The Louis L'Amour Lost Treasures Project

The Equipment of the Cow-Hand
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" The running iron could be used to make any brand,
and so was convenient for the rustler.
As such it could be a one way ticket
to a hanging . . ."

Cowboy Equipment Title

All the equipment of the
cow-hand had its uses, even that
considered purely decorative . . . was rarely so.

BandanasThe bandanna, for example, had at least fifty uses, including the following; as a respirator when riding in dust, such as the "drag" (behind a trail herd); as a sling for a broken arm; a bandage for a wound or to plug a bullet hole; to protect face and ears in cold weather; to strain dirty water for drinking purposes; to blindfold a bad bronco when mounting for the first time; as a towel; bits might be torn from it to clean a fire-arm; as a "piggin string" to tie a calf's leg together for branding; there were many such uses, and as many more as the cow-hand's ingenuity could devise as well as those brought on by the demands of the moment. The bandanna was always present, always easily reached.

The chaps, sometimes of plain leather, but often woolly or hairy, served a variety of purposes. They were warm for winter riding; saved wear and tear on the pants; protected the rider's leg from the rope when it bent over the leg as a the rider dragged a calf to the branding fire; and protected his leg somewhat if a horse fell on him; also, they protected his legs when riding in thick brush.

The boots were not high-heeled from vanity, but were made with such heels to keep the boot from slipping through the stirrup, which might cause him to be dragged to death, if thrown. The pointed toes enabled a foot to get in and out of a stirrup quickly and with ease. However, the short boots affected by many riders and would-be riders now were never worn by the cow-hands of the old west. They wore boots that stopped just short of the knee, for the low cut boots, no matter how handsome, collected sand and gravel when scuffing around in a dusty corral, roping stock from the ground, or working around a branding fire.

The buckskin hunting shirts worn by some cowhands and all mountain men did not have fringes simply for decoration. The fringe enabled them to shed water more quickly if caught in a heavy rain. The buckskin shirt was practical in that it stood tremendous abuse and almost never wore out.

The tapaderos, or leather boot over the front of a stirrup was also created for a purpose. The vaqueros of California of southeast Texas did much riding in brush, and were termed "brush-poppers" in the slang of Texas. In such wild riding, often plunging full tilt into a wall of unbroken brush, the rider might have his saddle torn from his horse by a branch running through a stirrup. This was dangerous riding in any case, and the more hazards that could be eliminated, the better.

The cowhand rarely wore a coat, but always a vest, for the pockets were handy for carrying tobacco, usually Bull Durham in the usual sack, matches, ect.. The vest also allowed freer use of the arms.

The six-shooter was a tool as well as a weapon, and was as essential to the cowhand as his rope. If a rider was thrown from a bad horse (and most of them were only half-broken) he might have to shoot the horse to keep from being dragged; the longhorn steer rarely bothered a man on horse-back, but a man on foot was a strange object to be attacked on sight, and a cowhand might have to shoot a steer to save his life. In riding bog, when the cowhand had to pull steers out of deep muck or quicksand, the animal, on being freed, might instantly charge.

The pistol was also used to signal for help or to attract attention at a distance; the butt was occasionally used for a hammer when driving staples on an emergency fence repair job.

Not long ago an article was written where someone inferred that the average rider's pistol was usually rusty and in poor shape. This was simply not the case. A pistol cost a rider a month's salary, and it was usually the best cared for piece of equipment he owned.

Despite many pictures now being made, the gun was never fanned except by a fool and at short range. There is only one gunman who ever fanned a gun except when playing. Charlie Harrison, of Denver, Cheyenne, and Leadville was a gambler. He fanned a gun a couple of times with success, then tried it on Johnny Bull. Harrison missed five shots, and Bull took one aimed shot and killed him.  

Also, outside of the cheaper brand of western fiction, a gunfighter was never called a "top gun" or a "fast gun". He was known simply as a gunfighter, a gunman, or a bad man, the last term implying not an outlaw, but a bad man to tangle with.

Actually, the gunfighter did not always wear his gun low and tied down. They wore them in every sort of position. Occasionally they were worn low and tied down, but often the man who wore his gun so, was as much a show-off as a gunfighter. Factual accounts of gunfights have the gunfighter carrying the pistol in his belt, in his pocket, or belted high just as often as carried low. Most of the gunfighters were just as good from one position as another.

The "Slip-Shot"

"Fanning" the gun

Most of the gunfighters and gunman were what was known as "slip-shots", firing the single-action pistol by letting the hammer slide under the thumb. The gun was cocked during the draw and the gun fired by simply letting go the hammer. It was the fastest, the easiest, and the method used by most of the top gunfighters.

The rope, also called a lasso, riata, or lariat was an item that varied considerably according to the part of the country in which it was used. The Texas boys rarely used a rope more than sixty-five feet long, and the average might be as short as forty-five feet. On the other hand, the vaqueros of early California, perhaps the greatest ropers of them all, used ropes of eighty-five feet and a few have been measured at over a hundred feet. It took quite a hand to use those long ropes, and they are now largely of the past.

Incidentally, there is nothing that moved in the west that some cowboy hasn't tried to rope. Many have roped bears even the grizzly, not a few have roped mountain lions, even eagles, buzzards, and in at least one case, a prairie dog. There have been a half dozen cases where drunken cowhands have roped the stack of a locomotive, always with disastrous results, of course.

The rope was sometimes of hair or manila, much more often, in those early years, of plaited rawhide. The dexterity of a good hand with a rope would enable him to make his catch of either fore or hind feet or any place that happened to be necessary or the result of impulse.

In the early years the cowhand carried a running iron for branding. Later, this became strictly illegal, at least by cow country law, which meant the law of pistol and rope. The running iron could be used to make any brand, and so was convenient for the rustler. As such it could be a one way ticket to a hanging, so the rustler devised other means. A cinch ring, held with two sticks, could do the job just as well, or some twisted wire. A book could be written on methods or tricks of branding illegally.

The Winchester, usually a '73 or '76, was the saddle gun of choice, although in the earlier years it was the .44 Henry or the .56 Spencer. Occasionally, the old Sharps buffalo gun was found, and this was almost always the .50 calibre, although it was made in other sizes to a limited degree. The .50 was most often used with a 473 grain bullet and 90 grain of powder, although nearly all buffalo hunters loaded their own and the loads varied considerably.

Few working cowhands had the money to buy elaborate outfits or to go in for much decoration, and in the early days on the cattle trails, silver conchas and such decorations reflected sunlight from too great a distance and were an invitation to any Indian who considered himself a marksmen. The same went for a white horse. He could be seen from too great a distance.

However, there were dude cowpunchers who would even make the elaborate outfits of Roy Rogers pale by comparison. One of these was the gunfighter, outlaw, deputy sheriff, King Fisher. He once had his gang hold up a circus and kill the tiger so he could have some tiger-skin chaps!

He was 5' 9" tall, 135 pounds with light hair and brown eyes. A photograph of King shows that he was good looking and wore a large mustache. He was an imposing figure, once described by Texas Ranger N. A. Jennings as wearing an ornamented Mexican sombrero, a black Mexican jacket embroidered with gold, a crimson sash, and boots, with two silver-plated, ivory-handled revolvers swinging from his belt. Of course, he wore his tiger skin chaps and silver spurs mounted with silver bells that announced to everyone within earshot the presence of King Fisher.

His full name was John King Fisher and he was called King by the family from the time he was a child. Some have reported that he adopted the name to reflect his flashy dress but this is not the case.

John King Fisher, the terror from Eagle Pass, was buried on his ranch clad in his famous chaps and other of his flashy regalia. He was thirty years old. In the 1930s, his body was moved from its original burial site and buried in the Pioneer Cemetery in Uvalde.


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