Wild West Question: Price of a Bullet

In old western movies and television shows cowboys are often shown shooting away at empty bottles and the like with abandon. Did this get expensive? How much did a bullet cost back then, and how much, typically, did cowboys earn? In short, is this realistic?

There’s a circa 1895 box of 50 bullets here that the seller claims is marked with the original price of $1.00.

And how much did a typical cowboy earn in a week? Whether it was 25 cents or 25 dollars would sure alter his attitude to shooting up a buck’s worth of bullets for entertainment.

From here:

Not cowboy wages, but gives you somewhat of an idea.

By the 1890s, the price of ammo was starting to drop due to better and cheaper manufacturing methods. There were several “machine guns” made during the Civil War (put in quotes because many were hand cranked guns and not true machine guns), but for the most part they weren’t used simply because the ammo they fired cost too much in the 1860s. In the decades after the war, improvements in metallurgy and manufacturing made brass cartridges much more affordable.

I found the General Catalog, Issue 4 By Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett & Co (1891) on google books, which gives prices for that year. Earlier cowboys would have had to pay more for their ammo.

From the catalog:

A Colt pistol will cost you anywhere between about $10 and $20 (depending on the model and caliber).

A No. 2 Remington Rifle will cost you $12.

A Winchester 1886 repeating rifle will cost you between $20 and $40 or so depending on the model. The $40 version (actually $39) has the 26 inch octagon barrel, set trigger, case hardened 8 shot full magazine, Fancy French walnut checkered pistol grip stock and fore end.

Cartridges run from about $12 to $35 or so per thousand, again depending on caliber and model.

Even though cap and ball weapons had been obsolete since the Civil War era, they still sold plenty of supplies for cap and ball weapons.

No. 4 Dynamite was 20 per cent (Nitroglycerin). Safety fuse sold separately.

A straight razor (for shaving) will cost you between $10 and $20.

A hatchet will cost you between $10 and $15.

A Greenland No. 450 Hardwood Refrigerator (weight 800 lbs) will cost you $80. Ice not included.

ETA: If I recall correctly, cowboy wages were something like $25 per month by the late 1800s and included meals and a place to sleep.

Speaking say 1870/80 I would bet some would depend on “where”. In the east or near a factory I would think fairly cheap; in the middle of no-where multiple times that. Transportation being what it was and the cost of maintaining inventory, it all has to be part of the factor in price.

If you go through the listings for antique ammo kunilou posted, inside the top of one of the boxes has the advisory that, for reloading, only the Winchester #2 primer can be used.
Even then reloads were popular enough that replacement primers were sold.

Which indicates that ammo wasn’t considered cheap.

Also back then guns tended to rust out easily. Those old black powder guns had to be cleaned practically every day.

Think about it. Most movies and television shows aren’t realistic today. Most are based upon exaggerations and stereotypes.

Cool find! According to this site, $20 in 1890 is about $510 in 2013. I’m not sure how reliable that site is. The BLS inflation calculator only goes back to 1913, but it says $20 in 1913 is about $480 today. Anyway, 500-ish bucks for a handgun looks like about a middle of the road handgun today (I don’t know jack about guns; I was just scanning down the handguns for sale on Cabela’s site).

Yikes! The equivalent of hundreds of dollars for a razor or a hatchet! That is really surprising to me.

Minor nitpick - not technically rust. Black powder contains sulfur, which reacts with water in the air to form sulfuric acid. So if you didn’t keep your gun clean, the acid that forms in the powder residue would eat away at it.

Also, while black powder cap and ball revolvers were rendered obsolete by cartridge revolvers around the time of the Civil War, a lot of folks in the wild west still used them. Wild Bill Hickock, for example, had a pair of Colt 1851 Navy pistols. If you didn’t keep cap and ball revolvers clean, unburned powder in the residue could cause what is known as a chain fire, where cylinders other than the one intended also fire. If every cylinder goes off at once and only one is behind the barrel, very bad things happen. Pepperbox revolvers, which you almost never see in cowboy movies, were notorious for chain fires. A lot of gamblers in the old west liked pepperboxes because the short and stubby ones were easy to conceal.

When it comes to the Wild West, a helpful rule of thumb is: Everything you know is wrong. They didn’t have shootouts on a daily basis; your life was in much greater danger in any of the big cities in the eastern states than it would have been in a western town. Besides it being potentially expensive, shooting randomly would almost certainly have been frowned upon by local sherrifs, and pretty much everyone else.

You want expensive? Look at the price of a saddle even in the old west. In the 19th century a saddle could easily be worth more than a horse. I once saw an early Sears catalog of 1902 I think and a saddle ranged from I think about $40 to over $100.

A good history “book” is an old Sears catalog that go back to 1896. They are usually not available online so try to buy one.

Well not totally. In the movie “The Magnificent Seven” Yule Brenner says to the Mexican looking for guns “Guns are expensive and hard to get”.

Previous thread regarding Old West homicides.

It’s hard to compare wages then to today. Yes, a simple ranch hand might only make “a dollar a day”- but that’s after taxes (none) and would include grub, bunkhouse, and maybe even a horse.

More or less true, but firing guns in the air for celebrations was a known thing.

Also, anyone who was serious about learning to hit what they shot at would have to practice occasionally. Even today, budgeting for ammo and other costs is a big part of how often one can live-fire practice.

Your typical cowboy was not nearly glamorized then as now by Hollywood. Cowboys then and now were little more than mounted labor. It would have been unusual for a standard cowhand to own a horse or a saddle; these were typically provided by the ranch/trail boss, etc.

While Colt revolvers are typical in cowboy movies along with Winchester rifles, the actual practice of carrying was fairly rare and if weapons were carried, they were usually the cheaper varieties.

People don’t really change. Poor people now carry cheap guns and have little in the way of career tools; same then if not worse.

As a nitpick, shooting at bottles and such can be considered target practice and not just shooting the crap out of things.