Since debuting on the Paramount Network in 2018, Yellowstone has become one of the most popular TV series. The “neo-Western” chronicles the trials and tribulations of the fictional Dutton family. The Duttons own the largest ranch in modern-day Montana. The incredible land incites conflict with an Indian reservation, land developers and even 21st century “progress.” Yellowstone initially drew mixed responses from critics. But it steadily gained an audience, with recent season drawing comparisons to The Sopranos, The Wire and even Game of Thrones. Yellowstone has steadily gained an audience. Recent seasons drew comparisons to such beloved TV series as The Sopranos, The Wire and even Game of Thrones. It’s massive success rates an examination of the guns of Yellowstone’s 1883.
The Guns of Yellowstone’s 1883
Part of Yellowstone’s success has been its ability to cross genres. It’s an action-packed modern Western meets evening soap opera, built around a highly dysfunctional and at times estranged family group. Set in the modern day, with all of life’s modern problems, it is still at times an over-the-top romp that makes for good “escapism” TV.
Yet, even its most hardcore fans may question why the series lead, ranch owner John Dutton—a perfectly cast Kevin Costner—fights so hard to maintain his ranch. Throughout four seasons, the senior Dutton struggles to fend off land developers and others hell-bent on acquiring the land by any means, including at times (spoilers) offering a king’s ransom.
The answer lies in the Paramount+ original series, 1883, the first of at least two planned prequels that tell the story of Dutton’s ancestors and the sacrifices they made, and the prices paid, to find the perfect land to call their own. To say that the Dutton family has paid with blood is an understatement, to say the least.
On The Oregon Trail
Where the original Yellowstone takes place almost entirely in Montana–apart from those occasions when some unlucky individual takes a ride to the “train station” on the Wyoming border–1883 takes place almost entirely away from Big Sky Country. It actually begins outside Fort Worth, Texas 18 years after the American Civil War as Tennessee native James Dutton (Tim McGraw) arrives in town to meet his family and begin the journey to Oregon. His welcome to the frontier certainly sets the tone for what is about to come—with a gang of bandits confronting him just before he even rolls into town.
1883 is thus not about the founding of the ranch, but rather the journey to get to the land where the Duttons will eventually build it. Explaining more would spoil the secrets, but suffice it to say that by the end of the 10 episodes, the importance of the location comes into focus.
Whether series creator Taylor Sheridan had this particular backstory in mind when he began developing Yellowstone isn’t clear, but the prequel fills in the blanks perfectly. 1883 also centers on the motivation that drives James Dutton’s clan—the family patriarch, who was scarred from his time as a Confederate officer at the Battle of Antietam, followed by his captivity in a Union prison camp.
Elsa Dutton, the 18-year-old, headstrong daughter of James, played by actress Isabel May, serves as the narrator, describing even the darkest events as just another part of the adventure. The Duttons endure no shortage of hardship and loss, and misery certainly loves company as they’re joined in the journey with a wagon train of German and Eastern European immigrants also looking for a better life in Oregon. The cross-country trek is nothing like the classic “edutainment” video game series The Oregon Trail.
Today, a cross-country road trip involves the U.S. highway system, with plenty of rest stops and colorful attractions. By contrast, in the 1880s there was barely a trail, and a distance that could be covered in a couple hours today took a week or longer, not to mention that the route was often frequented by bandits. Then there were hostile Native Americans, wild animals including rattlesnakes and even the elements to contend with. Clearly, this was well before the time anyone would dare say “getting there is half the fun!”
With Yellowstone set in the modern day, characters can be expected to carry Glock handguns and AR-15s, but 1883 is all about those classic firearms that were commonplace on the frontier in the post–Civil War era. Sam Elliott, who plays Shea Brennan, a Pinkerton agent and former captain in the Union Army, and Marshal Jim Courtright (Billy Bob Thornton) are just two of several characters who seemed to favor the Single Action Army “Civilian” Model revolver.
Other notable “six-shooters” that make an appearance in the series include the iconic Single Action Army “Artillery” and Single Action Army “Cavalry” models, while Colt 1860 Army “Avenging Angel” and Colt 1860 Richards Conversion revolvers receive their moments of screen time. Most of the revolvers appear to be Uberti replicas, while a few Denix non-firing replicas are present in moments that don’t involve shootouts.
Rifles & More
With the story set nearly entirely on the frontier, the show features no shortage of lever-action rifles. Such archetypal firearms as the Winchester Model 1866 “Yellow Boy,” Winchester Model 1873 carbine and Winchester Model 1873 Short Rifle all feature prominently in 1883. Meanwhile, the Winchester Model 1873 Long Rifle appears in a number of action sequences.
A number of characters, including the Duttons and several pioneers, carry double-barrel shotguns. A Colt Model 1878 and Rossi Overland each make appearances.
Despite the show’s armorers paying close attention to details, and mostly getting it right, a few out-of-place weapons make an appearance. These include a Winchester Model 1885 High Wall. The High Wall began production after the Duttons settled in Montana. However, it does wear a period-correct Hi-Lux Optics Malcom 6X, 30-inch-long telescopic sight, a replica of the Malcolm scopes first produced in the mid-1850s. A Winchester Model 1892 also stands in for the Winchester 1873.
During a sequence set at Fort Casper, Wyoming, a sentry carries a Remington Rolling Block rifle–a weapon adopted by the U.S. military and produced by the Springfield Armory. However, eagle-eyed viewers have noted that the weapon in 1883 has three barrel bands, while the U.S.-produced models would have had only two. This suggests the screen version is likely a Spanish or perhaps even Egyptian model. Additionally, another sentry carries an anachronistic Trapdoor Springfield Rifle Model 1888.
Civil War Guns
For the flashback sequence of the Battle of Antietam, a number of period-correct firearms make an appearance, including the Sharps carbine and Enfield Pattern 1853 rifled musket—weapons used by both Union and Confederate forces during the war—as well an Enfield Pattern 1861 Musketoon, the short-barrel version of the Pattern 1853 rifled musket. That would seem to be an odd choice for a Union infantryman, however, as most were issued to artillery and cavalry units.
A bigger issue with the scene–in addition to the appearance of the expected Springfield Model 1842 .69-caliber muskets and Springfield Model 1861 .58-caliber Minié-type rifled muskets carried by Union forces–some of the men carry the anachronistic Springfield Model 1863 instead. Few viewers may have caught the small differences between the two—the earlier model had a curved hammer and conventional priming, while the latter model featured a straight hammer and screw-retained barrel bands.
Given the show depicted the 1862 Battle of Antietam–the deadliest one-day battle in American military history–the inclusion of the particular rifle musket becomes inappropriate. A proper setting change to the Battle of Gettysburg or the Battle of the Wilderness, following the debut of the Model 1863, resolves the issue.
More To Come
Paramount+ originally gave the green light to 1883 as a limited series prequel. Meanwhile, flashbacks in the main Yellowstone series offered a few important moments from the Dutton family’s history. The first run completed the family journey to Montana. But the show proved such a hit, in February the streaming service ordered additional episodes. Paramount+ stopped short of calling the order a renewal or a second season. But it appears the story continues for James and Margaret Dutton.
And that won’t be the end of it either, as a second prequel has also been ordered. Titled 1932, it will follow another generation of Duttons during the time of Western expansion, Prohibition and the Great Depression. It never seems to get easy for the family, as their land seems to have come at a considerable price.
As with other modern prestige TV series, 1883 comprises a big-budget affair. It brings a high-profile cast, including the aforementioned country singer Tim McGraw and his real-life wife Faith Hill as Dutton’s long-suffering yet loyal wife Margaret. Sam Elliot and LaMonica Garret star as Pinkerton agents charged with leading the expedition.
Notable guest stars further added to the storytelling and included Tom Hanks as Union Army General George Meade in a flashback following the Battle of Antietam. Hanks’s wife Rita Wilson played a kindly storekeeper in the frontier town of Doan’s Crossing on the Texas-Oklahoma state line. Indigenous (Oneida) Canadian actor Graham Greene appeared in the season finale as a Crow elder who directed James Dutton to Paradise Valley, the eventual location of the Dutton Yellowstone Ranch.
Billy Bob Thornton also starred as Fort Worth’s real-life Tarrant County Deputy Sheriff “Big Jim” Courtright, who had earned a reputation for keeping the peace in the notorious “hell’s half acre”—the town’s red-light district. Though Courtright was no longer marshal when the series takes place, this is an accepted historical liberty.
An almost expected cameo came when series creator Taylor Sheridan—who had previously played the recurring character Travis Wheatley in Yellowstone—appears as another historical figure, Charles Goodnight, “the father of the Texas Panhandle,” who earned a reputation for hunting cattle thieves.
Location, Location, Location
Beyond the question of why the ranch is so important to the Dutton family is why the journey to Montana began in Fort Worth, Texas. The quick answer is that while series creator Taylor Sheridan grew up in Montana, he has an affinity for the Lone Star State. It also had the right feel.
In many of the Fort Worth scenes, filming actually took place in the neighborhood around West Exchange Avenue and North Houston Street. The production converted these streets to match the setting of the show. The area received a rustic makeover prior to filming. Most of the early episodes of 1883 took place at locations across Texas, not far from Weatherford, where the Yellowstone creator currently lives.
The city is home to the Bosque Ranch Headquarters, a real-life ranch and media production facility that served as one of the primary on-set filming locations for the original Yellowstone. A few other scenes for 1883 filmed at the famed 6666 Ranch. Later episodes filmed in Montana, including Livingston, Clyde Park and Paradise Valley.
For the cast and crew, the change of scenery came at a price. According to past interviews with series star Sam Elliot, temperatures in Texas exceeded 100 degrees during filming. In Montana, temperatures dipped down into the teens. The situations very likely mirrored the conditions faced by travelers in 1883.
This story originally ran in the Winter, 2022 issue of Guns of the Old West. Get your copy today at OutdoorGroupStore.com.