By Dave Rodgers
Happy 150th to Colt's "Peacemaker" .45, Springfield Armory's 1873 .45-70 Trapdoor Rifle, and the 1873 Winchester .44-40. The best way to appreciate these old guns is to return them to the Superstition Wilderness in Arizona where so many western legends originated.
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.
Santee from The Arizona Ghostriders invited me along for an afternoon of shooting but this was no normal trip. Three iconic firearms from America's frontier past turn 150 years old in 2023 and he wanted to document this for an upcoming video. This is an important milestone we wouldn't miss for the world. The legendary 1873 Colt's Single Action Army Revolver, Springfield Rifle and Winchester Rifle all had a birthday to celebrate, and we did it in the best possible way in the wildest part of the Old West.
We returned to the legendary Superstition Wilderness, once roamed by the likes of Geronimo, Cochise, John Clum, Al Sieber, and the Apache Kid, to fire off an original Colt's 1873 "Peacemaker" .45 Single Action Army, Springfield 1873 .45-70 Allin Trapdoor Rifle, and an 1873 Winchester .44-40. It was only fitting to shoot these historic arms and film them in the land that helped make them famous.
As previously stated, the Superstition Mountains are one of the wildest, most uninhabited, and mysterious regions of the American West. Home to the fabled Lost Dutchman's mine, it is also a sacred land of tribal lore with habitation dating back to ancient times. Since the era of the Old West, many more legends in a region that was once known as Apacheria have been added to the list. It has all the iconic features of the American west and the various people who ranged through this desert in the late 1800's often carried these three famous firearms. The Trapdoor was standard issue to the US Army and the various Allin Trapdoor rifles and carbines were also surplused out to the public. Geronimo himself carried an earlier (1870) variant of one such rifle that was surrendered to John Clum in 1877. He was later carrying another Springfield Trapdoor when photographed by C.S. Fly in 1886. Winchester rifles were also popular with civilians of every ethnicity. As for Colt's revolvers, their abundance in the hands of soldiers and civilians alike made them a common item in this area then and now so all this was a bit of a homecoming. So for a scenic, historic land that has changed little over the years AND we have the green light to shoot here, it became the natural choice to use this location.
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 countless people outside of America's rural cultures who otherwise, would have never been introduced the story of this land and its people.
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 and authentic ammunition, of which he has written extensively on the topic. He primarily served as the narrator and advisor for this shoot.
Bruce Douglas is a veteran probations officer and an avid shooter/collector with a focus on guns of the old west. He brings many years of knowledge and expertise in shooting and old western culture, in addition to an original US Springfield Rifle stamped with an 1873 production date.
Me? my story is already in the bio on this website.
In the spirit of El Guapo, we had a 'pleathora' of guns to shoot with. This quick shot of the tailgate shows the 1873 Winchester and Trapdoor rifle, as well as an original Colt 1873, original Colt 1877 "Thunderer' (.41 cal) and a pair of US Fire arms .45 SAA revolvers.
Colt's Model 1873 "Peacemaker" Single-action Army Revolver (.45 Colt)
Colt's model 1873 Single Action Army Revolver is perhaps the most recognizable and iconic firearm of all time. It was immortalized in countless real life events of the old west as well as being the most prolific "cowboy gun" ever used in western film throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Originally manufactured in .45 Colt (often called 'Long-Colt by modern shooters). It features a .45 wide & .74 inch long, 255 grain bullet with a 1.28" metallic cartridge holding 28 - 40 grains of black powder and is capable of a muzzle velocity over 1000 fps (feet per second). The 1874 military load would be .45-30 (.45 cal. with 30 gr. of powder). Colt's SAA would later be made in .44 Winchester (.44-40) to serve as a companion sidearm to the Winchester rifle. It was actually made in many calibers too numerous to mention without getting off track.
CARD TABLE SHOOTING - We recreated a 'card table shootout' while seated at a range of 6 feet using an original Colt's m1873 .45 Cal. Single Action Army Revolver manuf. In 1880) The ammunition was ballistic duplicates of the .45 Cal. 1874 military spec (.45-30) loads used by Custer's men at The Little Big Horn . The original mainspring is very strong for thumb cocking and I fired as fast as the weapon could be safely operated. Imagine the chaos indoors some night on the frontier. A loud report followed by dull thuds and muffled screaming to ringing ears as thick smoke chokes out the firelight. These loads will easily kill a horse and rider in one shot so you are careful not to sweep your knee or thigh when unholstering.
Taking aim with an original Colt's "New Model Army Metallic Cartridge Revolving Pistol".
Note the smoke output from the before and after effects of a .45-40 round. The early .45 rounds were much more powerful by using 40 grains of gunpowder and would later be available to civilian shooters while the more anemic 28-30 grain US Army loads were standardized. Modern shooters call it "45 Long Colt" but the correct period name is "45 Colts".
Original Colt SAA .45 (top) with its predecessor, Colt's 1851 Navy Revolver .36 cal. (bottom). An interesting fact is that both guns have the same dimensions for the grips. The SAA pictured here actually has an original pair of 1851 Navy grips on it.
The Springfield Model 1873 Army "Trapdoor" Rifle (.45-70 cal.)
The Springfield 1873 Rifle, was the mainstay production arm using the 'trapdoor' breech loading mechanism. The trapdoor breech was first implemented immediately after the American Civil War. This simple design allowed the US Army to modernize its now large surplus of obsolete muzzle-loading rifle muskets. A dedicated model with a smaller bore size was required and the Springfield 1873 became the model of refinement, not to be replaced until the indtoduction of modern ballistics with smokeless propellants in the 1890s. As mentioned earlier, the various Allin Trapdoor firearms saw extended use both in military and civilian capacity into the 20th century. Geronimo carried an early (1870) variant of the Allin Trapdoor rifle (.50-70 cal.) that was surrendered to John Clum in 1877. It now resides with the Arizona Historical Society in Tucson. In March of 1886, Geronimo was photographed in the field by C.S. Fly of Tombstone fame, carrying a Springfield Trapdoor Rifle.
Bruce Douglas firing his original 1873 Allin Trapdoor Rifle in a canyon deep in the Superstition Wilderness. After a century and a half of good use, this arm still hits true to its sights.
Taking aim with the Springfield 1873 Rifle, it has an overall length of 52 inches, weight of about 7 lbs., firing a 405 grain bullet using a 70 grain powder charge. The muzzle velocity of this rifle with this load is over 1300 feet per second.
The Model 1873 Winchester Rifle
The 1873 Winchester made its name as arguably the best repeating arm of the frontier
era. Introduced in 1873, Winchester would later market this rifle as "The Gun that Won the West". Reasonably so; it saw high production numbers and extensive use on the frontier through the remainder of the 19th century. This rifle was chambered in 44 Winchester (.44-40) which is powerful and comparable to the .45 Colt (.45-40) ammunition.
Though not as hard-hitting as the US Army Springfield .45-70 rifle, it still took big game on many occasions and secured it's place in Western Legend as the fabled "Winchester 73". The list of well known encounters where this arm was used and the famous people who carried it is a who's who of Old West legend.
Gun That Won The West? - This was a popular marketing term applied to Winchester's 1873 rifles and later, to Colt's revolvers as well. It has since become a hot-button for political debate between activists and historians as to its true 'meaning'.
Arms such as this were heavily used during a romanticized period when this Nation grew up. Though 'winning the west' implied settling what was previously considered a desert wilderness, unsuited to plow, hearth or home, the collision of cultures between settlers and the various tribes during this time should not be ignored. In reality, "Indian Fights" were extremely rare by the 1870s when this "guns that won the west" term was coined. For self defense, it was far more likely to be a showdown against the occasional desperado and other miscreants who roamed the byways from town to town. By the end of the era, citizens of both European and Tribal origins commonly carried and used at least one of these arms. In my own family, there is a Springfield passed down for generations, currently residing in a relative's gun safe. On my mom's side of the family, both Anglo, and Tribal members have owned many Winchester and Colt arms since the 19th century onward and these ancestral collections are still receiving modern additions into today.
Historically, earlier firearms such as Trade-Muskets, Fowlers, and Frontier Rifles arguably deserve the true credit as guns that "won the west" because they were the actual weapons commonly carried by those who blazed the trails and broke the soil on countless homesteads long before 1873. America started the 19th century as a developing nation with vast territories of open land coveted by various empires. By the end of the 19th century the US emerged as an strong independent nation drawing immigrants from around the world with agriculture and industry spanning from coast to coast. These three guns served as examples of this new nation and it's seemingly limitless industrial capabilities.
The Legacy of These Three Guns
The 73' Springield Trapdoor and its later variants would serve the US military right up into the dawn of the 20th century, fighting in wars both domestic and abroad from the western states and territories, to Cuba, and the Philippines. Although the advent of smokeless cartridges made this arm obsolete by the 1880s, there were times where it was still taken into battle by the sons of the original soldiers who first carried it, 25 years after its introduction during the Spanish-American War. Even though the .45-70 round was replaced in 1892 by they (Krag Jorgenson) .30-40 for the M1892 Springfield, they were still used in the Spanish American War (1898) and continued service with National Guard units into the early 1900's.
The Winchester 1873 would be one of the Winchester company's most successful rifles of all time. Its initial manufacturing run lasted 50 years, and produced more than 700,000 of this model alone. The 1873 Winchester and its variants would see action on virtually every settled continent including use in both World Wars. Their immense popularity among traditional arms enthusiasts have brought this iconic longarm back into production. Despite a price tag north of $1800, the experience is well worth it to many modern shooters.
Colt's 1873 SAA would continue to see action across the west, to Cuba, the South Pacific, and as far as the Second Boer War. It secured its place in written lore and the silver screen. Today, a multitude of companies reproduce this famous pistol pattern in calibers ranging from .22 to even a hard-hitting .45-70 variant, the Golden Bison Bull. During a series of production runs going from 1873 to now, more than 457,000 units have been made by Colt's Manufacturing Company alone.
All three of these guns are iconic symbols of rugged individualism in an uncertain world. To let these original guns from a bygone era speak again, was a rare pleasure. As I stood in the wilderness, savoring a cloud of gun smoke on a desert wind, it reminded me that fashions change and generations come to pass, but the wild west never died; it's just as alive as it ever was and its an honor to be a part of it.