The History of the Office of Sheriff: Chapter 12
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By Schenectady Sheriff Harry C. Buffardi

© 1998. The History of the Office of Sheriff was published and copyrighted in 1998 by Schenectady County Sheriff Harry C. Buffardi.
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Weapons accompanied persons in the migration westward. Practically every man who went to California during the Gold Rush went there with a weapon in his belt or hip pocket.

Brigham Young urged his followers coming to Utah to do so bearing arms to protect themselves from Indians and outlaws. The handgun became as much a part of the cowboy paraphernalia as the wide-brimmed hat and high-heeled boots. The shooting mentality became an adapted form of gaining recognition and respect. For those who felt insecure or were trying to prove a point, the six-shooter became "the great equalizer." . . . To "die with one's boots on" was a clear inspiration of the western bully fortified with a gun. Whether this was a Freudian phallic symbol, or merely a bold impressionistic character of the West, remains arguable. But the undeniable presence of weapons and the violence that was collateral to weapon possession created a need for a specific law enforcement response.

With his revolver patent and funds from relatives, Sam Colt, 23, started the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company in Paterson, NJ, in 1836. Six years and 5,000 pistols later, it folded. From 1841 to 1846 he lived in New York City where he kept a studio at New York University while trying without much success to win government contracts for firearms and his other inventions such as a telegraph signal-activated underwater mine.

Two 1846 events turned things around for him and his pistols: a Texas Rangers testimonial letter and the Mexican War.

A Samuel Colt Memorial (Library of Congress American Memory image shown below) stands in his native Hartford, Conn.

There was no greater symbol of violence in the West than the pistol. The common availability of the six-shooter in the American frontier added a new dimension to violence. Common disagreements transformed rapidly into deadly encounters. The mechanical ingenuity of Samuel Colt, with his revolving handgun in 1835, enabled a person to pre-load six shots into a single weapon that needed no priming. The weapon could be used while on foot or horseback and the multi-shot capability increased lethality. Many people carried more than one six-shooter to increase their capacity of killing power. Before the appearance of the revolver, the common weapon for ruffians and homicidal criminals, was a knife to slash or stab or an impact weapon to bludgeon a victim. The new deadly efficiency of the six-shooter spawned the common expression:

"There is more law in a Colt six-gun than in all the law books."

By the 1850s there were about as many revolvers in Texas as there were adult males.... There were unofficial rules involving gunfighting that often times determined whether a shooting would be considered a criminal offense. Ambushing, sniping, or "backshooting" were not condoned, and beyond being illegal, it was an unpardonable act of cowardice... Shoot-outs were generally accepted, particularly if the surviving member could convince others that the other party drew first... The Western gunfight was in reality a variation of the honorable duel, which had been an acceptable form of dispute resolution even prior to the advent of gunpowder. Casual investigations of the circumstances involving shootings generally satisfied the authorities and whatever law that may have existed.

Men returning from the Civil War were trained in the basic skills required in shooting. They knew how to handle weapons and were not strangers to killing. Some turned to gun-related violence because it led to lucrative crimes, and others because they were merely callous and hardened by a continuous fight for survival... White ethnic superiority existed in those days and it was not considered a universal crime to kill a Mexican and a common theme espoused: "The only good Indian was a dead Indian".

The six-shooter became an instrument of lawmen as well as outlaws. Whereas the long rifle had been the primary weapon in the earlier days of the country, it was the six-shooter that would tame the Wild West. At close range, the revolver was unrivaled in reliability and fire power... Ability with a sidearm was a desirable trait for Western peace officers. Proficiency with a handgun and willingness to use one was a highly sought after attribute for a sheriff candidate in those days. It was the gun toting sheriffs of the period that helped transform the territory from an untamed wilderness to a continent-wide nation.

Much has been made over the amount of gun-related violence in the Wild West. Dime novels, movies, television serials, and numerous adventure stories about the period have romanticized the image of this violence. The "western" drama has become the American version of the morality play. Black-hatted villains being out-drawn by the "good-guy" lawman wearing the white hat has provided the basic theme of good overcoming evil. . . . "Gunfighting" was the appropriate term for which it would be known, and it was an accepted form of altercation in the Wild West. Many times it was a permanent way of settling dissension. Between the years 1850 and 1890, approximately twenty thousand men died in the West by this form of duel.

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Copyright © 1998, 1999 Harry C. Buffardi ©

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