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February 23, 2023

Guns that Won the West: 150 Years of the Colt Single Action Army and the Winchester Model 1873

By Joe Engesser

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In 1873, two of America's greatest gunmakers would unveil the defining arms of the era. The Colt Single Action Army revolver and the Winchester Model 1873 rifle went on to be dubbed the guns that won the West, and both firearms have forged a legacy that endures 150 years after their introduction. Rock Island Auction Company will be celebrating the sesquicentennial of these two icons in gun collecting all year long.

Debuting 150 years ago, the Colt Single Action Army and the Winchester Model 1873 are both indisputable icons of the American West.

The 150th Anniversary of the Colt Single Action Army and the Winchester 1873

While the Colt Single Action Army conquered the frontier streets, the Winchester Model 1873 became king of the open range. Both guns hit the market during a wave of American expansion and found favor with the lawmen, cowboys, pioneers, outlaws, and Native Americans who came to define the Old West.

The 150th anniversary of a legend. This documented Winchester One of One Thousand marked Model 1873 smoothbore rifle is one of the rarest variations of the gun that won the West.

To commemorate the sesquicentennial of these two totemic guns, we'll look back at how the Colt Single Action Army revolver and the Winchester Model 1873 rifle rose to prominence in their respected markets and cemented themselves as legends in the world of arms collecting, popular culture, and beyond.

A gold-plated, engraved, early antique black powder frame Colt SAA revolver. Available this May.

When was the Colt Single Action Army Revolver Released?

Originally designated the “New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol” and the “M1873,” the Colt Single Action Army was the brainchild of William Mason, Colt's Superintendent of the Armory. Unwilling to pay a royalty to Smith & Wesson, who owned the 1855 Rollin White patent on bored-through revolver cylinders for metallic cartridge use, Colt waited until the patent expired in 1869 to develop their own bored-through cylinder designs.

The Colt SAA was offered in countless variations, including rare examples like this cased Colt London Agency Single Action Army revolver in .45 Eley Short.

On September 19, 1871, William Mason received the first of three patents for the design that would become the Colt Single Action Army. Manufacturing began a year later. Once the Single Action Army passed Ordnance Department trials at Springfield Armory, the government placed an order for 8,000 Colt revolvers to be issued to the U.S. Cavalry in July of 1873, the first of many.

Colt Model 1873 serial number 2, one of the guns that started it all 150 years ago.

John R. Edie, Captain of Ordnance wrote: “I have no hesitation in declaring the Colt's revolver superior in most respects, and much better adapted to the wants of the Army than the Smith & Wesson.”

Captain Edie was referring to the Smith & Wesson No. 3 American, which had been adopted in 1870. Colt's SAA revolver had comparatively fewer parts and was viewed as less prone to black powder fouling, traits which helped Colt win the military contract battle. The Colt Single Action Army thrived in this role and became the most prevalent standard Army sidearm in America for the next two decades. Almost all of the first Colt SAA's went to the Ordnance Department, with commercial distributors having to wait until 1874 to offer the new revolver in meaningful numbers.

150th Anniversary of the Colt Single Action Army Revolver

Colt shipped 37,060 Single Action Army revolvers to the U.S. government between 1873 and 1891, while nearly 100,000 were shipped to militaries and police abroad and to the civilian market. The Colt Single Action Army revolver's handling, durability, simple design, and relative affordability made the gun a favorite sidearm in the battle to win the West. The SAA was ideal for belt or saddle carry, and the gun's .45 Colt cartridge provided impressive firepower.

A fine example of the revolver that won the west. This factory engraved, nickel plated Colt SAA revolver with pearl grips was shipped to Wexell and Degress in 1883.

The Colt Single Action Army was advertised colloquially as the “Peacemaker" by one of the largest Colt distributors. This nickname caught on with reporters and dime novelists and endures a century and a half later as the revolver marks its sesquicentennial. One would be hard-pressed to find another mid-19th-century firearm still being manufactured by its original maker 150 years after its introduction. With a Colt Single Action Army, you're holding a piece of history in your hands.

The gun that won the west also found use across the pond, as illustrated by this Colt London Single Action Flat Top Target revolver.

When was the Winchester Model 1873 Rifle released?

As William Mason and Charles Richards were refining the Colt Single Action Army design in Harford, Connecticut, Winchester was working on a new firearm of its own just 45 miles away. Winchester Repeating Arms Company had been producing the “Improved Henry” lever action rifle since 1866. Though a successful firearm, the Winchester Model '66 was chambered in the .44-caliber Henry Flat rimfire cartridges, which employed a weak 28-grain powder charge, a limitation necessitated by the round’s soft copper casing. An upgraded rifle chambered in a stronger cartridge was in order.

*A documented special order Winchester Deluxe Model 1873 rifle with a factory letter. The Winchester Model 1873 would go on to be dubbed the gun that won the west. *

150 years ago, Oliver Winchester's “New Model of 1873” arrived on the scene, a rifle designed to fire Winchester’s brass-cased .44-40 centerfire cartridge. The Model 1873 was a distinct improvement over the Model 1866 and the 1860 Henry, with a steel frame in place of gunmetal and a dust cover to shield the ejection port. The rifle's rollout wasn't without setbacks, however, and problems with the new centerfire cartridge delayed the Model 1873's release.

The first production Deluxe Winchester and the first factory-engraved Winchester Model 1873, manufactured in 1874.

Only 18 Winchester Model 1873 rifles left the factory in its first year of production, with a scant 108 rifles shipping in 1874. The following year that figure increased to 3,000 rifles. A marketing campaign that included an elaborate catalog and celebrity endorsements was used to promote the new gun, and the rifle's popularity skyrocketed.

150th Anniversary of the Winchester Model 1873 Rifle

“For Indian, Bear, or Buffalo hunting, it is unrivaled,” Winchester's early catalog declared when toting the Model 1873. “The advantage that this Gun possesses over all others for single individuals traveling through a wild country, where there is reason to expect a sudden attack either from robbers or Indians, cannot be over-estimated.”

A rare John Ulrich engraved and signed special order Deluxe Winchester Model 1873.

The Winchester Model 1873 carried a broad appeal throughout the American West, including with Native Americans looking for superior firepower. Even while the U.S. military continued to carry single-shot Springfields, the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors at the Battle of Little Bighorn were equipped with at least eight Model 73 rifles. In a letter to Winchester, Montana pioneer Granville Stuart speculated, “If poor Custer’s heroic band had been armed with these rifles, they would have covered the earth with dead Indians for 500 yards around.”

An exceptional antique Winchester Model 1873 carbine.

The Colt Frontier Six Shooter

The two great guns that won the West found a complementary pairing in 1877 with the Colt Frontier Six Shooter, which was chambered for the same .44-40 WCF cartridge as the Winchester Model 1873 rifle. Carrying only one type of bullet caliber in the saddlebag and on the gun belt was not just a simple convenience, but could be the difference between life and death when seconds counted.

A Texas shipped factory engraved antique Colt Frontier Six Shooter SAA with factory relief carved eagle pearl grips.

With the Colt Frontier Six Shooter, a cowpoke, lawman, or desperado could take care of business at a distance with their Winchester and draw their Colt for close-quarters trouble. Buffalo Bill Cody purchased a Colt Frontier Six Shooter in 1883, carrying the revolver along with his Winchester lever action rifles during his long-running Wild West Show. Hollywood Westerns seized on this classic pairing, and the image of a well-armed frontiersman carrying a Colt on his hip and a Winchester over his shoulder continues to capture our imaginations more than 150 years after the birth of both legendary gun designs.

One of the first etched panel Colt black powder Frontier Six Shooter SAA revolvers. The Colt Frontier Six Shooter’s 44-40 WCF chambering brought together the two guns that won the West like never before.

What is the Gun that Won the West?

Both the Winchester Model 1873 and the Colt Single Action Army were produced in time to make their mark upon the American frontier. In the 150 years since the debut of these two iconic firearms, both weapons have been dubbed the gun that won the West, but where did the phrase originate?

An extremely rare factory exhibition engraved Winchester Deluxe Model 1873 short rifle that was photographed in the Winchester Engraving Book.

The title "Gun that Won the West” wasn't officially coined until early 20th-century advertising campaigns, a brainchild of Edwin Pugsley, a Winchester engineer who helped produce famous firearms like the Winchester Model 21 shotgun. Today, the Colt SAA is often cited as a contender alongside the Winchester 73, sharing top billing for the title thanks to its fame with historians, gun lovers, and Western buffs.

Due to the inscription on the left side of the barrel reading "Secret Service 1898 / Fort Wingate / Wounded Knee" this Colt Single Action Army revolver owned by legendary early Colt collector John R. Hegeman Jr. has been dubbed by collectors as the "first commemorative Colt."

The names Colt and Winchester transcend the world of gun collecting. 150 years of taking center stage in dime novels, radio shows, film, and television, have kept the Winchester Model 1873 rifle and the Colt Single Action Army revolver at the forefront of popular culture. From movie sets to modern-day Cowboy action shooting competitions, both guns have stood the test of time like few other firearms and represent the enduring spirit of the American West.

As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the guns that won the West, both the Winchester Model 1873 and the Colt Single Action Army are more popular than ever.

The Sesquicentennial of Two Legends

Aside from an interlude from 1940 to 1956, the Colt Single Action Army has remained in continuous production. In 'A History of the Colt Revolver' authors Charles T. Haven and Frank A Belden describe the famous sixgun as “Practically unchanged in all major respects, it still holds its popularity wherever a heavy serviceable arm is required for use under trying conditions and away from the possibility of repairs or replacement of broken parts.”

Colt special order, Second Generation, Serial Number 1 Alabama Sesquicentennial .45 LC revolver presented to Governor George Wallace.

The legacy of the Winchester 1873 endured long after the last of its model left the factory in 1919. Though the Winchester Model 1873 was replaced by later and stronger designs, mainly the wildly successful Winchester Model 1894, the more than 720,000 Model 1873 rifles produced continued to serve as popular sporting arms. In 1950, Universal's Winchester 73 movie, centered around a Winchester Model 1873 One of One Thousand rifle, helped spur renewed interest in both the classic Western genre and in the antique gun collecting pursuit.

In recent years, the surge of interest in metallic silhouette and cowboy action shooting has given the Model 1873 new life, and today traditional representations of the original design are produced by Miroku in Japan and sold under the Winchester Repeating Arms name.

A Richard Roy signed, Wild West panel scene engraved and gold inlaid Winchester Model 1873 lever action rifle.

The evolution of firearms has left many models obsolete and near-forgotten, but the Single Action Army and the Winchester 1873 have defied this trend. In the gun collecting community, both firearms continue to thrive at every pricepoint, from engraved deluxe models, high condition rarities, to guns that show the wear and tear of the Old West. Antique Colt SAA revolvers and Winchester 1873 rifles set records, while new examples of the classic designs are manufactured even 150 years onward. Now that’s the definition of an American success story, and Rock Island Auction Company will be celebrating the monumental anniversary of these two legendary guns all year long.

150 years of the guns that won the West, a milestone anniversary in the world of arms collecting.

While the Colt SAA and the Winchester 1873 played a prominent role on the American frontier, a multitude of guns were also instrumental in winning the West. Subscribe to the Rock Island Auction newsletter for new gun blogs and gun videos featuring popular Old West guns like the Sharps rifle, the Smith & Wesson Schofield, the Spencer carbine, the Marlin Model 1881, the double barrel hammer shotgun, and the various Civil War revolvers, surplus muzzleloaders, and breech loading rifles that found their way westward.

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