In the mid-1990s, on the banks of the Missouri River, the applicable lesson of "any gun beats no gun" would play a very instrumental role in saving my life.
As a young man, I frequently bummed the woods and fields of a wildlife refuge not far from my home on the western bank of the Missouri River. At the time, while attending the local community college, the few hundred acres were invaluable to me. Though the refuge forbade hunting, I was able to fish and track to my heart’s content. I also went armed every time I set foot out of my Buick.
I carried the only thing I had: a single-action, black-powder revolver. To the post-modern tactical elite, it seems downright ridiculous that someone would seriously invest one’s own life to a cap-and-ball sixgun. Yet I did, and I did so in very conscious manner. I became a student of both Jeff Cooper’s “Modern Technique” and Fairbairn and Applegate’s “point shooting,” trying to gain insight and knowledge from both. I began applying those lessons to not only the centerfire handguns I shot with my dad but also with the percussion-capped pistols I carried.
Once a week, I made my way out to an abandoned barn for a shooting session with one of the loose-powder sixguns from Cabela’s. The 1860 Army in .44 was my favorite. The Remington ’58 Army was what could be best described as a “tactical” approach, given that a spare cylinder could be swapped out. Yet as time wore on, it was Pietta’s copy of the Colt 1862 Police in .36 caliber that I shot the best, and that gun traveled with me the most. I worked the guns two handed and single handed. Aimed fire and pointed. With their rudimentary sights, I could hit a soda can at 50 yards on good days.
Despite any and all romantic notions I may have held about getting in a gunfight with one of these sixguns, I also knew the reality of the situation. They were (and still are) lethal weapons, capable of defending a life or taking one. It would be mistaken, in a 21st-century mindset, to dismiss that fact. But it was also completely clear to me that when those five or six shots were used, that was it. There is no tactical reload for the percussion-capped revolver. It was what it was. I accepted that. I was, however, happy to be able to be armed as sufficiently as I could be.
In 1994, not quite a year after the flood waters from the historic flood of ’93 had rescinded, I was out in my beloved refuge for a mid-day fishing trip along the bank of the Missouri River. It was roughly a mile hike to the spot along the river I intended to fish. Where just a year before, the last 100-yard walk along the river had provided the easiest part of the hike, the river had taken 10 feet of bank with it, barely leaving any trail. It was a straight 10-foot drop to the water to the left and a wall of brush on my right. The whole width of the trail was better measured in inches rather than feet.
There was nothing spectacular about the kit I carried on these hikes. A short fishermen’s vest carried my tackle and “survival” kit in its pockets. Around my waist, I wore a WWII-surplus web belt. Hanging off of it was a canteen (also in WWII surplus canvas, a large old fashion styled bowie knife, a first-aid, and in a cut down Triple-K western leather holster, rode my .36 cap-and-ball revolver. Six chambers loaded with lead round balls loaded over 25 or so grains of Pyrodex, five of those cylinders capped with No.11 percussion caps. With my preparedness kit, I was ready for most anything, gun on hip, fishing pole in hand.
Coming close to what I considered the worst part of the trail, I looked up and saw a guy in his twenties navigating the path coming towards me. Faded jeans, long tangle of blond hair, no shirt, sunglasses in place and a backpack of empty beer cans. He looked like something straight out of the ‘70s. When we finally saw each other, we were on the washed-out part of the trail, where the eroded bank left little room to maneuver. I stepped up on the hillside as best as I could to let him pass, and he stopped and gave me a half-drunken smile and stuck out his hand, introducing himself.
I don’t recall his name, but I remember introducing myself as Joe. “Hey nice to meet you, Joe. You out hiking by yourself?” “Fishing,” I said. He and I stood quartering each other, “Nice, man. Nice. Good day for it.” He was looking all around for a moment when he looked back at me. The entire situation felt off. I remember not liking how I was standing, not liking how little trail there was and not liking the conversation I was in. There wasn’t more than a couple of feet between he and I, and everything felt wrong.
It was about that same moment when he flashed a sinister, unfriendly smile and turned to fully face me. In his right hand, out of its sheath, was a cheap survival knife. I saw a bulbous compass on the hilt and a black blade with the saw teeth across the spine. It was down alongside his leg, and he turned to make sure that I saw it. I looked from the knife and locked eyes with him.
I rolled my shoulder back, pushing the bottom part of my fishing vest out of the way, my hand wrapped around the butt of the black-powder revolver and locked. I figured that the situation was just as bad for him as it was for me and that I could at best get off two shots into center mass before we both went into the water.
I also remember thinking very clearly, “It’s going to hurt bad when he sticks you with that. Keep shooting, and then hit him with the gun if it gets wet and won’t shoot.” It wasn’t perfect. In fact, it was all bad, but I at least had groundwork laid out for what I was going to do as the first second clicked over to the next.
I was fortunate in one small regard. He had picked up on the movement of my arm. His eyes looked down and saw the pistol. As he looked at the gun, I watched his face, and it changed. It went slack then relaxed. His eyes went wide and his forehead went up. The game had changed.
“Well…take care, Joe!” he said as he moved past me on the trail. As he walked off, I saw him put slide the knife into its sheath in the back pocket of his Levi’s. There had been no misunderstanding on my part. He had drawn that knife deliberately and with purpose. The knife in hand was obvious enough, but it was the act of him re-sheathing it that still gives me the chills.
For a long time after that, I said various things about that moment. Maybe he was a serial killer. Maybe he was going to make me his first victim or his third. What is clear is, had I not been armed that day, I may well have been assaulted or killed. For the first time, I was smacked by the reality of life. In all circumstances dealing with dangerous people, we are going to be alone when we have to go at it.
Interestingly enough, it was the “gun culture” that saved me from whatever bad event he intended to deliver upon me. Growing up “gun,” I read everything I could by Jeff Cooper, Massad Ayoob, Jim Wilson, Ken Hackathorn and on down the line. Guys who wrote just as much about mindset as they did about whatever gun they reviewed. In those early years, I had no formal gun training. Zero. Yet I had tried to actively apply what I read about self-defense with a handgun and having my head in the game.
In the 21st century, the idea of the black-powder gun being used for self-defense seems absurd. Yet I can tell you from those last years in the 20th century that nothing good would have come from that day had it not been for a Cabela’s .36-caliber cap-and-ball sixgun.
How’s that phrase go? The gun you have with you is better than the one you have at home.