The Guns of 3:10 To Yuma
When remaking a classic film, studios walk a tightrope between two equal but opposite risks. Should the new movie be a faithful reproduction of the original, or use the material to explore new areas the original left untouched? Lean too far towards imitation and the remake offers audiences nothing new beyond perhaps better production values and some fresh faces. On the other hand, trying too hard to make something completely new risks omitting what made the original work dramatically and become a classic in the first place. The successful remake balances these pressures and preserves the elements from the original while still offering audiences an up to date take on the story.
This balance is what makes James Mangold’s 2007 remake of the 1957 3:10 To Yuma (itself based on a 1953 short story by Elmore Leonard) one of the finest films in the post-Unforgiven wave of modern Westerns. The 1957 3:10 To Yuma received instant and universal acclaim for its tense, tightly written plot, sharp and skillful cinematography and the complicated relationship between hero and villain that made more of the bad guy than a simple moustache-twirling cutout. The 2007 remake takes all of this and adds not only more action and more depth to the character dynamics, but a superior level of attention to detail to the firearm props that the original is missing.
We first see Dan Evans (Christian Bale) armed with a Spencer 1860 Carbine. One of the earliest successful repeating rifles, the Spencer featured a seven shot tubular magazine buried in the buttstock and was operated by cycling the hinged trigger guard. The Spencer 1860 was the brainchild of prolific engineer and firearms designer Christopher Spencer, who famously walked a prototype of his gun into the White House, uninvited, to show President Abraham Lincoln, who ordered the design into production after a shooting demonstration. Offering a tenfold increase in effective rate of fire over more common muzzleloading infantry rifles, the Spencer proved popular and reliable in service, even if it did strain the capabilities of the Union supply chain. Despite their modest power, starting a 350 grain lead bullet at around 1,200 feet per second, the Spencer played a big role in the Westward expansion until finally displaced by Browning-designed Winchester lever action rifles that could safely handle more powerful rifle cartridges. Unfortunately for the Spencer company, lucrative government contracts turned out to be their undoing as the postwar surplusing of nearly two hundred thousand rifles onto the civilian market killed any demand for new production.
Don’t feel too bad for old Chris, though, as he bounced around a few different arms and tool companies until he restarted his own Spencer Arms company in 1882. Another one of his products was featured in this film, an 1882 Spencer Pump-Action shotgun seen in the hands of one of the deputies who apprehend Ben Wade in the Bisbee Saloon. The first commercially successful slide or pump action shotgun, the 1882 stayed in production until 1907 under the Francis Bannerman & Sons name. The 1882 pioneered many features we now take for granted on today’s repeating shotguns, including the under-barrel tubular magazine.
For sidearms, both Dan Evans and his son William (Logan Lerman) carry Colt 1851 Navy revolvers with Richards-Mason metallic cartridge conversion cylinders. The 1851 Navy was originally marketed as the “Colt Revolving Belt Pistol of Naval Caliber,” suggesting it was a more carry-friendly alternative to the heavy .44 caliber Colt Dragoon or Walker Colts. Chambered in .36 Caliber, also known as the Naval caliber, the 1851 was originally a cap and ball design using combustible paper cartridges and percussion caps for ignition. As metallic cartridges became standard and the Smith & Wesson patent on bored-through cylinders expired, conversion kits allowing old cap ‘n ball guns to use the new cartridges gave new life to these revolvers and ensured they were a common sight on the frontier even as more technically advanced designs were introduced.
Villain Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) carries the successor to the 1851, the famed 1873 Colt Single Action Army. The SAA combined the bored-through cylinder with a strong solid frame to accommodate the Army’s request for a more powerful .45 caliber cartridge. The SAA was an immediate success in both the military and civilian market and was forever associated with the Western movie genre, keeping demand for original SAAs and reproductions high long after they had been replaced in service by double action revolvers and autoloading pistols. Wade’s Colt is a customized 4.75-inch “Fast Draw” model with ornate ebony grips inlaid with gold crucifixes. The cursed “Hand of God,” as it is repeatedly referred to in the film, is carried in a fantastic custom leather holster and belt rig by legendary leatherman Will Ghormley. Designed from the ground up to give Russell Crowe a modern, speedy draw while preserving period correct looks, the entire rig is available from Ghormley for just $350.
Wade’s right hand man, the chillingly psychotic Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) favors the SAA’s main commercial competitor, the Smith & Wesson No. 3 revolver. A metallic cartridge top-break revolver, the No. 3, also known as the Schofield after the design’s patron, it offered a speedier reload than the SAA, as all six fired cases could be extracted at once by operating the latch and swinging the barrel down. Prince demonstrates this several times during the film, as well as performing a check on his pistols before the raid on the stagecoach. Political and logistical concerns prevented the Schofield from challenging the SAA as the primary U.S. Army sidearm, but the design was popular on the civilian and foreign military markets. Prince also carries his guns in a set of custom Ghormley holsters, a gaudily decorated butt-forward design that allows a variety of flashy and effective quick-draw techniques but avoids looking anachronistic.
Veteran bounty hunter and ex-Pinkerton agent Byron McElroy (a superb performance by equally veteran actor Peter Fonda) carries a short barreled Colt 1878 side by side double barreled shotgun. McElroy’s 1878 is an excellent representative of the era’s “coach gun,” with its dual triggers and hammers, leather sling, bead sight and brass shotshells. The Colt was only one model in a crowded marketplace with Remington, Ithaca, Wm. Moore & Co, Lefever, Parker, Husqvarna, Savage, and Westly Richards also offering similar guns. Around 23,000 1878s in a variety of configurations were manufactured until replaced by the hammerless 1887 in the Colt catalog.
Mexican sharpshooter Campos (Rio Alexander) makes good use of his Colt 1855 Revolving rifle throughout the movie. Modified with a cartridge conversion cylinder and a full length telescopic sight, it’s an exotic looking rifle and obviously the choice of an expert shot. Colt built revolving rifles in limited quantities starting in the 1830s, but it was finally the 1855 that was robust and reliable enough to catch the Army’s attention. Still, only around 4400 were produced and issued and were quickly supplanted by Spencers- and Henry-design lever rifles in service.
While we tend to think of telescopic rifle sights as a modern invention, a rifle mounted scope was documented in competition use as early as 1844, and they were common enough by the beginning of the Civil War for both sides to organize dedicated Sharpshooter units. There’s a brief shot of Campos’ view through his early scope, and the poor (compared to even entry level scopes available today) image quality is a nice touch.
In the stagecoach holdup scene, the stage is initially defended by a crew of two manning a Colt 1874 Gatling gun. One of the first practical rapid fire weapons and the precursor of the modern machine gun, the Gatling combined the multiple barrels of the French Mitrailleuse with the rotating chambers of the Puckle gun with an ingenious gravity feed cartridge hopper and a manually turned crank to allow even an unskilled crew to maintain a rate of fire of around 200 rounds per minute for as long as the ammunition supply lasted. Although filling the role of a modern machine gun, the Gatling’s size and mobility was closer to that of an artillery piece. It saw service in the brushfire wars of the European colonial powers and briefly during the Spanish-American war, but the dawn of successful man-portable machine guns like the Maxim and Colt-Browning spelled the end for the Gatling, until the concept was revived as an aircraft cannon in the 1950s.
It would be too simplistic to say that improving the accuracy and detail of the firearm props alone made the 2007 3:10 To Yuma a better movie than the 1957 edition, but the tools that the characters choose to use, and how they use them to resolve the narrative’s conflict, can help tell a story too. The people behind the 2007 movie left no stone unturned to do the 1957 movie the honor of telling a fuller, richer story, and as people of the gun, we should be thankful that the weapon props played an important role in improving on a classic.
By Peter Barrett. Originally published in the May 2014 issue of GunUp the Magazine.