The year 1873 saw the introduction of two game-changing firearms—the Winchester Model 1873 lever-action rifle and the Colt M1873 Single Action Army (aka “Peacemaker”) revolver. What set them apart from the array of available arms was that they were among the first chambered for center-fire metallic cartridges to be used in tandem.
Each firearm initially used its own proprietary round. The Model 1873 was chambered for the .44-40 Winchester cartridge, which went on to become one of the most popular rounds in firearms history. Purpose-built for the U.S. Cavalry, the Peacemaker was initially designed with a 7½-inch barrel, for accuracy at longer ranges, and chambered for use with the hard-hitting .45 Colt round. Not to rest on its own laurels, Colt then offered civilian versions of its revolver chambered for Winchester’s increasingly popular .44-40 cartridge, as well as the latter’s .38-40 and .32-20 rounds, thus sparing anyone who owned both firearms from having to carry two different calibers of ammunition. As attested by the images on the following pages, everyone from lawmen and outlaws to everyday cowhands and shepherds to headline entertainers were soon snapping up both manufacturers’ Model 1873s.
Another aspect that set apart the 1873s was shrewd marketing, including testimonials from famed Westerners of the era. Winchester and Colt each advertised its guns through such motivated Western dealers as E.C. Meacham, of St. Louis, and Carlos Gove, of Denver. Winchester’s 1875 catalog featured praise from Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody, who wrote the company on behalf of prospective buyers, “For hunting, I pronounce your improved Winchester the boss.” Writer Ned Buntline, whose florid dime novels birthed many of the legends associated with Buffalo Bill, tirelessly hyped both the Winchester ’73 and the Colt Single Action Army. For much of his career Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, the man who in 1934 brought outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow to ground, carried a Colt Peacemaker he dubbed “Old Lucky.” Bill Tilghman, the famed U.S. marshal out of Oklahoma, was known to carry both a Winchester ’73 and a Peacemaker, as did notorious outlaws Billy the Kid and Pearl Hart, though clearly not to either manufacturer’s detriment.
Winchester produced a whopping 720,000 Model 1873 rifles through 1923, while Colt rolled out more than 357,000 first-generation Single Action Army revolvers through 1940. By then both companies had claimed the title “The Gun That Won the West” for their respective Models 1873. The Peacemaker is still in production, and modern-day replicas of both firearms remain popular among present-day cowboy action shooters. They’ve certainly earned their reputation.