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But Colt once had a lever-action rifle, and Winchester a six-shooter.

Out of the dozens of gun manufacturers who invented and produced breechloading cartridge firearms during the shoot-’em-up period of the last half of the 19th century, two names stand out above the rest—Colt and Winchester. Colt, of course, produced legendary revolvers, while Winchester turned out legendary lever-action repeating rifles. But to this day, you can get a whomping good argument going about whether it was the Colt revolver or Winchester lever-action rifle that truly earned the title “The Gun That Won the West.” And you can get into a bigger argument about the legend that, to avoid competition with each other, the two companies made a gentlemen’s agreement that Colt would stick to making revolvers and Winchester to making lever-action repeating rifles.

Colt had made revolving rifles and shotguns during the cap-and-ball period of the 1850s and ’60s. And Smith & Wesson and the Volcanic Arms Co. had made breechloading, lever-action, repeating cartridge pistols before Oliver Winchester turned their mechanisms into the 1860 Henry rifle and the Model 1866 Winchester rifle. By the early 1870s the .44-caliber Model 1866 Winchester had become the most popular repeating rifle on the frontier. But after the cap-and-ball period ended in the late 1860s, Colt was still struggling to continue its dominance of the revolver market by trying to develop a large-caliber cartridge revolver that would compete with the new Smith & Wesson cartridge six-shooters.

And Oliver Winchester also realized that there was yet an untapped profitable market for large-caliber cartridge revolvers. So in June 1872 he hired two ex–Smith & Wesson gunsmiths, William W. Wetmore and Charles W. Wells, to develop a Winchester revolver. And it is important to note that when Winchester originally created his revolver project in 1872, it was more than a year before Colt would begin producing the most popular and legendary Old West gun of all— the .45-caliber Colt Model 1873 Single Action Army revolver.

By 1876 the prototype revolvers that Wetmore and Wells had designed were still having functional problems that kept Winchester from putting them into production, even though some prototypes were exhibited at the famous 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. But that July another gunsmith, Stephen W. Wood, came on board and began revamping the Winchester-Wetmore-Wells revolver, which evolved into a six-shot, .44-40-caliber, single-action cartridge revolver with a swing-out cylinder that was more than a decade ahead of its time. Winchester sent off samples of this new Winchester-Wetmore-Wood revolver to the U.S. Navy Ordnance Bureau and the Turkish government. Not surprising, the U.S. Navy ignored the Winchester revolver. But in June 1877 the sultan of Turkey ordered 30,000 of them, and Winchester officially christened it the Model 1877 revolver.

Winchester actually tooled up for production of its revolvers. And it is known that some of the revolvers were delivered to Turkey, though the exact quantity is unclear. And it is unclear whether any of Winchester’s Model 1877 revolvers were ever produced for the civilian U.S. market. But that Colt was concerned about competition from the Winchester revolver is apparent from its decision in 1877 to begin offering its already-popular Single Action Army Model in the .44-40 caliber that Winchester had developed for its Model 1873 rifle and was also to be used in its Model 1877 revolver.

Samuel Colt had died on January 10, 1862. Oliver Winchester died on December 10, 1880. William W. Converse, a brother-in-law of Oliver’s son William Wirt, became president of Winchester in 1881, and son-in-law Thomas G. Bennett became vice president in 1882. Back in 1880 Colt and Winchester had become entangled in a marketing war over their double-barreled shotguns. As ex-Winchester museum curator Herbert G. Houze explains in his book Winchester Repeating Arms Company, “To counter Winchester’s [shotgun] competition, the Colt company retaliated by beginning the development of a lever-action rifle based on the designs of Andrew Burgess and R.L. Brewer. In response, theWinchester company imported 600 P. Webley & Sons double-action [.44-caliber Bull Dog] revolvers for sale in New York….Stung by Colt’s planned incursion into Winchester’s prime markets through the development of a leveraction rifle, Thomas G. Bennett set in motion a plan to not only destroy Colt’s shotgun markets but also their sales of any new long arms.”

In 1883 Colt brought out its lever-action rifle, which was an improvement on a lever-action mechanism that inventor Andrew Burgess had previously sold to Eli Whitney Jr. in 1878 and to John Marlin in 1880. The Colt Burgess came in a 15- shot rifle or 12-shot carbine with either a round or octagonal barrel. Probably not coincidental, it was available only in Winchester’s .44-40-caliber cartridge. And in 1884 Colt also came out with its new line of slide-action, repeating “pump” rifles.

In May 1882 Winchester’s Bennett had hired William T. Mason, who had been one of Colt’s most inventive gunsmiths. And in late 1882 Bennett had ordered Mason to design yet another single-action revolver and a slide-action, repeating pump rifle for Winchester. These moves, according to Houze, were part of Bennett’s deliberate long-range plan to “thwart” the production of Colt’s lever-action rifle. On June 1, 1884, with two prototypes of Mason’s new Winchester single-action revolver carried ominously in a satchel, Bennett met with Colt president Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin to discuss Winchester’s plans to market slide-action rifles and single-action revolvers. Consequently, writes Houze, “a rapprochement was reached between the two firms. As Bennett succinctly wrote in his diary, they agreed ‘not to interfere in each another’s markets.’”

And so, Houze confirms that the mythical noncompetition agreement between Colt and Winchester did actually take place.

Colt “mysteriously” discontinued its Burgess lever-action rifle in 1885, and it never again produced a lever-action rifle. But Colt continued to make its slide-action pump rifles in various sizes and calibers until 1904. Winchester never put a revolver into regular production. And it didn’t make a slide-action pump rifle until 1890, and even then only in .22 caliber.

Only 6,403 Colt Burgess lever-action rifles were made during the two years (1883–85) that they were produced. So there are few known anecdotes about their actual use on the frontier. The most famous is a factory-engraved one inscribed HON. WM. F. CODY, JULY 26, 1883, WITH COMPLIMENTS OF COLT’S CO. that is in the Autry Western Heritage Center in Los Angeles.

And there are a few existing photos of men with Colt Burgess rifles, including one 1887 photo in which a Texas Ranger is holding one. Besides the few prototypes that it made, exactly how many finished revolvers Winchester produced is unclear. And most likely none of them reached the American frontier. And so, today, the Winchester revolvers are the rarest of all Winchester firearms—the “holy grail” for Winchester collectors.


Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.