The Winchester Rifle Model 1873 was “The gun that won the West.” At least, that’s what I read in one of the opening frames of the movie, Winchester 73, a classic black and white Western from 1950 staring Jimmy Stewart.
In the film, a special “One of One Thousand” version of this rifle is offered up as a prize for marksmanship in Dodge City for the country’s centennial in 1876. The sheriff (a guy named Wyatt Earp) tosses a coin into the air, and Jimmy Stewart’s character shoots through it with laser-guided precision. Annie Oakley, who performed this same trick in real life, would have had some stiff competition.
He wins the rifle fair and square, only to have his no-good brother steal it from him minutes later. More calamities ensue, and for 90 minutes, this seductive rifle slips through the hands of a half dozen men, with much of the action filmed around Old Tucson.
Most Hollywood westerns were staged in the two or three decades following the civil war, so it’s no surprise that the theatrical guns that Hollywood used came from that period, too. The rifle of choice was the Winchester lever action—in many cases, the 1873, 1876 or 1892 models—and legends like John Wayne and Steve McQueen could handle these firearms with the flare and aplomb we expect from A-list movie cowboys.
To kids watching late 1950s and early 60s-era television, Chuck Connors in the The Rifleman was the coolest guy ever. In the opening credits, he fires off 12 shots from the hip in two seconds without breaking stride. Then, gun smoke still hanging in the air, he snaps his 1892 Winchester into a gutsy 360-degree backward spin and looks confidently into the camera as he reloads, ready to do it all again if you cross him.
In an iconic scene from the movie True Grit, John Wayne prepares to charge a foursome of outlaws with a pistol in his left hand and his Winchester Model 1892 carbine saddle rifle in the other. Biting down on his horse’s reins, he fires away with both hands at a full gallop. Halfway into the crossfire, he gives his rifle a confident backwards spin—just like Chuck Connors—and keeps firing without missing a beat.
True Grit was released in 1969, so you would think that John Wayne picked up his flashy spin from the The Rifleman that aired ten years earlier. Actually, the Duke performed his first rifle twirl in the 1939 John Ford movie Stagecoach. And the only reason that anyone could spin these rifles was because of a modification that came right out of Hollywood.
It was called a large loop lever, and the prototype was created because director John Ford wanted Wayne to give the rifle a flashy spin like a movie cowboy might twirl a pistol. None of the Winchesters from the factory were made with this kind of lever, so it had to be created by the film’s props department.
For Chuck Connor’s rifle, his large loop lever was further modified so that he didn’t even need to squeeze the trigger. The rifle fired each time his lightning-quick reflexes opened and closed the lever, to the glee of every eight-year-old cowboy wannabee.
Not quite Hollywood, but awfully close to it, was Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, which, in the late 1890s, crossed the U.S. with as many as 500 performers and crew for each performance. Sharp-shooting child prodigy Annie Oakley joined the show in 1885 and among other feats of marksmanship, shot the ashes off a cigarette held in her husband’s lips. One of the favored tools of her trade was a smooth bore Winchester Model 1892.
When the movie, Winchester, came out in February 2018, the trailer quickly revealed it was not going to be a Western. The supernatural plot is loosely based on heiress Sarah Winchester and the mansion she built after inheriting the Winchester fortune.
Sarah’s father-in-law, Oliver Winchester, started the New Haven Arms Company in 1857 and introduced the Henry rifle, named after his inventive factory superintendent who patented it in 1860. It went on to play a large role—for both sides—in the Civil War and for years after. When the company was renamed the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, so was the next generation of rifles to follow, starting with the Model 1866 Winchester.
Next month: Part Two will feature some little known stories about the role of the Winchester rifle in Arizona and the Southwest, and its role in shaping the lives of the people who used it.