Jesse James lived by the revolver, and he died by it as well. Throughout his career as a bushwhacker and robber, Jesse made use of Samuel Colt's revolutionary new pistol to inflict mayhem at close range. A pistol fired point blank at the back of his head brought Jesse's life to an end in 1882.
The Confederate guerrillas known as "bushwhackers" specialized in ambushes of Union troops and savage combat conducted at close quarters. The guerrilla's principal weapon was the .36 caliber 1851 Navy Colt revolver. This gun was named for its inventor, Samuel Colt, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, who as a young man designed the world's first revolving-breech pistol. Before Colt came along, most pistols were individually made and had to be fired and reloaded one shot at a time. Colt's gun featured an automatic, revolving chamber that enabled the user to get off six shots in succession. The revolver was a technological breakthrough for the business of armed robbery, since it was easily concealed, held multiple rounds, and intimidated victims. Although Colt had problems with his initial designs and his first manufacturing company went bankrupt, the war with Mexico and Westward migration greatly enhanced his gun's popularity.
The Advantage of More Bullets
In the bushwhackers' hands, the Navy Colt did extensive damage. Though many Union troops also carried revolvers, most militiamen were armed primarily with single-shot Sharpe carbines or Minié rifles; they were more accurate than revolvers and had better range, but they took a long time to reload. Guerrillas like Jesse James and "Bloody Bill" Anderson would carry up to a half-dozen revolvers into battle and get off dozens of shots in the time it took their opponents to fire two. Although the .36 caliber bullets often wounded rather than killed, the bushwhackers would finish off their helpless foes with shots to the head after the skirmish had ended.
The Colt .45 Peacemaker
Samuel Colt died only a year into the Civil War, but his company continued to produce new, deadlier models. The 1860 Army Colt shot .44 caliber bullets, which did much more damage. And by the time of Jesse's bank robberies in the early 1870s, the weapon of choice was the Colt .45 Peacemaker, which combined the bullet, gunpowder, and percussion cap in one cartridge and was therefore much easier to reload. This meant that Jesse now needed only a pair of pistols for each robbery. Other companies sold revolvers as well; at the Northfield robbery, most of the bandits carried seven-shot Smith & Wessons. And revolvers weren't the only weapons carried by his gang; ten or twelve gauge shotguns were also devastating in the close quarters of a holdup. Each shotgun barrel could be filled with bullets, nails, even gravel, and at point blank range, they could cut a man in half. Jesse and his colleagues also carried multi-shot, lever-action Henry and Winchester rifles on many robberies. Of course, Jesse wasn't the only one using these weapons; sheriffs and many citizens had them too, which meant that if the robbers were ever pinned down, as happened in the botched Northfield, Minnesota, robbery in 1876, they too could be cut to pieces.
Although he would use a shotgun from time to time, Jesse's flair for the dramatic meant he probably preferred his flashing pair of revolvers, and the outlaw was never known to take them off. In fact, the first time Bob Ford ever saw Jesse without his guns was on a hot April day in 1882. Jesse was preparing for a robbery, at his house in St. Joseph, Missouri, and after removing his coat in the heat, he took his guns off so they wouldn't be spotted. Bob, anxious to collect the $10,000 reward on the famous bandit, used the opportunity to draw his own revolver and cut Jesse down with a bullet to the back of his head.
My American Experience
Since 1921, dozens of movies have featured a character based on Jesse James, depicting him in very different lights. Which portrayal do you think is the most historically accurate? Do you have a favorite?