2 Revolvers, 1 Rifle: Best Guns for Writing a Western Novel

guns used in western fiction

Court Merrigan is a writer I’ve known for a good while, having served as a beta reader for him on some of his work. We connect over Facebook about firearms and all things writing, so I was thrilled to hear his western novel was picked up by Beat to a Pulp for publication. Merrigan’s novel may go down as having the most loquacious title of 2017, pulling double duty as the preface to the rest of the work:

THE BROKEN COUNTRY: Being the Scabrous Exploits of Cyrus & Galina Van, Hellbent West During the Eighth Year of the Harrows, 1876; With an Account of Mappers, Bounty Hunters, a Tatar, and the Science of Phrenology.

How can you not love that? Here’s the gist:

Set in post-apocalyptic 1876, THE BROKEN COUNTRY tracks the scabrous exploits of the outlaws Cyrus and Galina Van. The pair kidnaps a naïve, young scion and head west in pursuit of gold, glory, and respect. Along the trail they met Atlante Ames, a mapper who euthanized her own father and now seeks her twin brother, himself gone outlaw in the ravaged West. In cold pursuit rides the implacable bounty hunter Hal, who takes scalps in the name of Jesus Christ and the science of phrenology, and the contemplative Buddhist assassin Qa’un, paying off the bloodprice he owes Hal … bounty by bloody bounty. Cyrus and Galina’s hard road west comes to a head in a dynamite-tossing, six-gun-blazing shootout at the old train depot in Laramie.

And here’s his piece about the firearms he’s deemed best fit for a post-apocalyptic western novel. Enjoy!


Best Guns for a Post-Apocalyptic Western Novel

writing fiction firearms old west

Click the cover to get your copy, pilgrim.

Owing to the backdrop of THE BROKEN COUNTRY: Being the Scabrous Exploits of Cyrus & Galina Van, Hellbent West During the Eighth Year of the Harrows, 1876; With an Account of Mappers, Bounty Hunters, a Tatar, and the Science of Phrenology (yep, that’s the real title), I tried to do something different with weaponry. The novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic time known as the Harrows, where the wagon trains originally headed west have turned tail back from the east and the frontier has been abandoned to outlaws and bone pickers.

In such a world, where industry and poetry and civilized society in general has ground to a halt, a working pistol is an extremely valuable commodity, indeed. That’s why Cyrus Van is in such desperate straits when he starts the novel without one, and why his fortunes shift when he comes into possession of a six-shooter. The real baddies in the novel already have pistols, of course.

Best Revolvers and Rifle for Writing Western Fiction

Merrigan’s Go-To List

  • Colt .45 (revolver)
  • Remington Model 1875 (revolver)
  • Winchester Model 1873 (lever-action rifle)

Only in an age of abundance are firearms by specification and their merits debated, i.e., a Colt Frontier Six-Shooter 1873 “Model P” type vs. the 1875 Remington No. 3 Revolver (both of which were in use in 1876, when THE BROKEN COUNTRY takes place). Sort of like vegans arguing about which brand of organic gluten-free flaxseed best promotes plankton populations, semantic arguments about which firearm is “best” only make sense in a world where there a lot of them to choose for, any one of which may freely be purchased, with money.

In THE BROKEN COUNTRY, if you own a firearm, you probably took it from someone. Guns are almost a commodity to themselves. Similar to the status enjoyed by samurai in feudal Japan, the only ones legally permitted to carry swords, anyone in possession of a operable firearm finds the roads clear before her very quickly. And by the same token anyone who loses a firearm immediately finds themselves at the bottom of the totem pole.

The Colt .45 revolver model that Galina gifts Cyrus has a history and lore so well-known and well-documented that I’ll not attempt to add to it here.

Writing western fiction tips Colt 45

This is one of the most iconic firearms of all time, a Colt .45. It goes by many other names, but you can’t go wrong with it when writing western fiction set in 1873 or later, apocalyptic or not.

That’s also why I chose to use generic names for firearms, such as “pistol,” “rifle” and “six-shooter.” Does the piece fire a projectile when the trigger is pulled? Yes? Then it has a place in this world.

The Winchester Model 1873 makes an appearance as one such generic “rifle.” How you choose to describe long guns in your own fiction is up to you, but it always helps to have a visual in mind. With those iconic rifles of the Old West, you’re likely thinking of the Model 1873.

writing weapons in western fiction

The Winchester Model 1873 lever-action rifle is another classic, and it should be a go-to pick for anyone writing western fiction.

Old Guns are Perfect for Well-Timed Misfires

And this being a dark world, the firearms don’t always work, and even when they do, their operators aren’t very competent with it. Sometimes both.

Indeed – without giving too much away – a backfiring handgun saves the outlaw Cyrus’s life and ultimately makes his fortune. And there are no real sharpshooters here: effective handgun work here is a matter of inches, not careful sniping down a barrel.

Don’t Be Afraid to Turn Tropes on Their Heads

I love those old-timey Western where a gunslinger shoots from the hip, plugging a bad guy from the top of a roof who promptly takes an acrobatic tumble into a water trough as much as the next guy.


But I’m also a fan of realism; nobody but Annie Oakley could hit a shot like that, and Annie Oakley couldn’t hold a patch to Galina Van. In fact, the most efficient killer in THE BROKEN COUNTRY is a revivalist Buddhist Tatar who eschews firearms altogether, preferring a pair of swords instead. It’s a measure of the collapse of the Old West (and the world more generally) that a swordsman is more deadly than an outlaw sporting a pair of six-shooters.

If I may be permitted a moment of authorial boasting, that’s a twist on a traditional trope I’m proud of. I hope I haven’t put any gun aficionados off – believe me, bullets make the world of THE BROKEN COUNTRY go round. In the time of the Harrows, the best gun is the one you’re pointing. Just hope to hell it works when you pull that trigger.

About Court Merrigan

Court Merrigan western writerCourt Merrigan is the author of THE BROKEN COUNTRY, Moondog Over the Mekong and several short stories appearing in crime fiction anthologies. He’s a recovering expat, farm-raised country boy and a father. Merrigan lives in Wyoming.


P.S. Writers may also want to review the differences between a pistol and a revolver here. ~Ben

5 thoughts on “2 Revolvers, 1 Rifle: Best Guns for Writing a Western Novel

  1. Yeah, an even better article than your regular stuff. Could you replace ‘hope’ by ‘ensure or make certain’? I know this Polish-American expert on firearms and once he told me that it needs maintenance and not prayer or occult ritual to keep a sixgun functional…

    My favorite lead-spitter would be a shotgun, as my incompetence at the shooting range made it hard to ever imagine a good and authentic-seeming gun fight.


  2. How does a handgun “backfire”? I thought that backfiring was something engines did. Unless maybe there’s some radically different ammo or a whole new way in which guns can misbehave. . . .


  3. It’s true that both those revolvers were available in 1876. But how common were they? Colt only began producing the Single Action Army in October 1873, and most of the early production went to the military. I would imagine the vast majority were still using civil war era percussion guns. Wild Bill Hickock probably had more reason than anybody to upgrade to the latest and greatest. But he still carried his favored 1851 Navy in 1876.


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