Saturday, July 9, 2016

Rifles of the Old West

Two real posts just refuse to write themselves, one philosophical, the other scientific, and thinking is just too much work some days.  Neither is Roy Medvedev's Let History Judge: the origins and consequences of Stalinism reading itself.  I am stalled at 154 of 891 pages and it is heavy going, believe me.  So I have switched to brain dead mode.  With over 100 Louis L'Amour westerns loaded on my e-Reader, at one per day, I should be finished by fall.

Sometime back I did a post on a couple of pistols that get mentioned often in his books. Today it is rifles. Muzzle loading rifles using percussion caps were still much the norm up to the Civil War, and in fact were used by many of the soldiers on both sides, though by the end of the war, better weapons were available. Most of the information is from Wikipedia and the pictures are composites from all over.

Springfield Rifles: Model 1863 converted 25,000 rifled muskets to single shot .50-70 center fire cartridges by installing a trapdoor breech system. The Model 1866 was issued to U.S. troops in 1867, and was a major factor in the Wagon Box Fight and the Hayfield Fight, along the Bozeman Trail in 1867. The rapid rate of fire which could be achieved disrupted the tactics of attacking Sioux and Cheyenne forces, who had faced muzzle-loading rifles during the Fetterman massacre only a few months before. The new rifles contributed decisively to the survival and success of severely outnumbered U.S. troops in these engagements. The black powder Model 1873 continued to be the main service rifle of the U.S. Military until it was gradually replaced by the Springfield Model 1892 bolt-action rifle.

Sharps Rifles: A series of large-bore single shot rifles, renowned for their long range accuracy, were manufactured from 1848 to 1881. Although it came in a variety of calibres, the .50-70 and .50-90 were the most well known.  The Sharps Big 50 was the weapon of choice for buffalo hunters and was responsible for the most famous open sight sniper shot in history.  Billy Dixon was among the 28 men and one woman at Adobe Walls when they were attacked by a band of 700 to 1200 Comanches and Kiowas on June 27, 1874. After the initial onslaught was repulsed in close quarter fighting, the long distance fire power of the buffalo hunters' guns kept them at bay so the fight turned into a siege.

The stand-off continued into a third day, when a group of Indians were noticed about a mile east of Adobe Walls. It is said that Dixon took aim with a quickly borrowed .50-90 Sharps (as, according to his biography, he only had a.45-70 Sharps and felt it could not reach) buffalo rifle and fired, knocking an Indian near Chief Quanah Parker off his horse almost a mile away on his third shot. The Indians then left the settlement alone. 

Spencer Repeating Rifle: The lever-action, seven shot repeating rifle produced  between 1860 and 1869 (when it was sold to Winchester) was fed with cartridges from a tube magazine in the rifle's buttstock. The weapon used copper rimfire cartridges based on the 1854 Smith & Wesson patent stored in a seven-round tube magazine. A spring in the tube enabled the rounds to be fired one after another. When empty, the spring had to be released and removed before dropping in fresh cartridges, then replaced before resuming firing. Rounds could be loaded individually or from a device called the Blakeslee Cartridge Box, which contained up to thirteen (also six and ten) tubes with seven cartridges each, which could be emptied into the magazine tube in the buttstock.
By later cartridge designations the Spencer was a .52-45, however it was referred to as a .56-56, the first number referred to the diameter of the case just ahead of the rim, the second number the case diameter at the mouth; the actual bullet diameter was .52 inches. Cartridge length was limited by the action size to about 1.75 inches. The original .56-56 cartridge, was almost as powerful as the .58 caliber rifled musket of the time but under-powered by the standards of other early cartridges such as the .50–70 and .45-70. Its big advantage was its ability to fire multiple shots before reloading
The Spencer repeating rifle was adopted by the Union Army, especially by the cavalry, during the American Civil War, but did not replace the standard issue muzzle-loading rifled muskets in use at the time. The reason was that the army thought the soldiers would waste ammunition with a repeating rifle.  Also they could buy several Springfields for the price of one Spencer. It was ever thus.
Henry Repeating Rifle: The lever-action breech-loading tubular magazine rifle famed for its use in the hands of the Sioux and Cheyenne at the Battle of the Little Bighorn was the basis for the iconic Winchester rifle of the American Wild West. About 14,000 of the 16 shot .44-40 Henry were produced from 1860 to 1866. It was highly popular until replaced by the Winchester 1873.  The .44-40 cartridge was used by many pistols, so carrying one cartridge did for both weapons.  What it lacked in long distance punch was made up for by the rapid number of shots.
Henry Repeating Rifle
Winchester Rifle: The series of lever action repeating rifles evolved from the 1860 Henry. The first Winchester, the Model 1866 used the .44-40 Henry rimfire cartridge. It was an improvement over the Henry, with a loading gate at the side and a sealed magazine covered by a forestock.
The Model 1873 was one of the most successful Winchester rifles of its day, gaining the reputation as "The Gun that Won the West". Still an icon in the modern day, it was manufactured between 1873 and 1919. It was originally chambered for the .44-40 cartridge, allowing users to carry just one type of ammunition. The Model 1873 was produced with a 24-inch barrel rifle, or 20-inch barrel carbine, The easy to transport and handle carbine was the most popular. Due to feeding problems, the original Model 1873 was never offered in the military standard .45 Colt cartridge, although a number of modern reproductions are chambered for the round. The popularity of the original Model 1873 led Colt to manufacture a .44-40 version of the Single Action Army revolver called the "Frontier Six Shooter". In all, over 720,000 Model 1873s were produced. 
Winchester Model 1894 is the most prevalent of the Winchester repeating rifles. The Model 1894 was first chambered for the .32-40 cartridge, and later, a variety of calibers such as .25-35 WCF, .30-30, .32 Winchester Special, the .38-55 Winchester. Winchester was the first company to manufacture a civilian rifle chambered for the new smokeless propellants, and although delays prevented the .30-30 cartridge from appearing on the shelves until 1895, it remained the first commercially available smokeless powder round for the North American consumer market. Though initially it was too expensive for most shooters, the Model 1894 went on to become one of the best-selling hunting rifles of all time—it has the distinction of being the first sporting rifle to sell over one million units, ultimately selling over seven million before U.S.-production was discontinued in 2006. The Winchester .30-30 configuration is practically synonymous with "deer rifle" in the United States. In the early 20th century, the rifles designation was abbreviated to "Model 94", 

Winchester Model 1873


  1. as a pagan from Texas my interest in guns is nil...I'm good with a punch in the face though.

    1. Lots of that in Louis L'Amour books. He was a professional boxer at one time so fist fights make up a portion of each story.

  2. A fascinating history. Enjoy your Louis L'Amour marathon! :-)

    1. Thanks. I am enjoying it. Some of these books I have not read in years. My kids stole them from me.

  3. In Alaska i had a 44 mag. pistol and a 44 mag. Marlin leaver action - both used the same ammo.
    the Ol'Buzzard

    1. The magnum aspect of the cartridge likely made a fair bit of difference when used as a rifle bullet. What was your shooting distance usually?

  4. Mar 5, 2009 - The bolt-action rifle leapt to its position of dominance over all other forms of rifles shortly after Paul Mauser perfected his Model of 1898 zoomtarget

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