It is perhaps fitting that today both Winchester and Browning are sister companies, rather than the great competitors they were for most of the 20th century. Even so, the two were intertwined long before by one man, John Moses Browning. Without Browning’s designs, many of Winchester’s greatest 19th century rifles and shotguns would not have existed, nor would Winchester have realized the unrivaled success it achieved by the early 1900s, becoming the largest producer of sporting arms in the United States.
The first great influence Browning would have on the future of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company came in 1883, the year Winchester Vice President and General Manager Thomas Grey Bennett traveled to Ogden, Utah, to see firsthand the single-shot rifles that Browning and his brothers were manufacturing in their shop. It was to be the rifle that would unite Browning and Winchester for nearly 20 years. But that’s getting a little ahead of the story.
Winchester was already famous by the time the Browning brothers opened their small gun and sporting goods shop in Ogden, Utah, in 1880, but they had plenty of experience. They had grown up in the gunsmithing trade; John and Matt had been the first to work alongside their father, Jonathan, who established the first Browning shop in Ogden in 1852. By the time John Moses was in his 20s, he was all too familiar with the workings of single-shot rifles; over the years he had repaired countless Sharps models brought to the shop by hunters, trappers, freighters and wagon masters leading their caravans along a branch of the Overland Trail that passed directly through Ogden, merely a block from the Browning gun shop. He had seen the recurring problems with all the various rifles, including the Sharps, and knew he could design a better, more reliable and faster handling single-shot. Though he was only 23 when he completed the design for the Browning single-shot in 1878, John had been preparing for that moment since he was a boy. In May of 1879, he was assigned Patent No. 220271. It was the first of 128 patents covering more than 80 separate and distinct firearms that would bear his name over the next 48 years!
The Winchester Side
Oliver F. Winchester’s fame had grown from the reputation of the Benjamin Tyler Henry lever action rifle introduced in 1860 and manufactured throughout the Civil War by Winchester’s New Haven Arms Company of New Haven, Connecticut.
Capable of holding 16 rounds, the Henry, for all its benefits, was never officially adopted by the U.S. military, which relied on single-shot rifled muskets and the slower but more reliable Spencer repeating rifle. Although accurate and effective in the hands of U.S. soldiers, the Henry was prone to failure in the field if not kept in meticulous working order, and Winchester knew he had to build a better, more reliable rifle if he was going to get substantial military contracts. That took until 1866, when an improved lever action rifle, simply called the Model 1866, quite literally became the offspring of a financial coup at New Haven Arms spirited by Benjamin Tyler Henry.
A year before, Henry had tried to oust Winchester and rename the company after himself, and Oliver Winchester decided not to stand in his way—he simply withdrew, taking all of New Haven Arms’ assets with him! He also took Henry’s right-hand man, Nelson King, who engineered and patented the improved Model 1866 (King’s patent), manufactured by the new Winchester Repeating Arms Company of New Haven. The rest is history. Sadly, not as long a history as Oliver Winchester might have imagined. His success with the Winchester Repeating Arms Company had come late in life, and on December 10, 1880, Oliver Winchester passed away just two weeks after his 70th birthday. Direction of the company passed to his son-in-law, Thomas Gray Bennett, who picked up the gauntlet and ran with it, indirectly, to John Moses Browning’s doorstep.
In 1883, Bennett purchased the rights to the Browning single-shot rifle for an astounding $8,000. The deal was made in a single day, a mutual agreement hand written on a sheet of paper signed by both, and Bennett handed John a check for $1,000 as an advance. The remaining $7,000 arrived a few weeks later. It was the most money the Browning boys had ever seen.
Model 1885 Legacy
By the time Bennett showed up at Browning’s shop, the brothers had built roughly 600 of their original-style single-shot rifles. I say “original” since William Mason did make some minor changes to the Browning design, including angling the block at six degrees to create a positive breech seal. The first production models were catalogued in 1885.
The guns were produced in two versions, the High Wall, which was based on the original Browning patent and designed for large-caliber rounds, beginning with the .45-70 in the Browning models, and at Winchester all the way up to buffalo-hunting rounds such as the .45-90, .45-120, .50-110 and .405 Win. Major Ned H. Roberts (inventor of the .257 Roberts cartridge) described the Model 1885 single-shot as “the most reliable, strongest, and altogether best single-shot rifle ever produced.”
In 1886, Winchester added the Low Wall version for smaller calibers. The terminology refers to the height of the receiver and the position of the sides in relation to the hammer. With the High Wall, just the tip of the hammer is visible when viewed from the side, whereas on the Low Wall the entire side of the hammer can be seen. Eventually, the Model 1885 was produced in every possible configuration and level of finish, from standard to fully engraved, in every stock style—from sporters with schnabel forends, to full-length-stocked muskets, Schuetzen competition rifles and “take-down” sporting guns— and in round and octagonal barrel styles chambered in more than 80 calibers, from .22 Short to .577 Eley.
Initially, the hammer on both High Wall and Low Wall models was automatically cocked when the lever was lowered, but as a safety measure, at around serial number 100000 to 110000, the hammer was only set at the half-cock position and had to be manually cocked before firing. By 1920, when Winchester initially discontinued the Model 1885 single-shot, nearly 140,000 had been sold. The original selling price for a standard round-barrel model was $14.50.
Aside from Winchester, which has brought the Model 1885 High Wall and Low Wall back numerous times over the years as limited editions, renowned Italian arms-maker Davide Pedersoli has been producing exceptional Model 1885s since the late 1990s that are available through Taylor’s & Company here in the U.S. There are several versions available in .45-70, .45 Long Colt and .38-55, with 30- and 32-inch barrels. The High Walls come with either a fancy double-spur triggerguard or the traditional Browning-designed spur triggerguard.
The overall length of the 32-inch-barreled, .45-70 model I tested is 49 inches with a weight of 10 pounds unloaded. The carbon-steel, octagonal barrel is broached rifled and has a smooth, non-reflective, matte blue finish. Authentic to the original Winchesters, the Taylor’s High Wall’s frame and lever have brilliant casehardened colors. The pistol-grip stock, with checkered grip panels, has a high cheekpiece and a large blued-steel buttplate. The finely checkered schnabel forend of the original design provides a solid purchase for steadying this historic .45-70 rifle.
All models are equipped with dovetailed Winchester-type rear sights and blade front sights, and are drilled and tapped to mount a tang rear sight and a matched tunnel front sight. Taylor’s & Company also offers Creedmoor tang-mounted rear sights, front sights and classic Malcolm riflescopes (the first production riflescopes invented circa 1855 by William Malcolm).
With the very harsh winter this year, I limited the testing to a distance of 50 yards, firing at a 30-by-30-inch, unmarked cardboard target. The temperature during the test was 31 degrees Fahrenheit with a light crosswind. The High Wall is intended for greater ranges, and originally was designed for long-range target shooting matches, which were very popular in the late 1800s. Shooting at 100 yards and beyond is really where this gun lives. My test ammunition included Remington 300-grain SJHPs and a special handload using a 405-grain, cast-lead bullet backed by 36 grains of 3031 powder. The trigger pull was adjusted to an average of 4.85 to 5.03 pounds, as tested on a Lyman trigger pull gauge.
The Remington 300-grain ammo cleared the traps of the chronograph at an average of 1,624 fps, and the handload clocked 1,279 fps. After sighting in and firing from a kneeling position 50 yards out, the best grouping with the Remington rounds measured 1.25 inches for three consecutive shots. Out of eight shots fired in succession, the overall group measured 4.5 inches around the point of aim. As a hunting or target rifle, the accuracy with the standard buckhorn rear and blade front sights was very good. The heft of the rifle keeps it firmly in hand and minimizes recoil for consistent accuracy.
The Taylor’s & Company 1885 High Wall is beautifully crafted, well balanced and remarkably easy to handle and shoot. The color-casehardened receiver and lever exhibit brilliant blue tones and grays, the fine checkering on the forend and pistol grip stock are beautifully executed in the Winchester style, the action lever and block move effortlessly, and spent cases are quickly ejected upon opening. Overall, the Taylor’s & Company 1885 High Wall is a well-built rifle that lives up to the Browning and Winchester traditions. For more information, visit taylorsfirearms.com or call 540-722-2017.
Specifications: Taylor’s & Company 1885 High Wall
Caliber: .45-70 Government • Barrel: 32 inches
OA Length: 49 inches • Weight: 10 pounds (empty) • Stock: Walnut
Sights: Blade front, buckhorn rear • Action: Falling block
Finish: Casehardened, blued • Capacity: Single-shot • MSRP: $2,024
This article originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.
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