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Often, one’s weapon choice for survival is all too often dictated by need, availability, circumstance, and most of all, economics. The settlers in the American west after the US Civil War were a good example of this.

One of the biggest waves of western migration in the 19th Century occurred after the American Civil War. This was accelerated by the ‘Long Depression’ (1873-1879). A huge a number of the settlers that traveled west with their families were from America’s lower economic strata, America’s working poor, and heading west was their best, if not only opportunity to break the status quo.

Being very low on funds, the weapons a great many carried were far from modern for that time. They bought the military surplus guns that were reliable but dirt cheap and being sold for peanuts in every hardware store in the eastern US at that time.

Several years earlier, when the American Civil War broke out, the US Federal Government quickly sent purchasing agents to Europe to buy up every last inventory of military surplus weapons that were not flintlocks, sitting in every warehouse they could scour.

This accomplished two things:

1) It allowed the North to arm a lot of men very rapidly as a stop gap measure until Northern industrial might could catch up with demand.

2) It kept the South from doing the same thing with those same weapons.

Most of those guns were already obsolete at the time. They were typically a smoothbore caplock, generally about .54 caliber, but caliber could vary.

The war was still going on when almost all of these guns were warehoused as obsolete and no longer needed. After the war, the government cleared them out to wholesalers for a song.

Settlers heading west on a limited budget needed something that could go bang, and these surplussed smoothbores sold for a fraction of what a new breech-loading repeater cost. For a great many settlers, it was all they could afford, and it got the job done.

For many, these guns helped fend off starvation during the first critical season as their initial crops and gardens grew, and during subsequent emergencies.

Being the equivalent of a 28ga shotgun or better in bore diameter and smoothbore, they were often used as shotguns to harvest birds and other medium and small game. With a pumpkin ball or buckshot, they could harvest deer and other large game.

If a settler ran out of small diameter lead shot for birds and the like, they would do what the Indians did and use carefully selected river gravel or they would fabricate ‘drip’ shot by spooning molten lead into a bucket of water through a screen or down a ramp. A pumpkin ball or buckshot could be made with a mold bought back east, or in a pinch they could even be made with a homemade wooden mold.

A common saying in the Old West was, “A man with a shotgun never starved.”