(Patent No. 15,032 | United States Patent Office)
It turns out that when you write a book based on an historical event, there's no end to the details that need to be tracked down if you are to have any hope of giving your story a sense of authenticity. That's especially true when the event at the heart of your story happened more than a century ago.
One thing that was clear from the outset was that a handgun figured prominently in the murders of William and Charles Bryan and yet nowhere in the court documents is the make and model of that gun ever specified. To make things more interesting, the trial transcripts contain conflicting witness testimony over whether the murder weapon fired bullets or balls. In the mid-1870s, it could have been either, and it seemed important to know which it was if for no other reason than those of you who stayed awake during history lessons on the American Civil War will remember that one of the reasons there were so many amputations in that war was because the guns used on the battlefields overwhelmingly fired lead balls that flattened when they struck bone causing it to shatter, often to an unsalvageable degree.
When doing the research for The Haweaters, I went with the assumption that the gun George Amer would've brought to the Bryan homestead on that fateful June night in 1877 most likely would have been his service weapon from his time as a constable with the Owen Sound police force. And although I wasn’t able to track down what the make and model of that gun would have been, I was successful in determining that the handgun used by the RCMP during the time George Amer was active as a constable would have been a Beaumont-Adams revolver.
Beaumont-Adams revolvers were issued to military officers and police forces throughout the British Empire in the 1860s. They were front-loading, double-action, five-shooters that were loaded with cap-and-ball ammunition. So the answer to the burning question that set this line of inquiry into motion was the gun used to murder the Bryan men was most likely firing balls, not bullets.
At this point I have to confess that I owe pretty much my entire knowledge of revolvers and how they are loaded to Hollywood westerns. In those, cowboys fairly universally fire six-shooters that are loaded by flipping open the cylinder and pushing the bullets into the chambers from the behind before flipping the cylinder closed again and firing. Hollywood represents this process as being so quick and simple that a gunfighter can reload his weapon in the midst of a shootout then resume firing with a reasonable chance of survival.
Ball-firing, front-loading revolvers like the Beaumont-Adams are a bit more complicated (see the video below). First the cowboy must pour black powder into the chamber and tamp it down before inserting a lead ball and tapping that into place. At this point, a percussion cap is affixed to the back of the chamber. It’s not the sort of thing you do in the midst of a gun battle unless your opponent also runs out of ammunition at the same time you do.
The good news is that if you had the foresight to load your revolver before the battle began, all five balls could be fired in less than 30 seconds, which means that when George Amer was engaged in a violent struggle with William and Charles Bryan, he would have had no problem dispatching them both fairly quickly.