It is about the gun that won the west, the Winchester Model 1873. This was the gun of the American frontier, the assault rifle of the Wild West. It was reliable, and it came with a lot of firepower.
The Unstoppable Lever-Action
The New Model of 1873, as Winchester called it, is a rather simple name for a rifle that featured in a Hollywood film made about it, and that can be seen in many other films as a common weapon. Buffalo Bill once declared it just to be “the Boss”, and this name is spot on. It was produced at that time in a factory in New Haven, Connecticut. The workers labored away for just $600 a year in shifts lasting 11 hours Mondays to Fridays and 10 hours on Saturdays.
And what a success it was. Lever action rifles proved themselves in the civil war albeit not necessarily issued by the government but bought with the money of the soldiers. There successes paved the way for new developments that culminated in the Model 1873 that stayed in production for 52 consecutive years. 720,610 of them were made.
It was not just a gun. It became a symbol of the taming of the west, and it made Winchester famous when frontiersmen used it together with their colt revolvers. Measured by today’s standards, it is, however, less of a rifle. Put into the context of its time, it was what the AR15 is today. As with the latter, there were rifles with more range and more precision, but that is no problem now and was not a problem then.
The AR15 brings a decent performance at decent ranges, and so did the Model 73 in its days. Then 150 yards were enough and using handgun cartridges meant that you could use the same ammo for your revolver and your rifle. This made it readily available and always ready for action. While the AR15 does not share the ammo with the sidearms of today, it does have its caliber for the ease of supply with enough rounds. It follows the same principle. It does not go for the biggest range and best precision, but much ammo for an acceptable range and precision. So did the Model 73 before.
What was acceptable precision and range in the Wild West? At 100 yards, the 73 could get you some decent 3 inch groups, and after that, accuracy just goes out of the window. The firepower it came with did not lie in its range or precision. It came from its awesome rate of fire. When single shot rifles reigned supreme and were standard military issue, for example in the form of the Springfield Trapdoor, the lever action rifle in general and the model 73 as well could put out 15 carefully aimed shots in less than a minute. At close ranges where speed is more important than precision, today`s cowboy action shooter can hammer out rounds almost as fast as if they used AR15s in semi-automatic.
Not only did the Model 73 shoot faster than other guns available then, it was also absolutely reliable. This was a rifle you could really trust your life with, and that was necessary in the Wild West where no police was around, and no phones were available to call the sheriff. And even if they had been available, there would have gone by just too much time before he made it to the scene riding a horse. In other words, the frontiersman had to do it all by themselves, and that meant, they needed a rifle that does go bang every time the trigger is pulled, and can put out enough rounds to deal with multiple attackers while being alone or at least vastly outnumbered.
Evolution of the Winchester Model 1873
The lever action rifle started with the Henry invented by B. Tyler Henry and produced by the New Haven Arms Company that was formed by none other than Oliver F. Winchester. This gun caused terror in the Confederate soldiers and Indians alike. It held 16 rounds that could be cranked out at an astonishing rate even if the .44 Henry Flat rimfire Cartridges by today’s standards would be regarded as rather weak.
The name of the company changed to Winchester Repeating Arms in 1866 and a new version of the Henry came out. It was the improved Model 66 that was successful in its own right but still chambered only the same rather weak cartridge.
Winchester saw the possibilities but also the downsides and wanted to introduce a better round. This would be a centerfire cartridge. It would have more range and more power. So, the New Model of 1873 was born. While its look closely resembled that of the Henry, its mechanics were improved. Also, it had an iron frame instead of a brass one. Later, that would be improved even further to a steel frame.
The new cartridge was the .44/40 Winchester. This was a .44 caliber bullet sitting on a charge of 40 grains of black powder. The projectile itself had a weight of 200 grain. The muzzle velocity for it was 1200 feet per second.
Soon, the power of the round and the advantages of the rifles convinced Remington and Colt. Both began producing revolvers also chambered for the .44/40. This allowed the frontiersmen to carry only one kind of ammo that they could feed in both, their rifles and their handguns. This way, they had one weapon for close ranges, and one to reach out to 150 yards.
Various versions of the Model 1873 were introduced. That was easily possible as at that time, the production of guns still necessitated a lot of work by hand. A lot of differences could be introduced then leading to a Sporting Rifle, a Special Sporting Rifle, Carbines and even a Military Musket. The capacity of the magazine varied from 6-17 rounds.
Over time, it could be had with curved or flat butt plates, pistol grips, fancy wood or checkering, and engravings. Also, in 1880 and 1882, new calibers were added, .38-40 and .32-40 W.C.F , but it was the .44/40 that was loved the most.
When Buffalo Bill scouted for the army in 1876, he carried the Model 1873 alongside 2 .44/40 Colts. Even Native Americans used the Model 73 during the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, as forensic evidence has revealed. Also, Frank James, the brother of Jesse James, used this rifle as well. It became the rifle of the Old West and will forever for it as a symbol of what was achieved then. However, for the people who lived then, this was just the best rifle they could lay their hands on.