Those who enjoy a good cowboy yarn have come across some glaring mistakes by writers. How many times have you read a shooting was by a rifle not a handgun? The only repeating rifle prior to the 1876 Winchester were all pistol caliber repeaters or single shot large caliber guns. The 38-40 and 44-40 were the primary calibers available along with Henrys and 1866 Yellow Boy Winchesters in 44 Henry. The 45 Colt never made a successful transition to rifles. You cannot tell if a bullet was shot from a rifle or pistol, there was no rifle caliber differences in the 1873 Winchester.
.44 Henry & Similar Guns
First not all 44s where equal. The Henry cartridge was fairly anemic by any standards. All rimfires use a folded rim case that severely limited internal case pressure. The .44 Henry being a rimfire had a muzzle velocity of about 1,100 fps with a 200-grain flat point or round nose, not a exactly aerodynamic by any means and limited to essentially 100 yards for most shooters. But with a 15 round capacity the Henry was a winner is short range engagements. The bullet was .446 in diameter. During this period following the civil was the .44 Henry even with all its ballistic short comings proved to be very popular. It was chambered in the 1866 Winchester, Smith & Wesson No.3 Revolver, Colt Model Long Cylinder Conversion and Colt Model 1871-72 Open Top Revolvers. Colt even had the Model 1873 Single Action Revolver in .44 Henry to accommodate Henry and 1866 users.
Why? During 1866 through the late 19th century it was popular to have both the rifle and sidearm in the same caliber. The ammo was identical weather used in the handgun or repeating rifle. The .44-40 reigned as the supreme rifle/handgun cartridge being chambered in the Colt 1873 revolvers and Winchester 1873 rifle. Loading varied but this was a solid head cartridge capable higher pressures with a 40-grain charge of black powder and pushed a 200-grain bullet to about 1,250 fps (rifle). The average shooter was still limited to about 100 yards, but the .44-40 could engage out to 150 yards with practice.
Spencer Repeating Rifle
A lot of writers extol the virtues of the Spencer repeating rifle. The 56-56 spencer was a folded head rimfire, and though pushed a 350-grain bullet at about 1,200 fps the .550-inch diameter bullets was still a relatively short-range cartridge and limited to about 150 yards maybe 200 yards maximum. Spencer’s offered high volume relatively short-range firepower in a muzzle loading era. Used primarily by the cavalry. Research shows Spencer went out of business in 1869 with patents transferred to the Fogerty Rifle Company and ultimately ended up with Winchester. Many where later converted to centerfire cartridges using modified .50-70 brass. The case was less than an inch in length (0.875 inch) indicating a rather modest powder charge. Spencer never offered a single-shot large caliber long range rifle. If you wanted long range or heavy cartridge for like Bison. Sharps, Maynard, Winchester, Remington and Joslyn offered large caliber single-shot rifles.
Can a Sharps hit a target at a mile or longer? The longest substantiated shot with a Sharps was Billy Dixons kill on a Comanche, believed to be a chieftain at the 2nd Battle of Adobe Walls in June of 1874. He hit is target at 1,538 yards or 9/10th of mile as measured by U.S. Army surveyors. But even Dixon admits it was as much luck as ability. Remember these were black powder powered weapons with less than ideal ballistically round nosed bullets, not the low-drag bullets of today.