August 18, 2022
By Joe Engesser
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As one of the archetypical Old West guns, the Winchester Model 1873 rifle remains as popular as ever today with arms collectors, cowboy shooters, fans of the Western genre, and anyone interested in lever action rifles. From James Stewart's Winchester '73 movie to Paramount's recent 1883 series, the rugged rifle remains one of the most well-known guns of Hollywood, and its real life history is even more enduring.
The Winchester 1873’s tough frame, stronger chambering, and wide-scale availability helped transform the rifle into the legend it is today. Ned Crossman, a prolific firearms writer in the early 20th century, wrote that the sturdy Model 1873 “put the name Winchester on the map of the West, trotting along with the equally formidable Colt gun at the belt of the frontiersman.”
In 1866, Winchester Repeating Arms Company was established in New Haven, Connecticut. Oliver Winchester’s factory superintendent, Nelson King, built off of the success of the Henry rifle, one of the few repeating longarms of the Civil War, with its 1866 successor. The “Improved Henry,” or what would become known as the Winchester Model 1866, became the first lever action rifle to bear the Winchester name.
The Winchester Model 1866 “Yellow Boy” was an undeniable upgrade from its predecessor, incorporating Nelson King’s new loading gate and wooden handguard to solve numerous durability issues. The rifle was still chambered in the.44-caliber Henry Flat rimfire cartridges, however, which employed a weak 28 grain powder charge, a limitation necessitated by the round’s soft copper casing. Winchester introduced a notable upgrade in 1873 with the brass cased .44-40 centerfire cartridge and a new steel-framed rifle to go with it.
Upgrading from a 28 grain to a 40 grain powder charge resulted in improved muzzle velocity, and the rifle’s new centerfire ammunition could be easier handled and reloaded than its more delicate rimfire counterpart. The Winchester Model 1873’s steel frame was lighter and more durable, and its sliding dust cover helped shield the firearm’s exposed bolt and innards from the elements. In short, a rifle far more suited to the rugged conditions pioneers faced in the American West.
The Winchester Model 1873 was offered in a wide range of styles, including numerous barrel and magazine lengths, special stocks, grips, sights, triggers, and fancy features like inscription, engraving, checkering, and silver or gold finish. However, most Winchester customers were looking for a reliable working man’s gun and the costly add-ons weren’t as popular initially. As firearms author George Madis noted, “First Models are very rarely found with special and deluxe features, and most First Models saw much use and abuse.”
Historic First Model Winchester Deluxe Model 1873 rifle inscribed to Major E.R. Hopkins in 1878 with a factory Letter and a George Madis letter of research.
In reference to the First Model 1873 rifle example above, George Madis also states that “Many rare features are found on number 27138; only one of each 600 rifles had special barrels longer than standard: one of each 700 guns were engraved or inscribed and of every 600 guns made only one had special wood. Set triggers were provided on one of each 26 rifles, and checkering of stock and forend are found on only one of each 700 guns in the 1873 model.”
As listed in Winchester’s 1875 catalog, the option for a “fancy walnut stock” cost at least an additional $5 an upgrade one tenth the price of the rifle itself. Two of the most expensive custom 1873 rifle variants were the One of One Hundred and One of One Thousand options. While a standard Winchester Model 1873 could be purchased for around $50, a One of One Thousand ranged between $80 to $100 depending on the custom features selected. The Winchester 1873 One of One Hundred rifle fell somewhere between the two, costing a committed frontiersman $60 to $75.
The success of Universal Pictures’ 1950 film ‘Winchester ‘73’ helped stir renewed interest in both the Winchester 1 of 1000 and the even more elusive 1 of 100 rifles, and today both models are viewed as crown jewels in arms collecting.
The Winchester Model 1873 One of One Hundred rifle pictured above and offered by Rock Island Auction Company this August is only one of eight produced and one of only six known examples today. This rifle is featured on page 115 of ‘The Story of Winchester 1 of 1000 and 1 of 100 Rifles’ by Edmund E. Lewis where it is shown with the only other One of One Hundred rifle with a nickel plated finish. Lewis also provides provenance for the rifle, indicating that “Dr. Fred Shurtleff purchased this rifle from the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. in 1876. The doctor was originally from Boston, Massachusetts, and later migrated West as a young man. At one time, he became both the sheriff and the coroner of a small frontier town.”
Typical barrel lengths for the early Model 1873s ranged from 20 inches for the carbine variant, 24 inches for the rifle, and 30 inches for the musket. The musket variation was designed to procure military contracts and included a 27 inch magazine tube secured by three barrel bands as well as a bayonet stud and sling swivel. While this version of the Model 1873 found modest success in South America, the U.S. Army was skeptical of its small cartridge compared to their Springfield .45-70 Government ammunition of the day. Meanwhile, the Winchester lever action rifle and carbines found a home with pioneers and frontiersmen heading into the untamed west.
As the railroad brought a new wave of settlers out West seeking the American dream, the Winchester 1873 rifle became a favorite weapon for hunting and self-defense. Preferred for its reliability, simplicity, and superior rate of fire, the Model 1873 rode in the scabbards of many cowboys and lawmen of the era. Such was the advantage of packing a rugged repeating rifle, Texas Rangers like J.B. Gillett purchased Winchester’s new lever action out of pocket.
Peter Floeck, businessman and Captain of the 16th Regiment of the Texas Reserve Militia, purchased this Winchester One of One Thousand in 1876 for $150.00, nearly three times the cost of a typical Winchester Model 1873.
Like many parts of the Old West, Texas saw its share of violence and lawlessness in the 1870s. The Lone Star State endured raids from the Comanche, gangs of well-armed outlaws, and numerous range wars. After Texas officially rejoined the Union in 1870, its state militia was also reformed. Peter Floeck, the owner of one of the most unique Winchester One of One Thousand rifles known, became Captain of his Texas Reserve regiment in Harris County.
In addition to greater accuracy, the custom-ordered 32 inch barrel on Peter Floeck’s One of One Thousand Winchester also offered a longer magazine to carry more cartridges. An article in ‘Forest & Stream’ on February 8, 1877, titled ‘A Day of Sport in Texas’ relayed an account of Floeck returning from a hunting trip carrying a buck over his shoulder. “So saturated with the buck’s blood was his clothing, that he might have been easily mistaken for a butcher just out of the slaughter pen. As he threw the buck down he remarked: ‘I might have got another the easiest in the world, but I had in this fellow about as much as I could well stand under, and my compadre would not consent to shoulder the responsibility.’ He had shot the buck with a splendid Winchester rifle, which he had had manufactured to order at a cost of $150.”
While the Colt revolver ruled the frontier streets, the Winchester 1873 rifle was king of the open range. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody wrote to Winchester with high praise for the model in 1875, stating, “I have been using and have thoroughly tested your latest improved rifle. Allow me to say that I have tried and used nearly every kind of gun made in the United States, and for general hunting, or Indian fighting, I pronounce your improved Winchester the boss.”
Buffalo Bill went on to share an encounter with a bear in Dakota Territory, where he put his Winchester 1873 rifle to the test. “While in the Black Hills last summer I crippled a bear, and Mr. Bear made for me, and I am certain that had I not been armed with one of your repeating rifles I would now be in the happy hunting grounds. The bear was not thirty feet from me when he charged, but before he could reach me I had eleven bullets in him, which was a little more lead than he could comfortably digest.”
Winchester reprinted Cody’s letter in their 1875 catalog, and Buffalo Bill gave the rifle further exposure during his increasingly popular Wild West Show. The Winchester Model 1873 was favored by lawmen and outlaws alike. Frank James totted the rifle, the only known photograph of Billy the Kid features the Winchester ’73 carbine, and the townsfolk of Coffeyville, Kansas were armed with numerous Model 1873s when they gunned down the notorious Dalton Gang.
In a story that perhaps best exemplifies the fine line separating outlaw from lawman in the Old West, Marshal Henry N. Brown was presented with an engraved Winchester Second Model 1873 rifle by the citizens of Caldwell, Kansas in appreciation for his law enforcement efforts in 1883. 16 months later, a debt-ridden Brown used the same Winchester to attempt a bank robbery, where he was captured, jailed, and then murdered by a lynch mob.
While the Winchester Model 1873 became known as the rifle that won the West, Native Americans of the Great Plains also carried the rifle in their struggle against encroaching settlers. In 1867, Red Cloud and Crazy Horse led a force of more than 1,000 warriors against 26 soldiers and a half dozen civilians near Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming in what would become known as the Wagon Box Fight. Two of the soldier’s guides toted Henry rifles and reportedly unleashed over 100 rounds of .44 rimfire during the battle, helping drive off the attack. The Native Americans learned from this defeat and sought to arm themselves with as many repeating rifles as they could obtain.
Even while the U.S. military continued to carry single shot Springfields, the latest ballistic studies of the Little Bighorn battlefield demonstrate that the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors were equipped with at least eight Winchester 1873 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.”
Native Americans employed the Winchester Model 1873 and other repeating rifles throughout the Black Hills War, the Nez Perce War, the Geronimo Campaigns, and numerous other engagements throughout the West. Winchester rifles documented to Sitting Bull, Kicking Bear, Chief Joseph, Yanozha, and many other Native American warriors were decorated with brass trade tacks as a way to personalize their trusted weapons, and the style certainly sets them apart from other frontier arms of the era.
In ‘Cartridges of the World’ author Frank Barnes calls the .44-40 “one of the all-time great American cartridges. It is said that it has killed more game, large and small…than any other commercial cartridge ever developed.” In actuality, the .30-30 Winchester Smokeless introduced in 1895 would go on to become the most widely produced lever-action cartridge ever. Still, for over two decades after its introduction, the .44-40 was king.
The rifle that won the West wasn’t only chambered in .44-40, however. .38-40 WCF hit the market in 1880, and two years later .32-20 WCF followed. The Model 1873 line was offered in both of these calibers, and a .22 rimfire cartridge became available in 1884. The .22 configuration never achieved the success of its bigger-bored siblings, with fewer than 20,000 rifles produced in the caliber before it was discontinued in 1904.
The accompanying factory letter references this Model 1873 rifle as a carbine (factory recording error as this Model 1873 is certainly a .22 Rimfire rifle) received in the warehouse on April 6, 1887, and shipped on April 21 of the same year.
After the Winchester ‘73 became chambered in multiple configurations, each rifle’s caliber was marked on the barrel in front of the receiver. Though none of these calibers were suited for buffalo, they were fairly robust in their day and more than capable of taking down both man and deer. They also proved well-suited rounds for revolvers, and American handgun makers quickly took notice.
When outlaw Frank James surrendered to Missouri Governor T.T. Crittenden in 1882, he was asked why he favored the Remington Model 1875 SAA revolver and the Winchester 1873 rifle. “The cartridges of one filled the chambers of the other,” he replied. “There is no confusion of ammunition here. When a man gets into a close, hot fight, with a dozen men shooting at him all at once, he must have his ammunition all of the same kind.”
Antique Colt Frontier six shooter SAA, another candidate for one of the most American guns of all time.
Texas Ranger George Lloyd learned this firsthand in 1881 during a Comanche attack when he accidentally slipped a .45 Long Colt cartridge into his Winchester ‘73 rifle and jammed his receiver. Lloyd kept his cool, unjammed his rifle, and survived the encounter, but the lesson was clear. Carrying only one type of bullet caliber in the saddlebag and on the same gun belt was not just a simple convenience, but could be the difference between life and death when seconds counted.
Though initially only available in .45 caliber, the Colt Single Action Army was eventually chambered in a number of alternative cartridges, including the .44-40 WCF. The Colt “Frontier Six-Shooter” was born in 1877, an appropriate name for a gun meant to be paired with the Old West’s most popular lever-action rifle. Now a cowpoke, lawman, or desperado could take care of business at a distance with their Winchester and draw their wheelgun in close quarters without thinking twice about which bullets they’d grabbed.
The image of a well-armed frontiersman carrying a Colt on his hip and a Winchester over his shoulder had been popularized by dime novelists and pulp magazine writers decades before Hollywood seized on the same motif. The popularity of the Winchester Model 1873 was far from an exaggeration, though. The rifle remained in production until 1919, with 720,000 of the legendary rifles manufactured in total.
The slogan “the gun that won the West” didn’t officially emerge until early 20th century advertising campaigns, a brainchild of Edwin Pugsley, a Winchester engineer who had helped produce the BAR and championed the renowned Winchester Model 21 shotgun. The sentiment behind the now-famous saying was grounded in the frontier era, however, as the Winchester 1873 was a lightweight, reliable rifle that was affordable to most settlers at a time when the Old West was filled with a danger for every treasure and opportunity.
Today, the Winchester Model 1873 rifle is one of the most coveted collector guns around. While buying a reproduction can quench some of that desire for shooters, there’s nothing like owning an original Model 1873 or one of its successors, and some of the finest and most valuable antique Winchesters can be found for sale at Rock Island Auction Company.
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Wild Bill carried a Smith & Wesson Model No. 2 revolver in his final days. This No. 2 was a more comfortable revolver to carry and conceal compared to heavier revolvers like the Colt 1851 Navy, Colt SAA, or Smith & Wesson No. 3.
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