An interview with Peter Grant

Now that BRINGS THE LIGHTNING is out in all four formats, hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook, and is available on Kindle Unlimited as well, it seems a propitious time to link to this excellent interview of author Peter Grant by Scott Cole of Castalia House. The level of knowledge that Grant has about the weapons of the period, and the amount of research he puts into his books, are truly astounding. – VD

Scott Cole: How did you decide to base your first Western novel on Walt’s demobilization, journey home, and quest to find a new life in a changed world?

Peter Grant: A lot of this was personal experience. I’ve been in military service, and experienced demobilization, a journey home, and having to start all over again. I knew that hundreds of thousands have had to do the same thing after almost every war in history. I researched the stories of both Union and Confederate veterans, and found they shared similar experiences. Also, the corruption, attacks on returning Confederates by both official and ‘unofficial’ enemies such as bushwhackers, etc. are all documented in books and narratives of the period. It was a logical step to make this the beginning of my novel.

Q. Is Walt’s character based on historical figures or is he your Western alter-ego?

Walt is entirely based on historical figures. Some were Southern veterans who became first guerrillas, then outlaws, such as the James gang. Others are based on veterans from both the North and the South who wrote about their experiences of coming home after the war, then heading west to make a fresh start. I have no alter ego in the book at all.

Q. You mentioned that you fired many of the weapons mentioned in the book. Were these updated versions of the original models or part of private collections that survived the years?

These were original weapons that had survived the wars in Southern Africa. I’ve fired original versions of Colt’s 1861 Army and 1873 revolvers, Winchester Model 1873 and 1886 rifles, and the Winchester Model 1887 lever-action shotgun. All were in private collections.

Q. Walt does a good job in explaining the advantages and disadvantages of various firearms in the book. Then again, he had a lot of them. If you had to choose only one pistol and one long rifle to equip yourself with in that time what would you choose and why? Would you make different choices if you were equipping yourself for the African bush?

Good question. If I were in Walt’s shoes, I’d have gone with the choices he made, for the same reasons: the Remington revolver and the Henry rifle. Both were suitable for the plains. I’d have liked a heavier rifle as well, to handle buffalo on the plains and bear, etc. in the mountains, but if I was limited to one rifle, the Henry would be it, because it would be so much more useful in combat to have its rapid rate of fire and large magazine capacity.

If I were to pick one of each for Africa, during the period when it was still wild and filled with very dangerous animals, the revolver would be the same, but the rifle would unquestionably have to be a much more powerful weapon. Don’t forget, African dangerous game is much larger and more powerful than those in North America. I’d pick a European big-caliber rifle, probably (in the days of blackpowder propellant) an eight-gauge or even a four-gauge muzzle-loading weapon. That would have obvious limitations in its speed of reloading, etc., but it would have the power to take down the largest African animals, unlike any American rifle of the period. If dangerous animals were less of a factor, I might consider a repeating rifle; but all of the cartridges during the period in which this novel is set (mid to late 1860’s) weren’t very efficient or powerful. If we were in the 1870’s, I’d take the Winchester 1876 rifle with its .45-75 cartridge, or, a bit later, the Winchester 1886 in .45-70. By the 1890’s I’d take a European bolt-action repeater with a smokeless round; the British Lee-Metford, the German Mauser, etc.

Q. Why were the cartridges so weak and inefficient in the mid to late 1860’s? Cost savings by manufacturers or just the technology at the time?

The cartridges were weak for two reasons.

The technology to produce metal cartridges was brand-new and in its infancy. Extruded brass was unknown; cartridges had to be formed from a sheet of the metal, with consequent weaknesses at the seams. This meant that if a powerful propellant load was used, it risked rupturing the case; so all early cartridges were relatively lightly loaded. For example, the Henry rifle (and its immediate successor, the Winchester Model of 1866) used a powder charge of only 25 to 28 grains, less than many handguns of the day. The Winchester 1873 used 40 grains – an improvement, but not greatly. It took until the 1870’s for more powerful cartridges such as the .50-70 and the later, more efficient .45-70 (and their larger, longer cousins) to be developed.

During the 1860’s, the centerfire primer had not yet been invented; all early cartridges were rimfire, like modern .22LR, or pinfire. This meant that ignition was less reliable. It also meant that the bases of the cartridges were less strong, as their rims had to be hollow to accommodate the priming compound and/or the pin. It took until the 1870’s for central primers to be developed (most notably the Berdan and Boxer priming systems). That, in turn, allowed for solid rims that were stronger.