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.

Guns of the western history makers

In addition to the Stars and Stripes, the flags of Spain, France, England, Russia, Mexico, the Confederacy and the short-lived Bear flag of California have been raised aloft in our American West. This is an area with a history that started well before Captain John Smith was being ransomed for “two guns and a grindstone”at Jamestown in the early 1600s, or the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony were blasting away at turkey gobblers for their Thanksgiving dinners.
The first sound of gunfire in North America was in our Southwest when Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led a force of soldiers north from Mexico. He was in search of reported gold and other treasure, and his soldiers were armed with assorted weapons including some matchlock muskets and possibly a few wheel-lock guns. The year was 1540.

Soldiers have burned much of the gunpowder and written many pages of western history, but there were also the self-reliant Mountain Men, the hardy miners, pioneer settlers and early merchants of varied nationalities, the lawmen and the lawless. And, of course, there was the native—the Indian. For the western migration it was said the “The weak died along the way and the timid never started.”

Rivalries among the Indian tribes made it somewhat less difficult for the white men to secure a foothold on the North American continent, but the task was not easy.
Following the explorations of Coronado from Mexico into the Southwest men with a mission
Like Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, “the padre on horseback,” and the trieless Father Garces, In California there was Father Junipero Serra, a remarkable man among all pioneers in American history. With these pioneers of the cross came adventurous leaders like the borderlands frontiersman Juan Bautista de Anza.

Spanish endeavors in bringing Christianity to the native Indians and establishing settlements extended into the 1700s and 1800s In this period the primary weapons were the sword, the lance and the flintlock musket. Horsemen used a short flintlock carbine often called an escopeat. The flintlock ignition, it will be remembered, extended, it will be remembered, extended well over 200 years into the 1800s and indluded miquelet, snaphaunce and other variations of flintlock from.

Spanish settlements at Santa Fe. Taos. Tubac and Tucson attracted the caravans of trade ; and to San Diego, Monterey, Los Angeles, and Yerba Buena ( San Francisco ) came the sailing ships. Not only did the caravans of trade goods come up the trails from Mexico, but they eventually came overland from the Missouri. The ships of Spain, England, Russia and some other countries the waters of the blue Pacific.

Thus there came to the Southwest, and to the West Coast the stirrings of a great migration. Although the Pacific coastline was first dominated entirely by Spain, England soon had a foothold to the north of California; the Russians came across into Alaska and down into northern California; France claimed a great but little known section of West extending from the Mississippi to the coasts of what are now the states of Oregon and Washington. In all this reaching out to extend the empires of Russia, England and the European countries, the skirmishing was light, Indian troubles attained no great proportion, and the flintlock muskets of the various nations were used primarily to harvest the game which was in great abundance.

The pace was stepped up at end of the 18th century, and in 1803 France ceded to the United States its vast claim to western territory. Although up to this time a few rifles may have been brought in by traders, the smoothbore flintlock musket, or fusil, was the predominant firearm west of the Mississippi.

18th Century Army

18th Century Army

A favorite firearm of this per-1800 period, and for 50 or more years thereafter, was a model we now call “The Northwest Gun.” These light fusils were made with a full stock under the round smoothbore barrel; they had an unusually large trigger guard; and the flint firing lock was the bar action type. They could shoot either a ball or shot and are generally thought of as trade guns.

The pelts of the beaver and the hides of the buffalo were major items of trade with the Indians, and inasmuch as firearms could enable the redmen to devote more time to the harvesting of pelts and hides, traders took the calculated risk of putting guns in Indian hands.

Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in early 1803 the United States began planning to send an exploring party through this vast new domain. Captain William Clark and Captain Meriwether Lewis were chosen for this arduous adventure. They started from St. Louis on May 14, 1804, leading a party of 43 men, and were destined not to see that city again until September of 1806. With Lewis and Clark went a few of the new U.S. rifles, Model of 1803, made at Harpers Ferry. These handsome brass-mounted guns, with their short half-length forestock, hand round barrels with 54 caliber rifles carried by Americans across the continent to the west coast. Here we have a beginning of a great variety of firearms destined to serve thise with a pioneering spirit whose actions were to shape our western history.

James Bridger, one of the great guides of
The early West; founder of Fort Bridger.

Great events were in store for the first half of the 1800s, and guns were to figure importantly in almost all. The exploration of Lewis and Clark and some others had uncovered the potential of the western fur trade. In 1810 John Jacob Astor deciding this alone was a basis for expanding the American empire to the Columbia River basin. Soon St. Louis became the home of the nation’s principal fur companies.
The steamboat was a familiar sight on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and by 1820 was nosing up the Missouri, revolutionizing commerce toward the west.
Within five years the American Fur Company became a major factor in the push westward. Employed in the fur trade were great pathfinders like William Ashley, Andrew Henry, Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, William Sublette, James Clyman, Joe Meek, Tom Fitzpatrick and kit Carson. All these men needed dependable guns – Jake and Sam Hawken of St. Louis were the men to provide them.
Sam Hawken joined his brother Jake at St. Louis in 1822 and their reputation for what became known as a sturdy “Mountain Rifle” spread rapidly. The name Hawken on a rifle was like the Sterling stamp on silver. Hawken rifles were the favorites of the bold group we call Mountain Men. Jedediah Smith carried one over his saddle when he led the first group of white men overland by the southern route, arriving at California’s San Gabriel Mission in 1826, Kit Carson owned several, one now the property of Montezuma Lodge No.1, F.&A.M., in Santa Fe, and currently on loan to the Museum of New Mexico. Another of Carson’s Hawken rifles was presented to Lt. Edward F. Beale, whose heirs later gave it to Theodore Roosevelt. It is now in the collection of the Boone & Crockett Club.