Jimmy Stewart’s Winchester ’73
Dr. John Woods 04.01.20
Quite a few gun historians and firearm enthusiasts mistakenly credit the Colt Single Action Army revolver with having “Won the West.” In truth though, it was the Winchester 1873 that accomplished that mission. In fact while the Winchester ’73 and the Colt SAA came out in the same year (1873), it was the Winchester rifle that saw most of the action first.
The Colt SAA gained most of its fame after the Army adopted it in 1875 in 45 Colt. Just as a sidebar, the Winchester 1873 did not use the 45 Colt until recent production. Other handgun cartridges of the day allowed gun users to have both a rifle and a handgun chambered for the same cartridge. The ’73 Winchester as well as the Colt SAA were chambered in other matching cartridges which was a very forward thinking concept for the day, and an extremely efficient one for taming the Wild West.
Then in 1950, Hollywood (by cause or accident) celebrated the Winchester 1873 with its own movie starring Jimmy Stewart. Rent the movie if you have not seen it; it told the story of a prized rifle that was won at a shooting contest by Lin McAdam (played by Stewart). The rifle was stolen by the loser and the story began of how the rifle was passed around through the years. I cannot recall another movie that focused solely on the story of a rifle.
In the movie credits, a comment caught my eye. “The gun that won the west. For cowman, outlaw, peace officer, or soldier. An Indian would sell his soul for one.” That pretty much confirmed the foundation for the popularity of this famous rifle.
The Winchester 1873 lasted in production from that year until 1918. Some 720,609 were manufactured in a dizzying array of models and variations, like most early Winchesters. Original models had frames made of iron, but production later changed to steel. Turns out the ’73 was one of the most popular Winchester rifles ever… at least until the 1894 came out.
The ’73 was chambered mostly for the 44-40 accounting for 80 per cent of production. Next came the 32-20 and then the 38-40 of which only 24,826 were made. Those originals are highly sought-after by collectors.
And talk about variations, the ’73 had options for barrels, magazines, sights, triggers, hammers, levers, loading port covers, stocks, buttplates, dust covers, and finishes. And then there were many special-feature rifles and the “One of One Thousand” run.
Indeed, the Winchester 1873 won the west, and most of America.