Go West Rotating Header Image

Mythbuster – The Winchester 73

The Winchester repeating rifle model 1873 has been billed for years as “the rifle which won the west”. But what was left to be won by the year 1873? The transcontinental railroad had connected the coasts and divided the continent in twain [1], the great bison herd had been divided and the great Indians tribes were shadows of their former selves. The mystique revolving around this mythical firearm has grown throughout the years; the embers stoked by user testimonials, Hollywood and brilliant advertisement campaigns. Was the Winchester 73 the gun that won the west? Did Lewis and Clark carry the Winchester 73 on their expedition? Or perhaps at least the buffalo hunters used its impressive magazine capacity to cut the herds down in their prime? The firearm technology of the day progressed and adapted with the changing technology and needs of the time. The gun used for hunting buffalo at 500 yards would be different than the one used during a running gun battle against hostile forces. There were hundreds of different gunsmiths producing their unique firearms, and to document each unique example would take a lifetime. However, there are distinct classes of weapons which helped truly win the west.

When discussing the guns which were carried by the men and women who settled the West, the importance of the muzzle loading rifle or shotgun cannot be underplayed. A muzzleloader was in the hands of the revolutionary way fighters all the way through to the civil war. The muzzleloader was the standard from the earliest days until it was replaced by the self contained cartridge. The matchlock was replaced by the flint lock and by the early 1800s the cap lock had replaced the flint lock. [2] Muzzle loaders were simple to produce and simple to use, by the end of their lives they had evolved into a product which was accurate and reliable; however, throughout most of its use the muzzleloader was inaccurate and unreliable weapon.

Arguing the West could not have been won without multiple shot revolving pistols can be controversial. The repeating pistol is not used to put food on the table, or reliably accurate at distances beyond a couple of yards; it does however provide a niche. The pistol is designed to kill man in close combat and sadly this was a large part of conquering the west: brutal close combat. For a long time the man to beat concerning these weapons were Colt and the firearms which bore his name; he could outsell and out produce his competitors. His first truly successful model, the Walker Colt Revolver [3], came out in 1847. Only 1100 of these pistols were made, and almost all went to the newly formed Texas rangers. That set off a succession of models, culminating in the 1873 Peacemaker revolver which has been the staple of every cowboy actor since the early days of the silver screen.

The Winchester 73 itself did not spring like Athena from the skull of Zeus, fully formed and ready to grace the world with its presence. Different models were issued in 1860 and then in 1866, each model improved upon the next Henry and then finally it seemed all the bugs were worked out and what was left was a near perfect rifle in the Winchester 1873. This “perfection” in the hand of men like Buffalo Bill[(5] is what helped the Winchester become “the Rifle that won the west” The rifle utilized the self-contained cartridge, tubular magazine and rugged construction which made it useful for everything from a military excursion to putting entertaining crowds of thousands all over the country.

The Winchester 73 earned its reputation for excellence and by most accounts would be considered a fine weapon. The Winchester 73 however, cannot be considered the gun which won the west. To be best at killing large game, a powerful heavy bullet was needed; to kill small game a shotgun was the most versatile route; for close combat a pistol was the weapon of choice. The Winchester rifles filled its own niche in the middle range medium powered high capacity firearms and were often chambered in the 44-40 cartridge, a popular chambering for the Colt Peacemaker.[4] The benefit was that one would only have to carry one kind of ammunition for both but derived greater accuracy distance when fired out of the rifle. For some the west was won for others stolen but in the end the west gave way to western civilization. The firearm played as pivotal a role in this expansion as any treaty or locomotive.

Author: Joshua Soojian

Works Cited

[1] The Last Spikes .” Golden Spike National Historic Site . Web. 2 Oct 2009. <http://www.nps.gov/archive/gosp/history/spike.html>.

[2] Rosa, Joseph, and Robin May. An Illustrated History of Guns and Small Arms. Peerage Books, 1984.

[3]Sam Colt. Sam Colt’s Own Record 1847. Wolfe Publishing Company, 1992.

[4] Kirkland, K.D. American Gunmakers: Colt. New York: Exeter Books.

[5] Valerie A. Peters, . “The Wild West.” (1997): n. pag. Web. 2 Oct 2009. <http://www.winchester.com/companyinfo/history/wildwest.aspx>.

Comments are closed.