic pistols have long been available. Similarly, there were lawmen in the West who carried single-action revolvers long after the double action rendered them obsolete.
In one fictional instance, in the 1930s, novelist Raymond Chandler arms an old country sheriff with a worn and weathered .45 Peacemaker, and he’s the object of more than a few snide comments until the moment comes when he outdraws the sneering Los Angeles killer cop. “You hadn’t ought ever to give a guy like me a break,” he calmly tells him. “I been a shooter more years than you been alive, son.” This incident occurs toward the end of The Lady in the Lake, and fiction or not, it conveys a message.
Older technologies often had a serious advantage over the new because in remote parts of the West, you could always find blackpowder, lead, and percussion caps, but cartridges were hard to come by. An older gun that works is preferable to a newer one that doesn’t.
Gunmen of old did not hang on the news of the newest developments and eagerly trade up at the first opportunity. To take Hickok as an example again, gunfights in which he was involved were usually settled in his favor after a shot or two. Since he had 12 shots in his two Colt Navy revolvers, a reserve of 10 or 11 was more than adequate. Also, it was his habit every day to shoot them, clean, reload, and prepare for what the day might bring. You go through a lot of ammunition that way, and cartridges were scarce and expensive. But it served several purposes, not the least of which was allowing the prince of pistoleers to keep his competitive edge.
In theory, the day the first effective double-action revolver hit the shelves, single actions should have been swiftly on their way out. And the day Colt perfected the Model 1911, revolvers should have begun to disappear. Yet in the 1950s, Colt was simultaneously making both types of revolvers as well as an array of semiautomatics, including the 1911, while S&W was making double actions in both revolver and semiauto form, and Sturm, Ruger was on its way to making handguns of virtually every description, several of which could have been called obsolete on arrival.
The reason all these types continue to survive is not nostalgia or force of habit. At any given time, there will be shooters who gravitate to one form or another because they are more comfortable with them or simply shoot them better. Obsolescence is really just a state of mind.