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Cowboys and Russians – Cowboy guns in Russian hands

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(Forgotten Weapons)

Russia has a history of making robust small arms, but historically they’ve lagged behind. Outside of a brief period during the Cold War, the Russian small arms industry has never been revolutionary. This led to the adoption in Russia of numerous foreign arms, especially in pre-Soviet times. Believe it or not, there was a time when Russian soldiers were armed with something more akin to a cowboy gun than an eastern European blaster. 

Today we are looking at four times throughout history when the Russian military packed cowboy guns.

1) Colt 1851 Clones 

Percussion cap revolvers changed the game and made the single-shot musket obsolete. In the mid-1800s, the Russian military was severely lagging behind the militaries of Western Europe and was still fielding the flintlock, a single-shot pistol. Russian soldiers greatly disliked these pistols and would often prefer to leave them on their saddles. 

So, Defense Minister Dolgorukov requested the presentation of foreign pistols to find a suitable repeating arm. In 1854 the Tsar was presented with a Colt Model 1851 Navy revolver from Samuel Colt himself. The Tsar was impressed enough that he ordered 500 of the revolvers from Colt for his navy. The next order of 1,000 revolvers was constantly delayed, and the quality of the revolvers being delivered was reportedly poor, according to the Russians. 

Related: Colt and its Infantry Automatic Rifle concept

Colt 1851 Russian cowboy gun
That odd grip signifies a Russian-made clone of the Colt 1851. (Creative Commons)

Yet, the Russians still needed these repeating cowboy revolvers, so they cloned them. It’s likely that was always the plan, and the initial Colt order was to acquire enough models to successfully clone and cop as it’s cheaper and more logistically sound to produce the guns in Russia. 

The clones kept the six-shot, .36 caliber design, and its single-action mechanism. They had some slight changes, however, as their grip appears to be very Russian in design and featured lanyard loops; some models were even fit for a stock. The guns were quite popular with Russian boarding parties and offered a marked increase in firepower.

2) Colt New Model Revolving Rifle

The Russians were still using smoothbore muskets into the 1850s and during the Crimea War of 1853 against the Ottoman Empire, the British, and the French, Russia was outgunned. The British and French, in particular, had much more accurate rifles that gave their soldiers increased range and excellent accuracy. 

Colt New Model Revolving Rifle
These repeating rifles offered lots of firepower for the era. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Russians found themselves needing more firepower and turned to Colt’s New Model Revolving Rifles ordering as many as they could. These rifles offered soldiers five to six shots before needing to be reloaded. Compared to your average single-shot musket, these things were extremely rapid. Your average soldier armed with a Colt New Model Revolving Rifle could take out a handful of standardly armed soldiers. 

These cowboy rifles were also purchased by the Ottoman Empire. Although they didn’t last long, they were impressive stop-gaps in the firepower department. 

Related: This is the fascinating history of grenadiers, a centuries-old elite unit

3) Smith and Wesson Model 3 

The S&W Model 3, sometimes called the Scholfield, was a top-break, single-action, six-shot revolver. The weapon was immensely popular with the Wild West cowboy due to its top-break design. It was faster and easier to reload, and when you only have six shots, that’s important. The Model 3 was also the first practical metallic cartridge revolver designed for general use. 

Russian Model 3 cowboy gun
This reproduction of the Russian Model 3 includes the odd finger grip. (Uberti)

In the 1870s, General Alexander Gorloff who was serving as a military attache to the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC, approached S&W with a request for a new, more modern repeating handgun. The Model 3 was the obvious choice, but the Russians wanted a newer, more powerful cartridge. So the Model 3 Russian and the .44 Russian were developed, the latter leading nearly a century later to the .44 Magnum. 

The S&W Model 3 Russian also featured an odd grip design and a spur to help control recoil. This gave the Russian models a unique look. Approximately 85,000 Russian Model 3s were produced with some variations including a shoulder stock version. 

4) Winchester Model 1895 

The Winchester 1895 was a rather revolutionary lever-action rifle. Lever action rifles typically used bullets with round noses because of their tubular, under-barrel magazines. Since the rounds sit atop each other, a spitzer-style pointed bullet could theoretically strike the primer in front of it and set the rifle off. Winchester solved this problem by using an internal five- or four-round magazine. 

Winchester Model 1895 Russian cowboy
This Winchester came bayonet-ready. (Wikimedia Commons)

When World War I came around, Russia needed many rifles so it made the largest military purchase of lever-action rifles ever and ordered 294,000 of these for police and airforce units.

These rifles were produced for the 7.62x54mmR rounds and were unique in the Winchester 1895 family featuring a charger guide to load via stripper clips, as well as an entirely wood forend and bayonet lug. 

The rifles reportedly served the Russian Empire well in the trenches of WWI. Their lever-action design made them faster to use and in trenches that could be extremely valuable in close-quarters combat. These cowboy rifles would later be sent all over the world by the Soviet Union.

Related: Did you know that the last trench gun survived until the Iraq War?

The Russian cowboy in all of us 

It’s odd to picture a cloaked Russian soldier blasting away with a lever-action rifle or Colt revolver in the middle of a European war. That being said, adopting American arms was a clever decision as American firearm companies were at the forefront at the time.

These cowboy-centric firearms are revolutionary for a reason: They set a hard-to-beat standard, and if the Russians couldn’t create the best weapons, they could certainly buy them. 

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Travis Pike

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine gunner who served with 2nd Bn 2nd Marines for 5 years. He deployed in 2009 to Afghanistan and again in 2011 with the 22nd MEU(SOC) during a record-setting 11 months at sea. He’s trained with the Romanian Army, the Spanish Marines, the Emirate Marines, and the Afghan National Army. He serves as an NRA certified pistol instructor and teaches concealed carry classes.