In celebrating National Day of the Cowboy, observed annually on the fourth Saturday of July, the NRA Museums shares the stories of eight firearms that left an indelible footprint on the history of the United States, as these guns were used by pioneers as they pressed forward into unsettled territories and established their lives deep into the west.
From compact carbines to six-shooters, and lever-actions to shotguns, these firearms represent a significant period of evolution and innovation in American gun manufacturing and design, as the harsh environments and gritty lifestyles of the untamed American west demanded performance and durability from gunmakers. Cowboys, soldiers, deliverymen, lawmen, outlaws and civilian settlers alike saddled up and bore these arms for self-defense, hunting for food or in the line of duty, continuing the tradition of a well-armed American society with a deep appreciation for and identity rooted in the right to keep and bear arms.
Thousands of Civil War-surplus percussion carbines and rifles flooded the domestic market in the late 1860s and 1870s, and later metallic cartridge Sharps rifles were also responsible for the near-extinction of the American bison. Buffalo hunters, shooting “stands” with “Big Fifty” Sharps rifles, hunting herds from far south in Texas all the way north to the Canadian border. Accurate and durable, the single-shot Sharps, chambered in big blackpowder cartridges, was the favored rifle of the buffalo hunter.
Descended from the Civil War Henry rifle, the .44 rimfire Winchester Model 1866, often called the “Yellowboy” for its brass receiver, was a popular arm for Native Americans as well as soldiers and settlers heading West. In rifle, musket, and carbine versions, these lever-action Winchesters could hold more than a dozen cartridges in their tubular magazines, firepower that might make a significant difference in survival.
Starting with metallic cartridge conversions to muzzleloading Civil War muskets, the American military finally adopted a .45 caliber breechloader with an action that resembled a “trapdoor.” This single-shot rifle and carbine were the arms that would be issued to cavalry and infantry throughout the Indian Wars period. Many of these well-worn rifles later were given or sold to ranchers and those settling in the west.
Some have called it "The Rifle That Won the West," but Winchester’s first centerfire lever-action was offered in a new and stronger steel frame. Chambered for calibers from .22 to .44-40, the Winchester ’73 could be found as a rifle, carbine or musket. Special engraved editions selected for accuracy, including the “One of One Thousand” and “One of One Hundred” gave a new experience to sharpshooters out on the frontier.
A direct evolution of Sam Colt’s older percussion revolver designs, the gun known as Model 1873, Peacemaker, Frontier Six-Shooter, and by other names came to be an emblematic American single-action revolver that would be chambered for more than 36 different cartridges. A strong, reliable sidearm for sheriff and sodbuster, outlaw or cavalry trooper – the Colt single action handgun in .45 or .44-40 was well distributed in both military and civilian hands. Even today, this sixgun design is widely used by cowboy action competitive shooters across the nation.
The U.S. Army, while seeking a quickly reloaded handgun to replace stockpiles of aging Civil War percussion revolvers, conversions and even earlier S&W six-guns, elected to go with an improved break-open revolver design put forth by Col. George Schofield and manufactured by Smith & Wesson. The short .45 cartridge used in this S&W handgun could also be used in Colt single-action revolvers, but the longer Colt cartridge could not be utilized in the Schofields. When the Army tired of the Schofield, many were purchased and resold to express companies, including Wells Fargo.
Another competitor to Colt on the frontier came from Ilion, N.Y. Remington’s Model 1875 revolver was offered in both .44 and .45 calibers, but with only 30,000 manufactured, these Remingtons were not as often seen in the holsters of cowboys on cattle drives. A single-action design that greatly resembled the Colt Peacemaker, Remington also produced a modified version of their revolver without the distinctive underbarrel flange as the frontier came to a close in 1890.
Perhaps the one type of firearm that was to be most widely seen across the West was the common smoothbore, domestically made or imported shotguns either in single barrel or double barrel format. A utilitarian tool that could defend a homestead or put food on the table, shotguns were everywhere as the nation expanded across the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.