The Melodramatic Winchester

Ah, that sweet sound.  There’s nothing like a Winchester, especially in Hollywood.

The various Winchester lever-action models made during the last half of the 19th Centrury have become an icon of the Old West.  Despite a wide variety of firearm companies and designs that saw wide use hunting grizz and shooting the bad guys in black hats, the Winchester, much like the Colt single-action pistol, has become a legend in American frontier mythology.  Western movies made prior to 1990 rarely showed any other long gun than a Winchester, despite the fact that Sharps, Remington, and numerous other companies’ offerings were found throughout the West.  There is something about the fast-shooting, sleek lines of the the ’66, ’73, ’76, ’86, ’92, and ’94, and ’95 model rifles and carbines that strikes a city-slicker director’s fancy.  The 1873 Winchester in it’s various pistol cartridge chamberings is the real darling of Hollywood.  I would venture that no long gun has participated in more Westerns than the ’73 (except when John Wayne erroneously packed an 1892 bow ring carbine in movies set in the 1870′s).  Granted, the various Winchester models were the Cadillac of firearms in an age where manufacturers advertised the high rate of fire of the repeating descendants of muzzle and breechloading weapons shooters had once relied upon.  When Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes had to surround and capture thirty outlaws, plenty of shoot-em-up fodder stuffed in the magazine tube came in handy.  An old single-shot Ballard rifle would never look exciting for Chuck Connors to fire from the hip at at rate of six rounds per minute, as opposed to that many in a second.  It is understandable why Hollywood is so ga ga over the Winchester, but that love affair is not simply due to the looks or the magazine capacity of the gun.  It often seems that film makers love the sound of the rifle more than anything, and I don’t mean the boom of an exploding cartridge.

How many times have we watched the scene where the movie gunfighter needs to use his Winchester and dramatically works the lever and clacks a cartridge into the chamber?  In fact, sometimes the actor may do it more than once, ejecting an unspent cartridge onto the ground to replace it with another one from the magazine.  It seems that the sound of that Winchester action snapping open and closed is just too great not to use.  While the sight of one of my big screen heroes jacking a round into his Winchester is cool, those of us who have hunted or carried firearms for defense realize just how hokey the scene is.

A man riding in the land of enemies had better keep a round in the chamber, and a hunter on the American frontier would often miss the oportunity to bag some much needed food for the table if he didn’t have a round already shoved in the pipe.  While there may have been those extra cautious riders, who for safety’s sake, carried their Winchester in the saddle boot without a round chambered, the gun was designed to be carried in the opposite manner.

The term “half-cocked” owes its origins to externally hammered firearms such as the Winchester.  The gun handy-shooter will work the lever to chamber a round, and then lower the hammer to half-cock.  If he needs the gun quickly, all he has to do is pull back the hammer to full cock and shoot.  The half-cock position keeps the hammer away from the firing pin, and prevents it being struck by something, such as in a fall, and firing an unwanted shot.  Thus, the term, “don’t go off half-cocked” means that you can’t shoot without the hammer all the way back – tackling something unprepared.

As many or more of Old West gunfights were fought with rifles as they were with pistols, especially on the frontier.  A good marksman could keep disagreements at a distance with his old Winchester.  Pink Higgins, the Texas gunman of the famous Higgins-Horrell Feud, duirng his years of knocking off his enemies, preferred a lever gun, no matter the range.  In 1877, Pink found Merritt Horrell in the Matador Saloon at Lampasas, Texas.  Pink shot him four times so quickly with his ’73 44-40 that it would have done The Rifleman proud.  In 1908 while working for the Spur Ranch, he got crossways with a fellow stock detective, Bill Standifer.  Pink saw Standifer riding to challenge him, and rode out and stopped about a hundred yards away and dismounted with his ’94 30-30 resting over his saddle.  As soon as Standifer stopped and made to swing his leg off his horse Pink shot him dead.  There are some who say Pink killed 14 men, and all of them with a Winchester.  I seriously doubt that Pink ever forewarned his opponents by standing spraddle-legged before them and levering a round into his Winchester in the way of an ominous sound effect, no matter how great it would have looked with a John Ford sunset background.  Pink already had one in the chamber so that he could cock the hammer and whip up his Winchester and fire.  Slow folks got a bullet in the gizzard, and Pink wasn’t one to waste time when it came to a killing.

Cherokee Bill, the famous outlaw of the Indian Nations, preferred a Winchester himself, and he liked to shoot from the hip.  Bill was part white, part black, part French, part Cherokee, and all bad.  After he was locked away in the U.S. jail at Fort Smith he was given an empty Winchester to pose with for a picture.  Afterward, he worked the lever and pulled the trigger on the harmless weapon so fast as to amaze the observing lawmen around him.  He told his admirers that he wasn’t always accurate with his blazing speed, but he could lay down enough fire to keep his enemies too nervous to shoot back at him properly.  When Cherokee Bill made his famous escape attempt from the jail, it is said he gobbled like a turkey, the traditional Cherokee battle cry, while he shot at the guards.  Speed was everything to Bill, so pardon him if he just went to shooting without giving the camera man or the director a dramatic pause to work that wonderful sounding lever.

So the next time your busting the brush with your ’94 30-30 in search of that old thorny-headed whitetail buck, shooting targets with your replica ’73 at a Cowboy Action meet, or meeting an intruder in the dark of your home with Grandpa’s big bore ’86 in your grimy paws, resist the urge to pause to work that sweet lever action just to let the world know that you’re armed and deadly.  All the bad-asses of history knew that you shoot first and ask questions later – even if you’re packing a Winchester.