The popular imagination tends to cast the Old West cowboy as a violent and self-reliant individual, one of the tamers of the Frontier. The reality of the situation was actually somewhat different, though it is no less fascinating. The cow poke was a working man, first and foremost, who was defined largely by the tools he used in his dirty, hard and dangerous job.
The key tool of the trade for any cow hand working in the West from 1870 to 1900 was a horse. Herding cattle on foot would have been an impossible business, for a number of reasons, primarily distance. The range really was no place for anyone to be on foot.
Not that that many cowboys were wealthy enough to own their own horse though, but if they did, then it tended to be placed in the common herd for communal use. This demonstrated commitment to the outfit for whom they were working. There was little sentiment shown to working horses; they were tools in the end, after all, and often ridden to death in extreme circumstances.
The second tool which was essential to the trade of this particular type of 19th century manual worker was his lariat, the rope that hung in careful loops from his saddle at all times. This rope could be used to lasso stray cattle, to pull cattle or horses out of boggy ground, or even, when stretched tight by several men, as a temporary corral.
The cow hand is often associated with firearms in popular literature and film, and most workers did carry guns at one time or another. A rifle or shotgun usually served as a hunting weapon, but would not often be carried while out on the range. The Colt revolver was often kept to hand though, with its size and versatility making it easy to carry while working.
Revolvers were often used against raiding criminals or Native Americans, at least in the early days of the Western cattle era. More common uses for the weapon were often much more mundane though. The revolver was an inaccurate weapon, but would serve to finish off wounded horses or take out a rattlesnakes.
An Old West cowboy was a working man of his time, engaged in a job which was dirty and hard, rather than adventurous and romantic. The tools of his trade were his horse and his rope, though his gun sometimes came in handy. Hard work was what made a cowboy who he was, not a propensity for violence.
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