Top 12 Western Classics

Winston Churchill said that “History is written by the victors,” and while that may be true of war, the history of firearms is written by those who used them, lived and died by them and made them legendary beyond their own time.

Remington-model-1875

Remington Model 1875

It took Remington until 1875 to introduce an all new single-action revolver to compete with Colt and S&W, but Remington would never quite capture the market, even though its 1875 and later Models 1888 and 1890 would be carried by famous lawmen and notorious outlaws. The lines of the 1875 resembled the traditional Remington percussion style, while the later Remington 1890 more closely followed the Colt SAA design. Unfortunately, before the end of the century Remington would abandon the revolver market with its last models produced in 1894. Nevertheless, the Remington cartridge guns carved a niche in Western history, most famously with Jesse and Frank James. Jesse carried numerous guns—Colts, S&Ws, even a Merwin-Hulbert—but he also holstered a Remington Model 1875, the gun favored by his brother Frank, who carried a pair chambered in .45 Colt. When Frank James surrendered after the murder of Jesse, he handed over one of his 1875 Remingtons. The other had been given to a doctor in return for patching him up. Frank James lived until 1915 and appeared in Wild West showed before he died at the age of 72. Today the great Remington cartridge models are available from Uberti in .38/.357, .44-40, and .45 LC with traditional blued and color-cased finishes or full nickel. 

Spencer-Repeater

Spencer Repeater

Despite its fame today, during the Civil War the Henry was eclipsed by the most successful repeating rifle of the 1860s, the Spencer, which was carried by thousands of Union troops and cavalrymen. It was designed by Christopher Spencer and patented in 1860. Like all of Spencer’s designs, his seven-shot repeating rifle was over-engineered, almost to a fault. Simple in its operation, it was built to withstand heavy use; the 1860 Spencer was, pardon the pun, “bulletproof.”

The heart of the repeating rifle was a rotating block that could feed a cartridge into the breech each time the lever was operated. The rounds were drawn from a tubular magazine inserted through the buttstock, so that each time a cartridge was fired and the action worked, the spent casing was extracted from the chamber and a fresh one carried into the breech by closing the lever. All that remained was to fully cock the hammer, take aim and fire. While not as fast as the Henry lever action, which automatically cocked the hammer on the backstroke of the bolt, the Spencer was neither as delicate nor as prone to jamming. Granted, the Henry packed more than twice as many cartridges, but the Spencer’s booming .56-56 rimfire rounds were nearly as powerful as a .56 caliber musket ball or conical lead bullet loaded in a rifled musket. Spencer also designed a number of variations: rifles, carbines, and sporting models in different calibers. Of the 144,500 produced, the Union Army acquired 107,372. The Spencer’s reputation and ready availability after the war made it indispensable on the western frontier.

Today, Taylor’s & Co. is one of the primary sources for the Italian-made Chiappa Spencer rifles and carbines (Cimarron has purchased 100 from Chiappa this year), which come chambered in .56-50 as well as .44-40 and .45 LC. The Spencer reproductions are of the later 1865 design and feature a color-casehardened frame, hammer and lever. They are well built and designed for rugged use. 

2

Henry Lever Action

The Civil War made a great many guns famous, but a few, like the 1851 Navy, retained their popularity after Appomattox and among them were two rifles that have become synonymous not only with the war but also the American West: the Henry lever action rifle and Christopher M. Spencer’s repeating rifles and carbines. The Henry is the most famous today, particularly with the ongoing Civil War Sesquicentennial Celebration. Inventor Benjamin Tyler Henry created the rifle bearing his name in 1860 for Oliver Winchester’s New Haven Arms Co. and received his first patent on the repeating lever action rifle that October. The start of the Civil War immediately placed high demand on the 16-shot .44 Henry rimfire repeater. Carried by Union troops (often at their own expense or that of regimental commanders), Confederates on the receiving end of Henry repeaters began calling it that “damned Yankee rifle you can load on Sunday and shoot all week.” During the War Between the States, soldiers armed with Henry lever action rifles decided many a skirmish.

Today it is possible for the first time since the 1860s to purchase a Henry lever action rifle made in the U.S. The guns, manufactured to methodic original standards and features, are made by the Henry Repeating Arms. Henry copies are also manufactured in Italy by Uberti, and Cimarron makes one, thus it is possible to own one of the most important rifles in American history at a mere fraction of the price commanded by originals. 

schofield

Smith & Wesson Schofield

While Colt was finalizing its benchmark 1873 Single Action, the celebrated Peacemaker, Smith & Wesson was introducing its first large-caliber revolver, the Model 3 American First Model top-break, in 1870. By 1873, S&W had the Model 3 American Second Model available, and the First and Second Model Russian variations. By 1875, the now-legendary First Model Schofield was introduced, and S&W was vying with Colt for government contracts. A variation of the S&W Model No. 3, the gun took its name from Major George W. Schofield of the 10th Cavalry. He modified the No. 3’s design to better meet the needs of the cavalry and allow easier opening of the mechanism for loading and reloading in the saddle. In 1875, Smith & Wesson incorporated these refinements into a new model bearing his name. The Schofield is where our principal focus lies as this is the model most commonly reproduced today by Uberti. The Uberti models, as sold by Cimarron, are available in three barrel lengths, three calibers and two models. The top-break S&W design remains of the most iconic of all Western handguns.

Colt-1851-Navy

Colt 1851 Navy

In the early years of the Western frontier, there were many handguns and rifles in common use, but by the 1850s one handgun had risen to the top as the most popular, Samuel Colt’s Model 1851 Navy revolver. The .36 caliber revolver was to be the second most successful percussion handgun ever manufactured by Colt, exceeded only by the 1849 Pocket Model. The Navy, however, had a life that extended well beyond its production from 1850 to 1873, with more than of 255,000 being built. More soldiers carried the 1851 Navy during the Civil War than any other, as it had been the standard-issue sidearm prior to the Southern secession in 1860 and 1861, and in the hands of former Union soldiers who sided with the Confederacy.

The 1851 Navy survived the War Between the States to also become one of the most frequently carried revolvers during the postwar Western Expansion. It was also one of the most common revolvers converted from cap-and-ball ammunition to metallic cartridges by Colt in the early 1870s. Thus it has an important place among our list of classic Western guns. Today Pietta manufacture accurate reproductions of the 1851 Navy in both square-back and round triggerguard styles.

Colt-SAA

Colt Single Action Army

When 1873 rolled around, Colt had already unveiled its William Mason-designed “New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol,” and the U.S. military was chomping at the bit. In fact, Ordnance Department orders were so high that civilians rarely saw an 1873 Colt SAA until late in 1874. Mason, Colt’s armory superintendent, received his first patent on September 19, 1871. A second was issued on July 2, 1872, essentially for the gun put into production that December as the Model 1873, and a third for improvements issued on January 19, 1875. Mason’s 1872 design also made use of the best features from previous Colts, including the grip size and angle of the popular 1851 Navy, a 7½-inch barrel length and Colt’s proven lockwork. With only a brief period between World War II and 1955, when the Peacemaker was temporarily discontinued, it has been built by Colt longer than any other revolver manufactured anywhere in the world, and it’s become the quintessential handgun of the American cowboy. In addition to current Colt models of the SAA, Uberti and Pietta produce a full range of Colts with various barrel lengths, chamberings, finishes and traditional Colt engraving patterns. Prices can vary from less than $600 to as much as $10,000, making the modern guns as interesting to collect as the originals!

remington-new-model-army

Remington New Model Army

Outside of the Colt 1851 Navy and 1860 Army, the next most commonly carried sidearms of Union soldiers were the Remington Army Models of 1858 and 1861 and the New Model of 1863 in .44 caliber. Production exceeded 122,000 for the New Model Army, and Remington continued to manufacture the guns until 1875, when it introduced its first all-new cartridge revolver (this is in addition to earlier percussion models converted by Remington to fire metallic cartridges beginning in 1869). The Remington was another Civil War gun that found its way West in the holsters of ex-Union and Confederate soldiers searching for a new life in the 1870s. The Remington was a more modern design than Colt models, and it used a solid frame and topstrap and a threaded barrel. It was also much faster to change cylinders for reloading. Soldiers often carried preloaded cylinders, which allowed for faster handling. This could also be done with a Colt, but changing cylinders required removing the barrel, whereas the Remington allowed the cylinder to be easily rolled out of the frame by dropping the loading lever and pulling the cylinder arbor forward. A reload took less than 30 seconds.

While there are more than enough originals on the market today for arms collectors, those desiring a modern copy will find two excellent reproductions manufactured by Uberti and Pietta, the latter offering some handsome engraved models as well as traditional blued and blued/case-colored variations. Both companies stay very close to the 1863 version (though they are called the 1858 Remington), and the guns remain popular with Civil War reenactors and fans of the American West. 

Related Stories: Taylor’s & Co., Inc. 1863 Remington Pocket Revolver

Navy-Arms-1873-winchester

Winchester Model 1873

“The gun that won the West” has often been used to glorify the Winchester Model 1873, and there is certainly a great deal of merit in that assertion, as Winchester certainly left an indelible mark on the American West. After parting ways with Benjamin Tyler Henry in 1865, Oliver Winchester started the Winchester Repeating Arms Co., and his first new rifle was the Model 1866 designed by Nelson King. King’s improvements to the Henry lever action included a loading chamber in the right side of the receiver and an enclosed cartridge magazine running under the barrel. He even managed to increase the cartridge capacity from the Henry’s 16 to an impressive 17 rounds! Oliver Winchester had a runaway success, but even while the brass-framed “Yellow Boy” models were selling as fast as they could be built, Winchester’s engineers were at work on further improvements leading to the now-legendary Model 1873. As with its sales, the variations seemed endless: Model 1873s were available in calibers from .22 rimfire to .32-20, .38-40 and the most popular .44-40, with round or octagonal barrels in 20-, 24- or 30-inch lengths.

The original Model 1873 was produced until 1919, with 720,610 manufactured. Did it win the West? If sales are any indication, the Winchester ’73 won something! Today that is the hearts and minds of Western enthusiasts and collectors, and while Winchester still offers its famed 1873, the most affordable reproductions are built in Italy by Uberti and rank among the best lever guns money can buy. Cimarron sells nine variations of the Uberti 1873. One of America’s oldest names in western arms, Navy Arms, also offers a new line of high-quality 1873 rifles that are built in cooperation with Winchester and Turnbull Manufacturing. About as fine an 1873 as one could hope for, the Navy Arms Winchester 1873 features deluxe American walnut checkered at the wrist and forend; a metal, shotgun-style buttplate for fast mounting; a factory-installed short-stroke kit; full octagonal barrels in both 20- and 24¼-inch lengths; a gold bead front and semi-buckhorn rear sights; and Turnbull color-casehardened receivers and furniture. Calibers are in .38/.357 and .45 LC. 

sharps-rifle

Sharps Rifles

Sometimes one shot was enough. At least it was for Christian Sharps and thousands of men who used his rifles in the War Between the States and carried them westward in the 1870s. If there is one gun that truly defines America’s Western Expansion in the 1870s, it is not the Colt or Winchester repeater, but the single-shot Sharps rifle. Sharps wanted to make loading and charging a rifle faster; his idea was to do it all from the breech end. A March 9, 1850, article in Scientific American extolled the advantages of the Sharps breechloader, stating that a man with no previous weapons experience could fire it up to nine times in a minute and place every bullet within a 6-inch circle 40 yards away. In 1859, Sharps had made his last change in the percussion rifle’s design with a new straight breech and three standard versions: carbine, military rifle and sporting rifle. The U.S. military was the single largest purchaser of Sharps rifles, and during the Civil War the Army and Navy procured more than 100,000. It is said that a sharpshooter armed with a 30-inch-barreled Sharps rifle could knock an officer off his horse at 1,000 yards.

When the Civil War ended, three rifles emerged as the most successful—the Spencer, the Henry and the Sharps—but the Sharps didn’t use metallic cartridges. Not about to let his popularity wane, Sharps retrofitted earlier percussion models to accept metallic cartridges, and more than 32,000 were converted to .52-70 rimfire and .50-70 centerfire. In 1860, Sharps introduced his first all-new cartridge model chambered in .50-70 and .44-77. These were produced until he brought out what was to become the most “geographically significant” rifle of the 19th century, the Model 1874. There were many variations, with barrel lengths from 22 to 36 inches, various calibers, and military, target and long-range models. The largest standard calibers were .50-70 and .45-70 Government, the latter becoming the predominant cartridge for the predominant rifle used by a generation of frontiersmen who came to be known as buffalo hunters. Between 1868 and the last decade of the 19th century, the Sharps rifle in the hands of skilled hunters changed the face of the American West. Today there are numerous Sharps models being reproduced by American arms-maker Shiloh Sharps and in Italy by Davide Pedersoli and Chiappa. Today there are more than 20 Sharps variations alone from Pedersoli, which are sold by Cimarron, EMF and Taylor’s & Co.  

winchester-model-1876

Winchester Model 1876

The Winchester Repeating Arms Co. continued to improve its designs even while the 1873 was the top-selling rifle in America. The one big complaint had always been the limitations of the design in terms of more powerful cartridges. Working with John M. Browning, Winchester combined the power of a large-caliber single-shot rifle with the styling of the 1873 to develop the 1876 Centennial model. Looking nearly identical to the 1873, the frame of the Centennial was a full 1½ inches greater in length, had more heft, and when compared to the .44-40 models, was clearly larger. An early Winchester factory advertisement for the Model 1876 noted, “The constant calls from many sources, and particularly from the regions in which the grizzly bear and other large game are found, as well as the plains where absence of cover and shyness of game require the hunter to make his shots at long range made it desirable to build a still more powerful gun than the Model 1873.” The 1876 was originally offered in the new .45-75 WCF. In 1879, two new cartridges were added: .45-60 and .50-95 Express. In 1884, Winchester added the .40-60 cartridge, which was popular with coyote and wolf hunters.

The 1876 was a true sportsman’s rifle, and by the late 1870s its popularity had spread worldwide, with none other than Theodore Roosevelt owning at least three, a carbine and rifle in .40-60 caliber, and his favorite, a rifle in .45-75. Today they are available from Winchester, Uberti and Pedersoli in various finishes, barrel lengths and calibers and sold through Cimarron and Taylor’s & Co. among other retailers.

winchester-model-1886

Winchester Model 1886

Winchester finally developed a .45-70 model to meet government cartridge standards in 1886. This is the last of the legendary Winchester models to be among the top 12 guns. With the introduction of the even more powerful Model 1886 chambered for the .45-70 Government cartridge, Winchester added another legendary rifle to its history. The Model 1886 was produced until 1935, and approximately 160,000 were built in the greatest variety of calibers of any Winchester lever action up to that point. In addition to the long-anticipated .45-70 Government cartridge, the 1886 was offered in .33 WCF, .38-56 WCF, .38-70 WCF, .40-65 WCF, .40-70 WCF, .40-82 WCF, .45-90, .50-100 Express, and .50-100-450. The 1886 was produced in four standard versions: the 1886 Rifle, the Carbine with a shotgun-style buttplate, the Musket with an extended-length forearm, and the Extra Light Weight Rifle. Barrel lengths varied from 26 inches for Rifles, 22 inches for the Extra Light Weight Rifle and Carbine (full stock and takedown versions), and 30 inches for the Musket. Popular 1886 models sold by Cimarron are manufactured in Italy by Chiappa and are among the finest Winchester reproductions available. The 1886 is offered in two configurations: the carbine with a 22-inch barrel in .45-70, and the rifle with a 26-inch barrel. 

Colt-1911

Colt Model 1911

The Wild West began with a Colt and its history ended with a Colt, the Model 1911. The Model 1911 semi-automatic pistol was developed by Colt and John M. Browning. On March 3, 1911, the new semi-auto passed all Ordnance Department tests and on March 29, U.S. Secretary of War Jacob M. Dickinson approved the selection of the Colt as the “Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911.” This was to become our military’s first standard-issue semi-automatic sidearm. The government’s initial order was for 31,344 pistols. By the end of World War II, over 2.5 million M1911/1911A1s had been produced for the U.S. government. The final design that emerged for the 1911 has become the foundation for every 1911 model produced by Colt and other makers for more than 100 years, and the 1911 remains one of the most successful handguns in history. In addition to Colt, there are dozens of makers worldwide manufacturing variations of the 1911, both early styles and later versions (1911A1). Those with a true connection to the early 20th century American West are available from Colt, Cimarron, Taylor’s & Co., and currently Remington has a limited-edition WWI-era Model 1911.  

This article originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.        

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  • Ohiogunr

    There is one glaringly obvious candidate missing from this list. Not as glamorous as the 1851 Colt or the “Peacemaker” , nonetheless the 1860 Army went home with many Civil War Soldiers and was a real POWERHOUSE for the owner who carried his old ARMY Revolver.

  • Richard L. Morris

    I guess I don’t get it but when I think of guns of the old west, I have never thought of the 1911 Colt. I reserve that weapon for wartime, to each their own.

  • Douglas Burford

    One would think The Shotgun would be on this list in some fashion

  • Robert White

    One correction about the 1876. John M. Browning had absolutely nothing to do with it. He had no connection with Winchester before they bought the patents to both the 1885 single shot and the 1886 lever gun in the early 1880’s Until Browning came along Winchester engineers were stuck trying to make the toggle link action of the 1873 handle a larger cartridge. They wanted desperately to produce a lever gun that would handle the standard government 45-70 cartridge used by the US military. The best they could do was the over sized and over weight 1876 and even then all they could achieve was 45-60. They managed a 45-75 and a 45-90 caliber by enlarging the chamber to handle a necked cartridge.

    Still the 1876 was not a big seller and was only carried in their catalog from 1876 to 1897 with a production total of 63k. When Browning gave them the much lighter and better designed 1886 that could actually handle 45-70 gov. cartridge, the days of the 76 were numbered.

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  • Walter Bernhard

    I’m just a tad dissapointed that the Colt Walker and the Dragoon weren’t mentioned in this article. The Walker was the most powerful pistol in the world right up until they invented the .357 magnum.

  • dltaylor51

    The first center fire gun i ever shot was about 50 yrs ago and it was a model 1892 Win.25-20 and that made me a Winchester fan for life,I now have over 75 Win.rifles and carbines in every caliber they ever came in so be careful when you let a young man shoot his first Winchester it may change his life.I have no regrets.

  • BOB

    I have a schofield 1872 44. cal under restoration, found under a home i bought in wi. 1880 farmhose

  • Dominic Delia

    Shame on whoever put this list together for not including the good old W.W Greener 12ga doubles! They deserve a place here!