Unforgiven is simply a classic. It’s a brutal tale about two old outlaws and gunfighters who used to ride together, hitting the trail one last time to take on the contract killing of two cowboys who slashed up the face of a prostitute in a Wyoming town called Big Whiskey. The bounty is being offered by the other women in the brothel, against the wishes of the brothel owner and the local sheriff, an experienced gunman turned lawman.
But it’s not even as slightly glamorous as that sounds. While the idea of two brutal outlaws who used to ride together settling down on farms relatively close to one another with their families is pretty interesting—it ain’t all roses. William Munny (Clint Eastwood), the nastiest outlaw to ever live, meets a woman who cures him of drinking and wickedness. Some time before the movie begins, she is taken by illness, leaving Will to contend with two young children, a farm, and a pen of sickly pigs. Not a natural state for a man who used to make his living behind a pistol as an assassin.
But he struggles through it the best he can, until an opportunity literally comes knocking at his door, in the form of The Kid with news of the Wyoming contract for $1,000 looking to recruit him.
Munny is a man governed by unbridled rage, or at least he was. Hate, anger, and whiskey fueled that younger, terrifying man we only get glimpses of. At some point, he learned to let go of that anger, at least enough to live like a respectable man. He sets out on the trail, not with a zeal for the kill, but with a reluctant acceptance that killing is all he’s ever been good at—and his family needs the money.
For much of the movie, we hear about what a mean bastard he used to be, and he blames a lot of it on the drinking, which is easy to believe, as the older Munny is crotchety, but he’s not full of cruelty or violence, even refusing to beat a stubborn horse, while telling his kids how he would have done so in his younger days. We get a big dose of this in The Kid’s worshipful recounting of the stories about Munny told to him by his uncle. Will has no interest.
I love the moment when The Kid is going off about a time Will faced off against two armed deputies with his Uncle Pete and came out on top. Will doesn’t answer, but later by the fire Ned asks, “You know, when he was talking back there about the time them deputies had the drop on you and Pete? Well, I remember it was three men you shot, Will, not two.”
And Will answers, “Well, I ain’t like that no more, Ned. I ain’t no crazy killing fool.”
But Will knows and remembers the things he’s done, and privately believes he’s damned for them, as he admits to Ned in the throes of his fever dreams, and even before that, from his fireside chatter, we know Will is hauling around a heavy burden of guilt over the people he’s killed.
This conversation between Will and Ned, who also isn’t very fond of talking about the old days, tells you everything you need to know to fill in the backstory on your own:
Will: I ain’t the same, Ned. Claudia, she straightened me up, cleared me of drinking whiskey and all. Just cause we’re going on this killing, that don’t mean I’m going to go back to being the way I was. I just need the money, get a new start for them youngsters.
Ned: Yeah, well—
Will: Ned, you remember that drover I shot through the mouth and his teeth came out the back of his head?
Will: I think about him now and again. He didn’t do anything to deserve getting shot, at least nothing I could remember when I sobered up.
Ned: Well, you was one crazy son of a bitch, Will.
Will: Yeah, no one liked me. Mountain boys all thought I was going to shoot em out of pure meanness.
Ned: Well, you ain’t like that no more.
Will: Eagle, he hated my guts. Bonaparte didn’t think to much of me either.
Ned: Quincy neither, I reckon.
Munny: No. Quincy used to just watch all the time. Scared.
Ned: Well, like I said, you ain’t like that no more.
Munny: That’s right. I’m just a fella now. I ain’t no different than anyone else no more.
The Schofield Kid
This is a good time to talk about how this movie treats firearms. Old westerns, spaghetti westerns, and plenty of modern westerns turn guns into Excalibur-like weapons, often highly customized and sometimes even named. The 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma and Ben Wade’s custom “Hand of God” SAA revolver come to mind, with its crucifix grips. That one even had a curse on it.
In Unforgiven, the only people who treat guns as something other than tools are those who have no experience using them in a fight to the death, especially the young gunman-wanna-be who comes to recruit Will to help him with the killing.
The Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) is quite fond of his Smith & Wesson Model 3 break-action “Schofield” revolver, even going so far as to name himself The Schofield Kid because of it.
Of course, as we learn later, not only has he never killed anyone, contrary to his tall tales that never fool the experienced gunmen for a moment, but also he’s nearly blind, unable to see birds in the sky or stormclouds on the horizon.
The Kid’s transformation in this movie is truly remarkable. Any fan of westerns, on a first viewing, would assume there was no way he’d live to see the end of the story. But he does, and he eventually gets his highly sought-after first kill—though it doesn’t go how he may have imagined it. He surprises an unarmed man and shoots him on the crapper in an outhouse.
The experience hits him hard. And seeing that Will isn’t in the least bit phased by it makes him see the old gunman in a different light—for the first time, he’s afraid of him. It’s apparent in how quickly hands over his prized Schofield revolver when Will asks for it after hearing about Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) being killed, along with the bottle of redeye, vowing to never kill again.
The Kid also carries a Winchester 1892 lever gun in a saddle scabbard, but the only time it’s seen being used is when he wildly shoots at Ned and Will as they come up on him along the trail, not knowing who they are. When Ned takes the rifle to “see if something’s bent,” the Kid pulls his Schofield on him, “Get yer damn hands off mah rifle, mister.”
Why they didn’t also bring the ’92 with them to kill the first cowboy from the rocks, I don’t know. I guess they didn’t think Ned would need more than one or two shots with his Spencer, and the Kid can’t see far enough to make the shot, and Will isn’t a great shot with a rifle, so they left the Kid’s lever gun with the horses.
The Old Gunfighters’ Guns
Ned and Will, the experienced killers, aren’t outfitted with fancy double-pistol rigs and lever-action rifles. Even if they had ceased their outlaw activities about a decade before the movie takes place, their weapons are still pretty old.
Munny sets off with his six-shooter, which he isn’t very practiced with anymore, and a simple side-by-side 10-gauge double-barrel shotgun. Ned appears to only carry his Spencer carbine repeating rifle. These guns are wholly appropriate to the characters. We don’t know how long, exactly, Will and Ned have been farmers, but when Will visits Ned’s farm in 1881, he admits it’s been about seven years since he shot at a man. His son, the oldest of the two kids, can’t be any older than 10. So let’s just assume they’ve been out of the outlaw life for about 10 years.
That means they were at the height of their outlaw activities in the late 1860s, in the aftermath of the Civil War. I always imagined that Will and Ned were sort of Josey-Whales-type characters, who fought in the war and then cut a swath of terror across the west with his gang afterward, a mixture of young outlaws and veterans.
William Munny’s Starr 1858 Double Action Revolver
Munny carries a revolver that is both advanced and antiquated for 1881, which we assume was his go-to sidearm in his killing days: a double-action Starr 1858 Army percussion revolver.
That’s right, this DA/SA wheelgun predates metallic cartridges. There were a few other double-action percussion guns, but this was by far the most successful. The Starr 1858 was famously used in the Western theater of the Civil War, so that fits perfectly. One can easily imagine Munny keeping the revolver he was issued while wearing Union blue.
While they aren’t as well known as some other models, Starr revolvers, designed by Ebenezer Starr of Yonkers, New York and manufactured in Binghamton, made up 13 percent of the revolvers in the Union Army during the war.
The design of the 1858 revolver existed on the civilian market before the war began, chambered in .36 caliber. It didn’t sell so well, so Starr soon chambered it in .44-caliber as an Army Caliber revolver, and sold a good number of them to the U.S. Army. The ordnance department made an initial purchase of about 20,000 .44-caliber double-action Starr revolvers, about 16,000 of which were ultimately delivered, with about 5,000 of the guns ending up on the civilian market. The pistol was also manufactured as a single-action revolver.
Starr patented his double-action trigger mechanism as early as 1856. By 1861, thanks to Civil War contracts, the Starr factory employed 225 men.
However, the Starr isn’t exactly a double-action in the way we think of double action revolvers today with one long trigger pull that simultaneously cocks the hammer and rotates the cylinder until the trigger breaks and the gun fires.
Instead, there are technically two triggers on a Starr; the main trigger is actually a cocking lever, only serving to cock the hammer and rotate the cylinder. Then, a second trigger, which protrudes behind the cocking trigger when the hammer is fully cocked, actually fires the gun.
For aimed shots, the main trigger can be used to cock the hammer, or the hammer can be cocked manually, then the lighter, crisp trigger can be pressed independently, sort of like double-set triggers found on classic hunting rifles.
Or, to fire multiple shots in a hurry, the cocking trigger will contact the firing trigger if pulled back far enough, and the gun functions as a modern double-action revolver would, though the Starr had a very long and heavy trigger pull, which you can see as Will tries, and fails, to shoot at the cans on his fence in double action. Eastwood appears to be using a genuine Starr in this scene.
There are technically three ways to fire this gun: by pulling the main cocking trigger all the way back for each shot (double action); by cocking the hammer with the cocking trigger and then firing with the light second trigger (single action); or by manually cocking the hammer and then firing the gun with the second trigger (single action), bypassing the main trigger completely.
Plus, the cylinder is designed so it engages a stop between chambers on the cylinder, therefore allowing the hammer to rest between chambers, so the pistol could be carried safely with all six chambers loaded. This was a common feature on percussion guns that seemed to vanish, for some reason I cannot determine, with the advent of metallic cartridge revolvers.
The gun’s design also solved some of the problems Colt percussion revolvers had with fouling and jamming on spent caps.
For as widespread and revered as they were, you’ll find almost every model of Colt revolver from the era, from the Walker and the Dragoon all the way to the SAA, had some serious flaws. The Colt Army and Navy percussion guns tended to build up fouling on the cylinder access pin, which could cause the cylinder to jam—and gaps between the back of the cylinder and the frame were inviting spots for spent caps to jam up the works as well. The highly esteemed Single Action Army, a cartridge gun from the start. had, what I would call, a huge flaw in that it’s a six-shot gun that can only safely hold five rounds..
Now, I don’t know how this “rule” was actually treated in the Old West. The wisdom goes that you should never load six rounds into a single-action revolver like the SAA, because it has a fixed hammer, which means when you set the hammer down after loading the cylinder, it would be resting directly on a live primer. If the gun were to be dropped or the hammer impacted in some way, it could fire the round under it. It’s also a little risky to lower this kind of hammer onto a live primer—if the thumb slips, the hammer can fall at least part way and set off the round.
So, you would load one chamber, skip one, and load four more. This allows you to lower the hammer on an empty chamber once five rounds are loaded. (This becomes important later.)
Was this a rule followed in Old West by working men whose gun spent more time in its holster than not, and ignored by outlaws and lawmen who were more apt to get in regular gunfights and were willing to sacrifice safety for that extra shot? I do not know, and I have not been able to find a satisfactory answer.
We never actually see Munny use his Starr revolver, outside of the failed attempt to shoot some cans off his fence. The gun is taken away from him the night he arrives, feverish, in Big Whiskey and Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) almost beats him to death after disarming him in the saloon. Regardless, the gun made its way to the movie poster and the VHS cover.
Munny’s W. Richards 10-gauge double-barrel speaks for itself.
Ned’s Spencer Carbine
Ned’s Spencer saddle-ring carbine is another gun that was popular in the Civil War, with those who were lucky enough to get one in their hands, that is. At the time, it was far more capable than a muzzleloader or a single-shot Sharps rifle, but was quickly outpaced technologically by the Henry rifle. By 1881, it was no longer state-of-the-art by any means, and was much slower to fire and reload than a Henry or later Winchester lever guns.
In the era of lever guns with loading gates, the Spencer, which was loaded via a removable magazine tube in the buttstock and required the hammer to be manually cocked after each round is chambered, was slow to shoot and slow to reload in comparison, but it still got the job done.
It was compact and great for shooters on horseback, and was known for its accuracy and balance. Again, I like to imagine this is the firearm Ned became proficient with during the war and was then the gun he chose to carry during his outlaw days, if not the very same rifle.
Something interesting—we hear of Ned’s proficiency with the rifle through the first half of the movie, from both Ned himself and Will, but we never actually see Ned fire the gun. He shoots the one cowboy’s horse from the hills, but it happens off screen. Ned can’t bring himself to take a second shot and kill the man, so Will does it for him.
“I ain’t very good with one a these…”
Will fires the gun dry, but he makes a shot good enough to kill the cowboy, Davey, before he can get to cover but not right away. He suffers with a gutshot for some time.
Is this because Ned has moved farther away from his outlaw life than Will has?
I think it’s a combination of things. Ned is more domesticated than he thinks he is—evidenced by his frequent complaints about missing his bed and his wife. Plus, his wife is still alive and he hasn’t been re-hardened by her death like Will has. Ned also seems to harbor fewer regrets about his past deeds than Will does, meaning he has some hope for redemption. Will is burdened with guilt, but is resigned to the fact that he’s damned and going to hell—so what’s one more killing for the tally?
Guns of English Bob, aka, The Duck of Death
Another assassin from the old days, English Bob (Richard Harris), is still very much active in the film’s present day, traveling around with a dime-novel biographer, expounding his personal philosophies on killing and forms of government, and engaging fellow travelers in shooting contests.
Apparently, it’s a well-known pastime of Bob’s to get people riled up with talk of America being better off as a monarchy until they give him an excuse to shoot them down. He’s a braggart and a showoff, who uses his nickel-plated, pearl-handled Colt SAA Artillery in a pheasant-shooting contest from a moving train, and wins.
From the trumped up stories he tells his biographer, and the more realistic stories Bill tells about him, its clear Bob is a genuine “bad man” who has done a fair share of killing over the years. He also has a distinct pomposity to him—he arrives in town via train and stagecoach with a damn biographer on his heels for god sake, and his first stop is the barber to get a shave. This matches his flashy sidearm.
In addition to his nickel SAA, Bob carries a snubby Webley Bulldog .32 as a backup gun in a shoulder holster, until Little Bill relieves him of both pistols…and his biographer.
“I didn’t steal your biographer! He stayed of his own accord!”
“Well, he can stuff himself as well, can’t he?!”
Guns of the Law and Bill’s Jailhouse Peacemaker
As is fitting a local Sheriff with the speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick mentality that Little Bill has would want his deputies outfitted with good firearms. While the guns they have are a motley sort, with double-barrel shotguns, a Yellow Boy rifle, and other lever guns in the mix, it seems every deputy has one or more pistols, or a pistol and a long gun.
But, as Little Bill, who carries a simple Colt SAA, explains to W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), and William Munny later shows, it’s not so much about the guns, a shooter’s speed, or accuracy, but rather the ability to keep a cool head.
From the jailhouse scene:
LITTLE BILL: Faster? Faster was his mistake. If he hadn’t been in such a goddamn hurry. he wouldn’t have shot himself in the toe with that first shot, he’d have killed ol’ Bob. Look, son, being a good shot and being quick with a pistol, that don’t do no harm, but it don’t mean much next to being cool-headed.
A man who will keep his head and not get rattled under fire—likely as not, he’ll kill ya.
BEUCHAMP: But, if the other fella is quicker and he fires first—
LB: Then he’ll be hurrying and he’ll miss. Look here. (Little Bill draws his pistol) That’s about as fast as I can draw, and aim, and hit anything more than 10 feet away, unless it’s a barn.
BEUCHAMP: But if…he doesn’t miss?”
LB: Then he’ll kill ya. That’s why there’s so few dangerous men around like old Bob. Like me. It ain’t so easy to shoot a man anyhow, you know, especially if the sumbitch is shooting back at you. I mean that’ll just flat rattle some folks.
That lines up pretty well with some real-life shooting advice from a man who was actually a lot like Little Bill—famous lawman Wyatt Earp.
Earp once said: “The most important lesson I learned…was that the winner of a gunplay usually was the one who took his time. The second was that, if I hoped to live on the frontier, I would shun flashy trick-shooting—grandstand play—as I would poison…In all my life as a frontier police officer, I did not know a really proficient gunfighter who had anything but contempt for the gun-fanner, or the man who literally shot from the hip.”
It’s worth noting in the jailhouse scene, after his speech, when Bob declines the revolver from his jail cell and Bill empties the cartridges to show him that the gun was, indeed, loaded—only five rounds hit the floor. The prop master was paying attention.
Now, some folks think Bill was setting Bob or W.W. up because only five shells hit the ground, assuming that the first chamber was empty—therefore if either man had taken the gun and attempted to kill him, the hammer would have fallen on nothing. But, if you really pay attention to the clip above and listen, it goes like this:
- Bill takes the revolver from a drawer and lays it on the desk. W.W. picks it up and cocks the hammer.
- When Bob refuses to take it, Bill takes the gun, still cocked, from W.W. He puts it to half cock, opens the gate, and begins unloading it with the barrel tipped up.
- An SAA revolver’s loading gate is on the right side and the cylinder rotates clockwise. On the first rotation to a stop, a shell hits the floor, which would have been the cartridge under the hammer when W.W. cocked the pistol, ready to fire.
- He then rotates it four more times, and four more shells hit the floor. On the last rotation, there is no shell.
That means the hammer was resting on an empty chamber when the gun was in the drawer—not that Bill had, for some ungodly reason, premeditated the encounter and stashed a gun specifically loaded so the first shot would be dead.
The Final Showdown
When Munny rides into Big Whiskey at the end of the movie, he’s carrying The Kid’s Model 3 Schofield, presumably with no extra ammunition, and his double-barrel 10-gauge. He doesn’t stand outside of the Saloon and bellow for Little Bill to come out and face him in the street. Nope, he walks right into a saloon full of armed men with his double-barrel and cooly shoots Stumpy after ascertaining he’s the bar’s owner.
But, because he doesn’t get rattled when the second shot in his scattergun is a misfire, and because he’s “lucky with the order” of the men he shoots, he manages to kill half a dozen and send the rest fleeing without taking so much as a scratch.
Yet, the shootings don’t feel very Hollywood. Several of the men he shoots with the volley from his revolver are badly wounded, but not dead, including Little Bill. There are stops and starts to the gunfire with almost awkward pauses between. It’s not the typical rhythm of a big-screen gunfight, and that might be what makes it feel more realistic.
Before leaving the saloon and the town, Munny walks through and finishes off the wounded men with Ned’s Spencer rifle that he finds on the bar, once he gets it loaded and has some more whiskey. Little Bill does get a Hollywood death, complete with last words and all, but that doesn’t make it any less brutal.
The violence and gunplay in this movie are admirable. It’s quick, messy, and quite realistic. There are no prolonged gun battles, no heroic last stands. The killing in this movie ain’t glamorous. It’s ugly, because “it’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”
“Yeah, well, I guess they had it comin’.”
“We all have it comin’, Kid.”
The vast majority of the gunplay in this movie is solid, and the firearms are accurate in use and period correct.
The only dings I give it are the once scene when the guys guarding the one man with a contract on his head at the Bar T ranch pursue Munny and The Kid, and get into a comical arrangement of standing and kneeling to all shoot their pistols together—something about that just seemed super goofy and old-school western to me.
Also, there are way too many characters walking around with leather gun belts complete with cartridge loops. While these types of gunbelts did exist, they were not nearly as common as movies would have us believe. More often than not, pistol cartridges were kept loose in a belt pouch and holsters were more generally sized for typical revolvers of the time instead of being custom fit. Why? It takes a lot more work and leather to make a belt with cartridge loops for a specific cartridge size and a holster perfectly sized for a particular gun, therefore such a gunbelt would be quite a bit more expensive than a simple leather gunbelt and holster with an ammo pouch.