'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!

This page says:



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?

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.

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

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.

Kill marks on aircraft and ships (and subs) were common and well-documented.

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.

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.

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.

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:

They could also be non-contemporaneous additions by a later collector, to enhance the perceived value of the piece.

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.

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. :slight_smile: 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.

A line from an old B western: All it takes to put notches on a gun is a sharp knife.

I remember being surprised after coming across this photo of kill marks on a retired F-16 on Wikipedia: 6½ aircraft, plus 1 nuclear reactor.

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: File:Unidentified young soldier in Union uniform with bayoneted musket next to a rifle stack LCCN2010648809.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

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?

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.