Frontier Firearms: 5 Rifles that Won the American West

A rare Model 1873 Winchester with unique carved-stippled background. rarewinchesters.com

Model 1873 Winchester Repeating Rifle

Picking up the pieces of Christopher Spencer’s shattered venture was the business mogul, Oliver Winchester. The American entrepreneur purchased the remnants of the Spencer Repeating Rifle Company when it fell into bankruptcy in 1868. Winchester, unlike Spencer, was not an inventor. He had a nose for chance prospects, however, and saw the potential of repeating rifles possibly even before Spencer, who didn’t develop his signature weapon until 1859. Winchester, on the other hand, bought the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company in 1850, helped patent the Henry repeater in 1860, and eventually launched the Winchester Arms Company in 1866.

The first Winchester lever-action repeater was the Model 1866, based on the Henry repeater, colloquially called the “Yellow Boy” because of its brass receiver. A major improvement over the earlier Henry repeater, the Model 1866 featured a loading gate and tubular magazine forward of the trigger (many earlier repeaters were loaded through their butt stocks, which limited ammunition capacity).

The Model 1866 saw worldwide use, with approximately 60,000 units sold to France and the Ottoman Empire from 1866-71. Over the better part of a century, Winchester produced eight additional models of their long gun, with the Model 1873 achieving popularity as “The Gun that Won the West.”

The Model 1873 Winchester was manufactured for fifty years, with more than 700,000 units produced during its run. It was released in four different styles and chambered in three popular calibers, including the immensely successful .44-40 Winchester. The real brilliance of the Winchester was in its ammunition, which consisted of high-powered pistol cartridges that could be used interchangeably between common revolvers of the period. The Model 1873 was favored by lawmen and private citizens, but was also popular with criminals and renegades. Despite its checkered past, the Winchester is still one of the most iconic guns of the West.

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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!