I love weird guns, and I love guns from the 1800s, so what’s better than weird guns from the Old West? “Old West” is a nebulous term, to be fair, but it inspires nostalgic thoughts of revolvers, lever-action rifles, and Gatling guns. Whether they were used more on the east coast or out west, it doesn’t matter. When I say Old West guns, you know what I’m talking about. The 1800s up into the early 1900s was a time of rapid advancement in firearms technology, and along the way, we saw some really weird stuff.
Weird Guns of the Old West — Rules
Movies like the Wild Bunch and games like Red Dead Redemption argue that the Old West died in the early 1900s. That’s likely a fair assessment. However, to keep things a little more centered, our weird guns of the Old West must have been created in the 1800s. Also, at least one had to be produced in good working order. Not just sketched plans or patents, but working guns.
It’s not too complicated. Within those rules, I think I’ve found five weird guns of the Old West that will strike up a flare in your curiosity.
1. LeMat Revolver
The LeMat revolver was a creation of Jean Alexandre LeMat, a New Orleans-based gunsmith who clearly saw the need for a more modern revolver. LeMat revolvers gained the name Grapeshot revolver because LeMat wasn’t satisfied with just one barrel. You’d think a single barrel firing .42 or .36 caliber balls was enough, but no, LeMat installed a 20 gauge single shot shotgun on his revolver.
This shotgun barrel gave shooters a blast of 20 gauge shot should the shooter decided he needed a little more ass in his engagement. The 20 gauge shotgun isn’t the only thing that earns this gun’s place on our list of weird guns of the old west.
Unlike most modern revolvers of the time, the LeMat held nine rounds instead of six. With the added shotgun barrel, a gunslinger had ten rounds to cook off in a gunfight instead of the average six. Sadly the expensive revolver never caught on, and limited numbers were produced for the Confederate army before production ceased.
2. Colt’s New Model Revolving rifle
There was a time when the revolving rifle was essentially the modern AR 15 of its day. It was a very short time, but it existed. Colt’s New Model Revolving rifle was an attempt to bring repeating firepower to the percussion rifle. Back in the day, loading a single-shot rifle took time, and there was a capable repeating option. That is, until Colt designed the 1838 Ring Lever revolving rifle and later the improved New Model Revolving Rifle.
Before metallic cartridges became mainstream, how else could you create a repeating rifle? Six chambers loaded with black powder, a lead ball, and backed by a percussion cap was the only way. If a revolving rifle doesn’t count as one of our weird guns of the old west, then what does?
These rifles still had that powerful chamber blast and would quickly burn a shooter who used a traditional rifle grip or lacked a gauntlet to fire the gun. These also had the bad habit of chain firing all six rounds at once and hurting the shooter. They saw some use in the Civil War and by the Pony Express, but once the lever gun hit the scene, they were all but forgotten.
3. Volcano Pistol
Another one of the weird guns of the Old West has to be the lever-action pistol. These are the opposite of the revolving rifle in many ways.
The Volcano pistol was a joint project by Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson of Smith and Wesson fame to make viable weapons and to improve Walter Hunt’s Rocket Ball ammunition.
Rocket ball ammunition was an early form of metallic cartridge and arguably the first form of caseless ammunition. The ammo is as weird as the gun. The main benefit was that it functioned in tubular magazine-fed weapons like the Volcano pistol. Volcano pistols could hold anywhere from six to ten rounds, depending on the size of the gun. At that time, that was a high-capacity pea shooter.
While the idea sounds great, it turned out that Rocket Ball ammunition was anemic and less powerful than most mouse gun calibers today. Also, operating a lever pistol required two hands and was somewhat awkward. Plus, the guns and ammo were prone to misfires and malfunctions. However, the Volcano guns spawned the Henry guns and, from there, lever actions as a whole.
4. Winans Steam Gun
Imagine a gun powered by steam that isn’t from the worst form of ‘punk’ fandom. Because at one point, it existed. The Winans Steam gun offered an alternative to standard gunpowder-operated firearms, using centrifugal force to fling lead balls at the enemy.
Calling it a “gun” might make it sound a little smaller than it was. In reality, this thing was small-tank-sized and featured a massive, bulky shield to protect the mechanism from fire. The Winans Steam Gun’s barrel rotated 250 times per minute, and every revolution could fire a single round. Effectively, it was a very complicated machine gun.
However, this machine gun was far from accurate, and modern gunpowder-based firearms functioned a heckuva lot better than a steam gun. As far as weird weapons of the old weapons go, this might be the weirdest and the least used. It was displayed, captured, and then confiscated. However, it did exist and it functioned.
5. Spencer Roper Shotgun
While most recognize the Winchester 1893 as the first successful pump-action, the Spencer Roper shotgun, in reality, could arguably be called successful. Also known as the Spencer 1882 slide action shotgun. It’s the same Spencer we know and love from the Spencer rifle, and he partnered with a Roper. Roper had minimal success with some revolving shotguns, but both men agreed it could be better.
The Spencer 1882 used black powder cartridges and fed from a tubular magazine beneath the barrel. Why it falls into our weird guns of the Old West is the internal design. When you cycled the action, the gun’s breech block dropped and allowed the next shell to enter the action. At the same time, the shell ejected from the top of the gun.
Two other weird factors include the uncomfortably small pumps on these guns. They looked to be nothing more than small grips to work a rather large action. Inside the trigger guard, there appear to be two triggers. The trigger in reverse is actually the hammer spur. These guns saw moderate success, but in 1889, they were out of business, and Winchester cleaned up with the 1893 and 1897 shotguns.
This period of time produced lots of weird guns, heck, I mentioned the Roper revolving shotgun, and it’s plenty weird. I had to pick five, and I chose my favorites.
Now let’s turn the tables and ask you! What’s your favorite old west era firearm? Let me know below.
If you want to see these guns in real life, check out the NRA museum.