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Alamo Exhibit Traces The History Of Frontier Firearms

Shelley Kofler
Texas Public Radio
Alamo historian and curator Bruce Winders in period dress has assembled an exhibit of early frontier firearms.

Thanks to Hollywood, most Americans have seen a few frontier firearms.

In the movie “Unforgiven,” Clint Eastwood’s character wielded a 10-gauge, double barrel shotgun as he tracked down the town bully, Little Bill.

James Arness, as Sheriff Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke,” holstered a Colt .45 as he brought bad guys to justice.

John Wayne’s Davey Crockett blasted away with a Kentucky Flintlock as he tried to defend the Alamo.

Now, at the Alamo, an exhibit with more than four dozen weapons, tells the story of frontier firearms.  It shows how they evolved from single-shot Flintlocks in 1836 at the siege of the Alamo, to modern weapons just 40 years later.

Alamo historian and curator Bruce Winders shows off a Flintlock that survived the Battle of the Alamo as he explains the gun was often less reliable than a bow and arrow because it took at least 45 seconds to load the gun powder

“Imagine trying to do this in the rain or the wind or high humidity,” Winders challenges.  “So, the idea of keeping your powder dry, otherwise you don’t get that one shot.”   

But that era passed quickly as gun manufacturers rapidly introduced more efficient and accurate firing systems. They packaged the powder in percussion caps. They added barrels or chambers so guns could be fired multiple times without reloading.  

At the forefront of many advances was Samuel Colt.  Winders says he was a marketing genius and Texas was his laboratory.

“Colt, in the mid-1830’s, is starting up his company at the same time you get the Republic of Texas.  The Republic of Texas needed weapons. Colt was able to help with the financing. The Republic of Texas buys a large number of revolvers.”

Those revolvers ended up in the hands of the Texas Rangers.  Then, in 1847, Ranger Sam Walker called on Colt again.  The result was the famous Colt Walker handgun.

“He said, 'we need something big enough that will knock down a horse or shoot through a Comanche war shield.'  This is really the Dirty Harry gun of the War with Mexico,” says Winders pointing to one of the massive pistols being displayed under glass.

The exhibit includes early versions of the Winchester rifle, some of the first bullets and the Sharps buffalo rifle, which crippled Indian tribes by taking away their primary source of food and sustenance.

“This is the gun that essentially drove Indians to the reservation,” Winders explains.

Visitors to the exhibit, like Irene Severin from Nebraska, say they feel a connection with the early settlers who wielded these weapons.

“I am married to a hunter and his brother’s a hunter, so we are a family with firearms.  It’s interesting to see the ones from 100 years ago.” 

Gary McDaniel from Marion, Texas is retired Air Force. 

“We hunted and fished, always had shotguns and rifles around. I also believe in personal protection- a right to protect yourself, says McDaniel.           

Historian Winders says that on the frontier having reliable firearms could mean the difference between life and death.

“Proficiency with a firearm is life and death: whether you eat that day, whether in a fight whether you walk away or don’t. “

Winders believes the story of self-sufficiency at the end of a gun barrel still resonates strongly with many Americans today, and the history of the American frontier is in many ways the history of guns and how they evolved. 

The exhibit, “Firearms of the Texas Frontier,” is free to the public at San Antonio’s Alamo through April 15. 

Shelley Kofler is Texas Public Radio’s news director. She joined the San Antonio station in December 2014 and leads a growing staff that produces two weekly programs; a daily talk show, news features, reports and online content. Prior to TPR, Shelley served as the managing editor and news director at KERA in Dallas-Fort Worth, and the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.