“Only a short movement of the finger lever is required to load this gun, which makes it easy to fire rapidly while the gun is at the shoulder. The gun is locked by two bolts, having a motion like the old Sharp’s breechblock, which show on the top of the gun when the action is closed. In this position the locking bolts lie one on each side of the breech bolt. Each bolt fits in a slot in the frame on one side, and into a similar slot in the breech bolt on the other. The first opening motion of the lever withdraws and locks the firing pin until the gun is again ready for firing. A hook attached to the finger lever draws the cartridges out of the magazine into the carrier block, which enables the use of a light magazine spring, permitting the magazine to be filled easily. The cartridge is forced from the carrier into the chamber by the forward movement of the breech-bolt. The arrangement of the breech-bolt, finger lever, and locking bolt makes it easy to insert or eject a cartridge, and give the action strength to withstand heavy charges.”
– Winchester factory description of the 1886 action
It has been written that the Winchester ’73 was “The Gun That Won the West” and there is certainly a great deal of merit in that assertion. Winchester’s lever action rifles left an indelible mark on the American Frontier from the Civil War well into the 20th century. Probably the best and most desirable of those legendary Winchester repeaters was the Model 1886. Chambered for the .45-70 Government cartridge, it was the most anticipated lever action rifle of its time.
How It Began
Oliver Winchester had established the New Haven Arms Company of New Haven, Connecticut in 1857 to manufacture the Volcanic repeating rifle and pistol, which contained the rudimentary workings of the first Winchester lever action rifles. The Volcanic, unfortunately, was never highly successful and Oliver Winchester continually sought to make improvements until his plant superintendent, inventor Benjamin Tyler Henry, completely redesigned it. It took him three years but in 1860 Henry gave Oliver Winchester the repeater he had sought to build, the first successful, magazine-fed, breech-loading, lever action rifle. Patented October 16, 1860, Winchester named it the Henry rifle. And it had arrived just in time for a Civil War.
While there were other breech loading and repeating rifles, like the Spencer, in use by both North and South, Union troops armed with Henry repeaters were the most feared and the Henry, along with a cache of .44 rimfire cartridges, one of the most coveted prizes for any Confederate soldier to claim. Ironically, the U.S. War Department didn’t purchase Henry rifles for the Federal Troops in significant numbers, instead individual soldiers and units purchased them at their own expense. The Army simply had too many different types of rifles and ammunition in its arsenal, and no one, except those in the field, recognized the value of the 16-shot, .44 rimfire Henry repeater. The Rebels on the receiving end began calling it that, “Damned Yankee rifle you can load on Sunday and shoot all week.” During the War Between the States, soldiers armed with Henry rifles decided many a skirmish.
For more on this pick up issue #73 of Guns of the Old West!