Firearms from the Old West era have always fascinated me. It’s not simply the physical attractiveness of such weapons, though some are quite pleasing to look upon, but it’s the mechanics and the operation of these firearms which has always drawn me. Single-action revolvers, lever-action rifles, cap and ball weapons, even scatter guns of the period, they all take a certain amount of basic knowledge and skill to operate, to even load, let alone fire. There has always been something about the physical manipulation of such weapons which has interested me, far more than most modern firearms which are more deadly but don’t usually require the same operations.
I was reminded of all this last month when I wrote about the Deadlands tabletop roleplaying game. Deadlands, though a horror and somewhat a fantasy game, is mainly set in an alternate history version of the Old West. One doesn’t have to play a gunfighter in the game, but usually even characters who rely upon magic or other talents will have at least a backup firearm stowed away somewhere. But this being a game related to the Old West, plenty of players are drawn to portraying a gunfighter or similar character. That means there are going to be guns from the period, lots and lots of guns.
The original Deadlands came with rules for a fair share of Shootin’ Irons, as the game called them. Derringers, single-action revolvers, double-action revolvers, lever-action rifles, buffalo guns, shotguns, and others abound. Also, this being Deadlands, there are rules for flamethrowers and the Gatling Pistol. Yes, I said “Gatling Pistol.” Most of the firearms in the original rules are historical, but there were a few more fantastic and weird, as could be expected.
Yet anyone who plays tabletop rpgs will know many gamers will always want more. They want more rules, more classes, more magic items, and yes, more weapons. Deadlands doesn’t disappoint. Two specific game-related books have long held special places for me, mainly because they deal primarily with firearms of the period.
More than two decades ago the Pinnacle Entertainment Group, the publisher of Deadlands, released the Law Dogs rules book. Law Dogs consists mostly of fictional history concerning various law enforcement branches and individuals operating in the world of Deadlands, as well as expanded rules for making one’s own gunfighters, whether of the law-and-order variety or otherwise. All of that information can be interesting, but what really drew me to this book were two pages, pages 68 and 69. On those two pages are provided listings of many more mostly historical firearms for use in the game. More than just a few Derringers were added, at least a dozen. The lists of revolvers not only include the best known of such weapons, the Colts and Remingtons and the like, but have rules for more rare historical guns, like the Volcanic Pistol and the Starr Revolver. Yes, the listings for rifles and shotguns are also expanded, covering a relatively wide historical era, most of the 19th Century from early flintlocks to repeating weapons. And, as can be expected from Deadlands, there are also some additions of strange, fictional weapons.
Following the two pages which list all these guns are more pages of rules concerning those weapons. For example, explored are the use of cap and ball guns, and the Maynard cap ribbon firing system, which is not all that different than how toy cap guns operate. Then follows pages concerning the rules for Hexslingers, basically gunfighters who make use of magic.
The other Old West firearms gaming book for which I’ve had a fondness was not an official publication of Deadlands, and wasn’t even necessarily for the game, the book also including some rules from the FUDGE rpg system. The book I’m talking about is The Knuckleduster Firearms Shop, written by Forrest Harris and originally published in 2000.
The Knuckleduster Firearms Shop is more historical than the likes of Deadlands, and it includes basic rules covering a wide variety of Old West guns for just about any generic tabletop rpg system. More than just rules for guns, however, The Knuckleduster Firearms Shop also has several chapters that cover some basics about historical guns and an interesting (to me, at least) section that provides a Q&A with modern law enforcement members and quotes from historical figures, such as Wyatt Earp. And all that is just in the Introduction to the book.
Following that introduction, we get to the real meat of The Knuckleduster Firearms Shop, roughly a hundred pages of detailed information and artwork of firearms from 1849 to 1900. Some of the information will be common to those who already have interests in the cowboy era, but there’s enough here that should be unfamiliar, or at least not all that common.
For instance, there are plenty of details about the various types of Colt revolvers from the period, information that is fairly well known, but no few pages are also devoted to less familiar firearms, including some of the various Pepperbox revolvers, revolving rifles, even the sabre pistol and the knife revolver. The differing operations of various guns are also covered well, as are the different types of ammunition, including relative rarities such as pinfire ammo.
For gaming purposes, most each firearm earns at least a page of its own with artwork. Besides historical information, included are generic stats for calibers, the general level of damage, rate of fire, drawing speed, ranges, and concealment.
In my opinion, The Knuckleduster Firearms Shop is not only an awesome book for the gaming crowd, but also makes interesting reading for armchair historians who have a love of the Old West period.
So, there are two books I love not only for playing Deadlands but for any rpg that takes place in the Old West. And they make pretty good history reading as well. Law Dogs and The Knuckleduster Firearms Shop. If you’ve got interests in Old West rpgs or even just historical interests, these books are worth discovering.
Ty Johnston is vice president of the Rogue Blades Foundation, a non-profit organization focused upon bringing heroic literature to all readers. A former newspaper editor, he is the author of several fantasy trilogies and novels, including City of Rogues and The God Sword.