50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
Although many firearms have claimed the title, the original sobriquet of “The Gun That Won The West” must go to the Winchester Model 1873. It was the pivotal firearm of America’s quest for manifest destiny and played a major role in the opening and settling of the frontier.
The famous Winchester ’73 (top) set the stage for the next two Winchester lever-actions that came after it, the 1876 (center) and the 1886 (bottom), which did away with the toggle-link system altogether.
Prior to the Model 1873’s appearance, Oliver Winchester had already made a mark upon the shooting world with his Henry Repeating Rifle and the subsequent “Improved Henry,” or the Model 1866, as it came to be known. But both of these guns had a failing with their .44-caliber Henry Flat rimfire cartridges, which held a weak, 13-grain (later bumped to 28-grain) powder charge. Anything more powerful and the soft copper casings—necessary for detonation of the rimfire primer—would split. So, with the perfection of the .44-40 centerfire cartridge, a new rifle was born.
True to its nomenclature, the .44-40 held 40 grains of blackpowder, which pushed a 200-grain bullet—basically the same slug used in the .44 rimfire—out the barrel at 1,310 fps, a substantial improvement over the older .44 Henry Flat. Moreover, owing to its stronger brass case and separate primer, the .44-40 could be reloaded. The Winchester New Model of 1873, as it was initially called, came out concurrently with the .44-40 and, like the trapdoor Springfield and the .45-70 of that same year, was one of the historically great gun and cartridge teamings.
Evidence of the replica 1873’s prominence in Cowboy Action Shooting, one of Uberti’s newest offerings is its Competition Rifle, featuring a short-stroke action and non-slip rubber butt pad, two things the originals never had.
With its 16-inch barrel, the Uberti Trapper ’73 Carbine makes a handy brush gun.
With the Army’s adoption of the 1873 Springfield, Oliver Winchester had to give up his dream of landing a military contract with his new lever gun and cartridge combo. But he soon discovered he had tapped into the much more influential and lucrative civilian market with his Winchester 73 and its sole .44-40 chambering. Here at last was the world’s first reliable centerfire cartridge, paired up with a newer, stronger repeating rifle using an internal mechanism that had already proven itself in the Civil War and countless Indian skirmishes. Indeed, the Model 1873 utilized the same toggle-link action as the Model 66 and the Henry rifle before it. The difference with the Model 73 was that, instead of the softer, bronze-brass alloy receiver used by its predecessors, the Winchester 73 receiver was made of more durable iron. This not only made the gun stronger and lighter, but less expensive to produce. In addition, a sliding dust cover was added to protect the otherwise exposed bolt and inner workings, a source of complaints with the Henry and Model 66. The Winchester 73 was further improved in 1884, when the iron forgings were changed to steel. Other minor mechanical improvements were made through the years, and it’s small wonder the Model 73 accounted for the majority of Winchester’s total sales for the first 16 years of its manufacture, even outselling the bigger-bored Models 1876 and 1886 that came after it. In all, 720,610 Model 1873s were made before the gun was discontinued in 1921. Inventories continued to be sold up until 1924.
The Winchester 1873 was produced in rifle, carbine, sporting rifle, and musket configurations, most of which came with a three-piece cleaning rod stored in the buttstock. The musket was supplied with a bayonet and was the least attractive, in my opinion, of all the models. In fact, I can remember back in the late 1950s or early ’60s, of seeing a barrel full—literally—of Winchester ’73 muskets that had come out of Mexico and were for sale at the old Jewel Box Pawn Shop in Phoenix, Arizona for the then-hefty price of $90 each. In our youthful wisdom, some of my other gun buddies and I toyed with the idea of buying one of these guns, sawing off the barrel to even it up with the magazine tube, and removing enough forearm wood to make the musket more closely resemble a ’73 rifle. Such was our shrewdness in those early years. Fortunately, for today’s collectors, none of us had enough money to even buy a box of .44-40 shells, let alone an entire rifle. Today, of course, unaltered Model ’73 muskets are extremely desirable among collectors.
Although he still shoots his original Winchester ’73, the author was duly impressed with the swift, smooth action and the accuracy of the new Miroku-made Winchester Short Rifle.
My teenage gun-redesigning aspirations aside, the Winchester 73 was notable for the number of factory options that could be ordered. Everything from engraved and plated versions, extra-long and ultra-short barrels having round, octagon, and half-round/half-octagon configurations, deluxe wood, and special sights could be had. Many of the shorter barreled “Trapper” models (initially called “Baby Carbines”) went to South America for use on rubber plantations, but the majority of the carbines and rifles were used by lawmen, outlaws, hunters and trappers in this country. In fact, during the latter part of the nineteenth century, the .44-40 was the most ubiquitous cartridge to be found in general stores and supply posts throughout America.
After the Battle of the Little Big Horn, on June 26, 1876, the army was under pressure to re-think their single shot Springfield strategy, and retested the Winchester 73. However, the .44-40 cartridge was found to be woefully underpowered when compared to the .45-70. Indeed, Major Ned Roberts, a highly respected muzzleloading devotee and author in the early twentieth century, once wrote of being on an eastern black bear hunt and emptying the entire 15-round contents of his Winchester 73 rifle into a bruin before it finally expired (no doubt weighing it down with lead, more than anything else). On his next hunt, Major Roberts abandoned the lever-action for a frontloading double rifle, which was far superior in killing power.
Many years earlier, Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody had a similar, yet different story to tell, one praising the new repeater. In 1875 he wrote the following letter to Winchester:
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 a gun made in the United States and for general hunting, or Indian fighting, I pronounced your improved Winchester the boss.
An Indian will give more for one of your guns than any other gun he can get.
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.
“Believe me, that you have the most complete rifle now made.”
Needless to say, Cody’s letter was reprinted in Winchester’s 1875 catalog. If this hadn’t been praise enough, the trim, lightweight rifle received another popularity boost in 1878, when Colt’s decided to chamber its equally famous Single Action Army for Winchester’s .44-40. This sixgun even had its own designation—Frontier Six-Shooter—etched (later stamped) on the left side of the barrel. Now for the first time a frontiersman could carry the same box of cartridges for both rifle and pistol.
Returning the favor, Winchester introduced a .38-40 chambering for its ’73 in 1880, and a .32-20 in 1882, thus making three Model 73/Colt SAA combinations possible. In 1885 a .22 Short/.22 Long chambering was added to the Model 73 line, but this never proved as popular as its bigger-bored brethren, and only 19,552 of the rimfires were made before that chambering was discontinued in 1904.
From a collector’s standpoint, the ne plus ultra of Winchester 73s are the One of One Thousand and One of One Hundred rifles, guns that possessed barrels of extraordinary marksmanship ability. Those shooting the best targets during factory proofing were designated One of One Thousand and sold for $100 each. Rifles shooting the second best targets were engraved One of One Hundred and priced at $20 over the regular $27 cost of a standard gun. Both versions were outfitted with set triggers, special engraving, and other embellishments. Only 133 One of One Thousand and eight One of One Hundred Model 73s were ever produced.
One of the best tributes to the Winchester 73 was the 1950 Universal picture named after the gun. The movie Winchester 73 starred Jimmy Stewart and featured a studio-doctored One of One Thousand. As part of the movie’s publicity, a nationwide search was conducted for owners of real One of One Thousand Winchester 73 rifles. Twenty-four such guns were discovered. Today, of course, an original Winchester One of One Thousand can easily command a figure well into the five-digit range. Cimarron Fire Arms makes a substantially less expensive handsome replica of a One of One Thousand, and countless replica rifles, carbines, and sporting rifles are offered by firms such as Navy Arms, Cimarron, and Benelli/Uberti. Even Winchester has gotten back into the act by reintroducing its Model 1873 Short Rifle, although the version produced today is made by Miroku in Japan. A blued version was introduced in 2013, and (in my opinion) a much more attractive case hardened edition came out in 2014. Although Cowboy Action shooters have been responsible for many of the replica ’73s also being chambered in .45 Colt and .357 Magnum, calibers that never existed in the prototypes, for my personal bucket list there is nothing like having a shootable Model 1873 in the time-honored .44-40 caliber, thus keeping the tradition of “The Gun that Won the West” alive.