Guns of the Goldfields: the California Gold Rush

In this series (there will be similar posts down the road) I'll be focusing your attention on the firearms that proved most popular in various goldfields of the American West and Southwest within specific time periods. This post deals with the firearms most commonly used during the California Gold Rush period between 1848-1855. So let's get to it.

A.J. Plate Percussion Double-Barrel Shotgun

Also known as the A.J. Plate "side-by-side," this shotgun really represents the early years of the California Gold Rush since it became the most popular "scatter gun" of the period. A.J. Plate was born in Germany but migrated to the United States where he became a naturalized citizen in 1844. Like many others of the time, Plate left his family back east in while he headed to California in 1849 to work the Motherlode's rich placers. Like so many others in the mines he struggled mightily, ultimately finding the life and work of a miner not to his liking. At the same time, he managed to accumulate a small gold stake by 1850 which he parlayed into a gun storefront stand in San Francisco where he bought and sold various weapons, including his famous shotgun...a design of his own brain power and handiwork. This beauty was a 10-gauge, double barrel, black powder percussion cap shotgun that could be muzzle loaded with birdshot, ball, or what was known as "buck and ball" back in the day. It was the most commonly used shotgun in the Motherlode Region from 1850-1855. After the early years of the Gold Rush, A.J. Plate's business continued to grow and expand and his family run firearms company became one of the most successful of the period.

 (Closeup of A.J. Plate's "side-by-side." 10 gauge shotgun.)

Henry Derringer Percussion "Pocket" Pistol

Virtually everyone traveling to the early California goldfields carried a small pistol that could be easily carried and hidden within a person's clothing. The most popular of these were Henry Derringer's designs. Derringer began designing and manufacturing pocket pistols back in the 1830s so by the time of the early Gold Rush years his guns were well known. The most popular model of Derringer's "pocket" pistol during the period from 1849-1855 is seen in the photo below. It was a .48 caliber, percussion cap muzzle loader with a three-inch barrel. As you can see in the photo, many of Derringer's "pocket" pistols were ornate, with decorative silver mounts and the Derringer name inscribed to the left of the trigger guard. Although most miners of the period favored a heavier weapon once they were actually working in the goldfields, most travelers, "ladies of the night," card sharps, and saloon and store owners carried a Derringer on their persons just in case things went south. And don't think these little "pocket" pistols were inconsequential when it came to their use. At very close range they were quite deadly as more than a few "n'er-do-wells" found out in both the Northern and Southern Motherlode regions. By the way, Henry Derringer supplied A.J. Plate with "pocket" pistols for sale at Plate's store in San Francisco but somewhere along the line the two gun designers/manufacturers turned on one another and became embroiled in lengthy legal battles. But that's another story...

(Derringer's .48 caliber "pocket" pistol from the Gold Rush era.)

Tennessee Percussion Mountain Rifle

Also known as the "Tennessee Long Rifle" or "Bear Gun," this percussion cap muzzle loader was the heavy artillery of Gold Rush firearms. Although a number of manufacturers produced various models of this rifle, most were very similar in overall design and function. The bore size of the "bear gun" also varied, with the most favored being of  .40, .48, .50, or even .58 caliber. The Tennessee rifle was the weapon most often used by miners in the California goldfields for game hunting and for warding off predators of both the animal and human variety. It was a sturdy weapon with great stopping power due to its larger ball and was favored by most gold miners due to its quicker reload time compared to other rifles of the period.

(Close up of a Tennessee "bear gun.")

Colt 1848 "Baby Dragoon" Revolver

The name Colt is synonymous with the West and the so-called "Baby Dragoon" was a smaller version of Colt's famous .44 caliber revolver. About 15,000 of these five-shot revolvers were produced during the 1848-1850 time period (the first of these small revolvers were manufactured in 1847, however) and a goodly amount of them ended up in the hands of miners in California's Motherlode. The "Baby Dragoon" was a .36 caliber weapon and it was one of the last two muzzle loaded, percussion cap pistols manufactured by Colt. Once established in the goldfields of California, most miners opted for multi-shot revolvers like the "Baby Dragoon" over single shot "Derringers" and the rotating barrel "Pepperbox" pistols that were prevalent at the time. At the same time, the "Baby Dragoon" was small enough to drop into a coat pocket, just as a Derringer or "Pepperbox" was.

(Colt's 1848 "Baby Dragoon.")

By comparison, here in the lower frame is an example of a "Pepperbox" pistol from the same time period. This one's a Robbins & Lawrence that was manufactured from 1851-1854. The "Pepperbox" featured in the photo at the beginning of this post was produced by the Manhattan Company of Norwich, Connecticut. It's easy to see why the Colt was favored by miners. In fact, Colt's revolvers put most of the "Pepperbox" manufacturers out of business.

That's it for this round. I hope you learned something new about gold mining history here.

(c) Jim Rocha 2018

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  1. JR, Now you have touched on one of my all time most favorite things! I love antique guns! If I ever find any gold, this is what I would buy with it! I have a few originals, but most are priced out of my reach. Uberti and Pietta make great reproductions and I have many, many of them. That single shot Derringer, was the type that killed Abe Lincoln. Past about 10 feet, you can't hit anything without a lot of luck, but up close....more than enough to ruin your day!
    Until the wolves, most of my hunting has been done with black powder cartridges. I needed more reach and flatter shooting for wolves, but I'm stuck in the "Modern gun" is a 1885 Winchester high wall in 30-40 Krag. Smokeless, but still an antique cartridge over 100 years old.

    1. I love the Winchesters too Gary. My main thing is the Civil War...I'd love a "real" Navy Colt , an 1855 Springfield with bayonet, and a 1853 Lee-Enfield (used by many "rebs").

    2. You would love the collection my friend has! Wow!

  2. I have a A J Plate 1850 calisfornia gold Rush double barrel shot gun had it for 40 years didn't no what I had

    1. Well there ya go! A collectible weapon.

    2. Got it at garage sale 40 year ago for 100 bucks


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