Legends grow and spread until in some strange sense, they become their own reality. If a story is told often enough, if a fictionalized movie is shown often enough, eventually it becomes reality for most people.
If you ask someone to name a passenger who perished with the sinking of the Titanic, you’ll probably hear about Jack and Rose. When Oliver Stone released the Idiot’s Guide to the Kennedy Assassination, half of America believed it was a documentary. If history is going to compete with popular misconceptions, it’s going to need directors and a better budget for special effects.
There have been lots of stories about the guns carried by various famous people. Just once, I thought I would right about the guns famous people didn’t carry, even though most people think they did.
Everyone knows that David Crockett died at the Alamo, swinging his beloved rifle, Ol’ Betsy, at the gathering hordes of Mexican soldiers, all of whom were roughly a foot shorter than Davy. I have seen Crockett and Ol’ Betsy portrayed by Fess Parker, John Wayne, and Billy Bob Thornton—it must be true!
Well, not really. Crocket owned a lot of different rifles during his life, including two named Betsy. The Tennessee State Assembly presented him with a .40-caliber flintlock rifle in 1822, that Crockett called ‘Old Betsy’, but did not take it with him to Texas. He made a gift of the rifle to his son, John Wesley and it remained in the family for over a century. Today, it is on display at the museum in the Alamo, in San Antonio, Texas.
Actually, Crockett had another rifle named Betsy, one given to him by The Whig Society of Philadelphia. This percussion rifle was highly engraved, decorated with silver and gold, prompting Crockett to call the rifle ‘Pretty Betsy’. Crockett left the rifle behind when he journeyed west, but it eventually followed him to Texas, it now belongs to one of his descendants, a Houston attorney who refuses to display the gun or even answer questions about it.
Frankly, no one knows anything about the rifle Crockett used at the Alamo. When the fort was captured by Santa Anna, all the weapons of the defenders were taken by the army when they left, and how the army disposed of the weapons is not known, though we can be sure a rifle belonging to Crockett named ‘Betsy’ was not among them.
Anyone who has seen Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia can probably tell you what kind of firearm T. E. Lawrence carried during his battles in the desert. The Webley Mark VI is a huge revolver, the most distinctly British handgun ever produced. But, that’s not actually the handgun the great Lawrence actually carried.
While it is hard to picture, Lawrence actually preferred the American made Colt .45 automatic. There is ample evidence that Lawrence could use the weapon to great effect. On July 2, 1917, for the first time, Lawrence charged into battle on his camel at Abu el Lissan, the reins in one hand and his Colt Automatic in the other. And his first shot promptly hit his camel in the back of the head, killing it instantly. The fall knocked Lawrence out, and by the time he recovered, the battle was over.
If you have ever watch Westerns, you have to have seen at least one Roy Rogers movie, and at least one movie about the James Gang. (Actually, Rogers, a distant cousin of Jesse James, played the famous outlaw in at least two movies.) And in every western, everyone carries the Colt .45 Peacemaker, the gun that won the West.
In real life however, that aged single action revolver is not that popular of a weapon. Late in life, Frank James carried a Colt. hammerless automatic for protection. And Roy Rogers regularly volunteered as a deputy sheriff in Los Angeles County. Working weekends, he eschewed his six-shooter and just like Lawrence, carried a Colt .45 automatic.
Anyone who has watched Gary Cooper in Sergeant York knows that the famous hero loved the 1903 Springfield rifle the army issued him. In real life, the U.S. Army used the legend of York’s exploits with the Springfield to popularize the rifle and build faith in the weapon’s accuracy. And there is no doubt that York did genuinely prefer the rifle.
But, on October 8, 1918 in the Argonne forest, York was actually using a British-made Enfield rifle when he captured all those German soldiers. The army didn’t have enough of the superior Springfield rifles to issue to all of the troops, so they were using the British designed weapon until production could catch up with demand, something the army wasn’t anxious for the press to learn.
Anyone who has watched the movie Patton knows that the general carried two Colt Single Action revolvers with Ivory grips. The scene where Patton stands in the middle of the road trying to shoot down the fighter plane is not only memorable, but fairly historically accurate. Almost.
Patton did own Colt revolvers, and he did usually carry two guns. During the Punitive Expedition in Mexico, during a gunfight he discovered the limitations of a single revolver that was slow to reload. During World War II, however, Patton did not carry his Colt pistols, instead using a variety of other pistols, including a Colt Pocket Model, a Remington Model 51, and Colt Detective Special, all of which had ivory grips. For the record, it was the Remington revolver he used to shoot at the Luftwaffe.
And lastly, President Theodore Roosevelt didn’t actually carry a big stick. He did, however, carry a pistol. He became president in 1901 after McKinley was assassinated. Determined not to be a helpless victim waiting for the next assassin, Roosevelt began carrying a Browning FN Model 1899. On more than one occasion, this was obvious to onlookers. When he bent over to retrieve a dropped hymnal, he caused a little consternation among the worshippers at Christ Episcopal Church in Oyster Bay.