The words “Old West” conjure up pictures of rough, unwashed men with wide-brimmed hats and six shooters on their hips. Rather than the single shots and repeaters which were so prevalent throughout the frontier, some say Samuel Colt and his single action Peacemaker were responsible for civilizing the frontier and bringing law to the badlands.
However, the men of the United States Army didn’t patrol Indian Territory armed with just their revolvers. A native warrior with a bow and arrow was fast and deadly. An archer on horseback could keep stringing and loosing as many arrows as he had in his quiver without ever needing to “pause and reload.”
For the army, a six-shooter simply wasn’t enough. Colt’s revolvers were accurate only at close range, and for serious gunfights, rifles were needed. During the drive for westward expansion, it was single shots firearms and repeaters which truly won the old west.
Before we delve into the history, we must first discuss what the difference is between single shots and repeaters. A single shot firearm, by definition, is any weapon that only fires once before needing to be reloaded. A repeater or repeating rifle is typically operated via lever action and holds multiple rounds of ammunition in a non-detachable internal magazine.
Both were common rifles during the middle and later half of the 19th century. Repeating rifles have managed to maintain a following to this day among wild west enthusiasts while single shot firearms remain popular among collectors of historical firearms.
Single Shot Firearms
The very first single shot firearm is arguably the very first firearm itself – the 10th century Chinese fire lance. Even as time marched on, new innovations such as the man-portable hand cannon of the Middle Ages or the flintlock musket of the 18th century were improvements on the same idea of a single projectile leaving the barrel of a gun before needing to be reloaded.
In fact, there was so little difference in combat effectiveness that some Confederate troops in the Civil War of the 1860s were armed with Brown Bess muskets that would have been familiar to George Washington.
In other parts of the world at around the same time, the Chinese – the very same people who had invented gunpowder – were using matchlock muskets from the era of Pocahontas which still relied on lit match-cords to fire.
The truth of the matter was that these weapon designs, despite the fact they were hundreds of years old by the middle of the 19th century, were still just as deadly as when they had first been invented. The rate of fire of a man armed with a matchlock musket was not drastically slower than that of a man equipped with a “modern” Springfield 1861, and in terms of effective range, the Springfield had a negligible advantage. However, advancements like breechloading and the centerfire cartridge would change the single shot firearm forever and open a gateway to new avenues in ballistic technology.
By 1874, the Sharps Rifle Company had upgraded its flagship rifle to the point where it did away with the tedious paper cartridges and ramrods of muskets past. The Sharps Rifle, which saw action in conflicts all the way from India with the British to Kansas with anti-slavery combatants, fired a centerfire cartridge rather than a musket ball. After the weapon was primed and fired, it could be reloaded simply by sliding a new round into the breech instead of going through the tedium of biting a cartridge, measuring powder, and ramming wadding down a barrel as one would do with a musket.
Most muskets of the 19th century had to be primed with a percussion cap placed on a small nipple on the firearm’s mechanism which had to be replaced every time the weapons were fired. The Sharps Company had an ingenious workaround to increase its rifle’s rate of fire. A spring-loaded stack of primers was loaded into the Sharp’s special primer mechanism, and one was ejected every time it was fired, much like a modern magazine. It was an idea ahead of its time.
The fast-loading Sharp’s rifle quickly found favor among cavalry troops since its design made reloading from horseback easy. It was also highly prized by marksmen for its extreme range and accuracy. In 1874, a group of about 700 native warriors descended on the small settlement of Adobe Walls in the Texas Panhandle, intending to raze it to the ground. There were only 28 men present at the settlement to defend it. However, one of them, Billy Dixon, was a crack shot. Using a .50-90 Sharps he borrowed from a companion, he dropped one of the natives from his horse at 1,500 yards, spooking the whole warband. This was one of the greatest sniper kills in American history, done with a rifle that could only take one round at a time.
While the Sharps Rifle is a great weapon in its own right, it doesn’t bear the same prestige as its repeater contemporary. Winchester’s New Model of 1873, otherwise known as the Winchester Repeater, was the pinnacle of riflery at the time of its production. It’s been venerated in books, movies and popular culture to the point the modern Winchester company is able to stand on the laurels of this weapon up to this day.
The Winchester was not the first repeater, but it is by far the most storied. Toted as “the gun that won the west,” this weapon and its variants were used all over the world from the borders of the Ottoman Empire, where Muslim troops used it to slaughter Russians by the thousands, as well as the plains of Mexico, where Mexican freedom fighters used the rifle to kick the French out of their country.
The evidence of the Winchester’s effectiveness was proven at the Battle of Little Bighorn, where Lieutenant Colonel George Custer and 700 men of his 7th Cavalry Regiment, armed with army-issued Springfield 1873 single-shot rifles, were overwhelmed in a single charge by a thousand native Americans and slaughtered. Some two hundred natives were armed with Winchester or Henry repeating rifles, which were able to provide a continuous barrage of fire – deadly in the open plains near the Little Bighorn where there was no cover.
A soldier armed with a Springfield rifle could use his rifle from horseback, true, but it still involved reloading the weapon every time it was fired. By contrast, the Winchester, in trained hands, could fire faster than one round per second.
In the battle between single shots and repeaters, the army eventually recognized that it needed to replace its inefficient single-shot firearm, and so beginning in 1892, began phasing out the Springfield 1873 in favor of the Krag-Jorgensen bolt action rifle. Civilians, on the other hand, especially those who lived on the frontier, favored the Winchester for its rapid action and high magazine capacity. Hunters, especially those who wanted to take down big game like elk or buffalo, appreciated the immense stopping power of the Sharps rifle and the Springfield 1873, which were chambered in .50-70 and .45-70-405 respectively.
What about you? Did you know about the differences between single-shot rifles and repeaters? What’s your favorite weapon from the old west? Tell us in the comments below.