Westerns are a significant part of American media, especially with big names like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Just about everyone has heard of them, if not seen their movies. Many foreigners think of America as the wild west stereotype to this day, which goes to show the sheer impact of the old movies many of us know and love. And, of course, there’s the classic theme of charming cowboys saving the west—or sometimes bandits in black clothes causing havoc.
But what’s a cowboy or a bandit without a gun? Just about everyone in the old west is armed with a revolver if not also a shotgun or lever-action of some kind. Typically, the weapon of choice in old Western films is paired with some crazy handwork and tricks (most of which we don’t recommend attempting to replicate at home).
Tonight, we’re looking at a few classic guns of old American Westerns. Who knows, maybe we’ll inspire you to start up “True Grit” or “The Outlaw Josey Wales”.
The Searchers — Colt Single Action Army
A western isn’t a western without a Colt Single Action Army (SAA). This revolver is known for its recognizable design from its plow-handled grip to its solidly built frame. To this day, the old-time revolver is still being produced by the same model, even with new versions available. The SAA is alive and well in the 21st century.
In “The Searchers,“ Ethan Edwards (played by John Wayne, because of course) returns home to Texas after the Civil War to find members of his brother’s family killed or abducted. He finds out members of the Comanche tribe are guilty of the crime and vows to save any survivors. The SAA revolver is anachronistic as it was made in 1873 but the movie is set in 1861-1865. Edwards, among several others, uses the pistol on their mission to save the surviving victims throughout the film.
- Type: Revolver
- Caliber: 45 Long Colt
- Capacity: 6-round cylinder
- Length: 13 inches
- Action: Single-Action
How the West Was Won — Winchester Model 1873
“How the West Was Won” covers 50 years of expansion in the west to make way for settlers. The story is told from the perspective of several generations of the Rawlings and Prescott families. The Winchester Model 1873 is a significant rifle as it’s seen historically as the rifle that “Won the West.” So, of course, it has to be used in a movie all about the West. It was relatively affordable while it was made and worked well. Not only was it popular centuries ago but it’s still a much-loved platform today. Who doesn’t love a good lever action?
In the movie, this rifle gets used the most during a shootout on a train. Zeb Rawlings (played by George Peppard) runs into an old enemy, Charlie Gant (played by Eli Wallach) boarding a train at Gold City’s train station. Previously, Zeb had killed Charlie’s brother, which resulted in threats toward Zeb and his family. After finding out that the local marshal can’t—or won’t—help, Zeb takes it into his own hands.
Zeb suspects that Charlie is on the train to steal a shipment of gold, so he prepares to ambush him with the hesitant aid of Marshall Lou Ramsey (played by Lee J. Cobb). Lou and Zeb use their Winchesters to fire at Gant throughout the conflict. This is just one of many strides the families take in this film to expand the west. Things used to be a bit more lawless.
- Type: Carbine
- Caliber: .44-40 Winchester, 44 Henry, .38-40 Winchester, .357 Magnum, and others
- Capacity: 7 to 14-round tube magazine depending on caliber
- Length: 49.3 inches, but depends on specific production
- Action: Lever-action
Unforgiven — Spencer 1860 Saddle Ring Carbine
“Unforgiven” starts when Quick Mike (played by David Mucci) cuts up a prostitute’s face. The local sheriff brushes it off, so the other prostitutes in the area put a $1000 bounty on Quick Mike’s head. William Munny (played by Clint Eastwood), Ned Logan (played by Morgan Freeman), and the Schofield Kid (played by Jaimz Woolvett) team up hoping to get the bounty. Ned uses a Spencer 1860 Saddle Ring Carbine, claiming to be the best shot ever. He later hands it off to William to take a shot at the outlaws.
- Type: Carbine
- Caliber: .56-56 Spencer rimfire
- Capacity: 7-round internal tube magazine
- Length: 47 inches
- Action: Lever Action
Red River — Remington 1866 Derringer
“Red River” is a film based on the historical Chisholm Trail in 1867 following a cattle drive. Tom Dunson (played by John Wayne) has sworn to kill Matt Garth (played by Mickey Kuhn) as he claims he’s a thief. Tessa Millay (played by Joanne Dru) meets Matt eight days before Dunson arrives at her camp and falls in love with him, but she can’t go with him once he leaves.
She ends up confronting Dunson about his intent to kill Matt. She slips a Remington 1866 Derringer into her shoulder sling but Dunson calls her out and tells her to take it out of her sling. Laying his own revolver on the table, he says the gun wouldn’t have done her any good. The incredible concealability of derringers does a lot to recommend them, but having only two shots to fire is less advantageous. Nonetheless, she couldn’t conceal it from Dunson.
- Type: Handgun
- Caliber: .41 rimfire
- Capacity: 2 shots, fired one at a time
- Length: 4.875 inches
- Action: Hammer-fired
The Wild Bunch — Browning M1917
One that is less common in old American Westerns is the Browning M1917. The hefty machine gun was used in several wars and still holds a great reputation today. In “The Wild Bunch,” a group of old outlaws seeks out one more heist before they retire. Heading to Mexico, they decide their final task will be stealing the United States ammunition train, which they intend to give to General Mapache’s revolutionary army.
They steal a Browning M1917 for Mapache as a gift. In a comical scene, Mapache (Emilio Fernández) attempts to shoot the machine gun single-handedly. It is then used in combat by the outlaws in a fight against the Mexicans. It should be noted that this firearm is likely an anachronism due to the timeframe of the movie being prior to its creation. But it’s still cool to see it on film as an interesting historical machine gun.
- Type: Machine Gun
- Caliber: .30-06 Springfield
- Capacity: A 250-round belt
- Length: 38.5 inches
- Action: Full-auto