Eli Whitney’s company, the first of the Connecticut Valley manufacturers, survived his death in 1825 and was eventually acquired by one of the iconic names in the history of American arms: the Winchester Repeating Arms Company of New Haven. The Winchester brand is remembered for many things, not the least of which is the “gun that won the West,” a lever-action rifle known as the Model 1873, which was shortened to Model 73. Buffalo Bill carried one and called it “the Boss.”
There is a lot of romance around the 73. The lever action was something that enabled Hollywood actors to do some fancy business, working it one-handed or rapid fire and making a big impression on the kids who wanted BB guns that looked like the rifles they saw the cowboys use in the movies. The Daisy Outdoor Products company obliged them by producing something called the “Red Ryder carbine,” after a Saturday matinee cowboy character.
The Winchester 73 was an essential element in the life of the American West and, less remembered and certainly less romanticized, also in the lives of those who built it in the factories back East. They worked long hours, six days a week, in conditions that would be considered beyond harsh today. They turned out those rifles by the thousand and they made about $600 a year in factories that became the envy of the world.
If the Model 73 was the iconic cowboy rifle, then the Colt Peacemaker was the coeval handgun. The famous six-shooter was also introduced in 1873 and became a part of the furniture of movie and television westerns and was replicated in millions of cap pistols. It has become the Platonic ideal of the revolver and is still being made and shot by aficionados and buffs and reenactors.