Historians divide time into two segments, BC and AD. But, for firearms enthusiasts, history is divided “before 1873/after 1873.” The three most iconic firearms of the 19th century, and their equally influential cartridges, all made their appearance that year. The development of the Colt Single Action Army revolver in .45 Colt, the 1873 Winchester lever action rifle in .44-40 and the 1873 Spring-field Trapdoor rifle in .45-70, made 1873 the water-shed year for firearms design in the 19th century.
I would bet that there isn’t a person reading this magazine who isn’t familiar with the Colt Single Action Army revolver—better known as the SAA, or the Model P, for Peacemaker. The original Colt moniker for this gun was the New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol. We’re lucky that never caught on, or we’d be talking about Colt “NMAMCRPs” today instead of Colt SAAs.
The SAA wasn’t the first big-bore, cartridge-firing, American sixgun adopted by the U.S. Army—the Smith & Wesson American has that distinction. In fact the 1873 SAA wasn’t even the first Colt cartridge revolver to be adopted by the Army. The Army bought 1,200 of the first model Richards .44 Colt conversion of the cap and ball 1860 Army revolver in 1871. But the acquisition of both the S&Ws and the Colt conversions were of limited quantities that were destined to be issued to the troops for practical field tests.
When the Army conducted formal competitive tests to pick its next service pistol, the Colt SAA easily bested the competition. The Army bought 12,500 Colt SAAs for service use over the 19-year service life of the SAA. That was a nice jump start to Colt’s business, but by 1900 Colt had sold over 190,000 SAAs. Those were phenomenal sales numbers for a 19th century handgun.
Based on Hollywood movies of the 20th century you’d think that Colt SAAs were the only handguns to be found on the western frontier. That certainly wasn’t the case, but if you look at Colt’s sales volume compared to their competitors at Remington, Smith & Wesson and Merwin Hulbert, you’d see at least half a dozen Colt SAAs for each non-Colt handgun you’d run across.
Ultimately Colt SAAs were chambered for 29 different cartridges. But the original .45 Colt was the flagship chambering, far outselling all other cartridges. The original Army tests were conducted on SAAs chambered for the .44 S&W American cartridge, but for the production models, the government stipulated that the cartridge would be .45 caliber with an inside lubricated bullet. This was the genesis of the .45 Colt cartridge.
With the adoption of the Smith & Wesson Schofield revolver as an alternate service pistol in 1875, the army faced a logistical problem. The cylinder on the Schofield was too short to accommodate the .45 Colt cartridge. The Army initially decided to standardise on the shorter Schofield round, but in 1887 the Army standardized on a new cartridge that could fit both Colt and Schofield revolvers. The M1887 Military Ball Cartridge was a Schofield-length round that had a rim diameter that was larger than the truly tiny rim on .45 Colt cartridges of the time, but smaller than a full-sized Schofield rim.
Today we have two reasons to be thankful for the M1887 cartridge. First of all, the M1887 rim became the common rim on subsequent .45 Colt cartridge cases. If that had not been the case today’s Cowboy Action Shooters would have no .45 Colt rifles to shoot in matches, because there is no way the vestigal rims of the earlier .45 Colt cases could have functioned in a lever-action rifle. The second reason to be grateful is because the effectiveness of the M1887 round, when it was returned to service during the Phillipine insurection, lead directly to the development of the .45 ACP round.
The SAA remained the official service pistol of the US Army from 1873 until 1892, but The .45 Colt round was far more popular on the civillian market than the .45 Schofield. Commercial .45 Colt loads of the time loaded 250-grain to 260-grain bullets over 40 grains of 2Fg black powder. Velocities of up to 970 feet per second (fps) are claimed for this loading, though my own 40-grain charges only average 907 fps through a 7½-inch barrel. The Colt SAA and its .45 Colt cartridge became icons of the American West.
The second famous gun and cartridge pairing of 1873 was the model 1873 Winchester rifle and the .44-40 cartridge. The rifle itself wasn’t spectacular. It represented the next step in refinement of Winchester’s toggle link, lever-action that began with the Henry rifle and continued with the model 1866 Winchester. The model 1873 improved on the 1866 version in a number of ways. The frame was made of iron rather than bronze. There was a lever-actuated safety that prevented the rifle from firing until the bolt was fully in battery. And the frame had removeable plates on either side that allowed a shooter to clean the action without totally disassembling the rifle. And, as a black powder shooter who also owns an 1866 rifle, I can vouch for that improvement. It is a godsend.
So, those improvements to the rifle were certainly welcome, but the thing that really set the model 1873 apart from its predecessors was its chambering. Previous Henry and Winchester rifles had been chambered in the .44 Henry rimfire round. And, even though skilled frontiersmen like Yellowstone Kelly dropped everything up to and including buffalo with that round, most experts would agree that it is pretty anemic.
The 1873 Winchester, chambered for the .44 Winchester Center Fire (.44 WCF) cartridge was still underpowered compared to the big single-shot buffalo rifles of the day, but it was a big step up from the .44 Henry rimfire. More importantly, it ushered in the era of standard cartridges. Because Winchester sold so many 1873 rifles, every general store and trading post carried a stock of .44 WCF cartridges. Other arms manufacturers quickly realized that chambering their weapons for those readily available cartridges would be a good selling point.
I don’t think there is a single major gun maker in the latter 19th century who didn’t chamber at last one model for the .44 WCF round. But calling it a .44 Winchester Center Fire was just giving Winchester too much free advertising, hence the name .44-40 was born, and it stuck.