Putting to rest the myth of the "Cowboy Carry": Colt + S&W recommended carry w/all 6 chambers loaded

Discussion in 'Handguns: Revolvers' started by sleepysquirrel2, Sep 19, 2022.

  1. sleepysquirrel2

    sleepysquirrel2 Member

    Dec 17, 2020
    It's time to put to rest the myth of the "Cowboy Carry" of "load 5 and leave the hammer on an unloaded chamber."

    I'm here to discuss What was done historically, back in the old west period of 1865-1890.

    And no, history doesn't care about:
    • what your favorite 1930's/1950's/1970's western or spaghetti western movies show
    • or what modern CAS/SASS rules state
    • or what modern liability lawyer paperwork shipped with modern revolvers say
    • or how your italian knockoff revolver made on italian tooling doesn't have a proper safety notch
    • or how 3rd gen colt's don't have the safety notch cut the the same way because the original tooling was thrown away by Colt
    • or what fiction writers in the 1930's made up with the rest of their outlandish claims (No, Stuart Lake is not a trustworthy source; let alone a primary source)
    • or what your grandpa's grandpa told his cousin's friend who knew wyatt earp's niece's butler
    • or what you in 2022 consider "common sense"
    • or whether or not carrying 5 makes you feel safer and helps you sleep at night
    No, history is concerned with facts, and facts are revealed with primary source documentation. (And sorry, but gun-writers talking about a historical event after the fact is called secondary source documentation, and is inherently biased because you are seeing a filtered view)

    In short, the "Cowboy Carry" is a historically inaccurate myth invented by 20th century hollywood, pulp fiction, and gunwriters. In other words, there is no recorded primary source documentation of this "cowboy carry" during the old west period of 1865-1890. The first written documentation of cowboy carry only emerges after after the Western Frontier was closed by the census bureau in in 1890.

    On the other hand, there is plenty of recorded documentation that both Colt and Smith & Wesson recommended carrying their revolvers fully loaded and on the safety notch.

    First, an advertisement from Colt in 1876. If you can't read the whole document, right-click the image and press "open in a new tab". But I have included zoomed in screenshots as well.



    "There are three notches in the hammer of this pistol. The first is the safety notch, the second is the half-cock notch, and the third is the cock notch. The pistol cannot be fired when the hammer rests in the safety notch, or half -cock notch, and can be fired by pulling the trigger when the hammer rests in the cock notch. The pistol should be carried habitually with the hammer resting in the safety notch"
    - Colt Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company, 1876.

    Next, we have a Colt advertisement from 1898, long after the Old West has ended and smokeless powder has already been introduced.



    "These Revolvers should be carried with the hammer resting in the Safety Notch"
    -Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company, 1898.

    Mind you, Colt also recommended this for their double action revolvers too:


    "These Revolvers should be carried with the hammer resting in the Safety Notch"
    -Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company, 1898.

    But you might say -- Wait! Surely Colt must have learned by the time the WW1 turned around?

    Nope, even up until 1936, possibly up until 1940 (i.e., the very last 1st generation single action army revolvers until they had decided to permanently discontinue the line) they were still recommending carrying the single action army in the safety catch


    "For more than half a century, this model Single Action Revolver has been a favorite of the Old and New West where accuracy and extreme durability are required and gun-smiths are fewest [...] This is the model that blazed the trail west of the Mississippi. May be carried cocked and with the hammer in the safety notch."
    -Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company, 1936

    Finally, Colt wasn't alone in doing this: Smith & Wesson also saw the safety catch as more than sufficient, even after releasing their Double Action 44's (not released until 1881, a whole decade after they had released their single action Model 3's).

    In fact, we can see in the very packaging of the revolver, they recommended loading all 6 chambers and carrying in the safety catch:




    "While Carrying the Pistol Fully Charged, allow the hammer to rest in the safety catch. After the first discharge, allow the hammer to rest on the exploded cartridge until the next discharge, and so on until all are fired" - Smith & Wesson, Circa 1881-1913

    Now you might say, "what about the Smith & Wesson topbreaks with the rebounding hammer? That wasn't a real safety, was it?" Don't worry, S&W recommended carrying those fully loaded as well. In fact, the rebounding hammer was marketed as a convenient way to skip having to manually place the hammer in the safety notch:


    "Raise the barrel catch to its full hight [sic], and tip the barrel forward as far as it will go. Place the charges in the chambers, and return the barrel to its place, being sure to have the barrel catch down to its place, when the arm is ready for use [...] This pistol has the patent Automatic Rebounding Lock"
    - Smith and Wesson, Circa 1880's-1890s

    Overall, the preponderance of evidence shows that the load-five-skip-one-and-carry-on-an-empty-chamber "Cowboy Carry" was never recommended by firearms manufacturers - neither Colt nor Smith & Wesson - in the Old West period.

    Instead, all the primary source documentation indicates that they all recommended carrying on the safety notch.

    Now you can moan and complain about how carrying 5 makes you personally "feel safer," but your feelings don't change what Colt's Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company published in their advertisements and instruction manuals for the whole 70 years of manufacturing the 1st generation single action army revolvers.

    After all, you are a rational group of folks who believe in documented facts and truth, and aren't some kind of historical revisionists, right?
    Last edited: Sep 19, 2022
  2. Paul R Zartman
    • Contributing Member

    Paul R Zartman Sly Eye Bob #6921 #112791

    Feb 16, 2020
    Redington Shores Fl
    Before someone chimes in and says... but I prefer... I load all my cylinders in the oldies and then put them in the safety position until I get ready to use them...
    robhof and gwpercle like this.
  3. gwpercle

    gwpercle Member

    Nov 25, 2014
    Baton Rouge, Louisiana
    You speak the truth and have it well documented ... And I believe you because I have also read these things . The safety notch was where you carried your fully loaded revolver .

    But ... If enough people tell a lie and repeat it often enough ... the truth becomes the lie and the lie becomes the truth and the ignorant continue thinking they are right and you and I are wrong .

    You can lead an ignorant man to the truth but chances are he's not going to believe you !

    Keep On Keeping On
    robhof and sleepysquirrel2 like this.
  4. Pat Riot
    • Contributing Member

    Pat Riot Contributing Member

    May 21, 2015
    West Virginia
    Thank you. :thumbup:
    gwpercle likes this.
  5. reddog81

    reddog81 Member

    Apr 2, 2014
    I’ve seen this argument many times and have always wondered what the factory recommended. You have to assume most people did whatever the factory recommended.

    It’s still possible some people carried 5 but it seems most likely people did what the factory recommended and carried 6.
    robhof, KansasTrapper77 and gwpercle like this.
  6. Oldncrusty

    Oldncrusty Member

    Dec 26, 2020
    Good stuff! Thanks for all the docs. Folks back then didn't allow fear to rule their lives.
  7. dh1633pm
    • Contributing Member

    dh1633pm Contributing Member

    Apr 28, 2009
    Central New York
    I believe. Thank you for the information.
    robhof, gwpercle and Pat Riot like this.
  8. BigBlue 94

    BigBlue 94 Member

    Dec 5, 2018
    The Great American Prairie
    Then why do we have the term transfer bar? :evil:

    Ironic timing, on a different forum i live at, the topic came up today about Timken Set 38 wheel bearings being wrong for a certain series of Fords . The entire internet says Set 38 is correct when it is really Set 37. Even rock auto has it wrong and refuses to admit it.

    Excellent exposé :thumbup:
    Big Bore 44, robhof, 1KPerDay and 2 others like this.
  9. citizenconn

    citizenconn Member

    Mar 7, 2022
    Houston-ish, TX
    Now tell us how you really feel. Don't hold back... :cuss:
  10. Ethan Verity

    Ethan Verity Member

    May 8, 2021
    Honestly this makes the most sense anyway. Who would go out and buy a 6 shooter, which they thought couldn't be carried with 6 rounds?
  11. jmr40

    jmr40 Member

    May 26, 2007
    What the factory recommended and what was common practice isn't necessarily the same. I'm not saying you're wrong, I don't know. Kudo's on gathering the documentation but you have provided no evidence to show what people actually did. This isn't going to put anything to rest.

    The speed limits on interstates here is 65 or 70. But most drivers are driving closer to 80. One hundred fifty years from now my great-great grandkids won't be able to look at the posted speed limits in 2022 and understand how most people actually drove.

    If you want to put this to the rest, you need documentation showing what people actually did. It is pretty clear that at least some didn't trust the safety notches on these older guns and there is evidence they can discharge if dropped. Which would be a concern when on horseback. How common was it to load only 5? We will probably never know for sure.
  12. ontarget

    ontarget Member

    Nov 30, 2009
    Michigan (Gods country)
    I dont disagree, however the rate of illiteracy back then was very high. I doubt most who carried a gun ever read the factory recommendations either because they couldnt, or because they never received them. Im going to guess that most just did whatever "Uncle Festus" told them was the right way.
  13. sleepysquirrel2

    sleepysquirrel2 Member

    Dec 17, 2020
    I'm looking forward to watching the mental gymnastics that the historical revisionists will use to cope with the cognitive dissonance of seeing the original, historical facts.
    Let's find out how many people on this forum get upset from learning about firearms history!

    How about the Springfield Ordnance manual?.

    "To Load - Hold the Pistol in the left hand, muzzle downward; half-cock it with the right hand and open the gate. Insert the cartridges with the right hand, close the gate and bring the hammer to the safety notch; keep it there until the Pistol is to be fire."
    - Springfield National Armory, 1874

    Well, before you say "but 1874 was too early they still would have had early adopter problems", how about the updated ordnance manual in 1882?

    "To Load - Hold the Pistol in the left hand, muzzle downward; half-cock it with the right hand and open the gate. Insert the cartridges with the right hand, close the gate and bring the hammer to the safety notch; keep it there until the Pistol is to be fire."
    - Springfield National Armory, 1882

    Well, you might be someone who disagrees and distrusts the government. Would you trust the very first american book on revolver shooting, published in 1888 by the father of the American Rifleman magazine?

    "The pistol should be carried habitually with the hammer resting in the safety-notch"
    -Arthur Corbin Gould, first publisher, editor, and writer of American Rifleman Magazine, 1888

    All of these books are in public domain, and I've provided the links you can read the evidence for yourself if you have any doubts.

    That's a pretty big claim to make without posting some of that "evidence". I'm sure many of us on the forum would like to read some of it, so why hold back?

    And before someone posts the story about "well how about that Colt revolver that was made in 1884 that was found in the arizona desert" -- remember, just because it was made in 1884, doesn't mean it was dropped in the desert in 1884.

    Are all the guns you shot this year made in 2022? If so, then you have different tastes then I do.
    I own several revolvers and rifles made in the 1880's. Some even have the year of manufacture stamped on them. If I drove to Arizona and dropped them in the desert tomorrow, would that mean someone left them in the Arizona desert in the 1880's?

    One final question for those pushing the No-True-Scotsman fallacy that "any REAL expert knew to carry 5 rounds and 1 empty chanber": Why didn't Colt update their advertising literature by the 1940's?
    They clearly weren't just recycling an old avertisement since they specifically emphasized the whole "For more than half a century, this model Single Action Revolver has been a favorite of the Old and New West" point
    Last edited: Sep 19, 2022
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  14. wcwhitey

    wcwhitey Member

    Dec 30, 2006
    Rebounding hammers, transfer bars, safety notches and grip safeties are all there because Carl or Carls had an accident. Was it prolific I don’t know but a hammer and firing pin resting on a loaded chamber was a concern. Good work on the factory literature, well done. I don’t think this will ever be answered
    tominboise, robhof, qwert65 and 2 others like this.
  15. UncleEd

    UncleEd Member

    Feb 28, 2015
    N. Georgia
    I know Colt manuals told how to load six rounds
    and lower the hammer to the safety notch.

    And I'm sure that's what owners did.

    But I'm also sure that as gunsmiths and
    regular daily users of the SAA learned, the
    safety notch could be iffy if not easily
    broken. Soft "iron" you know. So they
    learned to load only five rounds.

    Another factor was that the guns in the
    19th Century holsters were usually much
    more protected, including the hammers by
    the leathercrafters' designs. I think the
    Army flap holsters were ideal.

    A lot of the experiences came with just how
    much and how hard those six-shooters were
    pushed. I do not believe that SAA owners
    in the 19th Century "played" with them as
    much as owners did when the 1950s cowboy
    craze erupted, especially with the help of
    Ruger and the early 3-screws.

    The issue of six vs. five probably never reached
    paramount concern especially in the 19th
    Century because gun owners relied much more
    on long guns, rifles and shotguns.
  16. Carl N. Brown

    Carl N. Brown Member

    May 10, 2005
    Kingsport Tennessee
    If you want the single action revolver hammer on an empty chamber, you do not "load five, skip one".

    You load one, skip one, load four, raise the hammer from load notch to full cock and lower it over the skipped, empty chamber.

    Otherwise when you drop your SA revolver from horseback and it lands on the hammer and sheers the sear tip off the trigger, it will shoot your horse, and your leg will end up penned under your dead horse as coyotes and vultures circle you and your horse closing in for a free lunch (yes there is such a thing) and since your revolver will be under your dead horse your only defense will be harsh words and bad breath.
    Do you really want to risk that? Do you bunkie? Load five and survive.
  17. plainsdrifter

    plainsdrifter Member

    Jun 3, 2021
    I'd say it was more dangerous to be short one bullet while the other guy has a full load.


    Dec 30, 2007
    So little of what we know of what they did "back then" is carefully documented and recorded. Those of us who have served in the military know there are the "official" regulations, then local SOPs that nobody remembers where or when they were established. Not written down but "that's the way we do it here."
  19. Tallball

    Tallball Member

    Oct 2, 2014
    If I have ever followed the factory instructions for anything, it was a coincidence. :)
  20. wcwhitey

    wcwhitey Member

    Dec 30, 2006
    Funny but true!
    Golfanaticshooter and ontarget like this.
  21. MtnHiker

    MtnHiker Member

    May 20, 2022
    Jeez everyone "just knows" the sixth camber was for keeping a folded up $20 dollar bill for a wild night on the town or your funneral....
  22. 357 Terms

    357 Terms Member

    Oct 8, 2010
    "I have often been asked why five shots without reloading were all a top-notch gunfighter fired, when his guns were chambered for six cartridges. The answer is, merely, safety. To ensure against accidental discharge of the gun while in the holster, due to hair-trigger adjustment, the hammer rested upon an empty chamber. As widely as this was known and practiced, the number of cartridges a man carried in his six-gun may be taken as an indication of a man’s rank with the gunfighters of the old school. Practiced gun-wielders had too much respect for their weapons to take unnecessary chances with them; it was only with tyros and would-bes that you heard of accidental discharges or didn’t-know-it-was-loaded injuries in the country where carrying a Colt was a man’s prerogative.”

    Wyatt Earp
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  23. Pat Riot
    • Contributing Member

    Pat Riot Contributing Member

    May 21, 2015
    West Virginia
    I can tell you that I have searched for years for any documentation from manufacturers, the military, newspapers, magazines, etc, regarding the hammer down on an empty chamber and I never found a thing written in the time of “the old west”.

    I appreciate what @sleepysquirrel2 has posted.
    I know I sure as heck am not going to bother searching any further.
    SwampWolf, halfmoonclip and wgf like this.
  24. Double Naught Spy

    Double Naught Spy Sus Venator

    Dec 24, 2002
    Forestburg, Texas
    I like how you went to all those primary sources where they interviewed the cowboys and other folks in the Old West and they talked about how they never carried with an empty chamber. That was very convincing. :confused:

    No, you are not here to discuss "What was done historically, back in the old west period of 1865-1890." You are here to make an argument to support your claim that something wasn't done in the Old West and you support your claim with documentation that isn't from the Old West, which is mind boggling given your build up about facts, sources, and all that other diatribe.

    Gun boxes and pieces of paper with manufacturer recommendations are about as definitive of human behavior as manufacturer recommendations are today. At tremendous number of people don't follow them, don't even bother reading them, and of course we have a hugely superior literacy rate today than we did in the Old West, isn't that correct?

    However, it is an interesting consideration to believe that everybody in the Old West was literate, had the directions for every gun they own, and were so anal-retentive that they did nothing but what the manufacturers, military, and gun writers suggested. Life would be great if people followed the directions to the letter (except when the directions turn out to be wrong, LOL).

    Adding the writings of an east coast dandy such as writer and publisher A.C. Gould is a nice touch, but it did not seem that Mr. Gould was much of an ethnographer, documenting old west cowboy/pioneer behavior. The book that you cite, for example, mentions nothing of cowboy or Old West behavior.

    The Army manual was a good addition. Everybody knows that everyone in the military only performs 100% by the book.

    Sadly, the evidence isn't what you think it is. Look, you have made a nice, circumstantial argument about human behavior in the old west based on non-relevant sources. Sure, they are primary sources, but not primary sources for Old West behavior, right? NONE of the sources you cite actually talk about behavior in the Old West. This is a monumental problem with your argument. You have made a connection that you didn't justify.

    So you are off to a good start with some background research. Now go find the actual primary sources with the cowboy and Old West pioneer interviews where they talk specifically about how they loaded their weapons. Then come back and share with us what you find, but understand that just because some people did something, doesn't mean everyone else did or didn't. Proving a negative, which is what you are trying to do, is exceptionally difficult, some people would say that it is impossible. Good luck.
    1KPerDay, JN01, AustinTX and 6 others like this.
  25. sgt127

    sgt127 Member

    Apr 29, 2003
    Intuitively. Assuming I can’t read the instructions, if you hand me a 6 shot revolver, that I’m going to carry to defend myself, I’m going to load it with six rounds and, discover that first click keeps the firing pin off the primer. That’s how I would carry it.

    If I read the owners manual, the same.

    I’ve also read some very early memorials on Officer Down Memorial page. Several Officers way back when, were killed when their revolver fell out of a holster and fired.

    Leading me to believe they indeed carried six rounds.

    I know quite a few people that won’t carry a chambered round in their Glocks. But, generally they are in the minority. Perhaps that’s the equivalent as the 5 shot 6 shooter.
    qwert65, Spug, chicharrones and 2 others like this.
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