Name that RifleOpinion
OPINION — My friend, Randy Young, and I were watching a movie once, the one where George Clooney was a football player in the 1920s. One scene, which was supposedly set in 1925, showed a Model T Ford, and Randy said, “Look at those fenders! They didn’t make fenders like that until 1927! This is supposed to be 1925!” It ruined the movie for him.
The same thing happens to me, but with guns instead of cars. I like watching old westerns, but the guns they use are not always period correct. For example, Rio Lobo is one of my favorite Marion Morrison movies. It begins during the American Civil War, and ends in about 1866. Even so, the movie is full of Colt Single Action Army revolvers, the ones commonly referred to by their nickname, Peacemaker. Those pistols were introduced in 1873. For those who were taught the new math, 1873 came after 1866.
The Duke, and almost every other character in Rio Lobo except Jack Elam, carries a Peacemaker and a rifle. The rifles in the movie are almost entirely 1892 Winchesters, which didn’t hit the market until 26 years after the movie is set. Watching Rio Lobo is like watching Ben Hur, and seeing Dale Earnhardt and Charlton Heston race around the coliseum. In stock cars.
Above: The 1892 Winchester
The same thing, with the guns, has happened in countless westerns I’ve seen. When I watch these movies I keep expecting one of the cowboys to look down at his gun and say, “Hey, where did this come from? This rifle hasn’t been invented yet!” That never happens, for some reason.
So the movie people usually just ignore the issue of authenticity when it comes to guns in westerns. It may be because they’re too lazy to learn when the guns were invented, or it may be because they figure it’s not worth the trouble to obtain the correct rifles for a movie set in 1885, when you already have a rack full of 1892 Winchesters. But I was watching a western series a while back, and it went a step further. Blatant lying. I know, it’s hard to believe.
Jeff Daniels is one of the main characters in the Netflix series ‘Godless,’ and at one point he pulls his rifle out of his saddle scabbard to show it to a guy, and says, “1873 Winchester. Greatest rifle ever made.” Which it was, until John Moses Browning got involved a decade or so later. The only problem is that the rifle Daniels was holding was an 1866 Winchester. And the two are pretty hard to confuse – the 1866 had a brass receiver; the 1873 receiver is blued. It’s like mistaking a Doberman for a Cocker Spaniel.
Now, I realize most people don’t notice these discrepancies, because they aren’t familiar with the guns invented during the latter part of the 1800s. But this isn’t rocket science. There weren’t all that many different guns during that era, and the most popular ones all had distinctive features easily noticeable from at least ten yards away. Ten minutes on a search engine and you can be an expert on common 19th century lever-action rifles. Or you can read the rest of this column.
The Henry rifle, patented in 1860, was the first successful lever-action rifle, and is easily distinguishable from all the rest because it had no wooden fore stock. You’ll want to wear a glove if you’re going to shoot one very much, because the barrel gets hot. The Henry was issued sparingly to Union troops during the Civil War, and held 13 rounds of .44 Winchester Rimfire ammunition. A Confederate lieutenant called it, ‘That darn Yankee rifle you load on Sunday and shoot all week.’ Pretty much. Besides not having a fore end, the receiver was made of brass.
Above: The circa 1860s Henry Rifle.
The 1866 Winchester rifle also had a brass receiver, but was fitted with a wooden fore stock. Nelson King, a Winchester plant superintendent, had invented a loading gate which was first used in the ’66, so the rifle could be loaded from the receiver. The insides are just like the Henry.
The 1873 Winchester was slightly improved internally, the receiver was blued steel, and it had a plate screwed onto each side of the receiver that, when removed, offered easy access to the gizzards. The 1876 also had plates, but more rounded ones. Tom Horn favored the 1876 rifle.
Above: The 1873 Winchester (top). The 1866 Winchester (bottom)
John Moses Browning designed the 1886 Winchester, a marvel of technology at the time. It had a small, removable plate just behind the loading gate, and the bottom of the receiver had rounded corners in front of the lever. The 1892 Winchester was a scaled-down version of the ‘86, except without the removable plate. The 1894 Winchester looks similar to the ’92, but the bottom corners of the receiver are not rounded.
That’s about it, except for the Spencer Repeating Rifle, which came out in 1860, and didn’t look like it had a lever, because the trigger guard was the lever. It also didn’t have a magazine tube under the barrel, which all the others had, because the tube was in the butt stock.
Above: The 1860 Spencer Repeating Rifle