Continuing from my last blog entry, I want to draw a line from my previous research to the work I’ll be doing here in Firearms Records at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. My last major historical project linked group choral singing to Germans’ perception of themselves as a community. Let’s switch subjects. We’ll keep Germans, drop choirs, and change “the idea of the nation” to “the perception of the American West.” Without choirs, we can pick up a bit of literature by a well-regarded German author who took a fancy to plains and mountains. We’ll unload the myth of the Henry Carbine.
Of course, part of the German idea of the West came from our old friend Buffalo Bill. As the great showman toured Europe he made several stops in Germany. He performed shows in Dresden in 1890 and Munich in 1906. But author Karl May had already laid groundwork that prepared German audiences for Bill’s shows. From 1875 to 1910, May wrote numerous stories set in the wild west, most famously Winnetou I, II and III.
Despite arresting his American travels in Buffalo New York, May still wrote a compelling version of the wild west that found great popularity among German audiences. May’s West stripped men to their base morality: good or evil. For May, firearms weren’t just a fact of life in the West. They became semi-mythical objects that made heroes even more heroic, like the magical swords and rings in the Germanic myths well known by his audience. In fact, May’s German cowboy hero, “Old Shatterhand,” carried two such weapons: a powerful rifle nicknamed Bearkiller, and a trusty Henrystutzen, in English known as the Henry Carbine.
The Henry Repeater
That second gun should catch your attention if you know your mid-nineteenth century firearms. The Henry repeating rifle was a real gun. But there was never a Henry carbine. Requests came in to shorten the barrel of the rifle, but they were never fulfilled. Instead, the Henry repeating rifle produced by the New Haven Arms Company between 1860 and 1866 stuck to the standard barrel length of 24 inches. The gun’s lever action activated the elevator that ejected spent cases. At the same time it readied a new cartridge from the magazine tube under the barrel, allowing sixteen shots before reloading.
Objects of German Myth
The imaginary Carbine serves a purpose in May’s stories by expanding these capabilities in impossible ways. He transforms the firearm into a magical object in the style of German myth. One of the most famous Germanic tales, the Volsunga Saga, revolved around a magical ring. As recently as five years before May’s first Old Shatterhand tale, the composer Richard Wagner had revived the Saga in opera with The Rhinegold and The Valkyrie. Because of Wagner’s operas the trope of a mythical object was fresh in German minds as May’s books were being published. May’s use of the Henry Carbine capitalized on that, and connected his stories to the idea of the West and provides German audiences with a familiar cultural touchstone.
Though the Henry Carbine lacked the world-shaking significance inherent to the Saga’s ring that heralded the destruction of the gods, Old Shatterhand’s trademark Henry Carbine represents a similar mythical imagining of an everyday object. May never provided a thorough description of the gun or its operation, but what he did give the reader further pushed the firearm into the realm of fiction.
Shatterhand’s Magic Rifle
Made by a “Mr. Henry”—clearly a stand-in for Benjamin Tyler Henry, inventor of the Henry repeating rifle—the carbine kept the real rifle’s lever action, but paired it with a magazine seen on no other firearm: a spherical one. Twenty-five slots on the wildly spinning sphere were supposed to hold cartridges, which the action would align with the bore. That may sound ridiculous, but in May’s books it heightened the gun’s air of myth and mystery.
Wherever Old Shatterhand went, the people he met and fought revered his carbine as magical. No other firearm matched its speed or its impressive performance in a shootout. It was both a mythical object in the style of German myth and a representation of the West’s character. May combined German mythmaking with a symbol of the West. This grounded his setting for an audience that likely never saw it outside of Buffalo Bill’s show. Old Shatterhand’s carbine emblemized the American West for German audiences. They expected something astounding, something to make it a gun worthy of legend. May gave them just that.
Aided by his use of firearms and the Henry Carbine in particular as mythic symbols of the West, May created an engrossing fiction for Germans to consume. His influence on the way Germans see the West continues through today. The annual Karl May Festival in Bad Segeburg, and the Karl May Museum in his hometown of Radebeul keep his vision of the West alive for modern audiences. The guns that inspired Bearkiller and the Henry Carbine hold a central place in the Karl May Museum. They remain a testament to the lasting influence of his stories.