150 Years of the Classic Winchester Model 1873

There is no more iconic firearm than the Winchester Model 1873 rifle. Some are equally classic, but none surpass “the Gun That Won the West.” Some dispute that title, but whatever. If such a title should be awarded at all, the ’73 Winchester’s claim is as good as any and better than most. That the rifle accompanied the big push West cannot be denied, nor can its astonishing popularity, even when surpassed by better technology.

Winchester Model 1873 rifle
There is no more iconic American firearm than the Winchester Model 1873 rifle. (Photo Winchester)

The Model 1873 is a Hollywood staple, thus cementing its already legendary status. A 1950 Jimmy Stewart Western was dubbed “Winchester ’73,” and the rifle is prominent in the recent “Yellowstone” spinoff, “1883.” While it wasn’t the equal of later Winchester models like the 1886, 1892, or 1894, the 1873’s proven ruggedness saw its production run stretch for almost a half-century.

The old classic got a new lease on life with the advent of Cowboy Action Shooting, with European firms like Uberti building quality replicas that were instantly successful. Winchester finally jumped back on the train after lagging behind, and excellent modern reproductions carrying the Winchester logo are available again.

So, let’s look back on 150 years of the most famous lever action rifle ever made: the Winchester Model 1873.

Winchester '73 movie poster
Not many firearms have a feature film named after them. (Wikipedia)


The ’73 Winchester’s roots go back to the late 1840s when a man named Walter Hunt patented the Volition Repeating Rifle, notable for its linkage system and tubular magazine. But the linkage was less than robust, and Hunt sold the patent to Lewis Jennings a year later. Jennings improved the linkage a bit but ended up selling the patent to Dan Wesson and Horace Smith, whose names you may recognize.

Smith and Wesson also took on Jennings’ shop foreman, a guy named Benjamin Tyler Henry, and established the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company in 1852 in New Haven, Connecticut. Their new Volcanic Rifle was based on Hunt and Jennings’ work. It was chambered in Smith’s new cartridge, which would become the .22 Short. But the Volcanic Rifle still had problems, and Wesson left in 1856. A few months later, Smith relinquished control of the failing company to its largest shareholder, a local businessman named Oliver Winchester, who reorganized the company as the New Haven Arms Company.

Winchester wisely retained Henry, who went on to patent the famed Henry Rifle in 1860. The new rifle was manufactured by New Haven Arms and was a major success. Some even found their way into the Union Army during the Civil War. Winchester and Henry parted ways in 1864, after the latter tried to wrest control of the company for himself because he felt he wasn’t being paid enough.

Oliver Winchester
Oliver Winchester. (Public Domain)

Winchester prevailed, however, and reorganized the company once more as the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Winchester himself was not an engineer or a gunmaker. But he was a shrewd businessman, and he kept a man named Nelson King as his chief designer. King improved Henry’s rifle, resulting in the Winchester Model 1866 “Yellowboy,” a brass framed, side gate lever gun chambered for Henry’s .44 rimfire cartridge.

The Model 1866 was successful at home and abroad, with the French and Turkish armies buying several thousand each. But the .44 rimfire was already obsolete as Winchester and King began working on a stronger rifle to handle the new centerfire cartridges they could see on the horizon.

An Iron Horse

The new .44 Winchester Center Fire cartridge (.44 WCF), also known as .44-40 (.44 caliber bullet pushed by 40 grains of black powder), was too powerful for the brass receiver Model 1866. The 200-grain bullet achieved a muzzle velocity of about 1,200 feet per second. Winchester responded with the iron receiver Model 1873. Steel receivers were introduced in 1884.

The rifle and cartridge were instant hits and it’s difficult to imagine one succeeding so completely without the other. Their popularity was cemented when Colt wisely necked down their .45 Colt cartridge and rechambered their civilian 1873 Single Action Army revolver to .44-40, calling it the Colt Frontier Six-Shooter. Now one cartridge would fit both rifle and pistol, all but ensuring the dominance of both firearms. We’ll address the Colt 1873’s 150th anniversary later this year.

Even better, the ’73 Winchester was sold with a reloading kit, making it very attractive to the people pushing west, where gun and ammo retailers were few and far between. By today’s standards, the .44-40 is weak and inaccurate. But in 1873, it was as good as it got, especially when combined with the ’73 Winchester’s 15-round capacity, which was the rifle’s largest selling point. Finally, the rifle was so well built that it seemingly never failed.

Winchester Model 1873 rifle with .44 WCF ammunition
The Winchester ’73 combined with the .44 WCF cartridge is the classic Old West pairing. (americanrifleman.org)

Texas Ranger George Lloyd found that out as he battled a group of Comanches at Enchanted Rock in 1875. In the heat of the moment, Lloyd accidentally loaded a .45 Colt round into his .44-40 Winchester. The gun jammed, as you might expect. But Lloyd removed the receiver’s side access plate with his knife, pried out the jammed .45 round, reloaded, and kept fighting.

1873 Winchester Features

Despite debuting 150 years ago, the ‘73 Winchester had some nice features. First, it was offered in three standard configurations: the 24-inch barreled rifle; the 20-inch barreled carbine, and the 30-inch barreled musket. The term “musket” referred to the full-length military stock and handguard, not to the operating system or anything else. Most of those were shipped to South America. The carbines had rings attached to the receivers, hence the term “saddle ring carbines.”

The rifle version held 15 rounds of .44-40 in the tubular magazine and was the most popular model, sales-wise. The ’73 ejected spent casings from the receiver’s top. A sliding dust cover guarded against dirt or foreign objects falling into the ejection port. The dust cover retracted automatically when the action cycled. The buttstock had a handy compartment for cleaning supplies.

The receiver also featured removable side plates for easy cleaning and maintenance. That was how Ranger Lloyd unjammed his rifle. The semi-buckhorn sights were adequate, but the gun was only accurate out to 150 yards anyway, and even then, you’re talking groups the size of a dinner plate. Some say the gun was limited to only 100 yards or so. But a decent shooter could hit man-sized targets at that range. The .44-40 cartridge was the primary culprit there, as it was and is a glorified pistol round. But the ’73 Winchester held a bunch of them.

Winchester Model 1873 rifle
The Model 1873 had some nice features, such as side access plates and a sliding dust cover for the ejection port. (bradfordsauction.com)

Firearms were made by hand at the time, despite having standardized parts and processes. So, individuals could order their ‘73s pretty much however they wanted. For instance, the longest known Model 1873 barrel was 37 inches. The shortest was 12 inches. Standard barrels were round, but octagon and half-octagon barrels were available. Standard ‘73s had the straight stock, but customers could and did order pistol grip stocks. Custom engraving was available, as were special finishes like nickel, silver, gold, silver and gold, blued, and case hardened.

Winchester Model 1873 Calibers and Special Editions

The ’73 Winchester was built for the .44-40 cartridge, but its popularity and longevity meant that other calibers were also available. .38 WCF was offered beginning in 1879, .32 WCF in 1882, and .22 Long/Short in 1884. But .44-40 is considered the classic ’73 Winchester caliber.

Winchester tried to capitalize on their rifle’s popularity by offering special “One of One Thousand” and “One of One Hundred” editions. They featured barrels that proved especially accurate during factory tests, along with fancy engraved receivers and walnut stocks. But they were also very expensive. The One of One Thousand rifles cost $100 when introduced in 1885. A standard ’73 cost $18. The One of One Hundred models weren’t as fancy, but still cost $40. Few people were interested, and Winchester only made 136 One of One Thousand Rifles and only 8 One of One Hundred guns. One of those guns today would fetch an astronomical price.

Winchesters Everywhere

The Winchester Model 1873 is a legendary firearm. To many, it’s the only Old West rifle that matters. To others, it’s an overrated, underpowered relic. But the gun’s presence in America’s westward expansion cannot be denied, guaranteeing its iconic status.

Billy the Kid
The only known photo of Billy the Kid. He’s holding a Winchester Model 1873. I wonder where that rifle is now. (Public Domain)

When something big happened in the Old West, chances are the ’73 Winchester was there:

  • The only known photo of Billy the Kid shows the famous outlaw holding a ’73.
  • Archaeological forensics revealed that eight of Sitting Bull’s warriors were armed with Model 1873s at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Custer’s soldiers had none. Custer didn’t lose because of the Winchesters, but it sure didn’t help, either.
  • An 1886 photo of Apache leader Geronimo shows his son, Chappo, and brother-in-law, Yanhoza armed with ’73 Winchesters.
  • The Winchester Model 1873 was the rifle of choice for outlaw Frank James.
  • Buffalo Bill Cody carried a ’73 Winchester when he scouted for the US Army in 1876. He called his rifle “the Boss.”

Who can say how many people carried and used Winchester 1873s every day as the West took shape? It was rugged, reliable, and offered unmatched firepower. What’s not to like if you’re a homesteader, scout, stagecoach driver, rancher, or Native American warrior?

Geronimo and his warriors
Apache leader Geronimo (far right) with three of his warriors. Two hold 1873 Winchester rifles. (Public Domain)

One of the most interesting Winchester ‘73s is the so-called “Forgotten Winchester.” It was found in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park by Park Service archaeologist Eva Jensen in 2014. The rifle was leaning against a juniper tree and had obviously been there a very long time. The serial number places its manufacture date to 1882. The rifle was not loaded, but x-rays revealed a .44-40 cartridge in the stock’s cleaning kit compartment. The cartridge was manufactured sometime between 1887 and 1911 by the Union Metallic Cartridge Company. A crack in the stock had been repaired by metal pins, so the rifle seemingly saw hard use.

No one knows who owned the rifle or why it was left there. But it leaned against that tree for at least 103 years, and likely more. The Forgotten Winchester and its single cartridge are now displayed at the Great Basin National Park’s Baker Visitor Center.

The Forgotten Winchester
“The Forgotten Winchester,” photographed where it was found in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park in 2014. (National Park Service)

The Legacy Continues

Winchester ended production of the Model 1873 in 1919. The last were assembled and sold in 1923. Technology had passed the old workhouse by decades before. But the ‘73 was so beloved that people kept buying it. After World War I, however, much of the shooting public had served in the military and preferred bolt action rifles. Sales dwindled quickly and Winchester pulled the plug.

Winchester produced 720,610 Model 1873s of all types. That may not seem like a large number considering the rifle’s long production run. But the US population was 50 million in 1880, 63 million in 1890, and 76 million in 1900. By 1900, Winchester had produced 348,900 Model 1873s. Statistically, that’s one rifle for every 217 people in the United States. That’s a popular rifle.

The advent of Cowboy Action shooting in the 1980s and 90s led to renewed interest in the old classic. Winchester was late to the game and European companies met the demand with excellent recreations. Winchester eventually got on board and now produces quality Model 1873s, with only a couple of modern upgrades, like an improved safety and a more robust interlock as the lever seats.

Winchester Model 1873 rifles
Winchester built the last Model 1873 in 1919, but a renewed interest in the gun means you can once again buy a brand-new ’73. (Winchester Photo)

The new Winchesters come in a wide variety of styles and calibers. The company is also offering a special 150th-anniversary edition with extra nice walnut, engraving, and an octagon barrel. It’s chambered for the classic .44-40 cartridge. It looks awfully nice, and you can buy one for your very own for a mere $3659.99. God created credit cards for a reason. I’m sure your spouse will totally understand. But you better move fast, production is limited.

Despite being initially discontinued in 1919, the Winchester Model 1873 remains very popular and will likely be available for years to come. Gun people love the classics. I know I do. And they don’t come any more classic than this. Happy Anniversary, Winchester ’73. Here’s to many more.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

Sign Up for Newsletter

Let us know what topics you would be interested:
© 2024 GunMag Warehouse. All Rights Reserved.
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap