During the mid to late 18th century revolutionary changes in firearms made their appearance with the invention and implementation of the metallic cartridge. Everything from the humble Smith & Wesson No. 1 revolver in .22 Short rimfire, the .44 Henry and the 56-56 Spencer rimfire. During this period the rimfires ruled. During and after the Civil War early revolver conversions from cap to cartridge were made, with .44 Henry being popular. The cons to rimfire cartridges are numerous. They can’t be reloaded, the case because of the folded rim is an inherently weak design limiting the internal pressures needed for performance and as such most rimfires were comparatively relatively low performers. Of course, there are performance limitations associated with black powder propellants anyway. A lot of western writers seem to laud the virtues of the Spencer when this was not a high performer, even if it served alongside the venerable trapdoor in .50-70 centerfire until military standardized on the .45-70 in 1873.
Centerfire Metallic Cartridges
The 1859 Sharps, a breach loading and cap primed rifle served until the introduction of the centerfire metallic cartridges of the Model 1874. Many 1859’s would be converted to cartridge weapons with the first Sharps leaving the assembly lines in 1850 up to the demise of the Sharps in 1881, no buffalo no demand for buff caliber weapons. Colt, S&W, Winchester and Sharps were the dominate weapons makers of the cartridge era.
.44-40 & .45 Colt Ballistics
The Henry lever action and the Winchester 1866 both chambered for the .44 Henry. The 1873 Winchester introduced the .44-40 and its anemic little brother the .38-40, a necked down .44-40 case. The 44-40 was the dominate rifle and revolver cartridge during the wild west era, allowing both the Winchester 1873 with it large magazine capacity giving adequate performance out to about 150 yards, and the Remington, S&W, Remington and Colt Peacemaker revolvers for close range work. The Colts also were had in the .45 Colt, later referred to as the 45 Long Colt to distinguish it from the shorter .45 Schofield cartridge introduced by S&W. The S&W No. 3 was available in .44 Russian, .44 American, 44-40 and 45 S&W also called the .45 Schofield. The .44-40 Winchester was easily the dominate cartridge of this period and along with the .45 Colt is still going strong. The .44 Henry made it past the turn of the century until 1934 , and was the most prolific big bore rimfire caliber available.
Famous Guns that Tamed the Old West
The .50-70 and .45-70 were the top of the line rifle calibers, because of the adoption of the military, civilian guns and ammo were available. The 50-70 could bring down a buffalo and survived its military carrier as a potent hunting cartridge. “Old solders never die” and that holds true with the .45-70 with a plethora of Sharps reproductions and Marlin Lever actions and is a favorite with guides in Alaska. The .45 Colt was the superlative man-stopper and never quite made the transition to rifles, but dominated the Colt Single Action lineup, and is popular today with both single and double action revolvers. The true guns that tamed the west are the Colts, S&W and Remington in .44 Russian, 44-40 and 45 Colt, with the .44 Henry and 56-56 Spencer being the top dogs prior to the introduction of the centerfires. The model 66 and 73 with the later 1876 Winchesters will be rifles that were the primary longarm of the time.