These Texas Rangers show off their Winchester Model 1873 rifles circa mid-1880s.
This old print shows a cross-section of the Model 1873.
The Gun That Won the West
Produced: 1873–1919, 2013–Present (Winchester); 1991–Present (reproductions)
The story of the Winchester 1873 rifle really began in 1860 with the Henry, a rifle that provided extreme firepower at a time when single-shot muzzle-loading rifles were common. The Henry also utilized a new development in ammunition, the metallic cartridge case. Benjamin Tyler Henry designed the rifle bearing his name. It was a breechloading, repeating rifle that used a manually operated lever to chamber and eject .44 rimfire cartridges. Though other repeating rifles like the Spencer Repeater were in use, the Henry changed the way the American Civil War was fought. Most soldiers on either side carried smooth bore, muzzle-loading muskets that had an effective range of about 100 yards and were slow to reload. The lever-action Henry was accurate due to a rifled barrel, and it had fast follow-up shots due to the lever-action mechanism. The Henry was manufactured with a brass frame, although some were made from iron, and a 24-inch barrel. The Union Army purchased the brass-framed Henry rifles and issued them to cavalry troops making the troops a fast moving force with plenty of firepower. Confederate troops came to call the Henry “that damn Yankee rifle you load on Sunday and shoot all week.” With a magazine capacity of 16 rounds it was a formidable piece of weaponry.
Oliver Winchester was a major investor in the New Haven Arms Company, where the Henry was built, and when the company came upon hard times, Winchester, the consummate businessman, snapped up the company and renamed it Winchester Repeating Arms. Winchester had on staff Nelson King, who designed a side-loading gate eliminating one of the Henry rifle’s weak spots, the magazine tube and loading system. The Henry is loaded via a barrel sleeve. First a spring-loaded follower under the rifle is compressed toward the muzzle and the barrel sleeve is rotated open to expose the magazine tube where cartridges are dropped in base first. Spring tension pushes the rounds into the receiver. The system is awkward to load and delicate as the magazine tube and barrel sleeve could become dented and render the rifle useless. Oliver Winchester and Nelson King had other plans and that plan took the form of the first Winchester rifle—the Model 1866, the predecessor of the Winchester Model 1873. The Winchester Model 1866 was commonly referred to as a “Yellow Boy” as it used a brass frame similar to the Henry rifle. It also shared the same caliber, .44 rimfire. King added a forend on the new rifle and sealed off the magazine tube.
Firearm and ammunition development at the time in 1873 was going gangbusters. Colt had debuted the Single Action Army revolver in .45 Colt for military use in 1873. The Colt was a well-built, rugged revolver chambered in a new centerfire cartridge—.45 Long Colt—that at the time was proprietary to Colt. Winchester on the other hand debuted the Model 1873 rifle and a new cartridge: the .44-40 Winchester and American shooters were changed forever. The Model 1873 was a new lever-action design, much stronger—the receiver was manufactured from steel rather than brass—and it was chambered in a new caliber, too, the .44 WCF (Winchester Centerfire), more commonly known as the .44-40. The round used a .44 caliber bullet, the “.44” part of the cartridge name, and 40 grains of blackpowder, the “-40” designation in the name. If there ever was a legendary rifle the Winchester 1873 is that rifle. The popularity of the rifle and the caliber were unmatched by any other firearm maker at the time. In fact Colt was forced to chamber their SAA revolver in .44-40 due to the caliber’s popularity. The civilian model of the SSA, called the Colt Frontier Six-Shooter, was offered in .44-40 because civilian customers demanded a revolver in a caliber that matched their Winchester 1873. Competing rifle manufacturers like Marlin and Whitney also chambered their rifles in the new cartridge.
Cowboys liked the convenience of having a rifle and revolver chambered in the same caliber since it meant having to buy only one type of ammunition. There was a dearth of convenience stores in the old west and one-room general stores—the department stores of the day—were few and far between. Thus having a rifle and pistol share the same ammo made sense. Outlaws, Native Americans, lawmen, hunters, and settlers all used the Model 1873 and the .44-40 cartridge as did the military. This is the rifle that coined the saying “The gun that won the west.” The caliber/rifle combination offered good accuracy and power to kill game the size of whitetail deer and mule deer efficiently. Frank Barnes in Cartridges of the World surmises the .44-40 cartridge has killed more game—and people—than any other cartridge.
The Winchester factory in New Haven, Connecticut, manufactured over 720,000 Model 1873 repeating rifles between 1873 and 1919. Originally it was chambered only in .44-40, then in .38-40 and .32-20 and .22 rimfire. Even though newer lever-action rifles were developed and sold (for example, the Model 1876, Model 1892, and Model 1894), the Model 1873 was extremely popular and produced well into the twentieth century. Modern replicas made in Italy of stronger steel allow the ’73 to now be chambered in .38 Special/.357 Magnum and .45 Colt. Italian firearms manufacturers like Uberti have been manufacturing Model 1873 clones since the 1990s. Companies like Cimarron, EMF Company, Navy Arms, and Taylor’s & Co. have been importing reproduction rifles to fill modern cowboy needs. These newer reproductions might not have “New Haven, Connecticut” roll marked on the barrel but they re-create the flavor of the bygone era. With crescent steel butt plates, blued or frothy case-hardened colors, modern 1873s are beautiful rifles—and life is too short to shoot an ugly rifle. Just like back in the day when Winchester was manufacturing rifles in New Haven, Connecticut, a multitude of custom options are available like checkered wood pistol grip stocks, and octagon or round barrels. Originals were built in three types: carbines, rifles, and muskets. Some of the deluxe models are highly valued by collectors.
With a lot of shooters channeling their inner cowboy the 1873 has seen resurgence, not that it ever faded away. Western movies and TV shows have fostered the cowboy in all of us with Cowboy Action Shooting taking it to a whole other level with guys and gals dressing the part of old west characters and competing in shooting competitions where reproduction Winchester rifles, among other types of reproductions, are used to shoot at cardboard and steel desperadoes.
CALIBER: .22 Rimfire, .32-20 WCF, .38-40 WCF, 44-40 WCF (originals); .38 Special/.357 Magnum, .45 Long Colt (modern reproductions)
BARREL LENGTH: 14, 15, 16, 20, 24, and 30 inches
OA LENGTH: 49.3 inches (30-inch barrel)
WEIGHT: 9.5 pounds (30-inch barrel)
STOCK: Smooth oil-finished wood (standard)
SIGHTS: Adj. notch rear/fixed post front
FINISH: Case-hardened frame/blue barrel
CAPACITY: 9, 10, 13, or 15 (depending on barrel length and caliber)