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The best of the old west: Duke's top 3 picks.

If ever there was a formative decade in American firearms' history it had to be the 1870s. That was when percussion-type firearms firing separate powder and ball loads ignited by percussion caps were superseded by ones taking metallic cartridges. And brother, what a time of cartridge and firearm introductions it was! In the 1870s, words like Winchester, Colt, Sharps and Remington became household names in the United States.

Scores of rifles and handguns were developed and introduced by those firms and many others in that decade. A few of those guns are actually still with us albeit in forms altered from original. Very few, such as the Colt SAA revolver and the Remington Rolling Block rifle, are actually still offered by companies bearing those famous names.

And let's not forget the cartridge development happening in the 1870s. That decade began with rounds like .44 Henry rimfire and .50-70 Government being most prominent and ended with ones like .45 Colt, .44 WCF (.44-40) and .45 Government (.45-70) as best sellers. At the beginning of the 1870s, metallic cartridge reloading was in its infancy but 10 years later it was a common practice.

Taming The West

The 1870s was also the last great gasp of the "Wild West." The first transcontinental railroad was finished in 1869. A mere 10 years later railroads crisscrossed the West, bison herds were nearly finished and so were freeroaming Indians. It was a fascinating time to say the least.

A great deal of my career has dealt with shooting, handloading for, and even hunting with 1870s firearms (and reproductions thereof) and their plethora of cartridges. I've come to hold some very definite opinions about what I consider the "Best of the Old West."


Best Single Shot

Let's divide rifles into two genres: repeaters and single shots. There were a host of single shots made in the 1870s; Springfield "trapdoors" made by the US Government plus brand names like Sharps, Remington, Ballard, Maynard and Peabody. Sharps have been most famous but my vote goes to the Remington No. 1 "rolling block" as best. Its design was simplicity made real. There was no complicated side lock with small, intricately fitted parts. There was just a breechblock that rotated rearwards to expose the chamber, a hammer and locked the breechblock when it fell, and an extractor to empty the chamber after firing. Which would you rather have as your rifle when hundreds of miles from civilization? If I had lived in the 1870s I likely would have started the decade with a rolling block .50-70 but probably would have traded it for a .45-70 one when they became available.

Now to repeaters. In the 1870s you could buy Winchester Model 1866s, 1873s, 1876s, Spencers and some lesser-known ones like the Evans. Mine would have been the Winchester Model 1873. One detriment of the Spencer design was it had to be manually cocked for each shot. Also, its chamberings were rimfire, hence not reloadable. That is also why I would have ignored the Model 1866 Winchester. And, I would likewise have ignored the '76 Winchester because it was just too dang big!

My '73 Winchester .44 WCF would have been in rifle configuration or perhaps even in musket form. The difference would have been in how it was going to be carried. If on horseback it would have been a round-barreled rifle. An octagon barreled Winchester looks "cool" but is heavier. A carbine is lighter yet, but capable of less precise shooting. So I would have bought a round-barreled rifle. Let's also not forget the .44 WCF was Winchester's first reloadable cartridge.

It also made a fine handgun cartridge and that brings us to sidearms. I've not made it a secret that the .45 Colt doesn't excite me as a modern revolver cartridge. But, back in the Old West it was about the most powerful one to be had. The .44 WCF was second. Of course we're talking of the celebrated Colt Single Action Army (SAA) here. It's a little-known fact that no other major handgun manufacturer of the 1870s chambered their revolvers for .45 Colt. (Remington did make a small number of the Model 1875 in .45 Colt for US Army trials but as far as I can discern they were never offered commercially.) I favor the 7-1/2" barrel length and 1-piece walnut grips just as were issued to the US Cavalry.



The big Colt Peacemaker was not without faults. Its screws required continual tightening and its leaf springs were subject to breaking, especially the small trigger/bolt spring. I've experienced a few of those letting go but never a mainspring. Breakage was the bad news. The good news was that replacement springs were drop-in items. The only tool needed to do so was a screwdriver. Incidentally, when the US Army bought Colt SAAs for the cavalry service the $13.25 purchase price included a screwdriver for each.

That's my opinion on the "Best of the Old West." Fra
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Title Annotation:MONTANA MUSINGS
Author:Venturino, Mike Duke
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Nov 5, 2010
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