By Philip Schreier, American Rifleman
The well-established reputation of the Winchester Rifle has induced certain parties to offer for sale other makes of guns as ‘Improved Winchester.’ We desire to caution buyers that all guns made by us are stamped on the barrel or on the lower tang … ‘Manufactured by the Winchester Repeating Arms Co.’ … All Guns bearing these stamps are guaranteed by us, if used with Ammunition of our manufacture.” So read, in part, the “Caution to Purchasers” on page 2 of the March 1891 Winchester Repeating Arms Co. catalog, right under a sectional drawing of the Model 1873’s action.
The Winchester Model of 1873 has been called “The Gun that Won the West” for generations—and with good reason. Nearly a quarter-million of the iconic lever-actions were produced between 1873 and 1919. Today, for the first time since the signing of the Versailles Treaty, the Winchester 1873 is back on the market with the venerable Winchester name “stamped” (really roll-marked) on the barrel.
A Brief History Of The Model 1873
Recently at Brian Lebel’s Old West Auction the only known photograph of “Billy the Kid” extant sold to William Koch, of Palm Beach, Fla., for $2.3 million, making it the most expensive historic photograph ever sold. Taken on the front porch of a building in Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory during the fall of 1880, the image shows a confident William Henry McCarty, Jr., holding a Winchester Model 1873. Books on the Old West are full of photographs of cowboys and the like posing with their favorite rifles, more often than not, Model 1873s. It has been often referred to as the “Gun that Won the West,” while some historians might dispute the title, more than 720,000 Model 1873s were produced, and its presence and role in opening the American West is most assuredly not in question.
Oliver F. Winchester was born in Boston, Mass., and was a prosperous clothing manufacturer in New Haven, Conn., when he invested heavily in the Volcanic Repeating Arms Co. founded by Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson in 1855. By 1857, the Volcanic had failed to find its niche in the American firearm market, due largely in part to the unique self-contained Volcanic cartridge and the problems inherent with a cartridge that had exposed powder in the base of the projectile. Winchester bought out Smith’s and Wesson’s interests in the company and reorganized it as the New Haven Repeating Arms Co. Along with the company he acquired the skills and knowledge of the chief foreman, Benjamin Tyler Henry.
By 1860 Henry was able to work out some of the bugs in the Volcanic design, and using the newly introduced .44 rimfire self-contained copper cartridge, introduced the famous lever-action that bears his name, the Henry Rifle. More than 14,000 were produced during the Civil War. The year 1866 brought about a new model with a side loading gate (King’s Improvement) and a wooden fore-end, as well as a new name, Winchester. Still available only in .44 rimfire, about 170,000 were produced between 1866 and 1898. The Model 1866 also had an added feature, a two pronged firing pin that struck the rimfire cartridge in two spots, ensuring positive ignition.
With the popularity, increased performance and reliability of center-fire cartridges, Winchester introduced the Model 1873 in .44-40 Win. (also known as .44 Winchester Center Fire or .44 WCF) to a very receptive marketplace. Also chambered in .32-20 Win. and .38-40 Win., this model outlasted and outsold all other Winchester lever-actions until the introduction of the John Moses Browning-designed Model 1894. With the capability of having one cartridge for both rifle and revolver, the Model 1873 chambered in .44-40 Win. was a frontier favorite.
Available in a dizzying array of variations, today’s collector can easily spend the rest of his or her life—and a considerable fortune—collecting the various types and variations of the Model 1873. Rifles, carbines, muskets, deluxe and even one of 100 (eight made) and one of 1,000 (136 made) special-order deluxe engraved guns, offer the collector a wide variety to seek for their collections.
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