I owned guns when I was younger. Wasn’t a hunter, and wasn’t even that much of a gun enthusiast, but I did enjoy going out and shooting them once in a while. Set up a few cans or sticks in a gully, move back a good ways, and start firing. Can’t say I was a great shot since I never really practiced very much, but I could hit a tin can every few rounds, especially with my old Remington twenty-two long. But my old first generation single action Colt was another matter. I could usually get near a can with my shot, with the dust puffing up to one side or the other, or maybe a few yards behind. But the Colt wasn’t really made for long distance. It was more of a close-up, in your face kind of firearm.
I even had to use my old Colt in self defense, though you’ll have to read my book to get that story. Suffice it to say that at the time, I thought I was protecting my horse, Gizmo, and myself from further attacks by a couple of disreputable characters (they had already assaulted us). As I said, I wasn’t all that good a shot with the Colt, but I was pretty danged good at doing gun tricks with it. Unloaded, of course. I’d twirl it around, popping it in and out of my holster. Throwing it up behind my back and catching it after it had completed two and a half circles. I’d catch it, pull the hammer back and fire, all in one smooth motion. It was a single action sidearm, which meant you had to cock the hammer in order to fire it.
I’d spend hours in camp during our long ride, spinning the Colt, balancing it on my fingertips by the end of its barrel, rolling over and under my hands, flipping it over and firing, then spinning it and letting it fall easily into the holster at my side. Even learned to cock and fire it upside down (the gun, not me…). I’m mostly left handed, so after I mastered all these tricks with my left hand, I learned how to do them right handed.
I loved that old Colt. Don’t have it anymore; gave it to my brother (who had originally given it to me) when I moved to New Zealand. Had no use for it, anyway. Never kept bullets for it after the ride. Mostly just kept it as a memento, a keepsake to remind me of my adventure with my horse. For some reason, I always think of Gizmo when I think of that old Colt.
It was made in 1907, what they call a “first generation Colt”. It had “Colt Single Action Army” stamped on the five-and-a-quarter-inch barrel. There’s a spring inside the pistol grip, called the hammer spring, that causes the hammer to slam shut when you squeeze the trigger. It’s a flat piece of steel that’s bent into a curve, and it bends when you cock the hammer back. It was very stiff and hard to cock when I first got the pistol, so I took a rasp and filed the sides of the spring down a bit, making it much easier to use. It wasn’t what you’d call a hair trigger—one that could be fired with very little pull—but it made doing the gun tricks a lot easier. I didn’t want a hair trigger, because if the gun was loaded while I was riding, it could easily go off if Gizmo or I were suddenly jarred. That’s something they don’t tell you in the movies.
That old Colt got me out of trouble, and it got me into trouble (again, you’ll have to read the book…). I brought it along on the ride for protection against critters—mostly to scare off herds of wild horses by firing over their heads—and I gave no thought about using it against humans. I had traveled for thousands of miles by hitchhiking and riding freight trains and wasn’t the least bit concerned with defending myself against possible attacks from strangers. And for the most part, I was right about that.
I was still living in “lonesome cowboy” mode back then, heading down the trail all by myself on my trusty horse with my six-shooter strapped to my side. I didn’t care about showing off or impressing anyone with the gun—in fact, I mostly kept it hidden down in my saddlebags whenever I was around civilization. But I figured it was just part of being who I was trying to be at the time. I viewed it not as a symbol of status or a political statement, but simply as a tool. I could not have cared less about making an issue of guns back in those days.
Things are different today. A lot different. I reckon a lot of gun owners keep a gun for many of the same reasons I did back then. They like to shoot. They enjoy antique firearms—or even new ones—and like having them around. I never was a hunter, but many people are, and I have no quarrel with that. But today most people keep a gun for self defense. Most of these are hand guns, like my old Colt, but a lot more powerful and accurate. Some are semi-automatic rifles. None of them are made for hunting. Just like my Colt, they’re strictly for killing people. The main difference is, they can kill a lot more people a lot faster than that old single action ever could.
We live in fear today. Profound fear, from where I sit. Afraid of everything. Afraid of the guy next door, afraid of walking down the street alone, afraid of going camping. We’re afraid of the food we eat, the water we drink, the vaccines we give our kids. We’re afraid of smoking, afraid of the vapor trails that jets make, afraid of driving without seat belts. We’re afraid of dying before it’s our time. And somehow, we don’t believe it’s ever our time. We mourn an 89 year old’s passing, as if she hadn’t lived a long enough life. We want to live forever. We want control of our lives. We want control of everything. And we trade away our happiness for the idea of being in control. Ironically, we’re think we’re happier as an armed society who thinks they’re safe, than we would be as an unarmed society who knows they’re safe.
We grab for control like we would a broom. And we always seem to grab the ignorant end. We can’t seem to figure out which end’s the smart one.
At least, with that old single action Colt, I knew where the grip was.