The guns that secure the West- Coach Guns are back
The history of the American West was written, literally, with firearms. And although this occurred during a surprisingly brief period more than 150 years ago, many guns from this time are well-known today. In fact, thanks to Hollywood, even those with little interest in firearms recognize the Colt Single Action Army revolver and the Winchester lever-action rifle as “The Guns That Won The West.”
Lesser known is the coach gun. But, in the overall scheme of things it was certainly as important as those other weapons–possibly more so–when it came to settling the West.
The term “coach gun” emerged in 1858 when Wells, Fargo & Co. began regular stagecoach service from Tipton, Mo., to San Francisco, Calif. The route was 2800 miles long, and passed through some of the most lawless areas of the West. In addition to carrying passengers, Wells Fargo also had contracts for the U.S. Mail, as well as the task of transporting gold shipments to its banking facilities.
To say that the coaches became a tempting target for outlaws is an understatement. In fact, robbing stagecoaches became a cottage industry in some areas, and between 1870 and 1884 Wells Fargo stages were the target of 347 robbery attempts.
Getting the stage and its valuable cargo through was not a job for the fainthearted, and some of the best in the West accepted the challenge. Among those who spent time driving stagecoaches were Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody and Morgan Earp.
Riding with them was an armed guard toting a coach gun.
This wasn’t a specific make or model of firearm. It was a moniker earned through circumstance by a generic class of guns. These were compact, side-by-side double-barreled shotguns featuring barrels in the 12- to 20-in. range to allow easy handling in the cramped driver’s box of the stage.
Virtually all featured twin triggers, with one trigger for each barrel. Most were equipped with external hammers, called “rabbit ears,” although some hammerless models were produced. The 12-ga. likely was the most popular, although the 10-ga. and, to a lesser extent, the 16-ga. were widely used.
Glamorous they were not. But they were an ideal tool for the task.
Although repeating rifles held more rounds and had a greater range, only in Hollywood does one score consistent hits on moving targets from the bouncing box of a fleeing stagecoach. The multiple-shot charge from a smoothbore was far more likely to score, and since only hits counted in that situation, shotguns were the choice of savvy stage guards.
There were some repeating shotguns available that could hold more than the two rounds of the double barrel, but their mechanisms were rather delicate and not up to the rigors of stage travel. That made them less than reliable.
The sturdy little double barrels suffered no such ills. They were virtually indestructible, and even if heavily fouled they would fire as long as shells could be rammed into the chambers and the action closed. Should fouling become excessive, a quick wipe on the breech face and chambers with a shirttail would put the gun back into action.
When it came to guarding the stage, the coach gun reigned supreme. In fact, the term “riding shotgun” is still in common use today. But, as effective as the coach gun was, its reign was brief.
By the late 1890s, railroads were carrying the bulk of gold shipments. Stage lines were in decline and provided rather meager pickings for robbers. At the same time, smokeless powder came into use, as did more reliable repeating shotguns, like the 6-shot Winchester Model 97 pump.
COACH GUN REVIVAL
Time and technology began to render the coach gun obsolete. It might have faded completely had it not been for the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS).
Founded in 1985, SASS (www.sassnet.com) has almost 60,000 members spread across all 50 states. They compete in action-style firearms matches in which multiple targets are knocked down as quickly as possible. And they do it with Old West firearms while wearing period clothing.
While time and circumstance ended the reign of the coach gun in the late 1890s, SASS rules have made it one of the most desirable shotguns for its competitive events. The same factors that made the compact double barrel the best tool for the job then, do so now. And manufacturers are eager to provide these guns.
The resurgence in popularity, however, isn’t restricted to SASS competitors. Once gunmakers began producing coach guns for this enthusiast market, other shooters rediscovered the classic shortened double barrel.
A number of the traditional twin-trigger/rabbit-ear models are purchased by those who will never shoot them. Simply hanging a piece of American history on the wall, or inside a display case, is enough for them. In some cases, the guns may be special-edition commemorative models, exquisitely engraved in a custom shop. They are produced in limited numbers to achieve some degree of collector value. The John Wayne Coach Gun produced by America Remembers is one such outstanding example.
More than a few of these shotguns serve double duty as home-defense firearms, and they are just as effective in that role today as they were in their heyday. Few criminals argue with a double-barreled shotgun, and those who do usually lose.
Even hunters have taken note of the handy coach gun. Those who hunt grouse and woodcock, and pursue other heavy-cover wing shooting chores have found the short barrels are lightning fast for flushing out birds. Those models available in the hammerless/twin-trigger configuration (especially those offering interchangeable choke tubes) are an excellent choice for upland birds as well as small game. One-ounce loads are comfortable to shoot in the 12 ga. Those looking for less recoil will find some models available in 20 ga. and .410.
And there are plenty of models from which to choose. They aren’t made by the legendary companies that produced the originals. Instead, they come from factories in Spain, Italy, Turkey, Brazil, China and elsewhere. But they are precisely machined with modern steels and eminently suited to carry on the coach gun tradition.
The classic twin-trigger/rabbit-ear models are among the most commonly encountered, but there are a number of hammerless/twin-trigger models available. Although single-trigger guns were virtually unheard of on the Western frontier, coach gun models featuring this firing mechanism are offered. Here’s a look at the most prominent coach gun models currently on the market.
VARIETY: Coach guns are characterized by short barrels and a variety of single- and twin-trigger, and exposed-hammer and hammerless configurations. They come in several gauges.
Two models of the Turkish-made Huglu are available. Both are hammerless designs featuring 20-in. barrels, interchangeable choke tubes (five are supplied with each gun), a Turkish walnut stock and forearm, a raised center rib with a single-bead front sight, a manual sliding-tang safety and case-hardened receivers with polished, blued barrels. These guns are available in either 12 or 20 ga. The Durango model offers a single trigger, while the Amarillo provides the traditional twin-trigger configuration. 847-768-1000; www.armsco.net
Four budget-priced models of Chinese manufacture are offered, and each is a traditional exposed-hammer/double-trigger design. All feature 20-in. barrels, a sliding safety, a center rib with a bead front sight and a walnut-stained hardwood stock. They are available in 12 and 20 ga. in fixed-choke and full-choke models, as well as .410 in a cylinder choke.
Also available is the Century Arms Centurion Coach Gun model, an upper-level offering manufactured by Kahn in Turkey. Chambered for 12 ga. (3-in. shells) with 20-in. cylinder-choke barrels, a sunken center rib and a brass-bead front sight, it is an exposed-hammer/double-trigger design with Anson & Deeley-style sidelocks, a Turkish walnut stock and polished, blued metalwork. www.centuryarms.com
EUROPEAN AMERICAN ARMORY (EAA)
European American Armory offers three Bounty Hunter coach gun models made by the Russian firm Baikal. And while similar in outward appearance, there are noticeable mechanical differences between them.
Model IZH43 is a hammerless/twin-trigger design featuring 20-in. barrels, a sliding safety and an American walnut stock. It’s available in either a blued or nickel receiver. It is offered in 12 ga. (2-3/4-in. chambers) or 20 ga. (3-in. chambers). Either gauge can be had with fixed cylinder chokes or with the MC-3 interchangeable choke-tube system.
Model IZH43K is available only in 12 ga. (2-3/4-in. chambers) with 20-in. barrels in either fixed cylinder chokes or the MC-3 interchangeable system. It features twin triggers along with exposed hammers, which recreate the traditional appearance of the classic coach gun but serve only to cock the internal hammers on the gun.
Model IZH43KH is identical in appearance to the IZH43K, but offers an 18.5-in. barrel. Its exposed hammers are truly functioning hammers–they hit the firing pin instead of just activating an internal set of hammers.
All three guns feature walnut stocks and polished/blued barrels with a center rib and single-bead front sight. www.eaacorp.com
INTERSTATE ARMS CORP. (IAC)
The Chinese-made Model 99W Hammer Coach Gun is an exposed-hammer/twin-trigger 12-ga. with an American walnut stock. The 20-in. barrels are chambered for 2-3/4-in. shells. The 99W features dual safeties–one to block the trigger and one to block the hammer. 978-667-7060
The Brazilian-made Stoeger coach gun is a hammerless/twin-trigger design with a sliding safety. Available in 12, 20 and .410 (3-in. chambers on all), each features 20-in. barrels with fixed chokes in Improved Cylinder and Modified, and a raised center rib with a brass single-bead front sight. Models are available in a variety of finishes, including blued steel and walnut, bright nickel with black Brazilian hardwood, and matte nickel.
The newly introduced Coach Gun Supreme model features upgraded wood, an effective recoil pad, and is fitted for interchangeable screw-in choke tubes (Improved Cylinder and Modified are supplied with the gun) on the 12- and 20-ga. versions. In addition, a 24-in. barrel version is offered in 12 ga., and while that departs from the traditional short barrel, it would make an excellent upland bird gun. www.stoegerindustries.com