The phrase “The Gun That Won the West” conjures up images of lone gunfighters facing off in the dusty streets of a western town armed with the 1873 Colt Single Action Army. Known as the Peacemaker, this firearm is still being produced in various guises to this day and remains fixed in most people’s minds as the gun that won the West. However, there was an earlier frontier in the American West. A frontier of buckskin-clad Mountain Men fighting with Native Warriors, a frontier of canoe-paddling Frenchmen and mounted buffalo hunts where the rider came within a hair’s breadth of the charging animal before shooting it from the saddle. In this early time frame, there was one gun that was the go-to gun, the everyday carry gun of these men. That gun was the Northwest Trade Gun, the first “Gun That Won the West.”
The First Known Use of the Northwest Trade Gun
The Northwest Trade Gun first appears in the fur trade records of the Hudson’s Bay Company as early as 1761. By 1777 Trader John Long, trading north of Lake Superior writes in his journal: “I gave…to the eight chiefs who were in the band each a North-West Gun.” This entry is the first mention made referring to the gun as a certain type or style. From this point forward the fur trade records are full of mentions of Northwest Guns, which were also called “fusils” (French for shotgun, pronounced ‘fusee‘) London Guns, Mackinaw Guns, and Hudson’s Bay fusees.
These guns became common on the early frontier. By the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition into the American West in 1804, Lewis describes the tribes along the upper Missouri as being almost universally armed with these guns. In fact, when Lewis and Clark engaged Toussaint Charbonneau and his young wife Sacagawea at the Mandan Village in the winter of 1804-05 they noted his Trade Gun, an “elegant fusil” in the journals.
An All-Purpose Frontier Companion
A smoothbore flintlock, this gun found favor on the frontier because of its versatility. For small game and birds one could load shot, and for larger game one could load a round ball. This feature increases the chances for success while out hunting for game. Not to mention that the guns were sturdy built and lightweight, much lighter than a rifle. They were also easier to load than a rifle. I know loading my own Northwest Gun with a patched round ball is many times easier than loading one of my muzzleloading rifles.
As stated earlier the Northwest Gun is incredibly lightweight. I know whenever I go out on a period trek I am perpetually drawn to taking my Northwest Gun with me instead of a rifle for all the same reasons the original owners did. Lightweight, easy to come up on the shoulder, versatility of shot and ball, all these things combine to make it my go-to gun for any type of period trek.
America, however, has always been a nation of riflemen. Almost all the mentions in the American literature remark that the Indian was “poorly armed” with only his bow and arrow and a fusee. However, the Indian himself did not think so and was glad to have such a handy weapon. While the American clung steadfastly to his rifle, every other ethnic group in the West almost universally opted for the fusee. The Americans did, however, utilize the fusee for one particular activity, Buffalo hunting. Back in the day, Buffalo hunting consisted of saddling up your favorite mount and taking off at breakneck speed among the charging herd. Once in the midst of this sea of hair and horn, the rider got alongside the chosen beast and let fly with a ball at close range. The ball had to be big enough and the gun sturdy enough to support a hard-hitting powder charge. The roughly 20 gauge or .62 caliber Northwest Gun fit the bill perfectly.
As a bonus, it was easier to load on horseback; the shorter barrel was handy, and the smooth bore allowed for quicker follow-up shots. This was a dangerous sport, but the Mountain Men loved it, and journals and reminisces abound describing this activity and the many close calls they encountered at full speed alongside the massive bulls.
Help from the English
The Northwest Trade Gun had its roots in the early trade muskets provided by the Hudson’s Bay Company. A review of HBC records shows that by 1781, around the time frame when the Northwest Gun became a recognizable type, the HBC had already imported some 46,000 trade muskets into the fur trade. These muskets were all made by various London makers and all carried bits and pieces of the architecture that was to become the iconic Northwest Gun.
Besides the shorter barrel length and the roughly 20 gauge bore, the Trade Gun also had a rounded lock plate, a butt plate of brass, brass ramrod thimbles, an octagon to round barrel, an oversized bow-shaped trigger guard, and the piece was stamped “London.” All of these items became so standardized that if they were missing, the Indians would not trade for them. By the 1820s when demand was high and the HBC turned to gun makers in Birmingham to help fill orders, they discovered that the guns stamped “Birmingham” would not sell. Therefore they had to order the Birmingham guns stamped “London” so their customers would buy them.
London still remained the primary place of manufacture for Northwest Trade Guns, even after the Americans entered the scene in the early 1800s. The Americans did have a robust firearms industry at home, but given their inclination towards the rifle, the firearms makers in the States had neither the tooling nor the expertise to build many smoothbores. Besides the English had been making smoothbores for a long time and it was often even cheaper to import the Northwest Trade Gun than it was to attempt to manufacture it at home.
Re-enacting with the Northwest Trade Gun
I find my Northwest Trade Gun is more often than not my go-to gun on period treks and Living History outings. I often portray a French Indian Trader at Fort Atkinson State Historical Park near Omaha, Nebraska. The real-life Indian trader at the Fort was a Frenchman named Michael Barada, and he had been living amongst the Omaha tribe since the 1790s. In 1825 he was hired as the Chief Indian Interpreter at the Fort.
In my portrayal of Barada, I carry this gun. It is a Caywood Northwest Trade Gun from Caywood Gunmakers of Berryville, Arkansas. This is a top-quality piece, much like the “elegant fusil” of Charboneau. I am infinitely pleased with it. It is accurate, has a quick lock time, and shoulders like a fine fowler. When I go out, I carry both shot and ball and feel like I am able to meet with any situation when I have this gun at my side. I suppose that is the way that the original owners of these guns felt, like they had a gun that could do many different things quite well. An all-around good choice for the wilderness, this gun has turned me into a confirmed smoothbore shooter, and I thoroughly enjoy it.
Falling Out of Favor
The Northwest Trade Gun enjoyed a long run. From its beginnings in the late 1770s, it remained in production clear up until it was eclipsed by the muzzleloading double barrel shotgun in the 1860s. Untold thousands were produced and the flintlocks lasted almost right up till the end. In the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, the cargo of the Arabia is displayed. This steamboat sunk in the Missouri River in 1856 and was silted in, only to be re-discovered in 1991 and excavated.
The cargo is in remarkable shape and the goods look like new. Among the cargo was a load of Flintlock Northwest Trade Guns bound for an Indian trading post upriver in Nebraska. So even at this late a date, the Flintlock Trade Gun was still being handled by Indian Traders. HBC carried the Northwest Trade Gun in its flintlock form for trade in the West of Canada clear up until about 1876. After that, the guns were all manufactured with percussion locks. Production of the percussion version continued however for another 60 years up to the early 1930s.
Not many specimens of the Northwest Trade Gun survive. The fact is that these guns were simply used up to the point that nothing was left to salvage. Most of the guns that survived are scattered in museums throughout the Western states. These guns were true workhorses, getting the job done on a day-to-day basis for over 150 years.
Perhaps the largest collection of Northwest Trade Guns is in the hands of the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Nebraska. This site is a must-see for any student of the fur trade, but for aficionados of the Trade Gun, this museum is tantamount to heaven on earth. Hundreds of Trade Guns are on display, many showing signs of hard use. I was surprised to see a few specimens where the bottom of the pan was repaired because the pan had burnt through. That is a lot of shooting! Perhaps the crown jewel of the collection is the Northwest Gun belonging to the great Shawnee Warrior Tecumseh. I have to admit that I was moved to see this gun that belonged to this historical person.
So there you have it, my nominee for the “Gun That Won the West” Not a fancy gun, but a common everyday survival gun, made for hard use, a gun that I am proud to say I own and use on a regular basis.