History Features

Rifle Packin' in the Old West

American frontiersmen devised the best ways to carry a rifle.


While the six-gun may have reigned as king of the silver screen West, in the real Old West, it was a different story. True, the handy six-shooter played a pivotal role in both making the West wild and taming the land and its people, but it was the trusty long gun—be it rifle or shotgun—that was rated among the most important tools of the frontiersman.

The vast expanses of wild, unfriendly wilderness that made up much of the continent during the period of our westward expansion required that a man be well armed in order to survive. In these remote regions, a traveler needed to be able to feed, clothe and protect himself by his skill with a rifle or shotgun. The land was big, and the points of civilization were few and far between. Even during the latter phases of the frontier, wise wayfarers packed some sort of protection while traveling across open country.

Much has been written about the various arms used in the West during those years, but surprisingly little has ever been discussed as to how they were carried. Interestingly, many of the methods used by these early Westerners are as practical today as they were well over a hundred years ago, and the most commonly used methods of rifle packin’ were born on the American frontier. Let’s take a closer look at some of the ways our forebears toted their long guns from one place to another.

Toting Their Long Guns

In the early years of our westward push, long arms were aptly named. They were generally very long-barreled, and more often than not, single-shot arms, unless one carried a rifle with a swivel breech or a double-barreled shotgun. These guns were heavy and cumbersome and, for the most part, had been designed for the “long hunters” of the Eastern woodlands.

For several decades, the explorers, trappers and other travelers who ventured into the far west during the early 1800s simply carried their flintlock long guns and later on, their percussion arms. A man on foot most likely cradled his firearm in his arms, perhaps shifting it to different positions as he tired, much as a modern hunter does while walking through hunting country where game is really not expected. He could carry the lengthy rifle across his shoulder with the muzzle forward, gripping it by the barrel or fore-end. Or he could lay the gun across both shoulders, thus resting it behind his neck, with the weight of the gun supported by his shoulder muscles, while the muzzle points to the side rather than forward or to the rear. The military style of shouldering the arm with the muzzle in either the up or down position was also used from time to time. During a long trek, an individual would probably resort to all of these methods for short periods of time, shifting to a different hold as the muscles tired.

A horsebacker also relied on the above methods, especially cradling the gun in his arms. Being mounted gave him an advantage already, so his long rifle often rested between him and the pommel (front fork) of the saddle. A rider who carried a firearm with considerable wear in the fore-end section of the stock had likely logged in many hours in the saddle.

Evidence of two modes of gun carry by a single individual is provided by an excerpt from the chronicles of 19th-century Westerner William E. Webb. During his 1868 venture across the plains, Webb carried his recently acquired .44 rimfire “New Model Henry” carbine, better known today as the 1866 Model Winchester, by utilizing its shoulder strap and also dropping it across the saddle. He wrote, “I became very fond of a carbine combining the Henry and Kings patents. It weighed but seven and one-half pounds and could be fired rapidly 12 times without replenishing the magazine. Hung by a strap to the shoulder, this weapon can be dropped across the saddle in front and held there very firmly by a slight pressure of the body ... and with little practice, the magazine of the gun may be refilled without checking the horse. So light is this Henry and King weapon that I have often held it out with one hand like a pistol and fired.”

Slings and Scabbards

Some fur trappers and early explorers carried their longarms encased in a soft cloth or skin-type covering. These scabbards were often made of deer, elk, moose or some other Western animal’s hide. The skin was tanned soft so that it was flimsy and cloth-like, with the hair usually removed. Then beadwork, colored cloth strips or panels and fringe would be added for decorative purposes. Trade blankets were...

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