If you are a Wild West film fan, then you’ve probably seen Winchester ’73, True Grit and High Noon. Besides being films about the West, all of these films also feature a Winchester Model 1873 rifle. The carbine has widely been credited as being the gun that won the West. Danny Michael, the assistant curator at the Cody Firearms Museum, said the history might be a little iffy on whether the rifle really won the West, but it still may have had an impact.
“They were really successful at selling that idea that their guns were influential to the west and they used that throughout the 20th century and especially heavy late to mid 20th century with lots of movie marketing lots of PR stunts,” he said.
Those stunts included driving a stagecoach through New York City with one of the Winchester executives holding a Winchester rifle and making movies with their guns as a centerpiece. But there was one particular stunt that seemed a little unusual to digital archivist Mack Frost.
“I kept trying to figure out what was going on with this and why these pictures were there,” recalled Frost, the archivist at the McCracken Research Library.
He was going through and digitizing a collection of Winchester archives when, “all of the sudden I came across all of these publicity stills of this hanging,” he said.
After some digging, Frost figured out the “hanging photos” were part of the Winchester marketing department trying to make up for a mistake in a photo that they used in a 1962 catalog.
“It’s talking about how 19 out of 20 Texas rangers use Winchester the only problem is that the picture is not of Texas rangers but Arizona rangers,” said Frost. “And a very historical photo as a matter of fact. The advertising department just didn’t do their research well enough.”
And in order to make up for it, they decided to “hang” the advertising executive, who came up with the ad campaign. And of course, document the mock hanging.
“They had a whole bunch of members of the Phoenix JC who are dressed up as the posy,” described Frost. “They are carrying Winchester rifles of course. And they take him out to an area where he is given the opportunity to have one last cigarette while he’s being measured for his coffin.”
There are nine images altogether and, in the end, the ad executive is forgiven. Frost said it was all a publicity gag for the company, and it probably had to do with their intended audience.
“Here you’ve got a state in the West, which is proud of their gun ownership and the last thing they want to do is irk the folks who buy their guns into buying some other brand of gun,” he said.
The company associated itself so much with the West that it had make sure it respected the different type of ranger. Danny Michael said today Winchester can’t really pull off the same kind of stunts.
“I doubt you would see a bunch of executives holding Winchesters in New York City today as a successful marketing campaign.”
But back then, the strategy was a success.
“A lot of their guns ended up in the spaghetti westerns of the western TV shows and that kind of thing so people saw a movie and then wanted to go get a Winchester rifle and they did,” he said.
And through those movies, the legend of the Winchester ’73 lives on.