Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Myth of the Hawken Rifle:

For many years a rifle was condemned if it did not have the name of Hawkins stamped on it.” A bold, audacious statement.  A statement that matches the expectations of many of us of the gun carried by the mountain man.  The kind of statement that had been repeated for so often and for so long that I too was taken in by it.  And a statement that is largely untrue. 

That the shop of Samuel and Jacob Hawken produced high quality, premium guns and rifles (and at a premium price, as much as six times as costly as a trade gun) cannot be disputed.  However, their shop was not a gun factory, spewing out an endless stream of rifles.  A large part of their business was gun repairs and modifications, as well as other types of iron work required by their customers, such as producing batches of traps, or fire-steels. Their gun production, which peaked at about 200 per year around the gold rush days in the latest 1840’s and earliest 1850’s, probably was consumed primarily by the local market.  The next largest market documented was the Santa Fe trade and Bent’s Fort in the 1840’s.  Even if their entire annual production been sent to the mountains, it still would have been insignificant in comparison to the numbers of guns and rifles being produced and shipped west by gun factories in Europe and eastern United States.  

So how did the myth that every Mountain Man had to carry a Hawken rifle (as characterized by the Mountain Rifle) come to be.  References to the Hawken rifle by Mountain Men and other observers at the time show that there is no mention of the Hawken in the 1820’s.  In his later years, Samuel Hawken does state that William Asley had a super-Hawken in 1823.  There is only one mention of a Hawken rifle in the 1830’s by Pegleg Smith, who states that ownership of one is a good recommendation (but not that everyone had to own one).  By the 1840’s there are numerous references to the Hawken rifle and the quality of the firearm, but no indication that it was the universal weapon or the firearm of choice.  It seems probably that George Frederick Ruxton may have innocently been responsible for starting the legendary association of the Hawken rifle and Mountain Man.  Ruxton, an English observer, traveled the  Santa Fe Trail in 1847.  He later wrote two books based on his experience:  a factual book entitled “Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains” distinguished for its many complete and accurate descriptions of clothing, weapons, and personal equipment used by the people with who he came in contact; and a fictional novel based on his experiences entitled “Life in the Far West.”  In his factual book, Ruxton makes no mention of the Hawken rifle.  However, in the novel, he writes that his hero, when beginning to outfit himself for life in the mountains stops by the Hawken shop to replace his squirrel gun with a “regular mountain rifle.” This novel was an international best seller.  It appeared serially in 1848 in Britain and the United States, and English editions were printed in 1850, 1851, 1861, 1867.  A German edition appeared in 1852.  American editions were printed in 1855, 1859, 1915, 1951, and 1973.  This popular best seller appears to have inextricably linked the image of the Mountain Man with the Hawken rifle in popular wisdom.  

After the appearance of Ruxton’s best selling novel and well after the end of the era of the “Mountain Man” allusions to the Hawken rifle and Mountain Men increase in frequency and the superlatives become increasingly enthusiastic. However, these statements seem to be drawn out of thin air, with no documentation to back them up.   

A listing of Mountain Man rifles in order of importance, based on trade inventories and production records was probably:

Lancaster  Rifle
English Rifle
Other Kentucky and Pennsylvania types
J&S Hawken Rifles
New English Rifle (last because it appeared very late)

The primary distinction that the Hawken Rifle held was that it was the predominant and earliest percussion rifle to see widespread use amongst the Mountain Men.  However, rifles were not the only long gun to see use by the Mountain Man.  Huge quantities of Northwest Trade Guns as well as other smoothbore long guns were shipped annually to the mountains.  Although intended primarily for trade with the Indians, these guns also saw widespread use with the trappers. 

The above material was summarized from “The Hawken Rifle: It’s Place In History” by Charles E Hanson, Jr. 

Back to the Top
Back to Myths