Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole


Concerning the Mountain Man and his rifle, Washington Irving wrote "The experienced mountaineer is never without his rifle, even in camp.  Ongoing from lodge to lodge to visit his comrades, he takes it with him.  On seating himself in a lodge, he lays it beside him, ready to be snatched up:  when he goes out he takes it up... as a citizen would his walking staff.  His rifle is his constant friend and protector."  In 1839 Wislizenus wrote , "On such journeys one gets habituated to his rifle as to a trusty traveling companion.  During the march the gun lies across the saddle; when one rests it is always close at hand.  One never leaves camp without taking it as a cane; and at night it is wrapped in the blanket with the sleeper, to be ready for use at the first alarm."    

Most guns used by the Mountain Men used the flintlock ignition system.  In 1807 Rev. Alexander Forsyth invented the percussion ignition system, although it wasn’t until around 1815 that the percussion system was perfected.  In the early days of the percussion era the
 percussion caps should their supply run out, be lost, or spoiled.  Because flintlocks would fire successfully approximately 7 times out of 10 in dry weather and under good conditions, percussion rifles were gradually accepted because of their much greater reliability.  Percussion
rifles, pistols, and caps were first advertised in St. Louis in 1831.  In 1832, Lucien Fontenelle ordered 500 percussion caps for his rifle, and Andrew Drips ordered a spare percussion lock for his rifle.   In December of 1834, while encamped in the Columbia Valley Nathaniel Wyeth's party converted three flintlock rifles to percussion.  Wyeth writes "...during this time we percussioned 3 rifles, our powder being so badly damaged as to render flintlocks useless." (The Correspondence and Journals of Captain Nathaniel J Wyeth, 1831-6, p 238). Converting these guns while in the mountains suggests that the skills, parts and tools for making such conversions were neither unusual or difficult.  Wyeth also expressed this opinion about flintlocks in his journal, "...our hunters are more conceited than good....and commonly have miserable flint guns which snap continually and afford an excuse for not killing."  Wyeth may have been planning to offer a flintlock conversion service at the post he established in the mountains (click here for more thoughts on this).  By 1834 gun dealers in St. Louis were advertising large quantities of percussion caps as stock on hand.  Jos. Charless, Jr. advertised 200,000 caps, and H.L.Hoffman & Co. 280,000 caps.  In 1836 Mead & Adriance advertised "1 million percussion caps."  Even after widespread adoption of the percussion system, some of the old frontiersman continued to prefer flint ignition.  In the mid 1850's its reported that Rube Rawlins continued to use flintlock rifles. 
Triggers:  There were two types of triggers in use during the period: simple single triggers, and set triggers or double triggers.  With the single trigger,
the pressure of the trigger finger is transmitted directly to the sear within the lock mechanism. With a set trigger, a powerful spring mechanism within the trigger is cocked by the rear trigger. With just a light touch on the first trigger, the spring mechanism is released striking the sear in the lock.  The finger
pressure required to activate the mechanism can be adjusted.  Set triggers were common on rifles and fine guns, almost to the point of being a fad, however, combined with primitive, open-sites, probably didn't do a great deal to improve the accuracy of the firearm.  The different trigger types could lead to confusion under panic situations-for an example see Beating Off a Grizz.   

Research by Charles E Hanson, Jr. (References given below), shows that during the early Mountain Man period,  the predominant rifles in use were the Lancaster and Kentucky/Pennsylvania type rifles.  During the late Mountain Man period from approximately the late 1830's to early 1840's, based on inventories and fur trade records (primarily records of the American Fur Company and Pierre Chouteau & Company), the predominant rifles, in order of quantities, appear to be:

Lancaster Rifle
English Rifle
Kentucky/Pennsylvania Type Rifles
J&S Hawken Rifles
New English Rifle (this rifle appeared to late to attain much importance)

Smooth-bore pistols and long guns were also very important weapons used by the Mountain Men and for trade with the Indians.  Because the smooth-bore didn't require the difficult and time consuming process of rifling the barrel, these guns were far less expensive than even the cheapest rifles. Additionally, they could be loaded with shot and used effectively as a shotgun.  Surviving trade records seem to clearly differentiate between the two types of weapons, being described as rifles, or rifle-guns, and guns (smooth-bores).  These smooth-bore guns include muskets, scatterguns, and trade guns.  The most prominent of the smooth bore trade guns is the North West Trade Gun pattern.  

Other types of guns taken to the mountains included swivel guns and small cannons mounted on Keelboats and Steamboats.  Swivel guns and small cannon might also be used at fortified trading posts.  Small cannon mounted on carriages were also sometimes taken to rendezvous.   These guns were used far more often for signaling and saluting then for defensive measures.  

Of course the well equipped Mountain Man needed more than just a gun, he would need cleaning and maintenance tools, gunpowder and powder horn, gun flints, or percussion caps, lead, balls, and ball molds.  

Topics described in more detail in the following subsections include: 

For more information about the rifles and guns of the Mountain Man see the following references:

The Plains Rifle, by Charles E Hanson, Jr., published by The Stackpole Company, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1960. 

Hawken Rifles: The Mountain Man's Choice, by John D Baird, originally published by The Buckskin Press, 1968.

The Hawken Rifle: Its Place in History, by Charles E Hanson, Jr., published by the Fur Press, Crawford, Nebraska, 1979.  Probably one of the best sources of documentation of the types of rifles carried by the mountain men, production of rifles by the Hawken brothers, and origin of the myths regarding the "Hawkens Rifles"  If you read only one of these references, I would highly recommend that it be this book.  

Firearms, Traps, & Tools of the Mountain Men, by Carl P Russell, published by University of New Mexico Press, 1967. 

United States Firearms: The First Century 1776-1875; by David F Butler, published by Winchester Press, New York, 1971.

Russell, Carl P. Guns On the Early Frontiers: A History of Firearms from Colonial Times Through the Years of the Western Fur Trade. 1957.

The Encyclopedia of the Fur Trade :Firearms of the Fur Trade, 2011, Hanson, James, with Dick Harmon.  Published by the Museum of the Fur Trade, Chadron, Nebraska.  ISBN 978-0-912611-18-1.  

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Back to Equipment

Muskets & Scatterguns

English Rifle

NW Trade Gun

Pennsylvania/Kentucky Rifle

New English Rifle


Swivel Guns & Small Cannon

J&S Hawken Rifles


Gun Worms & Ram Rods

Lancaster Rifle

Black Powder

Pistols and Handguns

Plains Rifle

Gun Flints

Flint Caps

Mountain Men chose to remain with the flintlock guns for various reasons including distrust of the new system and uncertain supply for additional