Outdoors/Adventure

Cultivating a lifelong infatuation with the firearms of the Old West

A swirl of dust rose from around a corner of rimrock jutting into the two-track road. Elbowing my partner seated beside me, I pointed ahead and whispered, “looks like trouble ahead, slow down and I’ll climb up through that cut and have a look.

My Winchester M73 felt good in my hands, and the weight of the Colt Single Action Army revolver was a solid reminder that I was prepared for all comers. Scurrying up the mass of haphazardly strewn boulders, I arrived at the top and removed my cowboy hat before peering over the edge.

Two men sat atop their horses 50 feet below, tucked in behind a large rock, with bandanas pulled up over their faces, one held a Winchester rifle, the other a double barreled 10 gauge, leaving no doubt of their intent to rob the incoming stagecoach.

Taking careful aim, if I shot the rifle out of one bandit’s hands, and when the other whirled with his shotgun, I could shoot him off his horse, I would once again, be a hero in my own mind; my Winchester and my Colt, pot metal and plastic, no doubt made by Mattel.

My great-grandparents had a farm in the prairie pothole region of eastern North Dakota, maybe 10 miles from our family farm. The country was tabletop flat, but in their yard were these enormous rocks butted together. Who knows where they came from, but they were the perfect backdrop for me to live out my fantasies of the Old West as depicted on television and in motion pictures.

[Bare shelves, hoarding and price gouging: How a prolonged ammunition shortage is changing Alaska’s gun culture]

In those days we didn’t have money to go to movies, but the local theater would have a free matinee for all the local folks every Christmas. One year, I was maybe 6 or 7 years old, the movie played was “Winchester 73.”

I’m not enough of a movie buff to be sure, but I believe it is the only movie ever made and named for a specific firearm. The Winchester model 1873, introduced in 1873, and the first centerfire lever-action rifle Winchester built, was thought of as the “gun that won the West.”

Chambered for the .44 Winchester Center Fire, otherwise known as the .44-40 cartridge, which modern-day folks think of as a pistol caliber, it was in fact, designed for the rifle as a short-range proposition that held a lot of ammunition. A rifle holding 10-14 rounds, depending on which version one had, was unheard of in the day, and it quickly won the hearts of mounted soldiers, ranchers, cowboys, homesteaders, and farmers.

Colt first chambered the Single Action Army revolver in .45 Colt, but soon offered the beloved handgun in .44-40, and created the concept of “pistol caliber carbine.” That is, a short rifle and a handgun chambered for the same cartridge.

The term remains today and is now more thought of in reference to semi-auto pistols and semi-auto carbines chambered for various pistol cartridges such as 9mm, .40 S&W, or .45 ACP. It is a bit ironic that the first marriage of handgun and rifle was, in fact, just the opposite, and one would properly term the Colt .44-40 they bought to match their .44-40 Model 1873, a “rifle caliber pistol.” I know, splitting hairs, but interesting still.

During those formative years of playing all sorts of Wild West roles, I believed I would have a Winchester lever-action rifle as soon as I could buy my own.

I suppose it might be likened to thinking you would marry your first-grade sweetheart — it happens, but not much. My first rifle was a Winchester bolt-action .22, my second, a Winchester bolt action .300. After that, as I grew to buy my own rifles, they were bolt actions, except for some semi-autos for my law-enforcement work.

Even though I’ve had a lifelong love of firearms, I never had enough expendable income to buy them for no reason beyond the pleasure of owning them. I acquired them for specific hunting needs, self-defense, or professional use. As it happened, those needs were most often met with bolt-action rifles or double shotguns of one type or another.

I often wonder if my first rifle had been one of Marlin’s magnificent Model 39A lever action .22s if my choices later in life would have been different. Or maybe if my first big game rifle had been one of Savage’s equally fabulous Model 99 lever guns. If I had been able to afford the Winchester Model 71, converted to .450 Alaskan by the late Bill Fuller of Cooper Landing, many years ago, maybe my entire gun history would have been different. I don’t know.

Regardless of all of that, the dream of someday having a proper Winchester “cowboy” rifle stayed with me and I figured I would have one someday just for fun.

Someday came the past couple of years, as I crept further into my sixth decade, and I rekindled my interest in single-action revolvers, and bought a Ruger Super Blackhawk, and a Buscadero belt/holster rig just for fun. I thought I had better get the rifle to go along with it.

Of course, I picked a time when finding firearms you want was an arduous and expensive task. At least I already had the revolver, and all I needed was a Winchester carbine in .44 Magnum.

Some might wonder why not get a .44-40 revolver and rifle, to honor the era in which these guns were considered the best. The answer, ammunition. I wanted the guns for fun, and that means a lot of target shooting. In today’s world it is tough to find ammunition, or reloading components. As it happens, over the years, I had accumulated plenty of brass, bullets, and the other makings for .44 Magnum cartridge. It was an easy choice.

After months of searching, and fretting, the Winchester Model 92, Saddle Ring Carbine, in .44 Magnum, arrived.

When I strapped on the gunslinger rig, and began pushing cartridges into the loading gate of the Winchester, those days of climbing around on my grandparent’s rocks came rushing back. I was a U.S. Marshal chasing the Dalton gang, or hunting for John Wesley Hardin, the stuff so many of us grew up reading about or watching television.

Silly, I suppose, but I gotta say, those folks who participate in Cowboy Action Shooting are on to something. I might just give it a try. After all, every Western has a grizzled old lawman, about to fade into the sunset; I think I’ll fit right in.

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