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January 17, 2024

Wild West Guns: Arms of the Frontier

By Joe Engesser

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Thanks to generations of novels, films, and television epics, the lore and legends of the American West continue to loom large in popular consciousness. The arms that helped tame the western frontier were just as iconic as the lawmen, cowboys, outlaws, and Native Americans who wielded them, and authentic Wild West guns have become one of the most sought-after genres in the arms collecting pursuit today.

Find Wild West guns for sale in Rock Island Auction Company's Feb. 16-18 Sporting and Collector Firearms Auction.

Rock Island Auction Company frequently features an expansive range of Wild West guns, including period six shooters, pocket pistols, lever action rifles, and every other genre of frontier firearm from this historic era. Click on the images throughout this article to learn more about each model.

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Wild West Lever Guns

While the six shooter earned its reputation in streets and saloons, no firearm symbolizes the Western frontier quite like the lever action rifle. The Henry rifle, Winchester's predecessor, found some success in the final stages of the Civil War. In 1866, the newly founded Winchester Repeating Arms Company improved on the Henry design with the Winchester Model 1866 "Yellowboy," the first Winchester lever gun to travel west in considerable numbers.

Two classic Wild West guns, the Henry rifle (top) and the Winchester 1866 (bottom).

Winchester refined its lever gun further with the Model 1873, one of the most recognizable Wild West guns ever made. Winchester’s first centerfire lever action rifle, the steel-framed Model 73 was more rugged and powerful than its predecessors, qualities that helped the weapon achieve immense popularity and eventually earn the title "gun that won the West."

As Wild West guns go, it doesn't get better than the 1873.

Three years later, Winchester offered a sized-up version of the Model 73 in the form of the Winchester 1876 “Centennial Model.” One of the more popular Wild West guns used to take big game, the massive Winchester was designed to chamber cartridges like the .45-77 WCF, .50-95 Express, .45-60 WCF, and .40-60 WCF.

One of the most impressive Wild West guns for big game, Teddy Roosevelt called the Winchester Model 1876 “the best weapon I ever had.”

The Colt Single Action Army

If any other firearm can share the crowd with Winchester as the gun that won the West, it’s the Colt Single Action Army. No collection of Wild West guns should be lacking an example of the famous Peacemaker. Released in 1873, the first Colt SAA revolvers were offered in a blue and casehardened finish, a 7 1/2 inch barrel length, and were primarily intended for cavalry. ‌

Of all the Wild West guns, nothing is as universally recognized as the Colt Single Action Army.

After 1880, shorter Colt SAA factory barrel length options became more widely available, including the famous 5 1/2 inch Artillery Model and 4 3/4 inch Sheriff's Model. These variants became the favored choices for lawmen, bankers, shopkeepers, gamblers, and desperados looking for a reliable cartridge wheelgun that was easy to draw and carry. From frontier mainstays to Hollywood favorites, the Colt SAA Artillery Model was and still is the classic sixgun of the Wild West.

From Wyatt Earp to Wes Hardin, the Colt SAA became one of the most ubiquitous Wild West guns of the era.

Though the SAA was designed for Colt’s .45 caliber cartridge, it wasn’t long before new chamberings were offered. Among the most popular alternative to .45 Colt was the “Frontier Six Shooter” model in .44-40 WCF, the same chambering as the Winchester 1873 rifle. Being able to carry a single cartridge for both revolver and lever gun was a welcome advantage in the Wild West, and the Colt Frontier Six Shooter became a common pairing with Winchester's famous lever action as a result.

An antique Colt Frontier Six Shooter, one of the most collectible Wild West guns around.

‌Black Powder Colts in the Wild West

Colt SAA’s black powder predecessors remained a prevalent force on the Western frontier through the late 19th century. Though Colt’s early attempts to gain market traction with the Paterson revolver, rifle, and shotgun proved a failure, the Colt Walker helped revive Colt’s business in 1847. Later black powder Colt revolvers continued to refine the concept and became one of the most widely available gun platforms before and after the Civil War.

A cased factory engraved Colt Model 1849 Pocket percussion revolver. With a production run of more than 300,000, the Model 1849 Pocket revolver was the most popular Colt of its era and headed west in substantial numbers.

With over 18,000 Colt Dragoons produced between 1848 and 1860, it’s no surprise that Colt’s “revolving horse pistol” became a common sight on the American frontier, particularly with miners and bandits during the California Gold Rush. Dragoons were also a popular option with the Texas Rangers and other mounted forces in the early days of the Wild West, and prominently appeared in both the novel and the 2010 film version of 'True Grit.'

The Colt Dragoon, one of the most powerful Wild West guns in the early era of the frontier. This Colt First Model Dragoon was manufactured in 1848.

The Colt Model 1851 Navy and Colt Model 1860 Army were two of the most produced revolvers of the 19th century. Both sixguns were widely favored during the Civil War and beyond, with each model finding its way west in substantial numbers and serving as popular frontier sidearms in both their original black powder variations and as cartridge conversion guns.

A cased pair of Civil War Colt Model 1860 Army revolvers. The 1860 Army saw extensive use in the Wild West.

‌Other Wild West Sixguns

Colt wasn’t the only game in town for Wild West sixguns. Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson had been producing pistols since 1853's Volcanic repeater. The duo became an early leader in America's cartridge revolver market thanks to Rollin White's patent for bored-through, rear-loading cylinders, though the Smith & Wesson Model No. 1 and Model No. 2 revolvers were chambered in comparatively weak rimfire calibers. This changed in 1869 with the introduction of the hefty Smith & Wesson No. 3 Model designed around the potent .44 Smith & Wesson centerfire round.

A Smith & Wesson No. 3 American 2nd Model SA revolver, one of the many Wild West guns for sale at RIAC. The No. 3 was renamed “the American” in 1874 to distinguish the gun from the S&W No. 3 Russian Model.

E. Remington & Sons were late to the cartridge revolver scene compared to their Colt and Smith & Wesson competitors, but their “New Model 1875” was offered at a more attractive price point. While this wasn’t enough to garner substantial military sales for this distinctive Wild West gun, the Remington Model 1875 Single Action Army offered a powerful six shooter with a sturdy grip and a quality finish. The revolver saw its share of use on the frontier, including in the hands of the notorious Frank James.

With its larger grip, webbed barrel, and standard 7 1/2 inch barrel length, the Remington Model 1875 SA revolver is one of the most distinctive Wild West guns around.

‌While not as well-known as other Old West guns, the Merwin Hulbert revolver line offered some of the finest and most innovative firearms of the era. Defining features of the Merwin Hulbert revolver series included a twist-open barrel design and unique extraction system, more affordable nickel-plating compared to its competitors, and a beak-shaped “skull crusher” butt on select models that served as an efficient backup weapon.

A Merwin Hulbert & Co./Hopkins & Allen large frame DA Army revolver, one of the era's most unique Wild West guns.

‌Wild West Rifles

Wild West long guns were just as diverse as their revolver cousins, with a plethora of muzzleloaders, breechloaders, and repeating rifle models available. After the Civil War, surplus Spencer carbines became a popular frontier firearm with both settlers and Native Americans alike. Between 1867 and 1874, 11,000 Spencer carbines were altered and refurbished by Springfield Armory for service in the Indian Wars.

A Spencer carbine altered for service in the Indian Wars, a common sight in the Wild West.

A government survey in 1887 cited the Sharps rifle as the gun platform responsible for shooting the most bison over the previous two decades. A frontier mainstay since its introduction in 1848, the Sharps rifle line was favored by everyone from John Brown, Brigham Young, and the Berdan Sharpshooters of the Civil War, to the cowboys, hide hunters, Indian fighters, and outlaws who roamed the Wild West.

A Sharps Model 1874 single shot rifle, one of the classic Wild West guns found at RIAC.

In 1879, John Moses Browning filed his first gun patent for the Browning Single Shot rifle. Four years later, Browning sold the design to Winchester, where it became the Winchester Model 1885. The Model 1885 was first offered in the High Wall variant, chambered for large rifle cartridges. The Model 1885 Low Wall soon followed, a long gun designed for pistol calibers. Both falling-block variants saw success on the frontier, with famed hunter and writer Ned H. Roberts calling the Model 1885 “the most reliable, strongest, and altogether best single shot rifle ever produced.”

An antique Winchester Model 1885 High Wall rifle, one of many desirable Wild West guns for for sale.

Winchester’s success in the lever action market attracted several competitors, with Marlin Firearms becoming the most prominent. Founder John Marlin registered patents in 1881 for the first lever action rifle strong enough to handle the .45-70 big bore cartridge. Over the next decade, Marlin developed a line of lever guns that saw action in the Wild West, including the Model 1888 and Model 1889. Dubbed the “New Safety Repeating Rifle,” the Marlin Model 1889 included features like a side ejection port, a cartridge carrier, a locking lug, and a firing pin system designed to prevent accidental discharge.

One of the most successful Wild West guns of its genre, the Marlin Model 1889 rifles were made from 1889 to 1903.

‌Wild West Shotguns

No list of prominent Wild West guns would be complete without the double-barreled hammer shotgun. The trusty side-by-side offered a versatile and comparatively affordable option for hunting and self-defense, and the platform was a favored choice for protecting trains, stagecoaches, and freight wagons from bandits and other hostile forces stalking the remote regions of the Western frontier.

A Model 1878, one of the classic Wild West hammer shotgun models.

The double barreled scattergun dominated the Wild West, but new designs would soon offer shotgunners even more firepower. Developed by John Moses Browning, the Winchester Model 1887 lever action shotgun became the genre’s first successful repeater. Available in 10 gauge and 12 gauge, Winchester’s powerhouse platform could hold 5 rounds in the magazine and one round in the chamber. The gun attracted interest from a number of railroads and security agencies who issued Winchester’s new weapon to guard their precious treasure.

A favorite of frontier defenders like Sheriff John Slaughter and lawman Jeff Milton, the Winchester Model 1887 served as a standout Wild West gun.

Wild West Guns for Concealed Carry

The streets, taverns, and gambling dens of the Wild West could be just as dangerous as the open range, and the demand for concealed carry options was substantial. “The gun that won the East,” the humble Pepperbox pistol, found a mighty market out West as well, offering a small, affordable option for self-defense in close quarters.

A cased and engraved underhammer pepperbox with accessories, another classic Wild West gun for sale.

‌Another classic gambler’s weapon was the derringer. Originating from the concept of Henry Deringer Jr.’s Philadephia Deringer design that went into mass production in 1852, the utility of a diminutive percussion pocket pistol was quickly embraced by the civilian market. Dozens of gunmakers copied Deringer’s design, slightly altering both the look and naming conventions of their offerings to avoid lawsuits. “Deeringer,” “Durringer,” and “Derringer” were common misspellings, with the latter eventually becoming synonymous with the compact practical pistol as the genre evolved to chamber metallic cartridges.

In the arsenal of Wild West guns, the derringer often became the gambler’s choice.

‌After Rollin White’s patent expired in December 1869, gun makers developed a plethora of affordable pocket revolvers that would go on to supplant the pepperbox. The numerous options available ranged from cheap pocket revolvers to quality platforms like the Colt New Line series. Offered in five rimfire calibers ranging from .22 to .41, the Colt New Line single action revolvers represented one of the safest and most reliable concealed carry Wild West guns.

A fine collectors gun from the Wild West era, this cased, factory engraved, and gold plated Colt First Model New Line .32 caliber revolver includes a wooden display case and its factory letter.

Though double action revolvers had been on the market for decades in Europe, Colt’s first foray into the genre wasn’t until 1877. Embellished with names like “Lightning,” “Thunderer,” and “Rainmaker,” Colt's Model 1877 was offered in numerous variants and custom barrel lengths. The Lightning “Sheriff's” Model proved a popular choice in the Wild West, as it paired the swiftness of a double action trigger with the maneuverability and concealment of a snub nose design.

Wild West legends like Pat Garrett, Billy the Kid, and Cole Younger packed a Model 1877 as their frontier sidearm. This antique Colt etched panel Sheriff's Model 1877 “Lightning” DA revolver with a 2 1/2 inch barrel was manufactured in 1881.

Wild West Guns for Sale

From rolling prairies to smoke-filled saloons, Wild West guns served as tools of survival in the remote reaches of an expanding frontier. Wielded by sheriffs and outlaws, natives and hunters, preachers and pioneers, firearms from the American West all have stories to tell and legacies to share, and owning a real frontier firearm can connect us to this legendary period in American history.

Find every genre of Wild West guns for sale at Rock Island Auction Company.

In addition to the extensive number of Wild West guns covered here, other models that saw notable action out west include an array of cartridge converted black powder revolvers, surplus Civil War muzzleloading rifles and breech loading carbines, single shot cartridge rifles like the Remington Rolling Block and Springfield Trapdoor, and lever action long guns like the Evans, Burgess, and Whitney Kennedy repeaters. Whether you’re an arms collector, a cowboy shooter, or simply a fan of the Western genre, some of the finest Wild West guns can be found for sale at Rock Island Auction Company.

An 1855 manufactured, early production Colt Model 1855 Root revolver, available this February.

Sign up for the Rock Island Auction Company's weekly newsletter for new gun videos and gun blogs that cover the full gamut of Wild West guns. From the Hawken rifle to the Gatling gun, from some of the more elusive models from the big name manufacturers like the Colt Cloverleaf pistol, the Colt Lightning rifle, and the S&W Model 320 revolving rifle to fascinating oddities like the palm pistol, the cane gun, the harmonica gun, the LeMat revolver, and more, we explore every corner of 19th century arms development.

While reproduction Wild West guns can be enjoyable, nothing beats owning real firearms of the Western frontier.

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