Jack Schaefer published Shane in 1949; in 1982 the University of Nebraska Press asked me to edit and compile a critical edition of Shane, including the original text and a bunch of scholarly articles. The critical edition has been in print ever since. At that time, 1982, Shane had been in 70 editions in 30 languages.
Jack Schaefer put down his drink and rose from his chair. He went into his study and came back carrying a Colt .45.
“Well,” I thought, “this is it. Schaefer’s finally going to shoot me for what I said about Shane.” Still, it wouldn’t be a bad way to go—a literature professor being shot by the guy who wrote Shane, Monte Walsh, Company of Cowards and Great Endurance Horse Race. Schaefer studied English literature at Columbia but he didn’t care much for literary scholars. He called scholarship “a dull and stupid waste of time.”
He also gave a lecture titled “Only a Fool Would Write Westerns.”
He and I first met when Schaefer came to Colorado State University as a writer-in-residence. I was a shavetail instructor with more brass than brains, and before long I was telling him my theory about Shane’s gun. In Chapter 4 young Bob says “I knew enough to know that the gun was a single-action Colt, the same model as the Regular Army issue . . . .” During the climactic showdown in Chapter 14 Bob observes that Shane “broke out the cylinder of his gun and reloaded it.” I pointed out to Schaefer that breaking out the cylinder of that particular firearm would leave Shane juggling the frame, the base pin (or cylinder pin), the cylinder and six bullets. “Darn awkward way to reload!” I said. (Did I mention that Schaefer didn’t like academics?)
Since first reading Mark Twain’s caustic remarks about Fenimore Cooper’s firearm inconsistencies I’ve been sensitive and suspicious when western writers try to use guns. I wince when Louis L’Amour’s hero performs a “quick draw” with a Colt Walker since the Walker at 4.5 pounds weighs nearly twice as much as a Colt Single Action Army and requires both hands to cock it. I argued that A. B. Guthrie’s character in “Mountain Medicine,” clearly modeled on John Colter, was not likely to carry a heavy double-barrel swivel breech percussion.
Sometimes I do hold back, however. When I first looked at Richard S. Wheeler’s North Star I didn’t like the gun in the cover illustration. It looks more like an English fowling piece than a fur trade rifle. Wheeler wrote that Mister Skye had “an old mountain rifle” but later on says that Skye “checked his Sharps rifle.”
“Aha!” thought I. He made a mistake! How did a mountain rifle morph into a Sharps! I asked my friend Jan Manning, a gunsmith and firearm expert. Jan’s half-hour lecture got complicated, but the key to it is the Gemmer Sharps Rocky Mountain Rifle. In other words, Mister Sharps did build a Hawken-type mountain rifle. Trust Richard S. Wheeler to build himself a deadfall of arcane details to trap a persnickety critic.
But gun details remain dangerous territory for western writers. For every novelist there are two dozen historians, six dozen hobbyists and a wolfpack of book reviewers waiting to pounce on any little lapse of accuracy—even while they overlook the principal argument of the book.
In Shane the principal argument is as follows. Shane is the last gunfighter, the archetypal nameless knight errant, majestic in his skills at savagery and violence. But the time for such savagery is over. Shane’s time has come to and end and he cannot join the new civilized order of things. When he kills Stark Wilson, he kills the very reason of his own existence. His strength remains, in the farmer people. As Marian says, “He’s not gone. He’s here, in this place, in this place he gave us. He’s all around us and in us, and he always will be.” But the man himself must ride “back whence he had come and he was Shane.”
“I had never been west of Toledo, Ohio, when I wrote Shane,” Schaefer said. He based the novel loosely on what he had read of the Johnson County War. But was there really such a man? Did such a thing really happen? Does it matter?
In Dorothy Johnson’s story, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” the newspaper reporter is asked if he is going to print what really happened. “No, sir. This is the West, sir,” he says. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
So, it was a nice warm day in Santa Fe and Jack Schaefer and I had been discussing the final details about publishing Shane: The Critical Edition when he left the room and came back carrying a heavy-looking Colt .45. He placed on the coffee table in front of me. It didn’t seem polite to ask whether it was loaded.
“That’s the gun,” he said. “That’s the gun I had on my desk while I was writing Shane.”
“But Jack,” I protested. “You described a Single Action Army. This gun is a 1915 Colt Army.”
“It’s still an Army model .45,” he said. He picked it up and pressed the catch that released the cylinder for reloading. “See?”
“But it’s the wrong gun. Shane takes place in 1885. This cannon of yours was made in 1915. Or maybe 1917. ”
Schaefer closed the cylinder, looked at me calmly and took a sip of his drink. And I’ll never forget what he said next. It was not a question but a statement.
“It doesn’t matter, does it.”
Jack let me live, and in later years he would even phone me from time to time to ask my advice about a gun he was thinking of using in a story. But I knew what he meant, that day in Santa Fe. Shane had become a legend and the legend had become the fact, and just like Dorothy Johnson said, that’s what matters most.
Dr. James Work is the editor of the textbook Prose and Poetry of the American West, past-president of the Western Literature Association, and author of eight novels set in the West.