Winchester Model 1873–A “Gun That Won the West”

Several different weapons, both rifles and handguns, have been dubbed “the gun that won the west.” Like the Colt 1873 Peacemaker, a .45 caliber six-shot revolver; the Winchester Model 1866 “Yellowboy” lever-action repeating rifle, so named for its shiny brass frame; or today’s focus, the Winchester Model 1873 lever-action repeating rifle.

Some believe the Winchester Model 1873 is widely known as ‘the gun that won the west’ purely because there were so many made. With a production run of more than 720,000 in 50+ years, anyone who wanted one could buy one. And that meant a lot of these rifles went west with those brave enough to pack up and head off into parts unknown.

The steel-framed Model 1873 was made as a musket = a 30” round barrel (smooth bore, not rifled). According to Winchester, there were only around 500 of these produced.

…as a carbine = a 20” barrel, loaded with 14 cartridges; often had a saddle ring attached for easy accessibility and to keep it on the horse.

…and as a rifle = 24” octagonal barrel, with the insides “rifled” or grooved in a way that spun the bullet as it exited the barrel, giving it greater distance and much improved accuracy; loaded with self-contained black powder cartridges that were pushed into the receiver on the right side of the rifle and stored in a magazine that paralleled the barrel.


Though the 1873 couldn’t handle the more powerful cartridges used by the single-shot rifles of the time, I’m thinking 14 shots before reloading versus one made it worth the trade-off.

Originally chambered for the .44-40 cartridge (a .44 caliber bullet, propelled by 40 grains of black powder), the Model 1873 was later produced in .38-40 and .32-20, all of which were popular handgun cartridges of the day. This was important–if your handgun and your rifle used different size ammunition, you had to carry two sizes and you ran the risk of not having enough of what you needed; but if your belt guns and your saddle gun all used the same cartridge, you just dug into the saddle bag and started stuffing in bullets. That could help get your hero out of a really tight spot.

However, if you’re going to have your hero–or heroine or villain–carry two weapons that share ammunition, remember that the original Model 1873 was not made to use the.45 caliber Colt cartridge used in the very popular Colt “Peacemaker.”

But that doesn’t mean a Colt and a Winchester never shared ammunition. The popularity of the Winchester in .44-40 caliber had Colt manufacturing a version of the Single Action Army “Peacemaker” revolver that could use the Winchester’s ammunition. This insured the success of the Winchester rifle.

“Most Texas Rangers and every old West cowboy worth his salt carried 1873 rifles. Chappo, the son of Apache war chief Geronimo, packed an 1873. And Buffalo Bill carried an 1873 lever-action rifle along with a pair of .44-40 Colts in 1876 when he worked as an Army scout.”

If you’d like to see a reproduction in action, check out this video:  

Pay close attention to the difference in the amount of smoke produced between the first cartridges, which use modern smokeless powder, and the second set, which are loaded with a black powder substitute that is more like the black powder used in the 1800s. The smoke was always a factor with the weapons of the period. Every shot left a cloud that gave away the position of the shooter.

Finally, I have to share this really excellent list, the FIREAMS GLOSSARY from the Buffalo Bill Cody Museum in Cody, WY.

+ posts

9 thoughts on “Winchester Model 1873–A “Gun That Won the West””

  1. Tracy, thank you for the gun lesson and resources. I’m always a little nervous when it comes to writing about guns and ammunition. I worry about getting something wrong!

    Take care!

  2. Your gun articles are jewels, Tracy. Such great research. Thanks for another keeper.
    There’s an old movie called “Winchester ’73.” Only thing I can remember about it is that it had Shelley Winters in it (it’s that old). Tempted to check it out.

  3. Great post, Tracy. Such helpful and fascinating info in these articles. Thank you! I had no idea some Peacemaker and Winchester could share ammo! Wow. That makes perfect sense.

    P.s. I’m not a gun person but I got to shoot a Peaacemaker in Bandera. I had three kill shots LOL on my little green poster man.

  4. The movie, “Winchester 73,” was made where I live. It starred James Stewart. That brought back the memory of this rifle. Made the information popular again. I guess there were some that may have forgotten. That was some gun.
    Thanks, Tracy for all this great research. And the web sites.

  5. Tanya, the ability to share ammo made several weapons more popular. The Rangers went for a rifle that used .45 caliber because that’s what their original Peacemaker’s shot. Next time you’re in a store that sells ammunition, like Academy Sports or even WalMart, go pick up a box of .45 cartridges. The weight is shocking when you consider that they carried dozens of extra bullets when they were on the trail.

  6. Thanks Tracy for the interesting post. It is really amazing that you learn something new everyday but it is true.

    I love your posts they are so informative and I love the link for the firearms glossary

    Walk in harmony,

Comments are closed.