The Model 1866 was the first rifle to bear the Winchester name. Its predecessor, the Henry rifle, was sold by the New Haven Arms Company and then the Henry Repeating Rifle Company. Both of these corporate entities were controlled by Oliver Winchester, but it wasn’t until May of 1866 that he renamed the company after himself. You have to believe that he was so proud of the Model 1866 that he was willing to have his name associated with it.
The 1860 Henry rifle sold fairly well—14,000 were produced by 1866. But the competing Spencer lever-action rifle actually far outsold the Henry with both military and civilian buyers. The drawbacks of the Henry were well understood by Winchester’s team. The Henry’s magazine was machined out of the same iron billet as the barrel. This made the Henry rifle expensive to manufacture. It also made the rifle awkward to load. When the gun was in action, the magazine follower bumped into the supporting hand, and the lack of a forend made the rifle uncomfortable to hold after the barrel heated up.
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Winchester tried several different approaches to solve these shortcomings, but it wasn’t until 1866 when Winchester’s new plant superintendent, Nelson King, hit on the winning combination. The key to King’s patented improvement was a spring-held loading gate on the right side of the receiver. This allowed for the use of a closed tubular magazine that could be covered by a wooden forend.
The Winchester board of directors knew they had a winner in King’s improvement. It was patented in May of 1866, and the board immediately awarded Nelson King a bonus of $5,000, which would have purchased 177 ounces of gold at that time. At today’s prices, that gold would be worth close to $200,000 dollars. That’s what I call a bonus.
It took a while for production to get going in earnest on the Model 1866 rifle, but by late 1867 the “Improved Henry Rifle,” as the Model 1866 was known, was widely available in the marketplace. By 1868, Winchester was heavily promoting its new rifles.
One advertisement said, “The advantage that this gun possesses over all others for single individuals travelling through a wild country, where there is reason to expect a sudden attack, either from robbers or Indians, cannot be over-estimated, as it is well known to any who have used a gun to any extent…that there is a little uncertainty of its going off; but with this Gun there can be no such feeling, because even though a Cartridge should miss fire, it is drawn from the barrel with unfailing certainty, and another placed in its stead, and fired in just half a second, thereby giving two chances, even though the enemy should be within twenty feet at the firing of the first shot, which is something no other rifle yet built is capable of doing.”
The TV show Hell on Wheels has a well-known love affair with brass-framed firearms, so it is no surprise that Model 1866 rifles feature prominently on the show. But the fact is, that the actual, historical Thomas Durant, who was the executive vice president of the Union Pacific Railroad, actually did have a pair of 1866 Winchesters mounted in his opulent private rail car.
In the game fields, the short rimfire cartridge fired by the 1866 was no match for the powerful centerfire cartridges used in heavy single-shot rifles, but when it came to self-defense, the Model 1866 was just the ticket. Drivers on the Cheyenne-to-Deadwood stage line also carried Model 1866 sporting rifles for protection. And even buffalo hunters relied on the fast-shooting lever guns for defense against native fighters.
In fact, the rifle we now call the Model 1866 was popular with people in all walks of life. Even though it was overshadowed by the Winchester Model 1873, which was chambered for the game-changing .44-40 cartridge, the Model 1866 rifle, chambered in .44 Henry rimfire, was a strong seller. It remained in production until 1898, with a total of 170,101 rifles produced. There were so many Winchester 1866s out there that .44 rimfire ammunition was still widely sold until the late 1940s.
Of course, these days, finding useable .44 rimfire ammo is even more difficult than finding an original Model 1866 to shoot it in. Luckily, Uberti has come to the rescue with an excellent replica of the Model 1866, but Uberti’s copy is chambered for easily acquired centerfire cartridges. Uberti sent me a test gun chambered for the .44-40 cartridge, but the company’s 1866 rifles are also available in .38 Special and .45 Colt chamberings.
My test gun was a full-sized Sporting Rifle with a 24½-inch, octagonal barrel. Uberti’s 1866 also comes in a Short Rifle version with a 20-inch, octagonal barrel or a Carbine version with a 19-inch, round barrel. I’ve owned one of Uberti’s 1866 carbines for about 20 years, and it has never let me down, but this time around I wanted to see how the longer-barreled Sporting Rifle would perform.
In the looks department, the Sporting Rifle is hard to beat. The long, blued barrel and magazine tube are, to my eyes, much better looking than the stubby-barreled versions. The most eye-catching feature of the Model 1866 is the polished brass receiver, a feature that earned the rifle the sobriquet “Yellowboy.”
Generally, these Italian-made guns come with well-regulated sights, but every now and then one will surprise you. A few years ago I had a single-action revolver that I brought to the range when I was testing another pistol. Since I already had my chronograph set up for the other pistol, I thought I’d test the revolver’s velocity while I was there and come back another day to do some accuracy testing.
So, the first shot I ever fired with that revolver was over my chronograph. I touched the trigger, and chronograph parts started flying out across the range. I quickly set up a paper target and learned that the new revolver shot a full 6 inches low. Lesson learned: Never chronograph a gun you haven’t shot on paper first. That lesson proved its worth with the 1866. Once I had tamed the brass glare, I sat down at the bench rest to see how the 1866 would perform. My first group at 25 yards printed 5 inches low and 3.5 inches to the right of my point of aim. Shooting at paper first likely saved me from needing a new chronograph.
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When I’m sighting in a new gun, I like to get the windage squared away first, then I work on elevation. On the 1866, windage is adjusted by loosening a setscrew on the front sight’s base and sliding the sight in the opposite direction from the direction you want to move your point of impact. Since I needed to shift my group to the left a few inches, I moved the sight to the right and locked it down before shooting another test group. After a few iterations, I had the windage nailed down, and I could start raising the rear sight to get my groups centered up with my point of aim.
The rear sight on the Uberti 1866 is a semi-buckhorn with a good, highly visible, squared sight notch. It gives an excellent sight picture. Elevation adjustments are made using a stepped riser. I had shot my first group on the lowest step, so it was just a matter of raising the sight picture one step at a time and firing a test group. When I reached the second highest step on the riser, I was shooting center.
Once the 1866 was shooting where I was looking, I could start working with it seriously. I shot the Yellowboy with Black Hills’ 200-grain RNFP factory ammunition as well as my own blackpowder handloads. The Uberti replica handled both types of ammo. Shooting from the 25-yard line, my best group with the Black Hills ammunition was just 0.75 inches across. Most groups were right around an inch in diameter. The velocity out of the 24½-inch barrel was a moderate 1,151 fps. When I moved back to 50 yards, groups opened up predictably. Even though I’m getting older, I can still hit anything I can see; the problem is, I don’t see so well anymore. Despite my deteriorating vision, my best 50-yard group with the Black Hills ammo was 2.5 inches across, which I can accept happily.
When I switched to the smoky stuff, the velocity took a pretty good jump. My .44-40 blackpowder load is 33 grains of 2Fg black powder under a 200-grain Mav Dutchman big lube bullet. The average velocity of those rounds in the 1866 was a sweet 1,226 fps. The accuracy was on a par with the factory ammunition. My best 25-yard group measured an inch across. Moving back to 50 yards opened that up to 3 inches, which is good enough to keep this pilgrim happy. For more information, visit uberti.com or call 800-264-4962.
Uberti 1866 Yellowboy Sporting Rifle
- Caliber: .44-40
- Barrel: 24¼ inches
- OA Length: 43¼ inches
- Weight: 8.2 pounds (empty)
- Stock: Walnut
- Sights: Front blade, semi-buckhorn rear
- Action: Lever
- Finish: Brass, blued, casehardened
- Capacity: 13+1
- MSRP: $1,169
Uberti 1866 Yellowboy Sporting Rifle .44-40
Load: Black Hills 200 RNFP
Load: Goex 30 2Fg/200 MD Handload
Bullet weight measured in grains, velocity in fps by chronograph, and accuracy in inches for best five-shot groups at 25 yards.
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This article originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.