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Old 01-12-2020, 10:37 PM
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'Notches on his gun' trope. Any background?


So I'm listening to Great Philadelphia Lawyer by Woody Guthrie and he drops in '10 notches were carved on his gun' about 'Bill the gun-totin' cowhand'.

Fine and dandy.

But I got to thinkin'. I always kind of assumed that the 'notches on his gun' thing was standard western TV fair. But GPL was written by Guthrie in 1937 - so the copyright says - and possibly even earlier. That would pre-date television and leave it to movies. Now there were certainly western back then as Roy Rogers was singing in them in the thirties.

But was that trope around in them? Or might there be some truth to the trope and Woody was just riffing on some urban legend that might have started out somewhere?

Dopers, help me!
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Old 01-12-2020, 10:41 PM
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https://truewestmagazine.com/did-gun...in-their-guns/
Quote:
It’s logical to think a gunfighter would carve a notch on his weapon for each victim sent on to his great reward... The act would be similar to scalping one’s enemy, a trophy of hors de combat. Yet historian Jim Dunham says, “I know of no case outside of fiction of notching firearms.”
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Old 01-12-2020, 10:46 PM
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This page says:

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The kind of bad man who reveled in his notches and gloated over his reputation was unusual in the Old West, although there were a few who did so.
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Old 01-12-2020, 10:53 PM
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Finally:

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Horace Greeley,and all the rest of the penny pocket book and ten cent novel writers of the late 1800's and early 1900's. It started with them and Hollywood kept it going... It is 99% legend.
and
Quote:
I'm pretty sure that the custom of notching guns to count kills probably originated with dime novle writers such as Ned Buntline.
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Old 01-13-2020, 03:17 AM
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My dad put notches in his keys, so he could tell them apart in the dark. Apart from that, did anyone ever put notches on anything?
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Old 01-13-2020, 03:59 AM
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Supposedly, shepherds used to count their sheep using notches in a stick. Apparently this is the origin of the term 'score' meaning 20 - counts of up to 20 were verbal.

There is a trope of 'notches in the bedpost' supposedly indicating a count of sexual conquests. I don't know if anyone ever actually did that though. It sounds like the sort of thing that might have grown out of the gunfighter trope.

There is the (I believe genuine) case of kills or successful missions being counted as painted symbols on the fuselage of military aircraft.

Last edited by Mangetout; 01-13-2020 at 04:04 AM.
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Old 01-13-2020, 04:33 AM
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Centuries ago, notched sticks were used as "tallies" or a means of accounting.

Quote:
Tally sticks were used by accountants and by officials of the Exchequer who managed the revenue of the Crown. They were a physical proof of payments made into the Treasury. The 'Dialogue of the Exchequer' describes a tally as:

"the distance between the tip of the forefinger and the thumb when fully extended ... The manner of cutting is as follows. At the top of the tally a cut is made, the thickness of the palm of the hand, to represent a thousand pounds; then a hundred pounds by a cut the breadth of a thumb; twenty pounds, the breadth of the little finger; a single pound, the width of a swollen barleycorn; a shilling rather narrower than a penny is marked by a single cut without removing any wood".

https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/....asp?item_id=6
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Old 01-13-2020, 06:50 AM
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Centuries ago, notched sticks were used as "tallies" or a means of accounting.
[Associated factoid]: it was an accumulation of old tally-sticks that helped along the fire that destroyed the old Westminster parliament building, making way for the building we see today
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Old 01-13-2020, 10:12 AM
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Quote:
Quoth Mangetout:

There is the (I believe genuine) case of kills or successful missions being counted as painted symbols on the fuselage of military aircraft.
I know for a fact that at least one naval vessel used such an accounting. The WWII submarine USS Cod (now a museum ship in Cleveland) has different icons on its superstructure for Japanese naval vessels sunk, Japanese motorized merchant ships, and junks (towards the end of the war, when Japan was short on motorized shipping), with a separate notation to distinguish between confirmed and unconfirmed kills.
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Old 01-13-2020, 10:29 AM
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Kill marks on aircraft and ships (and subs) were common and well-documented.
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Old 01-13-2020, 10:34 AM
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Woodie Guthrie was of a generation to whom WWI loomed large. If fighter pilots were doing it, I have no doubt countless infantrymen/snipers were as well.
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Old 01-13-2020, 12:25 PM
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Homicides in the old west are overstated. Few people by themselves would have enough kills to justify a running tally. Not saying nobody did, but if there is no documented evidence of that happening, it was probably very rare.
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Old 01-13-2020, 01:08 PM
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I have seen pictures of Civil War muskets with notches, either in the stock or on the barrel. They are far too even to be unintentional scratches or damage. That said, no one is really certain that they are kill marks. It could just be that the soldier was bored and decided to whack some notches into his musket stock.

Soldiers in other wars occasionally notched the stocks of their rifles, but doing so was rare. The rifle did not belong to the soldier, and any "personalizing" like carving initials, kill marks, or any sort of marking on the rifle was against regulations and the soldier could get in big trouble for it. That said, I have heard of many rifles with notches on them, but again, most are not confirmed to be kill marks.

T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, received a captured Lee-Enfield rifle, which he then used during the Arab revolt. He carved his initials and the presentation date into the stock, and also carved five notches into the stock to mark the number of kills he had with it. The rifle is now in display in the Australian War Museum.

Sergeant Frank Kwiatek supposedly cut notches into his rifle in WWII. He had vowed to kill 25 Germans after his brother had been killed. According to one account, he was carving the 22nd notch into his rifle after the battle of Normandy. I don't know if he ever got to 25 or not.

I also know of other ways that soldiers marked their kills. One kept the brass casing from any bullet that killed someone. At first he put them in his helmet band, but when someone else figured out what he was doing and chewed him out for it he switched to keeping the shell casings in his pocket.

Semen Nomokonov, a Soviet sniper from Sibera in WWII, put notches on his smoking pipe to mark his kills.

It should be noted that other than the Civil War rifles, the rest of these were long after the cowboy/gunslinger trope had been established.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Johnny L.A. View Post
Kill marks on aircraft and ships (and subs) were common and well-documented.
Tanks too, by the way. Most were marked with lines or rings on the barrel, but some had marks on the turret instead.

And also apparently the occasional anti-aircraft gun as well:
http://www.ww2incolor.com/german-art...l+marking.html
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Old 01-13-2020, 01:11 PM
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Originally Posted by engineer_comp_geek View Post
I have seen pictures of Civil War muskets with notches, either in the stock or on the barrel. They are far too even to be unintentional scratches or damage. That said, no one is really certain that they are kill marks. It could just be that the soldier was bored and decided to whack some notches into his musket stock.
They could also be non-contemporaneous additions by a later collector, to enhance the perceived value of the piece.
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Old 01-13-2020, 01:38 PM
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Is it possible that any of the known examples of notched guns are for utilitarian purposes, such as to make it easier to grab or hold?

One other problem with marking military assets (be they personal weapons, artillery pieces, tanks, or whatever) is that many military actions will involve many similar units all firing at once, and it's not always clear precisely who fired the killing shot.
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Old 01-13-2020, 02:27 PM
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Kill marks on aircraft and ships (and subs) were common and well-documented.
Right, as mentioned also on tanks or stripes painted on gun barrels which were common on AA guns, many photo's of WWII German flak show those (signifying either claimed* a/c or vehicles when the guns were used as antitank guns) not just a few. Altogether it's got to have been many 1,000's of such cases. This idea might have derived in part from Old West lore, but I think it's too simple an idea to think it originated in just one place.

*it's often only long post war researcher/party poopers who care a whole lot how 'our guys' claims actually correlated to real successes. Seriously, operational research types cared to varying degrees at least in a general sense, varying by country and sometimes by situation, by unit or command etc within a country. In some countries it doesn't seem anyone was ever much inclined to second guess own claims of a/c, vehicles, subs etc actually destroyed.

Last edited by Corry El; 01-13-2020 at 02:27 PM.
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Old 01-13-2020, 02:54 PM
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A line from an old B western: All it takes to put notches on a gun is a sharp knife.
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Old 01-13-2020, 04:29 PM
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Kill marks on aircraft and ships (and subs) were common and well-documented.
I remember being surprised after coming across this photo of kill marks on a retired F-16 on Wikipedia: 6˝ aircraft, plus 1 nuclear reactor.
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Old 01-13-2020, 05:29 PM
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Is it possible that any of the known examples of notched guns are for utilitarian purposes, such as to make it easier to grab or hold?
None of the ones that I have seen looked like they could have been utilitarian. They might not have been kill marks, but they weren't to make the weapon easier to grab or hold.

Some theoretically might have been to personalize or decorate the weapon, or to make the weapon easier to recognize in a hurry. Weapons were often stacked to keep the dirt out of them. If your weapon has 4 or 5 notches by the trigger guard, that's something that you can quickly and easily recognize so that you can grab your weapon off of the stack when it's time to go.

Stacked muskets: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/F...2010648809.jpg

Many military weapons were surplussed after whatever war they were used in ended. Those rifles that do have kill counts could be kill counts for deer or for some other purpose that the rifle was used for long after it had been sold on the civilian market. Modern hunters will put kill notches in the stocks of their rifles a lot more frequently than soldiers ever did.

One interesting story that I remember reading was that a young guy asked his grandfather about notches on his old gun, expecting some war story or some such. His grandfather admitted that he had put notches on the gun just to intimidate other people. The grandfather's opinion was do you really want to mess with a guy who has notches on his gun?
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Old 01-13-2020, 05:49 PM
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My dad put notches in his keys, so he could tell them apart in the dark. Apart from that, did anyone ever put notches on anything?
I could tell which tools in my father's workshop had belonged to his father because they all had 3 parallel notches somewhere on them. Presumably this made it easier to identify which tools were his early in his life when he worked with his father and brothers.
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Old 01-13-2020, 06:17 PM
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Don't college football players mark their tackles or sacks or whatever with stickers on their helmets?
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Old 01-13-2020, 06:22 PM
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Don't college football players mark their... sacks...?
I've never heard of a football player marking his sack.
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Old 01-13-2020, 06:47 PM
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I caught part of a show on PBS, might have been History Detectives, and they were trying to verify some guns supposedly used in the ST. Valentines Day Massacre. They showed some notches in the stocks.

History Detectives, S7 E3
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Old 01-13-2020, 07:45 PM
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Don't college football players mark their tackles or sacks or whatever with stickers on their helmets?
Some teams do that, most do not. And it's the coaches who decide who gets the stickers, not the players. So it's not quite the same as a soldier notching his gun on his own.

Last edited by dtilque; 01-13-2020 at 07:47 PM.
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Old 01-13-2020, 09:12 PM
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Kill marks on aircraft and ships (and subs) were common and well-documented.
And the Coast Guard have bust marks for intercepted drug smuggler ships.
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Old 01-13-2020, 09:58 PM
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It's probably unwise to notch your slingshot.

Not exactly gun-notching but the brave little tailor made a brag-belt reading "Seven at One Blow". That's better than notching a fly-swatter.

I should have painted two deer and several squirrels on the door of our previous car.
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Old 01-13-2020, 10:16 PM
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I've never heard of a football player marking his sack.
To repeat an idea already posted, do you really want to mess with a guy with notches in his sack?
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Old 01-13-2020, 10:17 PM
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My grandfathers revolver has three notches on it, probably from the early 1900's. He was a farmer so was probably was counting snakes he killed, or skunks, or raccoons, rather than people
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Old 01-14-2020, 02:11 AM
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I have it on good authority that Pat Benatar puts notches in her lipstick case.
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Old 01-14-2020, 03:07 AM
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Nice try with the busted snowflake decals, Coast Guard, but someone should point out that proper snowflakes have six points, not eight.

As for decals on warplanes for enemy kills: This page shows pictures of several aircraft with a bunch of souvenir insignia. One plane appears of have a row of little swastikas (hard to tell for sure, it's unclear). One has a row of little bombs. One has a whole bunch of odd symbols that look something like little axes or something. (Meaning Italian planes shot down?) I'm pretty sure one can see planes like this at any museum of WWI or WWII military aircraft, such as Castle Museum in Atwater, Ca.

And there's this: I myself once saw an ambulance with a row of several stork decals just outside the back door. In fact, I just found this picture on-line of something like this.
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Old 01-14-2020, 04:19 AM
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Is it possible that any of the known examples of notched guns are for utilitarian purposes, such as to make it easier to grab or hold?
Possible but for grip tacks work better and always have. Google "guns decorated with tacks".

And as an addition to ECGs post - sometimes the notches were battles survived. I researched a CW musket once that had been notched and the number matched the number of major engagements the owner had been in. And an uncle in WW II marked his personal sidearm for each year. He sometimes joked that they were "kill marks" but those of us within the bloodline knew that each was a Christmas from 1941 to 45. I also know of one case from WW II where the marks were for close friends lost.
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Old 01-14-2020, 07:07 AM
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I remember being surprised after coming across this photo of kill marks on a retired F-16 on Wikipedia: 6˝ aircraft, plus 1 nuclear reactor.
How do you kill half an aircraft?
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Old 01-14-2020, 07:24 AM
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How do you kill half an aircraft?
WAG-confirmed damage that forced a withdrawl/not confirmed downed or shared a kill with another aircraft.
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Old 01-14-2020, 07:48 AM
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As for the OP's question, notchews for kills, here's a cite from 1879.

Logan had made a notch-record on one side of his hatchet handle for each prisoner taken, and on the other side for each scalp.

And a gun that was evidence in a trial in 1906.
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Old 01-14-2020, 08:16 AM
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I remember being surprised after coming across this photo of kill marks on a retired F-16 on Wikipedia: 6˝ aircraft, plus 1 nuclear reactor.
The most interesting kill mark that I'm aware of was racked up by American pilot Louis E. Curdes. That pic shows his plane with kill marks for 7 German aircraft, one Italian, one Japanese...and an American. It's an interesting story of how that happened.
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Old 01-14-2020, 09:44 AM
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WAG-confirmed damage that forced a withdrawl/not confirmed downed or shared a kill with another aircraft.
Almost invariably the latter, in cases where victories were parceled out that way. In some air arms there were individual victories and shared ones without the shared ones being expressed as fractions. Also a variety of classifications of certainty in different air arms (destroyed, probable, damaged were official categories in some cases not others). Nor did markings on planes necessarily 100% correspond to official tallies. And the sum of 'confirmed official' victories typically exceeded the actual number of opposing a/c destroyed, sometimes relatively slightly but sometimes by several times.
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Old 01-14-2020, 09:45 AM
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That "6 and a half" airplanes killed was from a verified kill shared with another aircraft.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that the submarine Cod also has an icon of a martini glass. That one was to commemorate a successful rescue operation on an allied ship, the only submarine-to-submarine rescue operation in history (both ships were surfaced at the time).
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Old 01-14-2020, 10:22 AM
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The most interesting kill mark that I'm aware of was racked up by American pilot Louis E. Curdes. That pic shows his plane with kill marks for 7 German aircraft, one Italian, one Japanese...and an American. It's an interesting story of how that happened.
Thought that was going to be the guy who shot himself down.
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Old 01-14-2020, 11:15 AM
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That "6 and a half" airplanes killed was from a verified kill shared with another aircraft.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that the submarine Cod also has an icon of a martini glass. That one was to commemorate a successful rescue operation on an allied ship, the only submarine-to-submarine rescue operation in history (both ships were surfaced at the time).
USS Barb had a locomotive on its battle flag. It had landed a shore party that laid a mine on the tracks.
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Old 01-14-2020, 11:32 AM
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USS Barb had a locomotive on its battle flag. It had landed a shore party that laid a mine on the tracks.
Operation Petticoat We sunk a truck!
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Old 01-14-2020, 01:33 PM
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Putting notches on a weapon or a tool to tally achievements made with it seems like an obvious and long-standing image...

For a concrete cite, I remember visiting the Louisville Slugger Factory (the longtime major manufacturer of baseball bats) and seeing one one display that Babe Ruth used in his record-setting 1927 season when he hit 60 HRs, one notch per homer he hit with it. I even took a picture of it.
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Old 01-16-2020, 01:47 AM
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My grandfather was a country doctor in east Arkansas back when doctors made house calls and home deliveries. In the early 40’s he bought a new delivery table. It had six legs and folded up for portability. As it turned out, his first delivery on the table was his first grandchild. He was so pleased he cut a notch in one of the legs, and continued to do so for each delivery. When he retired, every available corner of the table had been notched, as well as a couple of three foot 1x1s. There were over 3,000 notches in all, and that doesn’t include the deliveries he made in the thirty some odd years of practice before he got the table. That’s a lot of babies.
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Old 01-16-2020, 07:32 AM
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So is it fair to say we've established a few things:

1. Woody Guthrie didn't originate the idea
2. People are in the habit of commemorating things with notches/markings
3. There's no definitive answer to whether people used notches on guns
4. It likely originated - notches/guns - in dime novels of the 1890s-1910s

Does that sound right?
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Old 01-16-2020, 07:43 AM
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3. There's no definitive answer to whether people used notches on guns
There are proven cases of people putting notches on guns as kill marks (Lawrence of Arabia's rifle, for example), but they are very rare and are long after the cowboy trope was established.

There's no definitive answer to whether people used notches on guns as kill marks prior to the old Wild West dime novels. There are plenty of old guns with notches, but those notches are not proven to be kill marks (none that I am aware of, at least).

There is no known case of a gunslinger actually doing it.

Last edited by engineer_comp_geek; 01-16-2020 at 07:45 AM.
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