Keefe Report: Hell on Wheels Sixgun

posted on August 25, 2015

As season five of AMC’s popular “Hell on Wheels” winds down for the year on Saturday at 9 p.m., the guns used in the show have been the source of questions—TV guns always are. The gritty show, with the building of the Transcontinental Railroad as its backdrop, uses firearms appropriate to the time—including the sixguns in the hands of former Confederate officer Cullen Bohannon portrayed by Anson Mount. His prominently shown revolver in the first season—set at the end of and the immediate post-Civil War era—is one of the most soundefinedught-after Confederate-made guns of the conflict, the brass-framed .36-caliber Griswold & Gunnison. Often called a copy of the Colt 1851 Navy, it isn’t really. The frame and grip follow the lines of the 1851 Colt, and it is in .36 caliber, but the front of the gun with its rounded barrel and flat sides near the chamber really more closely resemble a scaled-down Dragoon barrel. There was a variant that looks more like an 1860 Army in terms of its barrel profile, but the earlier model is the most common and—most importantly for TV use—reproduced.

The industrialized North had no problems building handguns before and during the Civil War; the South not so much. The only large firearms manufacturing operation in the South in 1861 was the U.S. Harpers Ferry Arsenal, which Thomas J. Jackson packed up and shipped the tooling from to Winchester, Va.—and then on to Richmond—not long after taking command there in April, but well before earning the nickname “Stonewall” at Manassas. There was no Colt or Remington in the South.

The South relied on imports—such as the excellent double-action Adams or very cool LeMat—and small makers set up to make handguns in the South after hostilities broke out. Most were not terribly successful. Griswold & Gunnison was a notable exception. At first, the company made pikes for the Confederacy, but soon starting making revolvers. A converted cotton mill owned by Samuel Griswold near Macon, Ga., the factory went into production of the 7 1/2”-barrel guns in 1862, but in November 1864 the factory was captured and destroyed by Union forces, obviously ending production and deliveries to Southern forces. It is estimated that some 3,700 guns were made, with the majority going to Lee’s army of Northern Virginia and Western Confederate forces—pairing nicely with the Cullen Bohannon character’s background.
If you look closely, the gun used on the series is most assuredly an Italian-made replica (on a couple scenes I’m pretty sure I picked out Brescia proof marks)— original guns have gone for upward of $20,000 at recent auctions. And as with most popular and valuable guns of the era, Griswold & Gunnisons have been faked and reproduced. If you want to see a real one—not a fake—NRA’s National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Va., has a nice one. Well, as nice as the originals get. Griswold & Gunnison replicas go back to the first Civil War reproductions done by Val Forgett, Jr., the founder of Navy Arms, as his brass-framed “Reb.” They have been made by both Pietta and Uberti in Italy. And there have been tens of thousands more replicas made of the guns than the little factory in Griswoldville ever could have hoped to have produced.

As the seasons have progressed, Bohannon has used Italian-made replicas of the Colt Model 1860 Army and the Remington-Beals, both in .44 caliber, which will be addressed in later posts.

The show is on its fifth season, but fans can catch up on season one and two on DVD or Blue Ray boxed sets.


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