By: Randy Tucker

It was a staple of 1950s-era westerns: the corrupt trader making a few bucks selling guns and whisky to the local tribe, getting them whipped into a fury of drunken violence, and suffering his rightful end when he was killed by his brutal customers. A Hollywood stereotype? Yes. But factual? No.

Weaponized from the Start
American culture has always been based around weaponry. Whether that weapon were a semi-automatic handgun, a club, or a carefully hand-crafted bow with perfectly balanced arrows doesn’t matter; the ability to protect and provide for a person’s loved ones in a harsh, unyielding climate has ever been a valued part of our society.

Contrary to what popular movies often depict, it took a long time for guns to reach an equal status with other weapons, specifically the long bow in Europe and its much smaller cousin in the Americas. The atlatl (spear-thrower) competed well with the awkward harquebus – an early musket – first carried into battle by the Spanish under Cortez against the Aztecs in central Mexico.

The harquebus was heavy, hard to aim, and took several minutes to load, and had a wick similar to early cannons that had to be lit by hand before it could be fired.
“The arquebus (from a Dutch word meaning ‘hook gun’) was a long-barreled, musket-like firearm, shot from the chest or the shoulder,” an NPR article on “The First Gun in America” reported a few years ago. “The muzzle-loaded weapon with a fierce recoil was ignited by a matchlock, a device that connected a smoldering wick to the gunpowder with the pull of a trigger.”

Not exactly Marshal Matt Dillon beating a bad guy on the draw in the streets of Dodge City.

One distinct attribute of early black powder weapons was the noise and smoke they generated. When a group of Natives rowed their canoes out to meet the first Spanish fleet anchoring off the Mexican coast, the Spaniards fired a welcoming volley of cannon fire. All the canoes swamped as some of the terrified occupants fainted, and the remainder dived into the water and swam frantically for shore.

The Aztecs referred to guns as “thunder sticks” and initially thought the Spanish controlled the elements. The heavily armored Spanish thought they were invincible against the obsidian points of the Aztec swords, but many learned that an atlatl, tipped with a surgically sharp spear point, could skewer their armor and kill Spanish cavalry when hurled within 40 yards of the target.

Natives Hold the Upper-Hand
Jump ahead a few centuries, and though the violent, immediate destruction of Native societies in Central and South America didn’t happen in North America, the end result was the same, and the process much slower.

Disease decimated the tribes along the east coast, destroying entire cultures and leaving once-vibrant civilizations in ruin. When altercations between Europeans and Natives took place, the indigenous people usually held the upper-hand in weaponry. The long bow used by Native Americans in the heavily wooded areas east of the Mississippi was superior to the early, unwieldy muskets carried by the English and French.

A skilled archer could fire six accurate shots in a minute with an effective range of 60 yards, roughly equivalent to the accuracy of early smoothbore muskets. But the musket took much longer to reload, and Natives realized that once it was fired, they had 30 to 45 seconds to attack before reloading was complete.

A tipping point came in the early 18th century, when improved design increased musket accuracy, but the rate of fire remained a problem well into the mid-19th century.

Increased accuracy was perfect for hunting. Stealth was not as important as a clear line of sight when taking deer, elk, or turkey. An accurate, well-aimed musket could take game at up to 200 yards in the hands of a skilled marksman, but he still only had one shot.

During the debate for independence in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776, Benjamin Franklin openly opposed equipping the fledgling Continental Army with muskets. Franklin, ever the pragmatic problem-solver, called for arming the troops with English-style long bows. The long bow was lighter, easier to supply with arrows, and just as accurate as a musket. His suggestion was voted down, however, and the army turned to volley fire as a technique to compensate for the wide inaccuracies of individual troops.

Gradually Improving Technology
Natives gradually acquired the musket through trade or conquest in battle, and their hunting styles changed slowly in the eastern half of the present-day United States.

On the vastness of the Great Plains, the musket was not nearly as valuable to the Natives. Too long to be carried on foot in a stealthy approach to buffalo, too heavy to carry and aim on horseback in full gallop aside a buffalo, and not powerful enough to drop a thousand-pound bison at a distance, the musket was set aside in favor of the short bow used by Plains tribes at close range.

Technology continued to improve, and when the horse finally reached the Blackfeet in 1780, every tribe on the plains had horses and weapons to match those of the advancing Americans.

The bow was set aside except for ceremonial purposes, and the heavy caliber handgun took its place. Short-stocked carbines were preferred to longer rifles for use on horseback, and the nature of hunting and combat changed forever among the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche.

It’s interesting to note in regard to the contrast of superior weaponry, one of the biggest trade items at rendezvous among Natives, mountain men, and traders wasn’t the gun, but the cast iron frying pan, metal files, and the two-pound hammer. The frying pan was sought after not for its cooking prowess, but because shattering it with a hammer produced razor-sharp fragments that could be shaped with a file and made into exquisite arrow heads.

Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at [email protected].

Photo Credit: Albert Bierstadt, The Last of the Buffalo, Public Domain