Frontier Firearms: 5 Rifles that Won the American West

True West Magazine

Emigrants, settlers, and soldiers faced an uncertain and dangerous future in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Bitter postbellum rivalries continued to divide the North and South, while people from literally all walks of life flocked west. Some genuinely sought a fresh start beyond the banks of the Mississippi River, but the untamed plains were full of dangers. Recalcitrant Native Americans stormed white settlements and scoundrels took advantage of unsuspecting travelers. Often, the only thing standing between life and death was a trusted firearm. Whether wielded by lawmen, soldiers, or private citizens, these are the five rifles that won the West.

Spencer Repeating Rifle

In one of the boldest sales pitches in American history, arms designer and inventor, Christopher Miner Spencer, walked up the steps of the White House and presented his rifle, along with a handful of ammunition, directly to the President of the United States. A day later, he convinced Abraham Lincoln and then Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, to purchase his weapon for use by the Union Army. From there, the rest was literally history. The United States ordered over thirteen thousand rifles and carbines for use against the Confederacy, with total numbers produced exceeding 100,000 at the height of the Civil War.

Diagram of a common Spencer repeating rifle and carbine. mississippiconfederates.wordpress.com

Thousands of surplus Spencer rifles and carbines made their way to the frontier, either in the hands of war veterans, frontier army soldiers, or cunning sutlers looking to turn a profit. Spencer’s unique design was the first repeating rifle adopted by the U.S. military. Unlike other rifles of the period, the Spencer featured a lever-action block that fed rounds from a tubular magazine. This configuration reduced reloading time and thus allowed marksmen to fire subsequent rounds in concentrated succession (about 20 shots per minute). Miserly officials felt that troops would waste ammunition with such a quick-firing weapon, however, so the Spencer never completely replaced single-shot rifles.

Spencer repeaters were incredibly potent weapons. General Ulysses S. Grant claimed that they were some of “the best breech-loading arms available.”  During the Modoc campaign of 1872-73, the U.S. Army’s First Cavalry Regiment carried Spencer carbines, while clawing through the treacherous mountains and valleys of northeastern California. The carbine remained a favorite among cavalrymen up until the early 1890s, even though more sophisticated long arms had officially replaced the weapon. The Spencer Repeating Rifle Company declared bankruptcy in 1868, which also contributed to the weapon’s eventual decline. Nevertheless, Spencer paved the way for repeating rifles by establishing a significant precedent in firearms development.

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  • vincewarde

    Nice article on the most prominent weapons of the old West – but the most important gun was left out, likely because it wasn’t “high tech” for the day: The double barreled shotgun.

    When settlers – many of whom were recent immigrants who had little to no experience with firearms – headed West, most did not have a Winchester, a Sharps or a Henry. These were expensive and comparatively hard to use. The vast majority carried a 10 or 12 gauge double barreled shotgun. It might be either a breach loader or an old muzzle loader – but the most common gun was the shotgun, not a rifle.

    A shotgun could be loaded with slugs or buckshot for protection against people or harvesting big game. It could be loaded with smaller shot for birds or small game. Coyotes in the hen house? Grab your shotgun. Stranger at the door? Grab the shotgun. Need to put down one of your animals? The shotgun can do that too.

    Most importantly, because it fires a pattern of projectiles, rather than a single one, aiming is less critical. This means that it can be effectively used by someone with little training. For all these reasons, the shotgun was the most common gun on the frontier.

    • Robert Ranstadler

      Thanks for reading, Vince. You bring up several great points, but the main reason I elected to exclude shotguns rests with the topic. This article is dedicated specifically to rifles that, although long arms, are quite different than shotguns.

      I might pen an article dedicated exclusively to Old West shotguns in the future, so please visit back soon!