Jim Bridger’s Hawken Rifle

Jim Bridger’s Hawken Rifle

Very similar to the Howken rifle this caplock gun, new in the Los Angeles County Museum, way made by Philadelphia for General James H. Carleton. Frontier Dragoon soldier.

Jim Bridger’s Hawken is preserved at the Montana Historical Society, and Mariano Modena’s rifle may be seen at the Colorado State Museum. Many men who made western history did it with the help of a Hawken rifle. These were plain, well-made caplock guns,usually with a half stock, although some full-stock guns were made. The barrels were heavy and usually rifled to handle a ball of about 54 caliber. They were bad medicine for the grizzly bear, the buffalo, or the hostile Indian. I once had the good fortune to own a collection of seven Hawken rifles. Today a good specimen, which sold originally from $20 to $30, may bring several thousand dollars.

Contemporary with the Hawken rifles were plain caplock guns made for the Indian trade by H. E. Leman of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. These were rather short rifles with bar action locks and usually with a full stock under the octagon barrel. Indians liked to decorate them with brass-headed tacks. The largest group of these Leman Indian guns was originally in the U.S. Cartridge Company collection. While usually found in poor condition they are nevertheless valued highly by collectors.
By 1834 the old system of holding a trapper trading rendezvous in the mountains gave way to private forts at strategic locations. Ambitious merchants like the Chouteaus of St. Louis established trading posts at landings on the upper Missouri, such as Westport, whence trails branched off for Fort Laramie and Fort Bridger or ran southwest to Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas.
It was via Bent’s Fort that the Santa Fe Trail looped its way across Kansas and Colorado into New Mexico. This became known as the road of commerce while the Oregon Trail was the path of the home seeker; the Overland and California trails were known as the routes of the gold-seeker, mail and express; the Bozeman Trail became the bloody battleground of the fighting Sioux.

Lt. John Charles Fremont. Sometimes called “The Pathfinder,” he made five long trips to and beyond the Rocky Mountains in the 1840s.

Following the Santa Fe Trail with his caravan of trade goods Josiah Gregg in 1839 probably introduced the first of many Colt repeating firearms to travel along western trails. He later wrote: “Thanks to Mr. Colt’s invention I carried thirty-six charges ready loaded, which could easily fire at the rate of a dozen per minute.” Gregg referred to colt’s caplock cylinder rifles and pistols made at Paterson, New Jersey, and the practice of carrying extra loaded cylinders.