The Model 1873 was one of the early legends of the burgeoning American firearms industry and a model product by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The phrase "The Gun That Won The West" was most often tied to the Model 1873 but this was moreso due to the fact that the weapon system was readily available to the everyday man thanks to its 720,000+ production total in circulation. In fact, the Sharps Model 1874 is oft-noted as a better candidate for the weapon that tamed the Wild West. The legacy of the Winchester rifle was further reinforced by Hollywood's application of the Model 1873 and its interpretation of events related to the Wild West and American Indian wars.
Background and Development
History actually place Winchester roots as an offspring of Smith & Wesson. Horace Smith, Daniel B. Wesson and C.C. Palmer founded the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company in 1855 with Oliver F. Winchester - a New England clothing manufacturer - as a shareholder of the firm. Volcanic produced the "Volcanic rifle" which found some commercial success but was dogged by poor performance from its cartridge. Wesson set about in designing a new .44 cartridge that would become known as "rimfire". Two years later, Winchester had become the primary shareholder in the company and changed its name to the New Haven Arms Company. An talented engineer at the company, Benjamin Tyler Henry, secured a patent on October 16th, 1860, for a lever-action repeating rifle aptly titled the "Henry rifle". The gun was to use a new improved form of the .44 caliber rimfire ammunition and was only slightly based on the preceding Volcanic design. The Henry rifle was produced under the New Haven Arms Company brand and went on to see some limited use by Union Army soldiers in the American Civil War culminating in a six-year production run and 12,000 units. However, it was the new .44 caliber rimfire cartridge that would place Winchester into the recognizable realm of American firearms providers. After the war in 1866, Oliver Winchester had the company name changed once again, this time to the "Winchester Repeating Arms Company", to which the bureau released their first product - a lever-action repeating rifle known as the Winchester Model 1866 "Yellow Boy" - essentially a redesigned and improved Henry rifle. In 1873, the company would unveil its new-and-improved form, the Winchester Model 1973. While the Henry Rifle and similar Model 1866 used a double firing pin for their rimfire cartridges, the Model 1873 introduced the .44-40 WCF ("Winchester Center Fire") cartridge.
The Winchester Model 1873
The Winchester Model 1873 was made in three distinct forms - a rifle, carbine and musket (the musket form represented a small portion of the Model 1873 total, approximately 5 percent based on sources). The rifle group varied between its own sub-variants whilst the carbine and musket forms stayed true to their base forms. That is, the 1873 rifle could feature differing wood furniture, special engravings, an octagon or rounded barrel, varying barrel lengths and so on. Typical 1873 rifles featured 24" inch barrel lengths while the carbines generally measured in at 20" and muskets at 30". Other shorter barrel lengths eventually appeared for both the rifle and carbine types. The rifle was noted for its crescent-shaped buttstock while the carbine and muskets both featured their own identical buttstocks sporting only a slight curvature. Each basic Winchester form could also be customized with a seemingly endless supply of barrel, butt, furniture and trigger options available. The Model 1973 became the first gun to feature the centerfire cartridge and also the first to utilize "ferrous" iron along the gun body. The first Model 1973 receivers were made of iron but this was later substituted for steel sometime in the 1880s. The Model 1873 was debuted in late 1873 with just 18 in circulation. Had the weapon been delayed a few weeks more, the gun model would be known to history as the "Model 1874".
The First Model 1873s and early production forms of the Second Model 1873s all featured a screw-in plug for their magazines. It was only later that a new plug-and-screw type assembly was introduced into production. All First Model 1873 guns were made to the .44-40 Winchester caliber specification. The .38-40 Winchester-compatible model came online in 1879 and the .32-20 Winchester followed in 1882. A .22 Shot and Long caliber rimfire version was revealed between 1883 and 1888 (sources vary) but less than 20,000 of these were ever produced. These rifle calibers were of note for many-a-pistol of the day made use of them. This meant that an individual need only stock a single type of ammunition to power his many different guns - be them pistols or rifles or a combination of the two. Certainly a benefit to any traveling frontiersman.
The .32-20 Model 1873s made use of a solid buttplate though these were sans the cleaning rod trapdoor. A pair of magazine hangers were featured in some rifles sporting the full-length magazine. Early Model 1870 carbines were fitted with front sights though this later gave way to a post-type sight with blade arrangement. The .32-20 carbines utilized a rifle-type magazine hanger as opposed to a front barrel band.
The receiver, or gun body, housed all of the major internal components of the rifle. Chief among these was the finger lever, the assembly that made the Model 1873's "repeating" action possible. The lever operated as a large single unit also making up the trigger guard. The hammer was visible to the upper rear of the receiver. The barrel was fitted to the upper forward end of the receiver with the tube magazine mounted directly beneath the barrel. The barrel could be either rounded or octagonal depending on the Model 1873 form. The elliptical loading port was to the lower right side of the receiver while the ejection port was along the top side of the receiver. The firing pin and breech block were set in the upper portion of the receiver. The forward hand area and buttstock were of wood with the buttstock doubling as the aft handgrip. The spring-loaded tube magazine could hold up to fifteen ready-to-fire cartridges. Overall, the Model 1873 sported a fundamentally utilitarian design, something akin to the everyday man that would become its greatest customer.
The heart and soul of the Model 1873 was of course its lever-action repeating assembly. Though not a perfect design (many think it inherently weak but nonetheless effective) it was quite adequate for the task at hand. The operator pulled the lever down to which a fresh cartridge was pushed out of the spring-loaded tube magazine and raised into the firing chamber by a brass lifter. Once in position, the bolt was closed and locked with the gun ready to fire. The trigger actuated the hammer to which the firing pin struck the base of the cartridge, igniting the powder and ultimately propelling the bullet out of the barrel (muzzle velocity always varied depending on the ammunition and barrel length). Rimfire cartridges were struck at the base of their rim while centerfire cartridges were struck in the center of their base. It is noteworthy that most Model 1973s were of the centerfire cartridge type.
Nothing Beats a Model 1873
Despite the newer and lighter Model 1892s being made available by Winchester in the 1890s, the commercial market for the legendary Model 1873 remained strong. For just under $20, any American could own the rifle and many-a-frontiersman eventually did, solidifying the legacy of the Winchester name and Model 1873 family line.
The Inevitable End of the Road- Some 50 Years Later
Amazingly, Winchester ceased production of the Model 1873 as late as 1923 - some fifty years after its inception - such was the success of the rifle line in its varied forms. The Model 1873 has resurfaced through authentic replicas with the most notable copies produced out of Italy. At any rate, the Model 1873 was a versatile and effective weapon ready for whatever actions lay in its future. It became the quintessential Wild West lever-action long gun for many an American.
Little Big Horn
Evidence at the Battle of Little Bighorn battlefield suggests that some Cheyenne, Lakota or Arapaho Indians had used the repeating Winchester Model 1873 rifle (among other repeating types) against General George Custer and his 7th Cavalry while Custer's men were still using the single-shot Springfield Model 1873 .45.70 caliber carbine. While the Springfield enjoyed a greater range in which to fire, nothing beat the quick-action firing possible in a repeating rifle.
Beyond its many film and print mentions, the Winchester Model 1873 owned the main title of the Jimmy Stewart Western motion picture "Winchester '73". A Winchester rifle is also part of a running joke (and ultimate ally) in the horror-comedy "Shawn of the Dead".