Which Guns Won the American West

Colt 1860 Army

It rode on the hip of Buffalo Bill Cody, Teddy Roosevelt, Judge Roy Bean and Pat Garrett, the sheriff who hunted down Billy the Kid. Its official name was the Single Action Army® Revolver. It was commonly known around saloons and lawmen's offices as The Peacemaker®. The gun was a Colt .45.

Out on the open range the gun of choice for ranchers and frontiersmen was a lever-action repeating rifle. Awe-struck Indians had many names for this wondrous shoulder-arm; "many shots" and "spirit gun" among them. A miner or a homesteader could protect his land with one for $19.50. The gun was a Winchester Model 1873.

Together these guns, the handgun revolver and the repeating rifle, staked their claim as "The Gun That Won the West." Both were introduced to the market in 1873. Neither was every replaced in the hearts of Westerners by the inevitable knock-offs and look-a-likes that trailed behind. Their legends, burnished by Hollywood, endure today, stories that began decades before back East in Connecticut.

Samuel Colt and the Pistol

Samuel Colt was born into a prosperous manufacturing family in Hartford in 1814. The family like to tell stories that young Sam was taking apart and reassembling guns when he was seven years old. His education at the prestigious Amherst Academy in neighboring Massachusetts ended prematurely after he illustrated the proper technique to blow up a raft with an underwater mine with a demonstration on school grounds. [1]

So at the age of 15 Colt headed for adventure at sea on the deck of the merchant ship Corvo, bound for the spice trade in India. While on board, Samuel carved a model of a multi-barrel repeating revolver out of white pine, basing his concept on the spokes of the ship's wheel. Colt had an idea but lacked sufficient working capital to get started.

To get the money he required he began touring the small towns of New England putting on public shows with nitrous oxide, better known as "laughing gas." His business card read "Dr. S. Coult of London and Calcutta." The"good doctor" earned enough money to build one revolver and one rifle. The first prototype exploded and his second never fired at all. A tweak here and an adjustment there, however, and Samuel Colt was able to obtain patents in England, France and the United States for a "revolving mechanism" that allowed a gun to be fired again and again without reloading. He was only 22 years old. [2]

A Revolution in Modern Weaponry Stalls

The inventor now became the key salesman for his Patent Arms Manufacturing Company. He showed a repeating musket to the United States Army but could not make a sale. Undaunted, he sailed to Florida where the Seminole War was raging and found eager takers for his new weapons in the field. But still Colt could not wrangle a contract from the bosses in the military. By 1842 the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company factory was shuttered.

Colt turned his creative energies to making those underwater mines with which he was so familiar. Meanwhile, the soldiers from the Seminole War were moving up the ranks. When the Mexican War ignited in 1846, General Zachary Taylor requested 1,000 of the repeating guns from Colt, who had long given up on the revolver business. With no inventory and no factory he was forced to work from memory and contract out the manufacture of each weapon. But he filled the order.

Back in the handgun business, Colt won a patent that made him the sole legal builder of all pistols in the United States. The Model 1860 Army revolver became standard issue in the Union Army and Colt sold over 400,000, manufactured in the world's largest private armory. [3] When he died in 1862 at the age of 47 Samuel Colt was one of the richest men in the world. A decade later his company's refinements to the handgun would reach their apex in the release of the Single Action Army® Revolver, each bearing the name of the inventor on the barrel. Still produced today, the company states confidently, "In design and performance, in line and form, no more sculptural and practical Colt has ever been created." [4]

Oliver Winchester - a Different Type of Firearm Entrepreneur

Winchester Model 1873

Born in Boston in 1810, Oliver Fisher Winchester was a New England contemporary of Samuel Colt but his route to weapons immortality was markedly different. When Winchester left the family farm it was to work in construction. He eventually migrated into the mercantile trade. He manufactured men's shirts and plowed the profits into the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company in New Haven, Connecticut in 1855. As Winchester's talents were strictly on the business side, the work of building firearms was left to men like Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson, who make names of their own in the gun world.

Volcanic was struggling financially from the time Winchester bought into the company and in 1857 he was able to acquire the entire operation. The gunworks of the newly named New Haven Arms Company were placed in the hands of Benjamin Tyler Henry and the company got out of the pistol business altogether. Henry created a lever-action rifle which could rip off sixteen shots in rapid succession. The revolutionary Henry Rifle was demonstrated for the United States Army but the military brass was reluctant to abandon its Springfield single-shot muzzle-loading firearm. During the Civil War the New Haven Arms Company sold only 1,730 carbines to the Union Army. [5]

Oliver Winchester was all-in on Henry's new rifle. The company name changed again to become the Winchester Repeating Arms Company and its Winchester Model 1866 "Yellow Boy" rifle found ready converts on the western frontier, even as it continued to be shunned by the army, at least the United States army. Winchester outfitted the infantry in France, Switzerland, the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere.

Its successor, the Model 1873, became the standard rifle across the West as over 720,000 were made and sold. The rifle originally cost $50 but the price would soon drop below $20. After 1875, marksmen could spend extra money - $100 - to buy a coveted “One of One Thousand” issue with an extra-accurate barrel and special finish. An even more select grade, “One of One Hundred,” would also be produced in limited quantities - 136 “One of One Thousand” Winchesters are documented and eight “One of One Hundreds.” [6]

“The Gun That Won The West” in Modern Culture

The Model 1873 remained in production until 1919, the same year the phrase "the gun that won the West" appeared for the first time. [7] It was created by a copywriter for a Winchester magazine advertisement but it did not take long for moviemakers to adopt it. Randolph Scott starred in Colt .45 and the gun was at the center of every Western shootout, especially the fast-draw duel, a wholly Hollywood creation, as it staked a claim to being that victorious gun. By the 1960s, when Houston was awarded an expansion major league baseball team, the club adopted the nickname “Colt 45s.”

No gunfight ever erupted between the Colt and Winchester companies, still both in an altered existence in Connecticut, for bragging rights over the claim to be the one gun to have "won the West." America has created no myth larger than the "Old West" so there is plenty of shoulder room for the two to co-exist: the Colt revolver as the weapon of the lawman cleaning up a frontier town and the Winchester rifle taming the frontier.


  1. Houze, Herbert G., Samuel Colt: Arms, Art, and Invention, Yale University Press, 2006, page 37
  2. ”The Guns That Won the West,” National Firearms Museum, National Rifle Association, 2015
  3. ”The Guns That Won the West,” National Firearms Museum, National Rifle Association, 2015
  4. ”The Gun That Won the West,” Colt’s Manufacturing Company, 2015
  5. Peterson, Phillip, Standard Catalog of Military Firearms: The Collector's Price and Reference Guide, F & W Media, 2011, page 456
  6. ”The Guns That Won the West,” National Firearms Museum, National Rifle Association, 2015
  7. Haar, Dan, ”Gun That Won The West: Two Claim Bragging Rights,” Hartford Courant, 2016

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