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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?

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