While browsing the catalog of the upcoming December 2019 Rock Island Premier Firearms Auction for putting together one of TFB’s articles about most interesting firearms seen in largest US auctions, I came across a couple of rather rare yet interesting Colt revolvers that were specifically made for exhibition shooters back in the end of 19th and the beginning of 20th centuries. What sets these guns apart is that while being chambered in one of the most popular cartridges of the day, the .44-40 Winchester, these revolvers are smoothbore!
One of the smoothbore wheelguns consigned to Rock Island Auction is a Colt Single Action Army revolver made in 1894 and the other one is a Colt New Service revolver shipped to the customer in 1926. Both are factory-made smoothbore revolvers, both are chambered in .44-40 Winchester (.44-40 WCF) and both have 7 1/2″ barrels. Interestingly, the New Service revolver is a BATFE exempted firearm which means it is not an NFA item despite it technically falls in the category of Any Other Weapon (AOW). Being made before 1898, the SAA is an Antique firearm, hence not an NFA item either. These are really rare firearms. In fact, this is the first time ever Rock Island Auction Company sells factory smoothbore Colt cartridge revolvers.
Now let’s find out why would exhibition shooters need smoothbore revolvers. Well, apparently, oftentimes they loaded their ammunition with birdshot that’s why the revolvers are smoothbore. There are at least two reasons for using shot instead of a bullet – safety and ease of hitting the targets. When performing trick shots in front of a crowd and most likely in a populated area, using bullets was probably not the best idea because they could be dangerous to the audience and surroundings if they missed the target or overpenetrated a barrier. A light charge of fine birdshot will quickly lose its energy and pose no danger for the people watching the show, well, at least by the standards of the day. And to hit that balloon or glass ball you would definitely have better chances with a cloud of birdshot than with a single projectile. You can shoot birdshot through a rifled bore too but then the accuracy and the shot pattern will suffer from the imparted spin.
One source, The Annie Oakley Center Foundation tells the following about the use of smoothbore firearms in exhibition shooting:
Annie Oakley had many guns. On display at The National Annie Oakley Center at Garst Museum is a Winchester 1873 .44-40 caliber factory-made, smooth bore rifle that Annie Owned. Made in 1892, it was given to Annie by buffalo Bill Cody. Both Annie and Buffalo Bill used smooth-bore rifles in the Wild West Show arena shooting at aerial targets. A regular rifle makes the bullet spin as it leaves the gun. A smooth bore does not create the spin when shot. The .44 caliber ammunition cartridge for this gun holds only ¼ ounce of #7 chilled shot. It makes a pattern that holds together for 1 ½ inches wide x 30 yards in length. This ammunition was used because solid shot would endanger the audience that surrounded them. You might also say that this would make it easier to hit a target. Not so, says Dr. Paul Fees. “It is pretty much as difficult to hit a target ball or clay pigeon with this shot as with solid ammunition. It’s very small and the pattern is tight. The Annie Oakley display has several examples of .44 caliber ammunition cartridges.” “Buffalo Bill and his partner learned their lesson about what ammunition to use in 1883 in Brooklyn when they were told they had broken windows on a greenhouse a block and a half away from the arena.
Another source, a book titled “Entertainment in the Old West: Theater, Music, Circuses, Medicine Shows, Prizefighting and Other Popular Amusements” (page 197) by Jeremy Agnew, mentions that shooting glass balls out in the air was a popular trick back in the days of Wild West shows. The exhibition shooters used half powder charge and a light load of lead birdshot. It resulted in about a three-inch shot pattern at 20 yards which was a typical distance for such shots. Interestingly, this book also notes that Buffalo Bill, one of the most known exhibition shooters and showmen of the time, started using shot charges after an incident in 1878 where he accidentally wounded a little boy during one of his shows in Baltimore.
I hope you enjoyed reading about this rare breed of wheelguns. If you know more about these smoothbore Colt revolvers or smoothbore firearms of exhibition shooters in general, please share your knowledge in the comments section. Thanks for reading!
Images courtesy of Rock Island Auction Company, www.rockislandauction.com