William F. Cody made his reputation and earned the monicker that made him internationally famous with an 1866 Allin Conversion Springfield Rifle, caliber .50-70.
The Allin Conversion turned the Civil War era muzzleloading rifled musket into a single-shot breechloader. It was the precursor to the legendary Springfield Trapdoor 1873 in .45-70, which would become the U.S. military’s service rifle through most of the latter part of the 19th Century.
While lighter, handier repeating arms were available, many frontiersmen preferred the heavy-caliber punch of a powerful single-shot. The Allin Conversion made all the difference in the 1867 Wagon Box Fight near Fort Phil Kearny in Wyoming, where a small contingent of soldiers held off a massive Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho assault thanks to the firepower the breechloading rifle afforded.
Cody was mighty fond of his Springfield, and he gave her the name of a legendary Renaissance Italian femme fatale — Lucretia Borgia. Doubtless Cody knew of her through a Victor Hugo play that was popular during the Civil War and would become the basis for an opera.
Cody used the rifle to shoot thousands of buffalo to feed the crews building the Kansas Pacific Railroad line across the plains. Soon, buffalo hunting would turn into a kind of industrial slaughter, where hunters would take up a stand on a bit of high ground, sit down with shooting sticks and a powerful rifle (especially the Sharps Big 50) and drop buff after buff, all to be skinned out for the hides.
The type of hunting engaged in along the railroad line was the Indian-style buffalo running — on horseback coursing across the prairie. It was a sporting as well as a paying endeavor, and the meat was consumed instead of being left for carrion. Cody, an exceptionally athletic young man, was very, very good at it.
He supposedly won a horseback buffalo-killing contest with fellow plainsman and hunter Billy Comstock. I say supposedly, because the only source for the contest is Cody’s autobiography. Cody was not above telling a tall tale. As the ace historian Joseph Rosa notes:
“No contemporary evidence has been found, and we have only Bill’s word for it.”
And here is Bill’s word:
Shortly after the adventures mentioned in the preceding chapter, I had my celebrated buffalo hunt with Billy Comstock, a noted scout, guide and interpreter, who was then chief of scouts at Fort Wallace, Kansas. Comstock had the reputation, for a long time, of being a most successful buffalo hunter, and the officers in particular, who had seen him kill buffaloes, were very desirous of backing him in a match against me. It was accordingly arranged that I should shoot (against) him (in) a buffalo-killing match, and the preliminaries were easily and satisfactorily agreed upon. We were to hunt one day of eight hours, beginning at eight o’clock in the morning, and closing at four o’clock in the afternoon. The wager was five hundred dollars a side, and the man who should kill the greater number of buffaloes from on horseback was to be declared the winner.
I felt confident that I had the advantage of Comstock in two things—first, I had the best buffalo horse that ever made a track; and second, I was using what was known at that time as the needle-gun, a breech-loading Springfield rifle—caliber .50—it was my favorite old “Lucretia,” which has already been introduced to the notice of the reader; while Comstock was armed with a Henry rifle, and although he could fire a few shots quicker than I could, yet I was pretty certain that it did not carry powder and lead enough to do execution equal to my caliber .50.
Cody supposedly won the contest, killing 69 buffalo to Comstock’s 46. I get Rosa’s skepticism — independent confirmation is always to be desired. But I’m gonna give the old showman the benefit of the doubt and take his word. The buff-killin’ contest is just the sort of sporting proposition Western men got up to. Another tale about Cody making a bridleless run on a herd of buffalo and killing 11 with 12 shots was confirmed by multiple eyewitnesses, and that actually seems more incredible.
Regardless, Cody was a real deal expert horseman and rifleman. Old Lucretia brought down many a buff and fed many a railroad man — some 4,282 buffalo over 18 months in 1867 and 1868.
Cody would go on to own many firearms, but he always kept Lucretia Borgia. It’s the rifle that made him. What’s left of her is housed at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming.