I’ll begin this correspondence with the disclaimer this is NOT about the 1950 Universal Pictures film of the same title starring Jimmy Stewart. Anyone who follows my writings knows how much I enjoy talking about classic Western movies, but in this instance, we’ll discuss the widely stated “Gun That Won the West” and explore another firearm that also happened to be introduced the same year as the famous lever-action rifle. It is this “other” firearm that I believe helped catapult the Winchester 73 rifle into its place in American and Western history.
It could be argued that the year of 1873 was the most important year in American firearms development and production, especially for the western frontier. First in line was the introduction of the 1873 model lever-action rifle by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Chambered in .44-40 centerfire cartridge, and available in barrel lengths of twenty-four and twenty inches, the Winchester model 1873 was powerful, accurate, easy to operate and relatively affordable. Originally priced near $50, the cost of a new ‘73 rifle gradually dropped to near $20 by the end of the century.
The twenty-four inch rifle was preferred over the twenty inch carbine by ranchers, farmers and lawmen. Also available in the .38-40 caliber, the .44-40 was highly preferred and sold exceptionally well. A musket version designed for prospective military use never caught on and is mostly forgotten. The ’73 rifle is thought to have been carried by the United States military but was actually never issued by the U. S. Government to its troops. On the other hand, the gun we’ll discuss next was issued to and used by the U. S. military as well as “civilians.”
Manufactured from 1873 through 1923, Winchester produced over 720,000 1873 models before ceasing production. The gun remained immensely popular even after Winchester stopped making them and produced other fine lever-action rifles such as the 1876, 1886 and popular 1894 models. Other models followed, but the ’73 had solidified its place in history.
In 2013 the 1873 model was brought back into production carrying the Winchester name, but was actually manufactured by the Miroku Corporation in Japan. Although the current edition of the ’73 has received high praise in its quality and its attention to its detail of the original 1873, most “traditionalists” like me, wince a bit at the thought of an “American” classic being manufactured by a Japanese company. That has not lessoned the demand for the “new” ’73 as fans of the rifle and the increasing popularity of “Cowboy Action Shooting” have reintroduced the rifle to a whole new generation of ’73 and gun enthusiasts all over the world.
Now, let’s delve into the firearm that actually may have “won the west,” at least in this writer’s opinion. Possibly overshadowed by the aforementioned Winchester ’73 rifle in 1873, the Colt Manufacturing Company introduced their American and Western legendary Single Action Army, or SAA Model P, Peacemaker the same year. Unlike the ’73, this firearm was built for the military and a model chambered in .45 with a barrel length of seven- and one-half inches was issued to the U.S. Cavalry. Believing that the new firearm would be popular with the “civilian” market. Colt subsequently offered the SAA Peacemaker in barrel lengths of 4 ¾” and 5 ½” for civilian use. Correct in their belief that the SAA would be a hit, the 4 ¾” barrel model became known as the “Frontier” or “Gunfighter” model while the 5 ½” was nicknamed the “Artillery” model. The guns became the preferred sidearm for anyone who choose to carry a gun and were standard issue for most true and “want-a-be” gunfighters.
The connection between the Winchester ’73 and the Colt Peacemaker was born in 1877 with Colt’s decision to chamber the SAA Peacemaker in .44-40 WCF in order to be compatible with the ammunition used in the Winchester rifle. Now known as the “Frontier” or “Colt Six-Shooter” model, the ability to use the same cartridge in both pistol and rifle was a marriage made in 19th Century heaven particularly in the West. Cowboys appreciated the fact that they only needed to purchase and carry one type of ammunition and the dual use of the cartridges certainly lent itself to each firearm promoting the other. This connection and promotion ultimately drove up sales and usage of both firearms in the West.
From its inception in 1873 through 1940, Colt produced nearly 360,000 “First Generation” SAA pistols with various minimal alterations and assorted calibers. The SAA was the prominent sidearm carried by soldiers in both the Spanish American and Philippine American wars, further solidifying its legend into the 20th Century. Putting an exclamation mark on the Colt SAA was United States Army General George S. Patton Jr. who carried a custom SAA with ivory grips engraved with his initials and an eagle. Can anyone who saw the 1970 20th Century Fox film Patton forget the famous scene where George C. Scott, as Patton, draws his Colt Single Action and fires at an attacking enemy aircraft? I think not.
While quality, power, performance, and availability all contributed to the popularity of each individual firearm, there appears to be little doubt that Colt’s decision to chamber the SAA Peacemaker/Frontier Six-Shooter in the same caliber as the Winchester 1873 led to both guns “winning the West.”