In the next season we will be adding a short-barreled black powder percussion shotgun to the compliment of weapons and several of the main characters will be getting new guns. Lily Bell will get a double barrel Derringer, or what they used to call a muff pistol, to keep for her own protection. “Doc” Durant will set aside his old Pepperbox for a brand new Remington cartridge conversion, which would actually be a circa 1868 gun,” admits Kent, “so we are pushing it by a year or two, as we are with Elam Ferguson (played by actor/musician Common) who graduates from a worn 1851 Navy percussion pistol taken off an Irish roughneck to a new Open Top cartridge revolver—again pushing history just a tad, but these are more interesting guns for the characters and the evolution of their roles in the second season.”
Adds Shiban, “We are aware of the guns and how they were used in the period. There weren’t very many gunfights like the OK Corral, so we really want to keep it real and depict things more the way they were, which was pretty messy. It is like a scene in Season One where Cullen is teaching Elam how to shoot and he explains that its not about accuracy, its about being close and firing, and remembering to count your shots, and if you can, how many the other guy has fired! So no one is going to be doing quick draws, shooting off someone’s hat or shooting a gun out of someone’s hand on ‘Hell on Wheels.’”
The Largest Prop
The steam engine and train cars are the largest props of any television series in recent memory and the train was built entirely on location. Unlike the working steam engines seen in 3:10 to Yuma or True Grit, the “Hell on Wheels” engine is a mockup made from wood and styrofoam! The handmade steel wheels turn, the smokestack makes lots of heavy black smoke, but there’s no engine in the steam engine! So how does it manage to travel down more than 2,000 feet of rails? It is moved with a rail car pusher that is kept out of the shot. “As a moving prop ‘Doc’ Durant’s Union Pacific steam engine and rail cars are the most versatile set on the show,” says Shiban.
“Our 19th century history is so rich and the building of the railroad is a great part of that period when America pursued its belief in Manifest Destiny,” says Shiban. “After the Civil War it was like a rebirth of the nation and how we got to where we are today underlines any storytelling. Some of the reasons people are drawn to the show is the period setting, and thanks to our amazing Calgary crew, who have done a lot of westerns in the past, it all feels very real to the audience.
We’re not trying to do a revisionist take on history either, we are trying to do a realistic story and that has been a real eye-opener for all of us—the writers, actors, everyone—because we are learning about the conflicts and issues of the time, and the impact the railroad had on the buffalo and on Native Americans. We are looking at more ways to portray that. We have even considered a scene where we come upon the aftermath of a buffalo slaughter because there is such a shocking bit of history there. I think in later seasons we will really start to see the effects this progress had, not only on the indigenous people but on nature. It is in truth still a lesson for today. We’re still struggling as a nation, still struggling with the haves and the have-nots, and the inequity of wealth, and we’re still struggling with blue collar versus white collar, all these issues are still relevant today. So ‘Hell on Wheels’ is, in many ways, an allegory of our times as well. Completing the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 was the equivalent of putting a man on the moon a century later in 1969. It was a national event,” says Shiban. So, there really is a tie between westerns and science fiction after all!
Author’s Notes: Special thanks to Anson Mount, John Shiban, Ken Willis, and Brian Kent from “Hell on Wheels,” Kate Mann at AMC, Cimarron F.A. Co. in Fredericksburg, Texas, for providing the guns and clothing from “Hell on Wheels,”Alan and Donna Soellner at Chisholm’s Trail Leather for duplicating the Cullen Bohannon holster and belt, Taylor’s & Co. and Gary Rummell for creating the copy of the Bohannon Griswold, and Mark McNeeley and Chuck Ahearn/Allegheny Trade Co. in Duncansville, Pennsylvania for special assistance with this article.