Hell on Wheels Handbook – Yellow Boy Rifle

Often called "the first cowboy rifle" because its lightweight design made it easy to carry in a saddle-side scabbard, the Yellow Boy rifle debuted in 1866 to wild success. It was the first gun to bear the fabled Winchester name. Officially known as the Model 1866, it had a patented side-loading gate for bullets which simplified loading and firing. (The era's other high-profile repeating rifles loaded from the top of the barrel.) Other innovations on the Yellow Boy included a wooden forearm under the barrel, which made the rifle easy for novices to handle. Speed, however, was the rifle's calling card. The gun's lever-action system accelerated the process of ejecting a spent cartridge and moving another bullet into the chamber, allowing the user to get off more shots per minute than with comparable weapons.

Named for the color of its solid-brass loading gate, the Yellow Boy was one of a trio of Winchester rifles -- the others being the Model 1873 and Model 1876 -- that became collectively known as "the guns that won the West." An early advertisement anticipated the Yellow Boy's advantages "for single individuals traveling through a wild country, where there is reason to expect a sudden attack from robbers or Indians." Even if a bullet misfired, the ad declared, another would replace it "in just half a second, thereby giving two chances, even though the enemy should be within twenty feet."

As history proved, the Yellow Boy and its successor models did indeed provide a tactical advantage. Outnumbered four to one in a famous 1871 battle with members of the Comanche and Kiowa tribes, the Texas Rangers emerged victorious -- an outcome participants credited largely to the Yellow Boy. Indian military strategists, most notably Chief Sitting Bull of the Sioux, realized their benefits and set about securing large numbers of the rifles. (The chief's own Winchester Model 1866 is part of the Smithsonian Institution's collection.)

Winchester manufactured more than 107,000 Yellow Boy rifles between 1866 and 1898, when the model was discontinued. For more than a century, though, the guns have loomed large in the lore of the West and have appeared in many movies, among them the classic John Wayne Western Fort Apache.