Rock Island Auction Company

January 7, 2022

Guns of 1883: the Yellowstone Prequel

By Joe Engesser

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1883," a spin-off to Paramount’s hit series, “Yellowstone,” is a sprawling Western that serves as an origin story for the Dutton family and charts their epic journey across the Great Plains. The ambitious prequel is shot like a film, with detailed sets and sweeping landscapes that capture the vast scope of the American frontier. And like any great Western, “1883” features an abundance of Old West firearms.

A familiar face packing a classic wheel gun. Sam Elliott stars as the gruff Captain Shea.

Some have compared Yellowstone’s John Dutton to Granville Stuart, the 19-century ranching icon and real-life “Father of Montana." While the inspiration is clearly evident, the Dutton family patriarch staring in “1883," James Dutton, has a story with even more parallels to the historic ranchers who tamed Montana Territory.

Yellowstone Prequel

The concept of “1883” started as a “Yellowstone” flashback during the season 4 premiere. James Dutton encounters a group of Native Americans in Montana who ask to bury an elder on his land. Those events tie into the present-day “Yellowstone” series, but also set the stage for James Dutton’s origin story.

John Dutton (Kevin Costner), the great-grandson of James Dutton, carries a Winchester Model 1894, a rifle featured in countless Hollywood westerns during the genre’s golden age.

At its heart, Paramount's “1883” explores the themes of discovery and the settling of the American frontier. The immigrants and pioneers who crossed the country by wagon train risked it all for the hope of a better life, braving everything from bandits and rattlesnakes to dangerous river crossings. Being well supplied was often the difference between life and death, and carrying the right firearms was essential.

James and Margaret Dutton, played by country music icons and real-life married couple Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, are well aware of the dangers they’ll face on their journey from Fort Worth, Texas, to their eventual home in Montana, and they’ve packed accordingly. Three Winchesters, a pair of six-shooters, and a double hammer shotgun are brandished before the end of the second episode, and two of their companions are just as well-armed.

The historic accuracy varies, but most of the guns featured in “1883” are real firearm models that are highly collectible today, and similar examples can be found frequently in RIAC’s upcoming gun auctions. If you haven't watched the series yet, and are hoping to remain spoiler free, read no further. You've been warned!

Winchester 1885

In one of the first scenes of the series, James Dutton is shouldering a Winchester 1885 High Wall rifle. When it came to distance shooting and taking on big game, the single shot High Wall would have been a better choice than the Winchester ’66 or ’73 lever action, and James Dutton employs the impressive rifle for both purposes.

Authentic Winchester 1885 High Wall rifles like this example are offered by Rock Island Auction Company, as well as Uberti reproductions.

Dutton’s 1885 High Wall is further distinguished by its long Malcolm scope. One of the oldest names in American scope manufacturing, William Malcolm’s telescopic sights became popular during the Civil War, offering 4X to 8X magnification. By the late 19th century, most Malcolm scopes came in 3/4-inch-diameter and fell between 14 to 30 inches in length, which appears consistent with James Dutton’s rifle.

Malcolm telescopic sights were paired with numerous shoulder arms of the era, including the Henry rifle.

Though technically the TV series is set a few years too early for the Winchester 1885 High Wall, John Browning was manufacturing their direct predecessor, the 1879 Browning patent rifle, in his Utah shop several years before James Dutton’s journey starts. Given the series’ Fort Worth setting and Dutton’s Tennessee roots, a Remington Rolling Block or Sharps 1874 might have been a more widely available centerfire single shot rifle.

The Browning Bros. small bore 1879 Patent single shot rifle would have been available during the era of the TV series.

Winchester 1873

Dubbed “the gun that won the West," the rugged Winchester Model 1873 is a staple of the Western genre that lived up to its legend. The Dutton family appears to be packing at least two different Model 1873 rifles, one with an octagon barrel and full-length magazine, and a second rifle with a short ‘button’ magazine and a round barrel. Historically, Winchester offered customers a variety of configuration options.

The classic Winchester ’73 was widely used across the frontier, including by Native Americans, and Winchester repeaters were among the numerous types of rifles carried by the Native American warriors during the Battle of Little Bighorn in June of 1876. In the opening scene of Paramount's "1883" television series, one Native American warrior is equipped with a Model 1873 decorated in tack, a popular means for many indigenous people throughout the American West to personalize items like firearms, knives, axes, leather goods, and clothing.

Winchester "Frontier Issued" Model 1873 lever action carbine with Native American style tack decoration.

Winchester 1866

Pinkerton Agent Thomas (LaMonica Garrett), one of two men hired to protect a group of German immigrants on their Westward journey, comes prepared with a Winchester 1866 repeating rifle. The Model 1866 lever action, dubbed the 'Yellowboy' for its gunmetal receiver composed of a bronze/brass alloy, was the first rifle to bear the Winchester name.

The Winchester ’66 rifle was originally chambered for .44 Henry rimfire, but based on the appearance of the bullets on Thomas' bandolier, he appears to be carrying a centerfire conversion ’66, which were not uncommon for the era. Like the Winchester ’73, the Model 1866 came in numerous special order varieties.

The Winchester ’66 was an important evolution of its Henry rifle predecessor, containing design refinements like a closed magazine tube, wooden fore end, and the King's patent loading gate. Today, the Model 1866 is a popular rifle with collectors and participants of cowboy shooting competitions. Reproductions are found in numerous calibers, including .45 Colt, and Rock Island Auction Company offers a range of examples that are affordable to nearly all collecting aspirations.

Two Uberti Model 1866 lever action saddle ring carbines.

Colt Single Action Army

Hollywood’s favorite Western gun, and arguably the most American gun of all time, the Colt Single Action Army is prominently featured throughout the “1883” series. There were 85,000 in circulation by 1883, so it’s no surprise to find so many characters with Colts on their hip. Sam Elliott wears one. Tim McGraw carries a pair. Even the idealistic Elsa, the Dutton’s 17-year-old daughter, keeps one of Colt’s famous sixguns slung across her saddle.

Like many Civil War veterans, James Dutton would have seen horse pistols issued to cavalry in pairs, and he carries this tradition with him by wearing two Colt Peacemakers. The fastest reload is a second gun, after all, as Old West legends like Wild Bill and John Westley Hardin could testify. So while it’s true that Dutton’s cross-draw rig is likely a bit of Hollywood creative license, the practice of carrying two Colts was far from fiction.

Colt revolvers were commonly issued in pairs, like this period example.

Jim Courtright of Fort Worth

“1883” depicts Fort Worth, Texas, as a lawless city terrorized by outlaws and ruffians. The only thing keeping ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ in check is an even badder lawman. Enter Sheriff "Big Jim" Courtright, a real-life gunslinger whose Colt SAA was sold by Rock Island Auction Company back in July of 2014.

Jim Courtright’s Colt SAA sold for $18,400 at Rock Island Auction Company.

Billy Bob Thornton makes an instant impression as the infamous Jim Courtright, a cold-blooded enforcer with no qualms about drawing his Colt .45 on an unsuspecting criminal, armed or unarmed. "There’s only one killer in Fort Worth, and that’s me,” Thornton states after a violent shootout, leaving even Sam Elliott speechless.

An 1874 manufactured SAA available in February’s auction with the discrete 4 3/4 barrel length Longhair Jim Courtright preferred.

Model 1860 Army Richards-Mason

In one of the most tragic scenes in the series, James Dutton’s sister, Claire, is consumed with grief and ends her life at the foot of her daughter’s grave. Claire’s death, and the fatal shooting of her daughter at the hands of one of Fort Worth’s numerous gangs, represents the brutality many settlers faced on the western frontier.

Claire’s gun is almost certainly intended to be a Model 1860 Army Richards-Mason style conversion revolver. The original factory conversions would have had ejectors fitted on the right side of the barrel unlike the one depicted in “1883," and they wouldn’t have had the loading lever under the barrel. Although these revolvers are commonly referred to as conversions, the Model 1860 Army Richard-Masons were actually produced by the Colt factory as a cartridge revolver utilizing a combination of surplus percussion parts and newly manufactured parts.

Old West Shotguns

As iconic as the Winchester rifle and Colt revolver were, the double-barreled shotgun was arguably the true gun that won the west. An affordable, reliable, and versatile weapon, the side-by-side served an indispensable role in both hunting and self-defense, and the Dutton family keeps a double barrel hammer shotgun close by for both purposes.

Faith Hill takes aim. Double barrel hammer shotguns were one of the most common firearms on the western frontier.

Some of the common Wild West double guns included Remington-Whitmore (Models 1874/1876/1878), the Colt Model 1878 double barrel, various English and Belgian imports, and plenty of older muzzle loading percussion shotguns. Though most scatterguns of the era would’ve had barrels measuring 26 inches or longer, a limited number of short barreled ‘coach guns’ were also carried by shotgun messengers who protected freight wagons, stagecoaches, and trains on their more dangerous routes.

A selection of Old West double hammer shotguns are avalible in RIAC's February Sporting & Collector Auction.

Civil War Guns

Over two decades before the start of the series, James Dutton is shown fighting on the losing side at the Battle of Antietam and shell-shocked by the bloody aftermath. Tom Hanks makes a surprise cameo as Union General George Gordon Meade, sharing a quiet moment with Dutton, one of the few Confederate survivors in his regiment.

The Springfield Model 1861 was a common Union infantry rifle during the Battle of Antietam.

While the Springfield Model 1861 was technically the standard issue shoulder arm for the Union by 1862, a wide variety of rifles would have been carried by the infantry and state militias. Model 1842s and Model 1855s would have been widely fielded, and some of the sharpshooters would have been equipped with the Sharps Model 1859. The Spencer carbine would also have been present in limited use, but most of the battle’s nearly 23,000 casualties were the result of cannon fire instead of small arms, and the battle was later dubbed “Artillery Hell."

The types of Union long arms fielded at the Battle of Antietam were as varied as the numerous state militias that took part.

Guns of the Old West

While Hollywood would have us believe everyone carried a Colt on their hip and a Winchester over their shoulder, the reality is that Old West weapons were far more diverse. Paramount's “1883” series has touched on some of that variety even three episodes in (at the time of this writing), so hopefully, that trend continues and we’re treated to more Civil War era surplus weapons and the numerous competitors to Colt and Winchester.

Besides the Colt SAA, some of the other common revolvers of the era included:

Numerous rifle models were available beyond the Winchester line. A few notable examples were:

Which guns would you carry in the Old West? As the Dutton family demonstrates, the more options, the better when out on the frontier. Rock Island Auction Company’s Feb. 16-18 Sporting & Collector Firearms Auction includes a wide assortment of authentic Winchesters, Colts, derringers, and more dating to the same period as “1883," and there’s no better time to start an Old West gun collection.

SOURCES

Madis, George. The Winchester Book. Brownsboro, TX: Art and Reference House

Belden, Frank A, and Haven, Charles T. A History of The Colt Revolver and the Other Arms Made by Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company from 1836 to 1940

Special thanks to Seth Isaacson, Lead Historian at Rock Island Auction Company.

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