The Gun That Won The West

1873 Winchester Repeating Rifles

Well over 100 years ago the Winchester repeating rifle was introduced to the world. The final evolution of a rifle started in 1848 when the concept of a repeating firearm was developed by Walter Hunt, who designed and manufactured the "Rocket Ball and Volition Repeater". A lever acting, tube loading repeater. His partner George Arrowsmith and a machinist named Lewis Jennings improved on the original design and were granted a US Patent in 1849. Many people were involved at the time, all of whom improved on the original design. Most notable was Benjamin Tyler Henry, the foreman of then investor Courtland Palmer. Henry would eventually have his name attached to one of the first profitable incarnations of the original design. Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson of handgun fame even had a go at the development. Smith, Wesson and Henry formed the "Volcanic Arms Company" to produce and market the final design in 1855. An investor at that time was Oliver F. Winchester. A man with no knowledge of firearms, actually being more conversant with sewing machines than firearms. But, as a shrewd investor, by 1857 he owned the majority of stock in Volcanic Arms.


Shown below are the Winchester Rifle Model 1873 (top) in 32-20 caliber and a Model 94 Carbine (bottom) in 30-30 caliber.
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The 1873 was not the first bearing the Winchester name. But, because of its popularity it was nicknamed "The Gun That Won The West".

Anyway, back to the story...

The next and probably most important development was the .44 caliber rim fire cartridge. This made a repeating rifle's power equivalent to the current single shot rifles. By this time the repeating rifles were marketed by the New Haven Arms Company, but were actually designed wholly by Henry. They all bore the inscription "NEW HAVEN CONN. PATENT FEB 14 1854". They were still Volcanic Arms rifles at that time.

The New Haven Arms Company made about 13,500 rifles which came officially to be known as Henry rifles. They were an improvement of the Volcanic design. Of that most were brass frames. Both the Volcanic and Henry rifles made by New Haven are valuable collector items. One can expect near $20,000 (or more) for one in VG shape. As an aside, the most popular caliber appeared to be .38 for these.

In 1866 the name was officially changed to Winchester Repeating Arms Company and was entirely owned by Winchester.

It follows that the first real Winchester should be the Model 1866. The major change from the old gun was the incorporation of a totally round magazine tube. Winchester's plant foreman of the day Nelson King designed it to replace the slotted tube design. Now dirt no longer got into the works and the reliability of the gun went up considerably. In those days the frames were made of brass. Eventually the frames were made in iron, and the model number 1867 was assigned to some of them. Steel was used in 1884. The named stamped incorporated "KING'S PATENT" to signify the change.

comparison of shells My Model 1873 is an example of the early Winchester at it's greatest popularity. It was manufactured in many calibers, but the most favoured was the .44-40. This was a center fire cartridge used in the early Colt revolver. So it was only necessary to pack one type of ammunition. .38-40 was offered in 1879 and .32-20 in 1882. Mine is the latter, and it was made in 1882. As well some were made in .22 rimfire. But by far the most popular was the .44.

Round on the left is 32-20 for 1873, on right is 30-30 for 1894.

Lately I have had a lot of requests about the availability of ammunition for older Winchester Rifles. My first caution is to be aware that all the rifles up to the model 94 used black powder. 32-20 Pistol ammunition is available, and fits the 73 perfectly. More is mentioned later on that subject. However, be aware that the load is smokeless, not black. I have fired them, but still do not feel comfortable doing so. I prefer to pop the bullet and reload with black powder. But, do not be tempted to fill the cartridge up with powder, they hold much more powder than is safe to fire. Get a good powder scale and use about 15.5 grains of fff !

Of all the older rounds 45-70 seems to be the only one that has survived. Only because of the military history of the things.

There are a number of publications on the subject of converting newer cases to older styles. Check with Dixie Gun Works for the publications.

The Model 1876 was introduced to answer the need for a larger bore, more powerful rifle There were a couple of other models between the 1873 and the 1894 that I have. They even had a go at a bolt action single shot. The 94 remains as the current lever action rifle. First introduced (naturally) in 1894, it was from a patent design by John Browning. It is noteable that this was the first rifle produced for smokeless powder. All previous models used black powder. I still handload black powder for my 73, but some folk prefer to shoot the 32-20 pistol cartridges now available. Oh yes, my 94 has a history all its own. Click here to find out about the British Columbia Rangers and the rifle in WW2 on the Canadian West Coast

As a historical researcher I would be amiss to not mention the colorful history of the Winchester.

Early incarnations of the rifle were good, but had lots of faults. So until Winchester and the 73 came along they were not accepted too widely. The companies were in and out of financial difficulty. The Civil War caused and cured a lot of the financial difficulties. They actually did order some Henry rifles. They are worth a lot of money if you can prove they are authenic ones inspected by C.G. Chapman and stamped with his intitials.

But, the opening of the West and need to have a reliable repeating rifle became paramount. Sort of like Bill Gates and Microsoft, Winchester was the right product at the right time. And naturally the demand for the product was great with the cowboy, the cavalry and the natives. You could say they had all sides covered! It was very difficult to reload after each shot on a horse.

An interesting aside is the numbers of rifles produced around the time of "Custer's Last Stand". The year after it the 1866 rifles peaked with 16,299 and the 1873 dipped to 476. I am sure this is significant, but of what I don't know.

On the same subject as Custer's Last Stand, there is a hill near the battle called "Henry Hill", because of the large amount of spent Henry rifle cases that were found (and still can be found I am told). But, here is the interesting fact! Custer and his troops used the single shot Springfield rifle. The indians were the ones who used the repeating rifle. Custer was totally outgunned in his battle. The Springfield was more accurate, but once it got to close range combat he never stood a chance.

To establish a "time line" 1873 happens to be the year the San Francisco Cable Car System was opened. So, even though it was the "Wild West" things were indeed rather civilized!

By WW1 Winchester was the leading domestic producer of firearms. But, the end of the war saw hundreds of other firms in the market, and the position of the company started to slip. The depression just about totally killed them. In 1931 they were purchased by John M. Olin's Western Cartridge Company. From there the focus changed to sporting models. Makes sense, no war to fight, the gangsters all wanted machine guns. So what was left? In around 1963 Winchester regained its reputation and the company was once again known as a producer of quality firearms. Olin had considerable foresight in keeping the Winchester name. The final change in ownership came into the U.S. Repeating Arms Company. And in spite of several misshaps and buyouts the Winchester name lives on.

And what happened to the family? Well, when Oliver and his daughter died he left behind a widow with a considerable guilt problem. Sarah turned to the psychics and was told that she had to build a place for all the spirits that Winchester had created. Thus started one of the strangest projects in history. Click here for the full story


winchester buckle Here is a belt buckle I picked up for $5. Will add it to my steady growing collection of "Stuff ".

If you are interested in putting a value on your rifle, regardless of make get ahold of a copy of "The Standard Catalog of Firearms" by Ned Schwing (ISBN: 0-87341-675-9). For information on Black Powder versions get the catalog from Dixie Gun Works ( They have parts breakdowns on the model 73.

As well, be aware that all rifles were made in various versions and types. 73's had 3 versions, all identified by the mounting of the dust cover. The first model had grooved guides in either side (serial numers to 31000). Second model had a single guide held on by two screws (serial number to 90000). Third model had a central rail machined into the receiver. And then, they were available as rifles (24" barrel), carbines (20" barrel) and muskets (30" barrel). The poorest versions of 73's are worth about $300 US. Old, first models in VG shape can be over $10000 (for carbines).

The dates for various the 73's and 94's are linked below. If you have an alphabet letter in the serial number it means the rifle has had a post manufacture repair or modification done by the factory. As well, I am sorry, but I am unable to give you a value on your rifle. Mainly to do with the liability of trying to appraise "antiquities". But, if you check the library I am sure you can get a copy of the book mentioned above. It has all that information and more.

Model 1873 serial numbers
Model 94 serial numbers

For you older adults, here is an old cartoon I found

I also invite you to visit the rest of my web site. Just click here to go to the index page.

Even though I don't normally make links to other websites, the Buffalo Bill Historical website is of interest. They are the best archive source I have found on Winchesters and provide a serial number and authentication service. But, feel free to query me for information. I am happy to hear from every owner.


April 12, 2012 2:47 PM ©