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  • Writer's pictureDave Rodgers

HAWKEN - SHARPS - WINCHESTER, Three Iconic Rifles of the American Plains

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

By Dave Rodgers

Deep in the Heart of the Superstition Wilderness, Three Pards Came Together and Put Some of the Old West's Most Famous Rifles Back Onto the Firing Line; Here's what happened...



Dave Rodgers is Chief Editor of the Frontier American Illustrated News. He is a tribal member and westerner descended directly from Squire and Edward Boone (father & brother of Daniel Boone). With an old-west family lineage of explorers, farmers, ranchers, miners, railroad men, lawmen and desperadoes, he takes pride in the rich story of the land his family came from. As a resident of rural Arizona, he continues the traditions of the American West and promotes the western culture as it continues into the new century.


It was a brisk Saturday morning out in the Superstition Wilderness. Santee, Dave Twigg, and I headed out into the desert for a special session of morning trigger time. Three rifles, iconic to the 1800's were about to thunder over the land that made them famous once more. This outing was to create a video about Hollywood not getting the recoil right, especially with big-bore firearms. Challenge accepted! We brought a couple of Buffalo killers and perhaps the most iconic of western rifles to liven things up. Here's what we had...

The Hawken Rifle, would become a legendary arm despite its comparative rarity among other guns along the Southern Route and in the latter-portion of the Rocky Mountain fur trade era. The Sharps 'Big-50' would become the iconic arm of buffalo hunters and post-civil war plainsmen. Finally, the Winchester model 1873 saw heavy use across the west from Texas Rangers to Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. It became the premier repeating rifle of lawmen, outlaws, 'cowboys' and prairie travelers alike.

 


The Crew

  • David Twigg is a Vietnam War Vet, Retired Pima County Sheriff's Deputy & professional shooting instructor. He has a lifetime of shooting experience with a focus on Old West Cartridge Arms, of which he has written extensively on the topic.

  • Santee heads up the Arizona Ghost Riders and produces a weekly video channel with millions of views focused on life in the Old West. He spent many years working as a professional showman and the creative approach he uses has reached a wide viewing audience around the world. He is responsible for reaching millions who otherwise, would have never been introduced the story of this land and its people.

  • Me? my story is already in the bio on this website.


 

The Guns


The St. Louis Hawken Rifle (Don Kammerer Pattern) really was the proverbial 'Cadillac' of frontier muzzleloading firearms during the 1830s-40s-50s. They were made to order in small quantities but were reputed to have been carried by the likes of Jim Bridger, Joe Meek, W. H. Ashley, and Jedediah Smith.

Hawken Rifles were famed on the frontier among mountain men as an excellent arm but it was mid-19th c. writers like George Frederick Ruxton who really helped give these rifles their fame among readers worldwide. So influential was Ruxton's work that his words are actually quoted in the Robert Redford film Jeremiah Johnson, namely when Bear Claw Chris Lapp (Will Geer) talks about trading his Cheyenne wife for a 'Hawken gun'. Thanks to this film, the new generations of western enthusiasts will know this rifle's name.

The rifle featured here has a G.R. Douglas barrel and weighs in at 15 lbs. It is firing a .530 (224 grain) ball sitting on 110 grains of Goex FFg 'black powder'.


The Model 1874 Sharps "Big-50" Business Rifle was the latest refinement of an arm synonymous for its excellent design and use during the Old West's expansionist era and the American Civil War. The new 74' Business Rifle (introduced in 1871) could drop and kill a Bison outright with one shot that would bleed it out quickly. Hunting manuals of the period often warned how nothing but a shot that severed a "buffalo's" spine would drop it in its tracks. Even a lethal hit to the heart and lungs would seldom stop the beast outright. It could still run a great distance before succumbing to its wound. These rifles were made in Hartford, then Bridgeport, CT from 1871 to 1881. They combined the hard-hitting big-bore firepower of earlier muzzle-loaders like the Hawken Rifle with improved ballistics in a convenient metallic cartridge. The Big-50 gained notoriety in the hands of Billy Dixon during the second battle of adobe walls where he reputedly killed a Comanche warrior at over 1500 yards. This rifle used a combination of 450 - 473 - & 505 grain bullets over 90 grains of FFg black powder.



The Model 1873 Winchester Rifle made its name as the best repeating arm of the frontier era. Introduced in the 1870s, it saw high production numbers and extensive use through the remainder of the 19th century. Though relatively anemic for a hunting round when compared to the other two-rifles in this article, it was often present during many of the most noteworthy incidents of the old west. While its .44-40 cartridge had nowhere near the recoil of the other arms, it is an absolute joy to shoot and is deadly accurate in delivering a high volume of fire in an era that was still mostly of double and single-shot long arms.


 

Enjoy Each Moment of Your Life

Getting together with friends in the great outdoors to retrace the footsteps of our ancestors really feeds the soul. With each experience we build, we wind up leaving a few footprints of our own. John (Santee) and Dave are true salt of the earth and it's more than just the experience, it's the people who are on the journey with you. There are people in your life who make it a better place. Here are two of such people.

-DR


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1 Comment


Arizona Ghostriders
Arizona Ghostriders
Apr 22, 2022

It was a terrific day of history, camaraderie, and black powder smoke. Thanks to you both.

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