No-Gun Man Glossary
Stories from the Golden Age reflect the words and expressions used in the 1930s and 1940s, adding unique flavor and authenticity to the tales. While a character’s speech may often reflect regional origins, it also can convey attitudes common in the day. So that readers can better grasp such cultural and historical terms, uncommon words or expressions of the era, the following glossary has been provided.
alkali: a powdery white mineral that salts the ground in many low places in the West. It whitens the ground where water has risen to the surface and gone back down.
arroyo: (chiefly in southwestern US) a small, steep-sided watercourse or gulch with a nearly flat floor, usually dry except after heavy rains.
as-the-crow-flies: in a straight line; by the shortest route.
bandolier: a broad belt worn over the shoulder by soldiers and having a number of small loops or pockets for holding cartridges.
Benteen: Captain Frederick William Benteen (1834–1898); a military officer during the American Civil War, noted for his role at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand, on June 25, 1876. Custer split his command of the US Cavalry Regiment numbering 650 men into three battalions. Captain Benteen commanded one battalion and was sent to the west to scour the southern bluffs for Indians. Realizing he’d been sent on a fool’s mission, he returned and found Major Reno’s men in desperate straits. Together they held off the Indians until nightfall. Captain Benteen’s cavalry battalion of 125 men had 11 men killed and 29 wounded. Colonel Custer, originally intending to support Reno, attacked the middle of the Indian encampment instead, where he and all 197 of the men in his battalion were killed.
blackjack: a card game in which the winner is the player holding cards of a total value closest or equal to, but not more than, twenty-one points.
boomtown: a community that experiences sudden and rapid population and economic growth, normally attributed to the nearby discovery of gold, silver or oil. The gold rush of the American Southwest is the most famous example, as towns would seemingly sprout up from the desert around what was thought to be valuable gold mining country.
boot: saddle boot; a close-fitting covering or case for a gun or other weapon that straps to a saddle.
box: the stagecoach driver’s seat.
bucko: young fellow; chap; young companion.
buffalo gun: .50-caliber Sharps rifle, also called the “Big Fifty,” which weighed twelve pounds. Noted for its power and range, it was the almost unanimous choice among buffalo hunters. The drawbacks were the cost of ammunition and the fact that the rifle’s accuracy was seriously affected by rapid fire (it had to be watered down constantly to keep from overheating).
caterwauling: making a harsh, disagreeable noise that sounds like the cry of cats.
chip fire: a fire made with dried buffalo or cow droppings (chips). Buffalo chips were a popular fuel in the early days on the plains, where timber was scarce and there was nothing else to cook with. Although this fuel gave off a peculiar odor when burning, it did not affect the food. It was hard to get a fire started with buffalo chips, but when dry, this “prairie coal” made a hot one.
cholla: a particularly spiny species of cactus of southwestern US and Mexico. It grows to a height of six or eight feet and has many stumpy branches that are easily detached, and on this account has a most vicious reputation for embedding itself in passersby.
circuit court: a court that moves from place to place within a particular judicial district.
Colt: a single-action, six-shot cylinder revolver, most commonly available in .45- or .44-caliber versions. It was first manufactured in 1873 for the Army by the Colt Firearms Company, the armory founded by American inventor Samuel Colt (1814–1862) who revolutionized the firearms industry with the invention of the revolver. The Colt, also known as the Peacemaker, was also made available to civilians. As a reliable, inexpensive and popular handgun among cowboys, it became known as the “cowboy’s gun” and a symbol of the Old West.
Concord: manufactured in Concord, New Hampshire, the one-ton “Concord Coach” was the finest road vehicle of its time, costing $1,050. The wheels were made to withstand the heat and cold. The body was strengthened with iron bands and rested on three-inch-thick oxen-leather braces, installed to prevent injury to the horses that were more valuable to the stage line than any passenger. The interior was four feet wide by four and a half feet high, with adjustable leather curtains, and three padded leather seats (known to be harder than the wood beneath them) for nine passengers. The body was so strong that as many as ten or twelve passengers could perch on top. These stages were beautifully colored, red with yellow trim and gold-leaf scrollwork. However, with all of this, long rides were so uncomfortable that they were known to be “cruel and unusual punishment.”
coyote: a contemptible person, especially a greedy or dishonest one.
cyanide: an extremely poisonous compound. It is used in mining as a method of extracting gold and other metals from raw ore. Cyanide is applied to the ore, where it bonds with microscopic flecks of gold that are then recovered from the cyanide solution.
donkey engine: steam donkey; a stationary steam engine.
double eagles: gold coins of the US with a denomination of twenty dollars. They were first minted in 1849. In 1850 regular production began and continued until 1933. Prior to 1850, eagles with a denomination of ten dollars were the largest denomination of US coin. Ten-dollar eagles were produced beginning in 1795 and since the twenty-dollar gold piece had twice the value of the eagle, these coins were designated “double eagles.”
drifting: making a horizontal passageway or tunnel in a rock layer.
drifts: horizontal (or nearly horizontal) passageways in a mine.
faro: a gambling game played with cards and popular in the American West of the nineteenth century. In faro, the players bet on the order in which the cards will be turned over by the dealer. The cards were kept in a dealing box to keep track of the play.
forking: mounting (a horse).
galoot: a worthless fellow.
G-men: government men; agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
goldang: goddamned; used as an expression of anger, disgust, etc.
Heidelberg dueling slashes: dueling scars or bragging scars; scars received upon the face during fencing duels, a sport popularized by upper-class college students in Heidelberg, Germany at the end of the nineteenth century, who saw it as a mark of their class and of their honor. The idea was to stand and show courage—not to inflict a wound, but to be wounded. The true winner was he who walked away with a thick, ghastly facial scar, to show that he’d stood the test. A dueling scar was evidence that the wearer had the foundation to fulfill his destiny as one of Germany’s ruling class.
Henry: the first rifle to use a cartridge with a metallic casing rather than the undependable, self-contained powder, ball and primer of previous rifles. It was named after B. Tyler Henry, who designed the rifle and the cartridge.
high-grading: in mining, the theft and concealment of valuable ore by miners for personal profit.
hobbles: (usually attributed to horses) short lengths of rope used to fasten the legs together to prevent free motion.
hostler: a person who takes care of horses, especially at an inn.
in arms: up in arms; ready to take action; outraged.
lit: lit out; left in a hurry.
livery stable: a stable that accommodates and looks after horses for their owners.
lode: a deposit of ore that fills a fissure in a rock, or a vein of ore deposited between layers of rock.
lucifer: a match.
Madeira: a rich, strong white or amber wine, resembling sherry.
man for breakfast: this saying originated in frontier days when there were so many killings at night in the tough cow towns and mining camps that when the good citizens awoke the next morning, they could see the body or bodies of the victims laid out before breakfast.
mescal: peyote; either of two species of spineless, dome-shaped cactus of Texas and northern Mexico, yielding the hallucinogen peyote.
ocotillo: a desert shrub of the southwestern US and Mexico having straight and slender, naked, spiny whiplike branches angling outward from the base and rising as high as twenty feet. After the rainy season, the branches sprout small oval leaves and clusters of red flowers at the tips.
peón: (Spanish) a farm worker or unskilled laborer; day laborer.
pocket mine: a mine cavity filled with ore or a rich deposit of precious metal.
prickly pear: a cactus with flattened, jointed, spiny stems and pear-shaped fruits that are edible in some species.
prove: to establish, by drilling, trenching or other means, that a given deposit of a valuable substance exists and that its grade and dimensions equal or exceed some specified amounts.
quirt: a riding whip with a short handle and a braided leather lash.
rainbow: a stout cylindrical cactus of the southwestern US and Mexico, of which there are two varieties. One variety has yellow flowers and the other one has magenta flowers.
ramrods: harshly demanding overseers; disciplinarians.
Reno: Major Marcus Albert Reno (1834–1889); a career military officer in the American Civil War, most noted for his role in the Battle of the Little Big Horn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand, on June 25, 1876. Custer split his command of the US Cavalry Regiment, numbering 650 men, into three battalions. Reno commanded one battalion and crossed the river to attack the southern end of the Indian camp. Realizing a trap had been set, he ordered his men to dismount and went into a defensive formation. Colonel Custer, originally intending to support Reno, attacked the middle of the encampment instead, where he and all 197 of the men in his battalion were killed. Major Reno’s battalion of 134 had 36 men killed and 26 wounded.
riata: a long noosed rope used to catch animals.
right-of-way: the right to build and operate a railway line on land belonging to another, or the land so used.
road agent: stagecoach robber in the mid- to late-nineteenth-century American West.
sagebrush: a brush of dry regions with silvery wedge-shaped leaves and large flower clusters, native to western North America.
saguaro: a tall, vertically branched cactus of Arizona and neighboring regions, yielding a useful wood and bearing an edible fruit.
Scheherazade: the female narrator of The Arabian Nights, who during one thousand and one adventurous nights saved her life by entertaining her husband, the king, with stories.
Sharps: any of several models of firearms devised by Christian Sharps and produced by the Sharps Rifle Company until 1881. The most popular Sharps were “Old Reliable,” the cavalry carbine, and the heavy-caliber, single-shot buffalo-hunting rifle. Because of its low muzzle velocity, this gun was said to “fire today, kill tomorrow.”
single jack: working with a single jack, a short-handled hammer with a three- to four-pound head, used for punching holes in rock.
sinks: depressions in the land surface where water has no outlet and simply stands. The word is usually applied to dry lake beds, where the evaporating water has left alkali and other mineral salts.
slickered: cheated in a sly manner.
sluice gate: a wooden or metal plate that slides in grooves in the sides of the channel. Sluice gates are commonly used to control water levels and flow rates in rivers and canals. Raising a sluice gate allows water to flow under it.
Spanish bayonet: any of certain plants belonging to the yucca family, having narrow, spine-tipped leaves and a cluster of white flowers.
stamps: stamp mills; machines that crush ore.
Stetson: as the most popular broad-brimmed hat in the West, it became the generic name for hat. John B. Stetson was a master hat maker and founder of the company that has been making Stetsons since 1865. Not only can the Stetson stand up to a terrific amount of beating, the cowboy’s hat has more different uses than any other garment he wears. It keeps the sun out of the eyes and off the neck; it serves as an umbrella; it makes a great fan, which sometimes is needed when building a fire or shunting cattle about; the brim serves as a cup to water oneself, or as a bucket to water the horse or put out the fire.
stoped: excavated (in a mine), especially from a steeply inclined vein; to remove the ore that has been rendered accessible by the shafts and drifts.
string: a group of animals, especially saddle horses, owned or used by one person.
tarnation: used to express anger or annoyance; euphemism for damnation.
tinhorn: someone, especially a gambler, who pretends to be important, but actually has little money, influence or skill.
trace: either of two lines that connect a horse’s harness to a wagon.
trade rifle: a smoothbore, single-barrel shotgun. The length of the barrel was anywhere from thirty to thirty-six inches long. These were known to blow up at times when fired, taking all or parts of the user’s hand in the process. Firearms were brought to America by the first explorers and some of these fell into the hands of Indians. By the mid-1700s, the Indian trade rifle was the most traded weapon in North America. Despite protests from the American colonists, both the French and English used Indian trade guns to form alliances with the Indian Nations.
varmint: someone who is obnoxious or who makes trouble.
whang leather: tough leather adapted for strings, thongs, belt-lacing, etc., commonly made from calf hide.
Winchester: an early family of repeating rifles; a single-barreled rifle containing multiple rounds of ammunition. Manufactured by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, it was widely used in the US during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The 1873 model is often called “the gun that won the West” for its immense popularity at that time, as well as its use in fictional Westerns.
yucca: any plant belonging or native to the warmer regions of the US, having pointed, usually rigid, sword-shaped leaves and clusters of white, waxy flowers.