Guns. The topic sends shivers of excitement through some people and makes others turn away in disgust. Weapons suggest violence but they are often an important detail in historical fiction, as integral to the story as clothing or transportation. It’s equally important that any weapons mentioned be appropriate for the period and setting. While plotting out The Relentless Harvest, it became evident that I needed to research nineteenth century firearms.
Why Loggers Needed Guns
I wasn’t planning any gun battles or murders, though such events did occur in the lumber camps. I remember one account of a logger who was shot in the mouth with a pistol during a bar fight. He lost some teeth but was otherwise okay. Gun play in saloons or brothels was not uncommon. I was more concerned about the small crews of men working alone in the forested mountains of Mendocino County. At the time, the area was crawling with black bear, grizzly bear, wolves, and mountain lions, not to mention bands of indigenous Pomos who, even by the early 1850s, still scuffled from time to time with settlers intruding on their territory.
I spent the middle years of my childhood on a farm so I’m comfortable handling firearms, but I haven’t touched a gun since my early teens. I was unsure which guns would be used in early California. After thoroughly researching the topic, I settled on two rifles that were popular then, models a logger might keep handy as he went about his work. Strangely enough, both guns appear in the same chapter but in different scenes.
A typical chopping crew consisted of two men. They might spend several days hacking away at a tree before it was ready to be felled, then they’d move to the next tree. Those two men would be alone in a fairly large area for an extended period of time. Even with the constant racket of steel striking wood, it’s likely that wildlife encounters occurred frequently.
Loggers migrating from the East Coast to California probably carried the guns they used back home. Anyone traveling the overland route by wagon train quickly discovered the gun that was so effective back east was woefully inadequate for western bear, elk, and buffalo. In 1850, when California achieved statehood, the muzzle loaded musket was still the rifle of choice. Muskets took time to load, the powder would get damp in wet weather, and the firing mechanism failed with an alarming frequency. Breech loaded models with something other than ball and powder ammunition were just beginning to appear. It was John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry that spurred interest in more reliable, faster loading firearms.
The Hawken Plains RifleIn The Relentless Harvest, protagonist Alastair Morgan is faced with transporting a wounded logger back to camp. Alastair is a city kid and has seen nothing wilder than crab grass in his native St. Louis. He’s probably never held a gun, much less fired one. The crew foreman warns Alastair to watch for critters then loans him a Hawken Plains rifle for protection. It’s a muzzle loader, which means Alastair would have to add powder, a ball, some wadding, then tamp it all down. The foreman rightly foresees that Alastair would be too frazzled to load the gun with a grizzly charging him, so he loads it for him and gives him a quick tutorial on how to fire. Alastair heads into the forest knowing he has only one shot if he encounters trouble; a Hail Mary pass at best.
The Hawken was a very popular model on the plains and in the Sierra Nevada. It was accurate and could drop a bear…most of the time. Being a muzzle loader, it was prone to misfire.
The Sharps 1849 RifleLater in the chapter, there’s a serious wildlife encounter (no spoilers) and Nathaniel Smith comes to Alastair’s rescue with his Sharps 1849 rifle. Even for someone like me who has no interest in guns, the Sharps line is interesting. The designer, Christian Sharps, developed numerous innovations in rifle technology. First, the rifles were breech loaded, which means they opened up like a shotgun. They also used a unique linen cartridge. When the breech was closed, a blade sheared off the cartridge cap, exposing the powder to the firing mechanism. The firing mechanism was a state-of-the-art Maynard tape primer which worked like a cap gun. A roll of disks were loaded into a special chamber and, as the gun was fired, an ignition cap moved into position in the priming pan. The hammer would strike the cap, thus igniting the powder. (Gun experts: how am I doing?) True to other similar rifles of the time, the Sharps had an octagonal barrel.
The Sharps 1849 was not only accurate, it was generally regarded as one of the most powerful rifles available. The guns were in high demand but, due to small-scale production, availability was limited to just over a hundred rifles the first year.
How Nat Smith Came by his Sharps Rifle
So how could Nat Smith, a black man, an ex-house servant and ex-sailor, get his hands on such a gun? Evidence shows that Nat was quite a shot and often led ship’s hunting parties. He must have picked up a knowledge of firearms early in life. He spent the early years on California soil in Sausalito and San Francisco, arriving some time around 1849 while the Gold Rush was at fever pitch.
The backstory I’ve invented is that Nat finds the rifle in a second-hand shop. It belonged to a man trying to raise cash to get to the gold finding or returning after running out of cash. Nat can tell it’s a good rifle. The shopkeeper tries to value the gun using the information he has in catalogs but the Sharps is too new and isn’t listed in any publications. So the shopkeeper charges Nat the same as a similar gun he has on hand, which happens to be a Hawken. He thinks he’s highballing it but his price is well below the actual value of a Sharps. Nat gets a great deal.
Any knowledgeable person who spotted Nat carrying the Sharps would have a healthy dose of respect its owner and give him wide berth.