On the warm afternoon of June 8, 1844, an armed patrol of 15 Texas Rangers was traveling through the Hill Country of south central Texas when it came under attack by 75 Comanche warriors. Until this day, encounters between the Rangers and Comanche—fierce and able fighters who’d been raiding Texan settlements for years, as the Spanish and then Anglo presence intruded on their homeland—had generally gone badly for the Rangers. Not only were they often outnumbered, they were also effectively out-weaponized. The Rangers had better guns, but even the best guns at the time needed to be reloaded after every shot. At a minimum, reloading took 30 seconds. Meanwhile, the Comanche, mounted on fleet mustangs, galloped toward them, firing arrows at a rate of 20 or 30 per minute. Before a Ranger reloaded, he was likely to be dead.
But the Rangers had a surprise in store for the Comanche that day. They’d acquired a cache of a new kind of pistol, called a repeater, or a revolver, patented eight years earlier by a young man from Connecticut named Samuel Colt. The first practical mass-produced, rapid-fire gun in history, Colt’s pistols had a rotating cylinder that could be loaded with five bullets (later six) and turned after each shot to bring the next chamber into alignment with the barrel.
Now, as the Comanche attacked, they galloped into a blaze of gunfire such as they had never experienced, “a shot for every finger on the hand,” as one of the astonished Comanche leaders is said to have later put it. Almost at once, the balance of power in the American west shifted. “We now come to the first radical adaptation made by the American people as they moved westward from the humid region into the Plains country,” wrote Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb in his 1931 history of the American west. “The story of this adaptation is the story of the six-shooter, or revolver.”
How Americans view this story today probably corresponds to how they identify politically. Conservatives, especially those who embrace the right to bear arms as a foundational American liberty, are likely to see the western debut of Colt’s revolver as a demonstration of American ingenuity applied to dangerous circumstances. Liberals are more likely to focus on the violence unleashed by the guns, and by the numerous rapid-fire guns that came later. A deeper look at the history that surrounds the moment suggests that both of these views are warranted, and neither excludes the other.