Tom Horn’s Rifles
by D.L. Staley
(note: links in the article lead to photos and other information)
Tom Horn, legendary Indian fighter, tracker, Pinkerton man, stock detective, and some say child-killer, is believed to have used in the last few years of his life, a 1894 Winchester rifle serial #82,667 (1897 receiver) with a half magazine (also known as a button magazine) and a standard round barrel in 30WCF. This was at the time he was working for the Swan Land and Cattle Company as a stock detective, owned by John C. Coble, Horn’s close friend and employer.
The rifle was left to Tom’s friends, the Irwin brothers, Frank and Charlie, who sang “Keep Your Hand Upon the Throttle and Your Eye Upon the Rail” at Horn’s hanging. It was one day shy of his 43rd birthday, November 20, 1903. The Winchester is in very good condition with the exception of the bore, which is in a very poor state. Tom reportedly practiced constantly with this rifle, which I tend to believe, if you consider it being shipped on 6/19/1900, and Tom being arrested for the murder of Willie Nickell on January 13, 1902. That’s not a great deal of time to shoot out a barrel, even with corrosive ammunition but, who can say how the rifle was treated after Horn’s death.
Over the years Tom’s Winchester has resided at the Old West Museum in Lions Park, Cheyenne Wyoming. The last I heard, the rifle was back in the possession of Frank and Charlie’s heirs, whether this is in fact true, I cannot say for certain.
Lost in the mists of time, are the number of $600 man-killings this Winchester performed, if any.
Tom’s Winchester was one of two rifles shipped in order number 61994, from the Winchester warehouse on June 19, 1900, to a distributor in Denver. The second Winchester, serial #84,540 (1897 receiver) 30WCF, special order ½ octagon barrel and half-magazine, is believed by its current owner, to have been the property of Tom Horn also. He does have some very good circumstantial evidence, but he freely admits not having any irrefutable proof. Personally, I truly hope this gentleman finds that proof for a number of reasons.
1. It would give us Horn buffs something else to research, and
2. He spent a great deal of time and effort tracking down this second rifle. He finally located it in Fort Collins, CO. which is not too terribly far from Boulder, where Tom’s brother Charles took his body for burial.
3. The owner was gracious enough to give me copies of both Cody-Winchester letters, just because I’m a Tom Horn buff.
Fast Forward 90 Years (1903 to 1993)
1902, Cheyenne, Wyoming. A jury found him guilty of murdering a child, and he was hanged by the neck on the water gallows designed in 1892 by Cheyenne architect James P. Julian. A reprieve finally came to Tom Horn in 1993 when forensic crime scene investigators and Amnesty International “staged” a retrial in which real attorneys, jurors, and judge were used. Horn was found not guilty - just less than a century too late to actually do him any good.
Over the years that I’ve been looking into the life of Mr. Horn, I have had the great fortune to correspond with a number of Horn experts. Two of which are, Mr. Chip Carlson, author of two books on Tom, and one on Joe LeFors, and the other is Mr. Don Patterson.
Don is a retired LEO, and owner of Chiefly Books in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He was also one of the forensic crime scene investigators. For those of you with an interest in Tom Horn, you may find the following interesting, it’s just a snippet of a telephone conversation that I had with Don a year or so ago…
"Willie was probably shot at the gate, as he was dismounted and closing it, with his horse on the other side. This is indicated by the blood splatter right at the gatepost. He then ran about 70 ft. up the road and collapsed and died from massive torso wounds. His father (Kels Nickell) placed a circle of stones around the body and the stones are still in place today. Several years ago the University of Wyoming also placed a permanent concrete marker on the spot of the circle of stone." (You might check with Chip on the measurements as I can’t find my notes and don't recall the measurements of the shots exactly, but Chip might.)
"No slugs were in the body, and none were recovered at the scene. I led a group of people up to redo the crime scene under the sponsorship of Chip Carlson and the Kick and Growl. The group included Cheyenne Police officers, the Cheyenne City attorney, the Laramie County attorney, several federal lawmen (FBI and Postal Inspectors) and lawmen from Goshen County, and other places in Wyoming. I'm probably forgetting someone.
The papers at the time of the murder always felt the shots were fired from the small rock pile, which is about (50yds?) outside the gate. Boot prints, and the impressions of rifle butt(s) were located there in the original investigation. This site offers a great view of the gate but minimal concealment and no place to hide a horse. As I examined the scene I felt the large rock pile to the rear of the small one was far and away a better spot, It offered excellent concealment and a place for a horse, as well as a great place to shoot from.
Our team did a through search of the area for spent bullets and shell casings. We also conducted test firings from the large rock pile to a box placed where Willie was standing when he was shot. We used a 30WCF that is the same make and model as the one Horn owned, that is now in the old west museum here. (not the Buffalo Bill Museum) Several of us fired the weapon at the box and everyone hit it even though no practice was given and most had never fired that gun before. We found shell casings right in the rock pile where our ejected casings went at the test firing. These were the REM UMC casings that made us so happy, but ended up being at least 10 years too new.
The metal detectors turned up several slugs, and metal slug jackets. (The 30WCFs were always jacketed, it was one of the first rounds that were longer than it was round, and had to be jacketed to keep from disintegrating at firing). The slugs were examined by the Wyoming State Crime Lab and compared to the rifle in the Museum that belonged to Horn. All of the slugs were eliminated as having come from that gun but one. One slug was fired from the same make and model of rifle but could not be matched to the Horn rifle, but neither could it be eliminated. The wear to the barrel of the rifle in the years since the murder had caused too much wear to allow for positive matching."
The search for “el hombre de sombra” (the shadow man) continues.