Aloud, pre-dawn creak on the wooden porch outside his bedroom window awoke the homeowner and alerted him that something was not right. Shaking off the cobwebs, he reached over to his Colt Peacemaker in the bedside drawer. The plowhandled grip felt reassuring, just as it had so many times before when he had fired it at tin cans. Only now the single action might be put to more serious use. This is not a scenario from the 1880s or a western movie. It could very well take place in the homes of the thousands—dare I say millions—of men and women who own single-action, lever-action and smoothbore originals and replicas of 19th century firearms, either as Cowboy Action guns or because they simply favor these tried-and-true designs for hunting, plinking and, yes, self-protection.
After all, the guns that once kept bandits at bay can have an equally viable role in the 21st century. I’ll never forget being approached by a fellow Single Action Shooting Society member at an End of Trail competition a few years ago and being asked for my recommendation regarding a home-defense gun. I looked at the two Ruger Vaqueros in his double rig and replied, “You’re wearing them.”
It’s no secret that much of the attention these days is being focused on black guns of the military and law enforcement variety, but that’s no reason to discount the guns that—just a little more than 100 years ago—served sheriffs bent on keeping the peace and frontier folk concerned with self-preservation. These 19th century repliguns still shoot projectiles that are every bit as effective as those launched by polymer DAO autos. And for the record, I’ve never had a lever action accidentally drop its magazine, nor have I suffered a stovepiped empty in a single-action revolver.
In fact, when it comes to a defensive weapon, there is no safer handgun than the SA revolver. With its hammer resting over an empty chamber, it is virtually impossible to make the gun fire prematurely. Only by consciously cocking the hammer and pulling the trigger can it be discharged. Ruger’s New Model single actions carry this safety aspect further by incorporating a transfer bar that prevents the hammer from striking the firing pin unless the trigger is fully depressed. In addition, an internal lock is hidden beneath the grips of some of its newer single actions, such as the New Vaquero, the 50th Anniversary Blackhawk models and any Blackhawk and Single-Six with an “L” as part of its catalog number. A key supplied with each gun freezes the action so the hammer cannot be cocked, a desirable feature if there are children or others unfamiliar with firearms in the vicinity.
Of course, a locked gun is useless should it be needed instantly, so as a compromise Ruger suggests drilling out a factory-marked hole in the right grip. That way, the gun can be quickly unlocked without removing the grips. The effectiveness of Ruger’s New Model single actions for self-defense can be further enhanced by the addition of Crimson Trace LG-210 laser grips, which puts a 21st century spin on the 19th century technique of point-shooting (note the LG-210s won’t fit the Bisley).
Pre-1873 cartridge conversions by firms such as Uberti USA, Cimarron Fire Arms and Taylor’s & Co. are also suitable for home defense, especially the 1871 Richards-Mason 1860 Army and 1860 Navy conversions in .45 Colt and .38 Special chamberings, along with the 1871 Open Top that adds the .44 Special to this mix. While not prototypical to the guns, these particular cartridges are available in high-expansion, low-penetration loadings from firms such as Cor-Bon that make them more effective in defensive situations.
That’s not to say, however, that the .44 Colt and .45 Schofield, factory loaded by companies such as Ten-X, won’t get the job done. And the Taylor’s & Co. 1858 Remington, with its beefier topstrap, is also available in .44-40.
When stoking up your 19th century sixgun for home protection, avoid black-powder loads. The voluminous clouds of smoke, which are fun to unleash at steel poppers in competition, can seriously curtail your vision indoors. Also, keep in mind that while longer barrels aid in pointability, shorter tubes can be drawn from a nightstand drawer faster.
That being said, there is something about a shotgun, specifically those with 20-inch tubes favored for SASS competition, that will invariably get a criminal’s attention. In the case of the side-by-side “coach gun,” the sight of those cavernous bores has been known to cause a burglar to flee immediately. And the clankity-clunk of the pump-action Model 1897 being cycled is equally disheartening.
Nor should one discount the lever-action carbines and trappers, with their 20- and 16 1⁄2-inch barrels, respectively. The late Jeff Cooper once called the Winchester 94 carbine—although not SASS-legal—a great self-defense weapon. But replicas of the earlier Models 1873 and 1892 certainly share in this accolade, as does the replica 1875 Lightning pump-action carbine. Most of the current replicas have extremely smooth actions, and many gunsmiths are offering “short stroke” customizing for lever guns. While not as compact as a sixgun, both rifles and shotguns can easily be stowed under the bed or on a high closet shelf, hidden from view and locked.
When adopting your 19th century repligun for home defense, trigger pull is of primary concern. In competition, 2 1⁄2 pounds may be ideal, but when the adrenaline is flowing and your hands are sweaty, a hair trigger is not the best choice. Think more in terms of a four- or five-pound trigger pull. And always keep your finger out of the triggerguard until the instant you’re ready to shoot.
Sights? Again, if they’re good enough for competition or recreational shooting, they’re good enough for home defense. As for maintenance, some carbines and revolvers are available in stainless steel, and if your firearm is going to be out of sight, out of mind for long periods of time, especially if you live in a humid climate, this is worth consideration.
Finally, one of the biggest advantages Cowboy Action shooters have is that they are highly skilled with their 19th century replicas, shooting them under pressure in competitive situations. Consequently, they have developed skills that can also serve them and their families well in a stressful situation. Thus, these “cowboy guns” can do double duty to protect one’s family and home.
But then, that’s why folks were packing them on the frontier in the first place.