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The mountain men of American history were fur trappers, survivalists, and firearms experts, who plied their trade in the valleys of the Rocky Mountains in the early 19th Century. Bernard DeVoto, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Across the Wide Missouri, said that mountain men were the most skillful frontiersmen spawned in America. Of the mountain man, DeVoto wrote, “He had only skill. A skill so effective that living in Indian country, he made a more successful adaptation to it than the Indian.”

The mountain man’s time in history was brief. Though there were trappers in the Rocky Mountains earlier, it’s safe to say that the classic mountain man era started in 1822 with William Henry Ashley’s expedition to the Rockies. The personnel on this mission into the wilderness would become famous in both American history and in folklore. Members of Ashley’s Hundred, as they were called, included Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, Tom Fitzpatrick, and Hugh Glass.

American Identity and Firearms

By 1840, the era of the mountain man was over. It was largely killed by a change in fashion. In the mid-1830s, the price paid for beaver pelts fell precipitously. Silk top hats became the fashion of the day, ending 300 years of the beaver felt’s predominance.

Though their time in history was brief, the mountain men had a big impact on the development of America and on the American psyche. And, as is the case with such things, Hollywood has taken an interest. Though certainly not approaching the cinematic dominance of cowboys, mountain men have had their story brought to the silver screen many times. Some of those movies have been real stinkers, but others have garnered awards, and are held up as filmmaking classics.

Being a firearms enthusiast, the guns in a movie are almost as big of a draw for me as the actors. But the curse of being both a firearms enthusiast and a history junky is that I can’t watch a movie without critiquing the propriety of the guns used as well as the historical accuracy of the story.

As a general observation, the guns used in most of Hollywood’s mountain man movies have not been very accurate depictions of the type of guns that were actually used in the Rocky Mountain fur trade. There are exceptions, of course. The two best mountain man movies in terms of the guns used are the 1952 adaption of A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s epic adventure novel The Big Sky and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar-winning 2015 film The Revenant. But most of the genre falls pretty short in terms of firearms authenticity, so let’s take a closer look.

Across The Wide Missouri

One of the earliest mountain man films was Across the Wide Missouri. It was nominally based on Bernard DeVoto’s award-winning book. But the 1951 film, starring Clark Gable and Ricardo Montalbán, really had nothing in common with Devoto’s book except the title. Despite that, this movie is actually a lot of fun to watch. But the low budget and lack of authenticity can make you cringe. For instance, in the rendezvous scene, the trappers have a shooting match where .45-70 Trapdoor Springfield rifles masquerade as muzzleloaders. Even though this movie is set in 1833, I’ve even seen publicity posters where Ricardo Montalbán is holding a Winchester Model 1892 lever-action rifle. Thankfully, no lever actions were actually used in the movie itself.

Of course, when this film was made back in 1951, firearms choices were pretty limited. There was no muzzleloading replica industry like we have today. Movie armorers were forced to rent actual antique firearms from the big prop houses. In Across the Wide Missouri, the lead actors are each armed with original plains rifles.

Gable’s character, beaver trapper Flint Mitchell, appears to be using an original Horace Dimick plains rifle. This exact same rifle also pops up in the hands of several other characters in the movie. This includes Iron Shirt, the Blackfoot warrior played by Ricardo Montalbán. But in at least one point in the film, Montalbán’s character also has what looks like a genuine Hawken rifle. If so, it is the only actual Hawken, or authentically styled Hawken replica, that I’ve seen in any mountain man movie. So, kudos for that!

The Big Sky

The 1952 film The Big Sky was based on one of the very best mountain man novels ever written. The movie was more limited in scope than A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s epic novel. It is nonetheless an excellent film where Kirk Douglas shows the talent and charisma that made him a top box office draw for decades.

The guns used in The Big Sky are excellent. Douglas’ character, Jim Deakins, carries what looks like an original Henry Leman flintlock rifle with a fairly short 36- or 38-inch barrel. Tennessee Valley Muzzleloading builds a very nice Leman rifle that you could use to duplicate Douglas’ movie weapon.

Jim Deakins’ partner, Boone Caudill (played by Dewey Martin), carried the most interesting gun used in any mountain man movie—a flintlock swivel-breech rifle. This was a double-barreled over/under rifle made in the 18th Century. It even had a sliding wooden patch box. Custom rifle builder David Price makes contemporary swivel-breech rifles. Seeing this movie when he was a kid inspired him to start building these rifles.

Man In The Wilderness

Richard Harris’ 1971 film Man in the Wilderness was the first cinematic telling of the Hugh Glass story. This was retold in DiCaprio’s 2015 movie The Revenant. I have to be honest here: I am not a fan of Man in the Wilderness. The history is appallingly inaccurate, as are the firearms used. Almost all of the muzzleloaders are reproduction Civil War military muskets. They have had cosmetic flintlock pans and frizzens welded on to cover the percussion drums and nipples. Faux flint cocks actually set off the caps. This movie gets my prize for worst mountain man movie ever.

Jeremiah Johnson

Luckily for the genre, the next Hollywood mountain man movie was a home run. Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson became an instant classic when it was released in 1972. It touched off the mountain man craze among muzzleloaders in the 1970s and early 1980s. Robert Redford played the lead in this film adaptation of Vardis Fisher’s excellent novel.

In the movie, Redford’s character says he has a pair of Hawken rifles, one in .30 caliber and the other in .50 caliber. Unfortunately, the replica muzzleloaders used in the movie look nothing like real Hawken rifles. Redford used what look like Italian reproductions in the movie. Their resemblance to the American-made Thompson/Center rifles led to a sales boom for the T/C Hawken. When I started shooting muzzleloaders in the early 1970s, it seemed like every other shooter on the line was using a T/C Hawken and imagining that they were Jeremiah Johnson.

The Mountain Men

In 1980, Charlton Heston and Brian Keith starred in my all-time favorite mountain man movie. The Mountain Men is an action-packed romp filled with memorable dialog and great characters. Charlton Heston is great as trapper Bill Tyler. But Brian Keith as trapper Henry Frapp steals every scene he’s in, and he absolutely makes the movie.

By 1980, the need to find priceless antique muzzleloaders to use in films was a thing of the past. Italian manufacturers were turning out a wide variety of muzzle-loading rifles and pistols, and the prop master for The Mountain Men took full advantage of that. Both Heston and Keith carry several Italian-made, brass-mounted, half-stock plains rifles during the course of the movie. Sometimes, due to continuity errors, they carry several different rifles in the same scene.

The NRA National Firearms Museum has one of Heston’s rifles from the movie on display. It is a typical Italian faux-Hawken of the period that has been refinished and decorated with brass tacks. In the intervening 37 years since the movie came out, rifle models have changed a bit, but the Traditions Hawken Woodsman rifle would also serve as a good base gun if you wanted to recreate Heston’s movie rifle.

The Revenant

In 2015, the latest retelling of the Hugh Glass saga, The Revenant, appeared in theaters with Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, a member of Ashley’s famous 1822 trapping expedition into the Rocky Mountains. In the movie, as in real life, Glass was badly mauled by a grizzly bear and abandoned by his friends. But against all odds, Glass survives. Despite his wounds, he treks across the wilderness in search of vengeance against the men who left him to die. The Revenant plays fast and loose with the real history of the Hugh Glass story. But unlike Man in the Wilderness, The Revenant is a really good movie as long as you can forget the history and take it on its own terms.

The movie is way too fond of cut-down, smoothbore, flintlock Brown Bess muskets. This would have been a pretty unusual choice for American frontiersmen in 1822. But, on the plus side, there are some decent period-correct flintlock rifles in the film. DiCaprio’s weapon is a custom Bucks-County-style flintlock rifle.  It was built by Ron Luckenbill, a top-notch contemporary long rifle builder who lives in the mountains of central Pennsylvania.

I have been fortunate to handle the rifle from The Revenant. It is, without a doubt, the finest rifle to ever appear in a mountain man movie. If you’re handy with tools, you can build your own from Track of the Wolf’s Bucks County Rifle Kit, which is what I did.

Until Hollywood sees fit to give us another mountain man movie, that’s all for now. If there are any you haven’t seen, DVDs are readily available. Check them out, and if any of them inspires you to add a mountain man gun to your arsenal, you’ll know where to go to get it.

This article is from the summer 2018 issue of American Frontiersman Magazine. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com

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