Best Of The West 2013: The Winchester Rifle
The gun that won the West.
PHOTOGRAPHY: BUFFALO BILL HISTORICAL CENTER, CODY, WYOMING, GIFT OF OLIN CORPORATION, WINCHESTER ARMS COLLECTION, 1988.8.166
In 1866, the Henry rifle, which had been used extensively during the Civil War, was passed over for regular Army use because it wasn’t able to handle the new breed of high-powered cartridges favored by the military. With the war over, a new “improved Henry” went into production.
The resulting Model 1866, produced by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, would become the first Winchester rifle. Nicknamed “The Yellow Boy” due to the color of its bronze alloy frame, the model fired the same .44 caliber rimfire cartridges as the Henry, but with an improved closed-tube magazine and loading gate allowing for cartridge loading on the right side of the receiver. The popular model was soon followed by the Winchester 1873 design, a breakthrough rifle that allowed shooters to carry a single kind of ammunition.
“The same powerful .44-40 centerfire cartridge could chamber in a cowboy’s Colt sidearm, making it more practical traveling on horseback with a single type of ammunition,” says Rob Kassab, president of the Winchester Arms Collectors Association. The reliability, firepower, and popularity of the 1873 rifle earned it a nickname that put “The Yellow Boy” to shame: The Winchester ’73 became known as “The Gun That Won the West.”
Carried by everyone from trappers and mountain men to ordinary cowboys, the lever-action Winchester rifle became the iconic armament of Westward expansion. Buffalo Bill Cody wrote in a letter to Winchester: “Allow me to say that I have tried and used nearly every kind of gun made in the United States, and for general hunting, or Indian fighting, I pronounce your improved Winchester the boss.”
Winchester continued to tweak and improve the basic design of the rifle, culminating in its Centennial Model of 1876, which earned a reputation for durability and versatility. “The ’76 was an accurate long-range rifle for hunting big game — especially the American buffalo — and one of the most beautiful and elegantly designed of the Winchesters,” says Kassab.
“Besides being the first commercially successful repeating rifle, the appeal of collecting Winchesters also stems from how well they were made. Although considered ‘production’ guns in their day, they were, by today’s standards, very much custom, hand-fitted engineering works of art.”
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