One of the iconic images when one thinks of the “Old West” is that of a lever action Winchester rifle. They were used by frontiersman, Native Americans, cowboys and just about anyone who came to the old West during it’s hey day. When most folks think of the old West, they think of a period of time which started about the end of the War Between the States and ended with the turning of the new century—a short thirty year period, but packed with legends and lore!
Most of our exposure to the old West now-a-days comes in the form of movies. Although not always historically accurate, Western movies has brought more exposure about the old West to a broader audience than just about any other mode. Anyone who has watched a classic Western movie has seen the iconic lever action Winchester. An interesting fact about that however, is that in most Western movies (especially ones that do not pay attention to being historically accurate) the rifles being used are Winchester model ‘92s and ‘94s, rifle models that came out well after the events being depicted, in most cases.
So that brings us around to the subject of our discussion. What classic Winchester lever action rifles were used during the period of the old West? Here is a little Winchester Lever Action 101 every budding collector should know.
There we seven different lever action Winchester models released during this time period: the model 1866, 1873, 1876, 1886, 1892, 1894 and 1895. There were other Winchesters released during this period, but the multi-shot, lever action models that are so iconic are those listed above.
Out of those 7 models, a beginning collector or historian should first focus on the models ’66, ’73, ’86, ’92 and ’94 in my opinion. If you study those five models, you will learn about 90% of the Winchesters used or depicted in anything to do with the old West.
The model 1866, for example, was Winchester’s first iconic model produced under the Winchester name. They are easy to spot, because of their bright brass frame, they are nicknamed the “Yellow Boy”. They are highly sought after by collectors.
The next model to study is the Winchester ’73, they are easily identified by a rectangular brass spot on the bottom of the frame, giving them a unique look as well. (The ’76 also has a similar look, but there were not near as many produced so most of the time when you see this look, it is a ’73.) The model 1873 has been nicknamed, “The Gun That Won The West” and was used probably more than any other rifle during the old West period.
Next, study the model 1886, this was the first lever action model designed by John Browning for Winchester. John Browning brought forth a rifle that was designed to handle the larger calibers better than any other up to this point in time. Teddy Roosevelt thought so much of the model ’86s, it was said to be his rifle of choice.
The model ’92 has become iconic with movie buffs because of John Wayne and Chuck Connors. The large loop, lever action used in many John Wayne movies was a model 1892 (although this was a custom job and not standard to the model). Chuck Connors also used a large loop ’92 in the popular television series, The Rifleman. Model 1892s were basically an upgraded version of the ‘73s for folks who preferred to shoot .44 and smaller calibers.
With the model 1894, smokeless powered cartridges were introduced. The ‘94 is also known as the rifle Tom Horn carried. The model ’94 in .30-30 caliber was the most prolific Winchester model ever made and is what you see more often than not in those old Western movies. An interesting fact about the model ‘94s is that only about the first 350,000 were made during the 1800s, before the turn of the century. Consequently, these models tend to have a higher collectible value than their mates manufactured after 1900.
Once you have these five models down and are able to spot one at a glance because they all look slightly different from one another, then you will want to expand your knowledge into the other models of 1876 and 1895. But don’t stop there, you can go even further and look into the single-shot models (like the 1885) and even lever action shotguns (like Winchester model 1887). The chances for expanding you knowledge about classic Winchesters from the old West are many!
Numerous folks enjoy collecting classic Winchesters arms of the old West period, perhaps you are one of them!
Jim Olson ©2018