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Rival Rifles: Guns of the Hatfield/McCoy Feud

by Garry James   |  June 1st, 2012 23

The Hatfields may have been well-armed, as this photo shows, but so were the McCoys.

“Oh the Hatfields and McCoys, they were reckless mountain boys.” So went the  refrain from an old song commemorating the most famous feud in American history. This celebrated, bloody altercation spanned from 1863 to 1891 and took place between two Virginia/Kentucky clans.

Ostensibly started because of conflicting loyalties during the Civil War (the McCoys were primarily Unionists, and the Hatfields Rebels), animosity had apparently begun earlier. The first death occurred when Asa Harmon McCoy was killed by members of a former Confederate unit, the “Logan Wildcats,” led by the Hatfield’s patriarch, William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield.

After the span of some 13 years, another round of violence ensued over the ownership of a pig, and things got even hotter when Roseanna McCoy began an attachment with Johnson “Johnse” Hatfield. After legal entanglements and more acrimony, Johnse made things even worse by forsaking the pregnant Roseanna and marrying her cousin, Nancy.

A year later in 1882, Ellison Hatfield was killed by three of Roseanna’s brothers, who were in turn tied up and murdered in a hail of bullets.

In 1888, the bloodiest night of the feud occurred when a gaggle of Hatfields surrounded a McCoy cabin and let loose on the sleeping inhabitants. The cabin was then set on fire in an attempt to smoke out Randall McCoy. He escaped, but two of his children were killed and his wife brutally beaten.

From 1880 to 1891, over a dozen members of both families were felled, and the altercation achieved nationwide notoriety. Things finally cooled down somewhat following a trial in which seven men were given life sentences and the eighth was hanged.

Over the length of the difficulty the Hatfields and McCoys used a variety of arms. In the early years the guns of choice were probably longrifles and Civil War bring-backs.

Also, some existing pictures show family members with various Winchesters and shotguns. The accompanying photograph of the Hatfield clan, taken in 1897, displays a selection of more up-to-date weaponry, including a Winchester Model 1873 (first seated man on the right), what appears to be a Winchester Model 1892 (seated man on left), a 7 ½-inch-barreled Colt Single Action Army revolver (standing man, center) and what could possibly be a brace of Smith & Wesson New Model Frontier revolvers. What do you think?

  • Bill

    The McCoys and the Hatfields were both primarily confederates. It was Asa Harmon McCoy that sided with the Union and upon his return went into hiding due to supposed threats from Jim Vance, Devil Anse Hatfield's uncle on his mother's side.

  • Matthew Groom

    Those look like Winchester "Centennial Model" M1876's to me, based on their scale, and that characteristic bulge at the bottom of the receiver, which was omitted on the '86's, 92's, and 94's. I'd take a .40-60WCF or a .45-75WCF over a .44-40 any day. They had to kill deer with these things more often than fight rival clans, so power would be at a premium.

    I noticed a lot of modern copies of 1866's in the History Channel miniseries, but I doubt that many people in the south had the money for anything like that until many years after the war, when much better models would be available.

  • John Jackson Miller

    HEEE HAAA a bunch of Scot-Irish people it runs in the blood from Northern Ireland to america. Those Genes just get in the way. Mountain people still have their own way of settling things. They later transfer to the Ozarks and then California, Oregon and Washington states. So when you go into the mountains remember watch yourself and get along with people. Another main reason not NOTED was the fued over Timber and Mineral sales going on. from Another Scot-Irish decendant from Tennessee. My ancestor was Guirrelia killer and Conferate raider JOHN Jackson Kirkland known as the BUSHWACKER having killed at least 40+ people and lived to an old age. After the civil war. He had problems with neighbors and family also.

    • Jenny

      my grand mother was biddy hatfield, now what holds true today is we do not start nothing but sure dont take it, and yes we love our guns. I would say the guns in pictures are winchester model 1873, winchester model 1892, smith and wesson frontier revolver- just what i have always heard. have a nice day

    • Jenny

      hi john Jackson, I am bdidy hatfields ggg grand daughter, your right watch your back in the mountains, :) one thing hatfields normally do not start anything but you do something to them, you have hell to pay- and trust me we never least i do not. have a nice day.

  • Sam

    Well, the murdering viciousness and lawlessness of the feud are an abomination and deeply upsetting to modern standards of morality. It smacks of centuries long before. While we all think in Heinlein's words that "An armed society is a polite society", one can only think from this that Heinlein's words presuppose a *civilized* armed society.

    As for the photograph, one has to notice and respect their trigger-finger discipline.

    • PKAISF

      "As for the photograph, one has to notice and respect their trigger-finger discipline"
      Uummm, maybe it's just me but I see 4 out 5 index fingers curled around triggers. The man in the gray suit on the right also appears to have his revolver approximately pointed at a boys head.

  • Tom Haslebacher

    The Hatfields in 1863 were Virginia boys only up until June 20, 1863. From that day forward, they were West Virginia boys. While both Hatfields and McCoys fought for the south (and some for the north), I doubt they showed much infatuation with the State of Virginia, which largely ignored the people that lived west of the Allegheny Front.

    • joe

      Exactly, seems some folks in the media still seem to forget the land between the Alleghenies and the Ohio river is a state, and it is called WEST VIRGINIA.

      I figured by this day in age most folks would have figured this out….

      • Roger Kimble

        Maps are available that show West Virginia as a separate state. I wonderif these guys lump NC and Sc together as one state, as well as ND and SD. Makes you wonder about their accuracy on other things, including guns. Duh…

  • DRZ

    In reference to the large number of 1866 Winchesters that is possible. Mountain people were usually short on money. They would be buying the best used equipment available when the flat land folk and he coal mining folk bought all those good new guns.

  • matt aronson

    somehow this feud is embedded in society's folk lore, but actually, it was nothing but a tragic feud that carried on for years without shame.

  • ron

    i read last week that both families actuall offically ended the feud in 2003 which to me is a huge wow, sure
    did take them many, many years to put the feud behind for both families.

  • just no

    I served with a McCoy decendant in the US Navy. who is now with his forefathers and mothers. He was still very anti Hatfield. He would occasionally talk about the "uprising" from his families point of view. I have never know a Hatfield. Funniest thing about him, he refused to eat toast, said if you have to cook it twice something is wrong. :-))

    • MLF

      I guess refried beans were out of the question also.

      • Alan_T

        Not to mention twice – baked potatos !

  • screwyou2

    Pretty good lookin dog. Too good for this scrufty bunch of hillbillies.

  • Anishinabi

    I think it goes to show that you should buy the best weapon you can afford if your life depends on it. If all you can afford is an H&R revolver, buy one. If you can afford a HK or a Sig, go for it. They probably put other things on hold to buy the best each one could afford. Wouldn't you?

  • Anishinabi

    Don't you think old Devil Anse in the picture resembles Kevin Costner?

  • Alan_T

    Garry , thanks for the article , you're always interesting to read . I have to take exception with you though , I once had a Hatfield with McCoys and not only did it not fit very well , it was REALLY uncomfortable ! Further more , I have it from excellent sources that ……. wait ……. ( uh , what ? …… people ? ….. really ? ……. oh …… ) … uh
    ……… never mind .



  • old vet

    With all the concern over tech. details in history movies, I'm surprised in the History Channel movie they let Tom BerrInger (sp) go to battle with an empty Henry rifle in final confrontation.

  • D.W. Stanley

    If you travel to Natural Bridge Va. you will see a sign that said the area was first surveyed by a young transitman named George Washington.Washington was afraid of the people in Western,Va.
    Your fued story is straight out of the imagination of New York reporters of the day. The fued is the most infamous and that is all. It was really fought over the illegal moonshine business just like the Crips and the Bloods fight over drug turf today.
    My great uncle Clarance was a moonshiner out of Franklin Co.,Va.. He went to this area during the fued and tried to sell a railroad boxcar full of "shine". A woman in a bar put Chloral Hydrate in his drink and he was dumped on the traintracks. He came to and tried to crawl off ,but got caught by his legs. He told his story to a local deputy before he bled to death.
    There were much bigger fueds during that time. A feud in Kentucky ended up with over 4,000 people being killed. It was not near the train tracks so it went unreported to the newspapers. The people in your pictures most likely carried the best weapons of the day….just like the gangsters of today..BTW I was born(1954) and raised in southern West Virginia.

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