Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Guns and Firearms Supplies:

Guns and whiskey were the most sought after items by the Indians.  Additionally, the gun and associated tools, lead, black powder and flint or caps were an absolute necessity for anyone to survive in the wilderness.  Thus these items figured large on the inventory lists of supplies going to the mountains for every Rendezvous.  Note that prices shown are St. Louis prices and the quantities are typical of what were shipped to rendezvous.  







Northwest Guns, Best Quality




American Rifles, Steel Mounted




Hawkens Rifles


Hawkens Pistols







Brass Mounted Powder Horns



Powder Horns




Gun Worms




Small Bar Lead (1 pound)




Gun Powder




Gun Flints

~4 for 1¢



Rifle Flints




Leather Powder Bag




Gun Locks




Rifle Locks







Percussion Caps 100/box



Fusil balls

Pre-cast Lead Balls were generally not taken to rendezvous.  Because of the large number of unique musket and rifle calibers, it would have been extremely difficult to provide the appropriate inventory of pre-cast lead balls.  Rather each man had a ball mold specific to his rifle.  Bulk lead was purchased in one-pound bars, and lead balls would be cast as needed.  What is surprising is that ball molds do not show up on any of the inventory lists that I’ve had access to.  It is possible that new rifles and muskets were supplied with a proper size ball mold, however, replacement molds would have been needed for those that had been broken, lost, or stolen.   The inventory for one of Fort Jackson’s wagon trading camps does list one hundred pounds of “trade balls” at 8 cents/pound.  There is no indication about what size or range of sizes these balls might have been.

Percussion Caps I've found listed only on the 1836 inventory for the Rocky Mountain Outfit, under the charge of Fontenelle, Fitzpatrick & Co.  Is it possible that 1836 was the only year percussion guns were used in the mountains?  Not likely. Percussion caps would have been an extremely low cost item, and were probably not used in huge quantities.  They probably were not listed because they were insignificant, or were lumped in with some other items.  It is interesting to note that Nathaniel Wyeth's party converted three flintlock rifles to percussion while encamped in the Columbia Valley in December of 1834. Wyeth writes "...during this time we percussioned 3 rifles, our powder being so badly damaged as to render flintlocks useless." (The Correspondence and Journals of Captain Nathaniel J Wyeth, 1831-6, p 238). Converting these guns while in the mountains suggests that the skills, parts and tools for making such conversions were neither unusual or difficult.  The inventories (links to an offsite page) of goods that Wyeth took up to the mountains and cached in 1834, left at Fort Hall, or carried on to the Columbia River do not list or in any way suggest that percussion supplies were taken along.  (How was it that Wyeth’s party was equipped and ready to convert flint to percussion rifles.  Follow this link for some interesting speculation)

The Northwest Guns, even the best quality, were far less expensive than the American Rifles, or the Hawkens Rifles because these were smoothbore long guns. Northwest Guns were intended primarily for trade with the Indians, although they were also carried by many of the trappers as well.  These guns, often of very large calibers, were highly effective out to a range of 60-70 yards. Smoothbores had an additional advantage over rifles in that they could be loaded with lead shot and used as shotguns and they could be loaded while riding a horse at full gallop.  Rifles were intended primarily for trade with the Mountain Men who at this time had a better appreciation for the long-range accuracy provided by the rifled barrels, although large quantities of the cheaper guns were also sold to Mountain Men.  

While at Fort Union, Prince Maximilian (reference) records the following observations about the guns used by the Indians:  "Most of the Assiniboins have guns, the stocks of which they ornament with bright yellow nails, and with small pieces of red clothe on the ferrels for the ramrod.  These are the common Mackinaw guns, which the fur company obtain from England at the rate of eight dollars a-piece, and which are sold to the Indians for the value of thirty dollars. Like all the Indians, they carry, besides, a separate ramrod in their hand, a large powder-horn, which they obtain from the fur company, and a leather pouch for the balls..."

Leather Powder Bags described in supplies purchased for the Rocky Mountain Outfit in 1837 are probably what today we would call Possibles Bags or Hunting Bags.

Gunlocks and rifle locks were sent to serve as replacements for those that had broken during the year.  

So too pistols also only rarely listed on inventories although in numerous journals there are indications that one or two pistols were not an uncommon possession for a mountain man.

According to Osborne Russell in his journal, “I took the advantage of a large tree which stood near the edge of the brush between the Indians and our horses:  They approached until the smoke of our guns met.  I kept a large German horse pistol loaded by me in case they should make a charge when my gun was empty”.

And in 1839 Wislizenus records the following:  “A good buffalo hunter prefers to ride without a saddle. He sticks one pistol in his belt, holds the other in his right hand, and starts off at top speed.

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