About a year and a half ago, I was thrilled to discover that Winchester Repeating Arms was once again offering the Model 1873 rifle after having manufactured some 720,000 rifles, muskets and carbines and ceasing production in 1919. The Model ’73 was a progression from the brass-framed Winchester Model 1866, which fired a .44 rimfire cartridge that many felt was underpowered for hunting and “social” purposes. The iron-framed Model 1873 was built around a new centerfire cartridge also in .44 caliber that propelled a 200-grain, flat-point lead bullet at about 1,245 fps. It was called the .44 Center-Fire, or WCF, but many refer to it as the .44-40 cartridge. Later, the Model ’73 was offered in .38-40, .32-20 and .22 rimfire. Colt produced its 1873 Single Action Army revolver in these same calibers, which allowed shooters to carry one cartridge for both their long guns and handguns. Hunters, lawmen, cowboys, settlers and bad guys quickly adopted Model ’73s. It has often been referred to as “the gun that won the West,” and it may well deserve this title given its popularity. The gun was produced for over 45 years, even after stronger and more powerful Winchester lever-action rifles like the Model 1876 and Model 1886 were introduced.
Today, Model ’73 originals and replicas are very popular among Cowboy Action Shooters (CAS). The toggle-link action of the Model ’73 lends itself to a rapid-fire modification that allows faster cycling with a shorter lever throw. Most of the Model ’73s on the firing line at Single-Action Shooting Society (SASS) and National Congress of Old West Shootists (NCOWS) are Italian-made replicas. They are generally well made and very authentic-looking, plus they are offered in calibers that are more in demand by modern-day shooters. A number of different importers offer these and other replicas of Old West firearms, but the originator of these replicas is an outfit called Navy Arms, which has been around for almost 60 years. Val Forgett Sr., the founder of Navy Arms, started it all by producing replicas of the Colt 1851 Navy percussion revolver in 1956. Over the years Navy Arms has been a source for authentic replicas of antique firearms, from flintlock rifles to percussion Civil War muskets and metallic-cartridge handguns and long guns.
In July of 2014, I received word that Navy Arms had teamed up with Winchester and Turnbull Manufacturing to produce one-of-a-kind Winchester Model 1873 rifles that are truly top of the line. The target market for this product is the SASS cowboy
shooter who’s been competing for five to 10 years and wants to step up to a rifle that is the pinnacle of design and production. With an MSRP of $2,500, this is not an “everyman’s” gun, but it has the features and aesthetics to please the most discriminating shooters and/or collectors. The fact that it has Winchester stamped on the receiver tang and barrel—something that hasn’t been seen for almost 70 years—adds to the rifle’s uniqueness and desirability.
I recently received my Navy Arms 1873 rifle for testing and couldn’t get the box open quick enough—and I wasn’t disappointed. The first thing to capture my attention was the outstandingly attractive color casehardening on the receiver, lever, trigger, hammer, forend cap and buttplate. Doug Turnbull and his company really know what they are doing when it comes to this process. The rich hues of blue, red, orange, yellow, brown and gray are real eye candy for a firearms enthusiast, and the work Turnbull Manufacturing has done on this rifle is second to none. The finish on the receiver and other aforementioned parts is top notch. The carrier block is brass, while the loading gate is steel. Everything is as it should be, with no flaws to detract from the overall good looks of the rifle.
The Navy Arms version of the Winchester 1873 rifle comes with a 20-inch, octagonal barrel that is polished to perfection and richly blued. A 24¼-inch barrel is also available. The barrel has the historic Winchester stamping along with that of Navy Arms. The sights on the barrel, made by Marble, are hand-fitted and consist of a step-adjustable, semi-buckhorn rear sight and a gold bead front sight. Both sights are dovetailed into the barrel and can be drifted for windage adjustments. Slung beneath the barrel is a full-length tubular magazine. My test gun was chambered in .357 Magnum and has a 10-round capacity; it will also take .38 Special ammunition and will hold 11 of these shorter cartridges. Unlike most of the Model 1873 replicas that have crescent buttplates, the Navy Arms version has a shotgun-style (Model 71) buttplate for quickly mounting the rifle on your shoulder. This buttplate is also checkered to help hold it firmly in place during rapid-fire shooting.
Next on the list of “eye-grabbers” is the beautiful Grade 1 American Walnut buttstock and forend. The wrist of the buttstock and the forend are checkered to near perfection, providing for a very steady hold and gripping surface for competition. The rifle’s dimensions are just right for me; the gun mounts quickly, and the balance is right where I want it for quickly getting onto the next target, making seconds count. If being a top SASS competitor is your bag, this is definitely the rifle for you.
Related Stories: Gun Test: EMF SASS 1873
The rifle comes from Navy Arms with a factory-installed short-stroke action. To be honest, I’m a purist; most of my shooting these days is with NCOWS and they don’t allow this. But, if you are a SASS shooter (which I still am), this is legal, and I was amazed at how quickly you can lever in cartridges. I could not shoot as fast as I could work the lever. During my testing, I did the Chuck Connors thing that you see in the opening of The Rifleman: shoot from the hip as fast as you can work the lever and pull the trigger. Next is the trigger pull. There’s some loose take-up for safety and a perceptible bit of creep, but the trigger breaks right at 4 pounds. It surprised me several times and opened up some five-shot groups. The gold bead front sight is great both for punching paper and CAS matches. I generally don’t like buckhorn or semi-buckhorn sights like this rifle’s, but I warmed up to them a little during my testing. My biggest complaint was the rear sight. When I got to the range, the rifle was shooting way low with .357 Magnum factory cowboy loads. It’s step-adjustable for elevation and is mounted in a dovetail, so it can be drifted right or lever for windage, but this steel sight was so stiff I could not make adjustments for fear of marring the finish on the barrel. I ended up using some “Kentucky elevation” when doing paper target work.
For testing I selected .357 Magnum cartridges from Black Hills, Magtech and Ten-X. The Black Hills and Magtech loads featured 158-grain, lead, flat-point bullets, while the Ten-X load had a 130-grain, lead, flat-point bullet. At NCOWS matches we shoot rifle targets at distances where you need sights and proper marksmanship techniques; speed is nice, but it’s secondary. So, to begin, I put paper targets up at the 25-yard line, a usual SASS rifle distance at matches I attend. I did my shooting from the bench, using a sandbag rest and easy-to-see bullseye targets. A wise sage once commented that only accurate rifles are interesting. This rifle was very interesting.
First up was the Black Hills ammo. The hole in the target was about 3.5 inches low, but the windage was fine. Keeping my eyes on the sights and working the short-throw action, I pumped out four more shots. The group measured 0.74 inches. The bullet impacts were almost in the dead center of the X ring. The next group measured 0.96 inches. I won’t give you a blow-by-blow account, but suffice it to say that when I did my part, this rifle did its job. The Magtech .357 cowboy load shoots hard, but it was accurate. My problem was the “4+1 Syndrome.” I’d get four shots grouped into one big, jagged hole then blow a round a half-inch away and ruin the tiny group! I had a four-shot group that measured 0.26 inches until my fifth shot opened it up to 0.82 inches. Unfortunately, the rifle didn’t like the 130-grain bullet from Ten-X. My best group was 1.96 inches.
I next backed the target stand up to the 50-yard line, and when I put the gold bead on the blaze-orange center aiming point, it completely covered it up. My best five-shot group at this distance was 2.27 inches with the Magtech cartridges. I had to aim about 6 inches above the target, and the shots went off to the left a couple of inches.
Next I took the rifle to a CAS event. I mostly used the Black Hills ammo and some of the Ten-X, too. The sights being off did not affect anything at SASS distances, and I quickly dropped all of the targets. One stage involved a rack of targets the size and shape of whiskey bottles at about 15 yards that had to be knocked over. I just mowed them down. After the match, I did it again a few more times just for fun! During the range testing and the match, I didn’t experience a single problem or malfunction. The handling was superb.
The bottom line: I’m now a believer. This is one of the finest lever guns I’ve ever had the privilege to shoot. Sure, it’s not cheap, but if you can afford the Navy Arms 1873 rifle, you won’t be disappointed, especially if you are looking to up your score and speed in SASS competition. What’s it worth to you? How many of you have spent as much or more on custom work that you can get now directly from Navy Arms? I’d ride the river with this rifle any day. For more information, visit navyarms.com or call 304-274-0004. ✪
Caliber: .357 Mag/.38 Special • Barrel: 20 inches
OA Length: 39.4 inches • Weight: 8.5 pounds (empty)
Stock: American walnut • Sights: Front bead, semi-buckhorn rear
Action: Lever • Finish: Blued, casehardened • Capacity: 10+1 • MSRP: $2,500
This article originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.