When writing a book based on an historical event, there is no end to the details that need to be tracked down in order to give the story a sense of authenticity.
One thing that was clear from the first day I started doing research was that a handgun figured prominently in the murders of William and Charles Bryan and yet nowhere in the court documents is it ever specified what make and model of gun was used in the crime. 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.
Those of you who paid attention during history lessons on the American Civil War will remember that one of the primary 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, I went with the assumption that the gun George Amer brought to the Bryan homestead would most likely have been his service weapon from his time as an Owen Sound constable. Although I wasn’t successful in tracking down what the make and model of that gun would have been, I was able to determine that the handgun being used by the RCMP during the time period 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. They were front-loading, double-action, five-shooters that fired 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.
This is the point where I have to confess that I owe pretty much my entire knowledge of handguns and how they are loaded to Hollywood westerns. In those, cowboys fairly universally fire six-shooters that they load by flipping open the cylinder, pushing the bullets into the chambers, flipping the cylinder closed and firing. Hollywood represents the process as being so quick and simple that a gun can be reloaded in the midst of a showdown without frittering away an unsurvivable amount of time.
Ball-firing front-loading revolvers like the Beaumont-Adams are a bit more complicated. They are loaded by pouring black powder into a chamber, tamping it down, inserting a lead ball, tapping it into place, then affixing a percussion cap to the back of the chamber. It’s not the sort of thing you do in the midst of a gun battle and expect to survive. At the very least you would need to duck behind a solid object like a wall or water trough for as long as it takes to load at least one ball.
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 his neighbours, he would have had no problems dispatching them both fairly quickly.
For those of you with a burning desire to learn how to load a Beaumont-Adams revolver, YouTube has been kind enough to furnish us with a cute animated video.