Inspired by his late father's antique pistol, author, urbanite, firearm novice (and skeptic) Eli Gottlieb traveled through Colorado to figure out why guns still hold such fascination.
William F. Cody was probably America's first superstar. Coming of age in that moment when the frontier was fast disappearing, he cannily rode the confluence of nostalgia for a vanishing way of life, nascent mass culture, and the newfangled invention called the railroad into a touring pop phenomenon that would put Madonna in the shade. His Wild West shows, replete with expert shooting, horsemanship, and the staging of mock Indian attacks, galvanized a country needing distraction from the aftermath of the Civil War. At the height of his success, he was the most famous man in America. Because he was an American, however, he was other things as well: a relentless self-promoter, a fibber and teller of tall tales, and, most significantly for the purposes of understanding America's love of guns, one of the first commercially branded public icons in our country's history and the forerunner of every Nike athlete endorsement since. The Winchester Rifle Company saw money in Buffalo Bill, and Buffalo Bill saw the same in Winchester, and by fusing their identities they made piles of money together. To buy a Winchester or Remington rifle today is like buying a blue chip piece of the frontier itself, and much of the credit for that symbolism goes back to that original understanding between the savvy, affable Mr. William F. Cody and the gunmakers of his time.
Cody's bones today rest in a peaceful spot in Golden called Lookout Mountain, on a hill overlooking Denver. A museum and gift shop have sprouted up nearby, and together make for one of the more popular tourist destinations in the area. The director of the museum, an ebullient man named Steve Friesen, cheerfully admits, "I've never fired a gun in my life." He shows me around the facility's carefully tended glass cases of rifles and artistic renderings of frontier life while explaining that, "For us, the Old West is what the Knights of the Round Table were for the English: a place of mythical origins. And in America, much of that can be traced to Buffalo Bill. As for Colorado, it seems to occupy the very center of that Old West mythology. Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma are equally part of the Old West, but for some reason Colorado gets pride of place."
Nearby, a paved path leads to Cody's tomb, which contains his mortal remains and, fittingly for a man who so fluently embroidered the truth, a lingering dispute. At the time of his death, his family was bitterly divided over where he should be buried. The feelings around the conflict still swirl so powerfully that there are those in Cody, Wyoming—a town founded by him, where the rival Buffalo Bill Historical Center resides—who believe the tomb in Golden contains the bones of an imposter. Whether that's true or not, one thing's beyond dispute: Lookout Mountain, which at the time of his burial was among the more pristine spots on Earth, is now disfigured by some of the largest microwave and radio towers I've ever seen. The shade of the great showman now wakes up each morning and looks out on a view cluttered by the very machinery of that modern world he so crucially helped bring into being.
I heft my father's pistol in my hand, insert small rubber earplugs, and warily load the clip with brand-new, shiny bullets. My hands are shaking, and I hope no one notices. To say that Gunland is long on testosterone would be a whopping understatement. Women gun buyers are a persistent, underreported slice of the market, but men—obviously—predominate. The target is a Nike box that Patrick has brought along and set up about 15 yards away.
Taking aim, I pull, and the crack is marvelously loud. It won't be mistaken for a backfire. It's the pop, perhaps, that the tip of an expertly handled bullwhip might make as it breaks the sound barrier. And with that crack, the gun jumps in my hand as if snakebit. I've read the sneering dismissals of my father's antique gun by hair-on-chest gun guys. They describe its ammunition as anemic. They deride it as "clearly not up to the task of a defensive weapon." I can't understand why something that just yanked my hand like a pit bull on a leash and sent a metal projectile into space at a thousand miles an hour is either of those things. But maybe I'm just naive.