Strange Days

Cowboys and Aliens: Did Aliens visit the Old West?

In late March 1897, around seven years before the Wright Brothers undertook their first controlled flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, airships were in the news after several hundred residents of Missouri, Kansas claimed to witness a strange sight as a huge airship hovered over farms, ranches and small towns in a three state area. Reportedly it swept a huge searchlight along the ground and terrified residents who witnessed this strange event. The story made the local Kansas Newspapers but then went national and then worldwide.

The story would have died a death, many were sceptical but then on 1st April 1897 (April Fools day, don’t forget) Alexander Hamilton,a  farmer from LeRoy, Kansas claimed that the air machine had hovered over his farm and one of his cows had been sucked up into the machine. Later cow parts were discovered in a three mile radius.

That same night as many as 10,000 witnesses would give statements to the press about the airship. It was said to have flown over Kansas City, going through a series of erratic manoeuvres. Some witnesses even claimed that the airship was the planet, Venus…one man told the Kansas City Times that, ‘Venus does not dodge around, fly swiftly to the horizon, swoop rapidly towards the ground and then fly away to be lost in the Southern sky.’

From descriptions given to the newspapers the aircraft seemed to be – shaped like an Indian canoe with a basket some 25 to 30 feet in length. Four light wings extended from the basket and these wings were triangular with a giant bag, thought to be a gas balloon, above the basket. The craft had powerful lights that lit up the night sky  it was said that these lights were as bright as those of a locomotive.

This started the world’s first UFO scare and in the weeks following the aircraft was reported all over the United States. When it was spotted in Michigan, observers claimed to have heard human voices coming from the machine. On April 6th it was spotted over Omaha and more than six hundred people made statements to the press. The craft was also spotted in Iowa where a farmer claimed a drag rope had come from the craft, hooked his trousers and carried him several hundred feet before dropping him to the ground. Speculation in the press became widespread – one theory being that the craft was a new invention, piloted by American astronauts who were testing the commercial validity of the machine. Cattle rustling was, of course, denied.

There were yet more sightings of the strange craft – The Kansas City Free Press reported that, ‘the airship is not of this world, but it is likely operated by a party of scientists from the planet, Mars who are out on a tour of the universe for scientific study.’

Whatever the truth of the story it remains one of the most enduring mysteries of the Old West.

The Guns that won the west

The Sharps buffalo gun, known as the Big 50 but often nicknamed,’ the gun that shoots today and kills tomorrow.’ The .50-90 Sharps rifle cartridge is a black-powder cartridge that was introduced by Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company in 1872 as a buffalo hunting round. Like other large black-powder rounds, it incorporates a heavy bullet and a large powder volume, leading to high muzzle energies.

In the hide-hunting years of the 1870s, the heavy Sharps rifle was the of choice with many mountain men. While they made most of their shots at around 200 yards or less, the savvy buffalo hunters realized that when hunting in Indian country, they should keep about 10 cartridges set aside for self-defence. With these few rounds, they were able to keep hostile tribesmen at a safe distance until they made it back to camp.

Once such event happened in 1874 in the Texas pan-handle in which sharpshooter Billy Dixon shot and killed a Comanche brave who was seated upon his horse more than a mile away. Now that single shot reportedly scared the Indians off and brought what could have been a costly battle to an end.

‘There was never a more splendidly barbaric sight. In after years I was glad that I had seen it. Hundreds of warriors, the flower of the fighting men of the southwestern Plains tribes, mounted upon their finest horses, armed with guns and lances, and carrying heavy shields of thick buffalo hide, were coming like the wind. Over all was splashed the rich colors of red, vermillion and ochre, on the bodies of the men, on the bodies of the running horses. Scalps dangled from bridles, gorgeous war-bonnets fluttered their plumes, bright feathers dangled from the tails and manes of the horses, and the bronzed, halfnaked bodies of the riders glittered with ornaments of silver and brass. Behind this headlong charging host stretched the Plains, on whose horizon the rising sun was lifting its morning fires. The warriors seemed to emerge from this glowing background’ Billy Dixon. 

Dixon’s famous shot took place on the third day of the second Siege of Adobe Wells in which an Indian force, some 700 strong attacked Adobe Wells in which some 28 men, including a 20 year old Bat Masterton and Billy Dixon were present. It was on the third day after the initial attack that Dixon took his famous shot. Fifteen Indian warriors rode out on a bluff nearly a mile away to survey the situation. At the behest of one of the hunters, William “Billy” Dixon, already renowned as a crack shot, took aim with a “Big Fifty” Sharps  that he had borrowed from another man, and cleanly dropped a warrior from atop his horse. “I was admittedly a good marksman, yet this was what might be called a ‘scratch’ shot.” This shot apparently so discouraged the Indians that they decamped and gave up the fight. 

Billy Dixon

William “Billy” Dixon (September 25, 1850 – March 9, 1913) was an American scout and buffalo hunter active in the Texas Panhandle. He helped found Adobe Walls, fired a legendary buffalo rifle shot at the Second Battle of Adobe Walls, and for his actions at the “Buffalo Wallow Fight” became one of eight civilians ever to receive the U.S. Medal of Honor. 

Now these days many people debunk Dixon’s famous shout, claiming that he couldn’t have made it as such a length but a group of ballistics experts and forensics scientists have recreated the shot and discovered that it was indeed possible.

Phil Spangenberger wrote in True West Magazine –  Among modern-day nonbelievers was a forensic scientist who claimed a .50-90 Sharps could not throw a bullet out that far. In response to this technician’s curiosity and disbelief, in the fall of 1992, fellow gun writer and long-time amigo Mike Venturino was invited, along with the folks from Shiloh Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company, to travel to the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona, to use some then-newly declassified radar devices to test the performance of several types of ammunition.

Using a machine rest modified from a gun carrier from a Russian T-72 tank, they started firing away. For the first Sharps shot, with the gun carriage elevated to 35 degrees, a 675-grain bullet, pushed by 90 grains of FFg black powder, and with a muzzle velocity (mv) of only 1,216 feet per second (fps) launched the bullet over 3,600 yards distant. That’s 10,800 feet—over two miles! The scientists couldn’t believe it, so a second round was touched off. This time the lead projectile weighed 650 grains with a mv of 1,301 fps. Using the same 35-degree elevation, the bullet landed 3,245 yards away. When one of the mathematicians calculated some data he suggested they reduce the elevation to about 4½ to 5 degrees to duplicate Billy Dixon’s shot. When this was done using the same load, the lead slug landed 1,517 yards downrange—almost the exact range of Dixon’s controversial shot. A five-degree muzzle elevation can easily be achieved with only the rear barrel sight on a Shiloh Sharps. This writer has made similar long-range shots with his own .50-90 Shiloh Sharps, using 90 grains of FFg black powder and a 515-grain bullet, while testing firearms for Guns & Ammo magazine.
According to Venturino, with 35 degrees elevation, the bullet gained a maximum height just short of 4,000 feet and was airborne a full 30 seconds. In my own experimentation with my Big Fifty Shiloh Sharps at similar distances, I found that with the slight muzzle elevation of around five degrees, I counted three full seconds between firing the shot and seeing the bullet kick up dirt in the target area. So the next time some modern gun “expert” wagers that you can’t put a bullet a mile out with a Sharps buffalo gun—take the bet!
Phil Spangenberger has written for Guns & Ammo, appears on the History Channel and other documentary networks, produces Wild West shows, is a Hollywood gun coach and character actor, and is True West’s Firearms Editor.

The real Jack Martin

To celebrate the forthcoming release of my  western Wild Bill Williams in digital format – published this November from Piccadilly Publishing  and available for pre-order NOW, I thought I’d post a little something about the man who gave me my pen name.

And so I present the real Jack Martin

Jack Martin. The man whom I looked up to as a kid, he seemed ten feet tall, and the man whose name I use for my western fiction.

Jack Martin was a coal miner in the South Wales coal fields – indeed it was the dust from this environment that eventually killed him – pneumoconiosis, black lung disease,was common among a certain age group in the village I was raised in. The  sound of chesty coughs would accompany the dawn chorus across the village and sticky mementoes of the coal mines would fill handkerchiefs held in the scarred hands of the old colliers.

The original

Coal mining, given the then primitive conditions was a  arduous job, and in those days there was only basic safety equipment. Lives were often lost in explosions and one time the level where my grandfather was working flooded and over 20 men were drowned. That was all before I was born. I learned much of this from my grandmother and Gramp never really talked about it.

I was born in 1965 and Gramps had retired by the time I was five so I can’t really remember him working, though he was never idle and his garden gave us the best tomatoes around . He was a tall man, always dressed immaculately, even when doing the garden he wore a shirt and tie, as people of his generation did. He grew incredible tasty vegtables  and my first ever paid job was collecting horse manure from the mountain for his garden. I think he gave me something like 10p a bucket which was good money in those far off days when the world was black and white and the sun always shone.

My Grandmother often referred to him as Father Christmas and although they would argue as people did in those days, about anything really – leaving the door open, not wiping your feet and trampling garden over the mat, their relationship was a strong and loving one. They both spoiled me rotten and I always got the latest comics and would go on the annual British Legion day trip to Porthcawl with them. Though often only me and my nan went. Gramps stayed home and probably went for a sneaky pint down the legion. He did so like a sneaky pint or two.

Hey, sorry about the ancient history but I feel almost old enough to remember black and white radio.

My nan and grandfather, possibly the 1930’s

Gramps loved the westerns and was always reading a western novel. When there was a western on TV I would watch it with him and he would tell me stories of when he was in the wild west (completely invented, of course. The furthest West he ever went was Tonypandy) and in these stories he would be teamed up with John Wayne or Gary Cooper but never Clint Eastwood – he never really liked him and would refer to him as an unshaven hooligan. As a young boy I believed every word of these wild stories:

That he had been a one legged fighter pilot in the war, that
he had been there when Custer arm-wrestled Wyatt Earp for the price of a drink, that he had smoked the peace pipe with both Geronimo and Sitting Bull.

Jack Martin MK 2

Gramps was a natural storyteller.

Jack Martin – it was his  love of westerns that was passed onto me and apart from the fact that Eastwood is my all time fave, our tastes are very much the same – John Wayne is still the ultimate man’s man, and the cowboy creed is a  design for life.

When I published my first western novel, Tarnished Star with Robert Hale LTD (now available as LawMaster)  I was proud that it contained the byline – by Jack Martin. When trying to decide on a pen name to keep my western fiction separate from my other stuff it was only natural to use Gramp’s name.

He’s been gone now for longer than I care to remember,  and I still miss him but I guess he’s still here, inside me – his ideals, his ways, his humour and every one of my westerns that has seen print  is as much his work as mine. For without him I would never have developed my interest and love for the American West.

So saddle up and check out Jack Martin’s western page HERE

Batman: The Killing Joke (animated movie)

FlashpointParadoxWarner Brothers have made some excellent superhero movies in animated form, and in terms of realising the source material most of these movies are vastly superior to last year’s Batman V Superman movie.

Perhaps animation is far more suited to the medium, a far truer way than live action of bringing the comic books to life. There’s a lot of evidence for that stance – as good as Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was,  none of the films matched up to the 1993 animated movie, Mask of the Phantasm (in my opinion the finest Batman movie ever made). And several other animated superhero flicks would take their place in any top ten of superhero films – while you wait of the inevitable disappointment that will be  Zack Snyder’s Justice League why not watch Justice League: Flashpoint Paradox which is as fine a Justice League movie as anyone could hope for. Or if you want to find the real Superman on screen then check out, All Star Superman. If you want more Batman then look no further than Under the Red Hood or the Dark Knight Returns one and two as well as the aforementioned, Mask of the Phantasm. The latter still ranks, in my opinion, as the greatest Batman movie of them all.

v1.bTsxMTg5NTQ1ODtqOzE3MDU3OzEyMDA7Mzk4OzU2MgThen we have the latest Batman animated movie, The Killing Joke – a story based on Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s classic 1988 Batman/Joker story. As soon as I heard Warners were making this movie in animated form I had high hopes – when I learned that it would be R rated I was even more excited – the original comic was darker than dark, an intense story of violent madness and if it could be done justice in a film medium then animation seemed the way to go. The only way to go.

The film has a great voice cast – Mark Hamill as the Joker, Kevin Conroy as Barman and Tara Strong as Batgirl. Surely Warners/DC would be able to pull this off and produce yet another animated classic.

Well they almost managed it…the movie is fine when it sticks to the source material but there’s a Batgirl subplot tacked on, presumably written to make the loss of the character all the more emotional…it’s a shame because this section of the film is at odds with the main plot – still at least we see Batman and Batgirl having sex. That Batgirl’s got a fine rear end and hooters to die for! Not to mention Commissioner Gordon dressed in fetish gear. This ain’t your standard cartoon, folks. And that’s how it should be since the Killing Joke graphic novel wasn’t your standard kid friendly comic book

batman-killing-joke-movie-hallwayOverall  I think this movie is a far better representation of Batman than we saw in Snyder’s recent mega expensive critical flop – Conroy’s always given us a magnificent Batman but it is Mark Hamill’s Joker who steals the movie – Hamill’s version of the Joker is the best we ever seen, and that includes all of the live action versions of the character. The actor has perfected his take on the Joker over many years of playing the character in the animated TV series as well as the animated movies. And there is a valid argument for Conroy ranking as the screen’s best ever representation of the Batman.

The Killing Joke then is well worth your time – an extremely faithful adaptation of the graphic novel (when it isn’t focused so much on Batgirl) right down to the animation design and structure of the plot. Another magnificent animated Batman movie that whilst not up to the high standards set by Mask of Phantasm, it does come pretty damn close.


Hell on Wheels

hell_on_wheels_by_dnmny-d5bfsjpAMC’s western series, Hell on Wheels finally came to its conclusion this week with the completion of America’s transcontinental rail-road, and it ended in grand western style with a fist pounding saloon punch up, and enough tying up of loose ends to hold the five seasons together.

‘You’re a soldier, lost without a war to fight.’ President Grant tells Cullen Bohannon as he offers him a post in the American army, fighting hostile Indians and protecting the rail-road he helped to build. 1,907 miles of track and viewers have been along for each and every blistering mile. And it’s been a hell of a ride.

When the show started Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) was a vengeful one time confederate soldier with only one thought – to gun down the men responsible for killing his wife and son. – by the end of the five seasons he is still very much alone and ends his quest by taking a trip across the sea to China to be reunited with the woman he hopes to finally find lasting happiness with. The first episode started off in 1865, shortly after the killing of President Lincoln, and find Bohannon hiding in the shadows while he searches for the men who did him wrong. A series of events culminates in him being hired by the Union Pacific Railroad and working under the shady Thomas Durant – an historical figure given life by the wonderful actor, Colm Meaney.

The real Durant


Durant is as important a character to the show as Bohannon and he carries many of the episode -Meaney’s wonderful, often OTT, perfomance vividly brings the historical character to life…or at least a version of that character.


He even sums up the show in his monologue to congress in the very final show – ‘Truths delivered by lies are no less true.’




Overall I’ve enjoyed this series, not minding the odd historical inaccuracies, and yes it has been a hell of a ride. A well written, brilliantly acted, stunningly photographed western series. What more could you want!

End of Watch -Stephen King

This is the final book in Stephen King’s Bill Hodges trilogy – The first book Mr Mercedes (find my review HERE) took his fans by surprise as it found the author straying away from his usual horror/dark fantasy genre into the crime field. Though it shouldn’t really have come as a surprise since King has been in and out of differing genres for many years , and it’s been a long time since he could be tagged as solely a horror author. However the book was billed as King’51zGipfH1LLs first crime novel (though it wasn’t. Not really.) and this was partly King’s own fault since he called the book ‘his first hard-boiled detective story’, but I don’t think it’s especially hard-boiled since I usually associate the phrase hard-boiled with the paired back style of Chandler and authors of that ilk. King is much too verbose to be truly hard-boiled  but all the same the story is lean by King’s usual standards and this crossover into crime fiction  won the author the prestigious ‘Edgar Awards Best Novel’ and a ‘Dagger Awards’ nomination.

The second book was, Finders Keepers and this was an even tighter story with our protagonist, Bill Hodges and his sidekicks involved in a baffling case, while Brady Hartsfield (the Mr Mercedes of the first book) lies in a vegetative state in hospital. The main thrust of the second book is only vaguely related to the events in the first book, but again it was a thrilling read and the book ended with Brady Hartsfield displaying limited telekinetic abilities from his hospital bed – all of a sudden King’s crime series as crossed over into typical King territory.


And so onto that third book – I loved it though I did feel that the ending seemed oddly without emotion. What should have been a heartbreaking, gut wrenching scene was too quickly brushed over – in fact we don’t see the event but rather have an epilogue set some time after the fact – this was jarring particularly as this was the inevitable end of Bill Hodges’s story, the end of his watch so to speak. It’s difficult for me to go into more detail without giving too much away, and spoiling this expertly crafted story.

indexSod it – I’ll put up a spoiler warning. This is, after all, a review written some months after the book hit the shops. You have been WARNED – if you don’t want spoilers then look away now, open another window or go and play Pokeman Go. The thing is that we learn very early in this book that Hodges is suffering from a cancer, and it soon becomes pretty clear that the disease is going to kill him. That his death comes at the end of the book is no surprise, but King decides not to write what would have been an incredibly powerful scene, and instead brings us the knowledge in an epilogue that takes place some considerable time after Hodges breathes his last, comes to the end of his watch.

Still it’s a minor quibble since the journey towards the end point is incredibly compelling – King hasn’t lost the ability to keep the reader turning the pages, and in Brady Hartfield the author has created an evil that can stand aside the author’s greatest creations.