It has been the claim of many that the Winchester lever-action rifle was “the gun that won the West.” There is certainly no doubt that Winchesters played a significant role in the settling of the American West throughout the 1870s and 1880s, but which Winchester lever action deserves the credit?
It all began just before the Civil War, when wealthy New York and Connecticut haberdasher Oliver Fisher Winchester bankrolled the establishment of the New Haven Arms Company of Connecticut. New Haven was run by Winchester’s superintendent, Benjamin Tyler Henry, who was responsible for perfecting the Volcanic repeating rifle and pistol he had helped develop along with Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson while employed by Robins & Lawrence in Vermont. In 1855, Smith, Wesson and Henry decided to go out on their own, bought the patent rights and established the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company, a small under-funded operation that needed investors. In their search for financial backing they found Oliver Winchester, setting into motion events that would end with the creation of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in 1866.
Winchester Is Born
The novel, small-caliber Volcanic models were interesting firearms, but, to Winchester’s disappointment, they weren’t overly successful, and he continually drove Henry, Smith and Wesson to make improvements. With the company falling on hard times in 1856, Winchester decided to take full control, purchasing all of its assets in April of 1857, reorganizing it as the New Haven Arms Company and moving operations to New Haven, Connecticut. By the end of the year, Smith and Wesson left to establish their own arms making firm, and Benjamin Tyler Henry started over to design a completely different operating mechanism. Three years later, he gave Oliver Winchester the repeater he wanted to put his name on: a magazine-fed, breech-loading, lever-action rifle patented on October 16, 1860. It would be called the Henry rifle.
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The start of the Civil War made the Henry one of the most sought-after long guns both by federal troops and Confederates, who regarded the lever-action .44 rimfire as one of the most coveted prizes in battle. The U.S. War Department, however, did not share that enthusiasm, and Henry rifles were not purchased for troops in significant numbers. Instead, soldiers and regiments were left to purchase them on their own or with state funding, but the majority were privately owned.
Winchester made money, but the Henry was still not the ideal lever-action rifle. Tested in battle, it had proven slow to reload, and its open magazine carrier under the barrel required meticulous care and cleaning. Additional improvements to the design were started at war’s end, along with a move by Benjamin Tyler Henry to wrest control of the company from Winchester. Rather than put up a financial battle to win over Henry, Winchester simply withdrew from the company, taking all of the New Haven Arms Company’s assets with him and starting the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. He also took Henry’s right-hand man, Nelson King, who engineered the first Winchester, the Model 1866.
King’s improvements included designing a loading chamber in the right side of the receiver and totally enclosing the magazine running under the barrel, thus eliminating the Henry’s greatest drawbacks. He even managed to increase the rifle’s cartridge capacity from the Henry’s impressive 16 to 17 rounds. Winchester had a runaway success; more than 100,000 Model 1866 rifles were sold by 1898.
In 1873, Winchester added a new model aptly named for the year of its introduction. Offered in calibers from .22 rimfire to .32-20, .38-40 and the most popular .44-40 caliber—suitable for both rifles and Colt’s single actions—the 1873 was available with either round or octagonal barrels in lengths of 20, 24 or 30 inches. The rifle was so successful that it remained in production until 1919 with more than 720,000 manufactured. Did it win the West? If sales are any indication, it won something!
Winchester continued to improve its designs even while the 1873 was being manufactured. The one big complaint had always been the limitations of the design in terms of more powerful cartridges for taking larger game. The government also wanted a Winchester that could chamber the .45-70 cartridge. In 1876, Winchester delivered its Centennial Model, not a .45-70 but a gun designed for larger-caliber rounds capable of taking any North American game.
Winchester chose the nation’s “Centennial Celebration” at Fairmont Park in Philadelphia to unveil its new large-frame model. Chambered for cartridges that were substantially more powerful than the Model 1873 could handle, the new lever gun was originally offered in Winchester’s new .45-75 Winchester Center-Fire (WCF) caliber. In 1879, two new cartridges were added, the .45-60 and .50-95 Express. Winchester created the “Express Rifle” designation for the big-game guns, which proved popular with hunters in Africa and India. It was the least-produced caliber for the Centennial model and the most sought after by collectors today. In 1884, Winchester added the .40-60 cartridge.
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Looking nearly identical to the 1873, the frame of the Centennial was a full 1½ inches longer, had more heft and, when compared to the .44-40 models, was clearly larger. The 1876 was a true sportsman’s rifle, and by the late 1870s its popularity had spread from North America to Europe, Africa and India, where the big Winchesters were used to take everything from rhinoceros and elephants to Cape buffalo. Among prominent owners, and perhaps the most prominent owner of a Winchester Centennial, was Theodore Roosevelt. He owned at least three Model 1876 lever actions: a carbine and rifle in .40-60 caliber, and his favorite, a rifle in .45-75. In the March 1886 issue of Outing magazine, Roosevelt wrote:
“A ranchman…with whom hunting is of secondary im-portance, and who cannot be bothered by carrying a long rifle always around with him on horseback, but who, nevertheless, wishes to have some weapon with which he can kill what game he runs across, usually adopts a short, light saddle-gun, a carbine, weighing but five or six pounds, and of such convenient shape that it can be kept under his thigh alongside the saddle. A .40-60 Winchester is perhaps the best for such a purpose, as it carries far and straight, and hits hard, and is a first-rate weapon for deer and antelope, and can also be used with effect against sheep, elk, and even bear, although for these last a heavier weapon is of course preferable.”
Winchester had set its sights on more than commercial sales when it developed the 1876 but had missed its target, a government contact, by not building a rifle that could chamber the .45-70 cartridge, which was the standard within the U.S. military and used in its outdated but powerful single-shot Springfield Model 1873 rifles. Winchester engineers had sought a way of using the .45-70 in a repeating rifle; however, the toggle-link system (in use since the Henry rifle) could not handle the length of the cartridge without having a long and massive receiver. The initial solution had been Winchester’s bottlenecked and shorter .45-75 WCF. Although consumer sales were brisk, the U.S. government was disappointed and no military sales resulted. The Model 1876 was mostly popular with people on the frontier looking for a powerful repeating rifle that was handy enough to carry on a horse.
The Centennial was offered with a 28-inch, round or octagonal barrel (octagonal barrels were optional but much more popular), a straight stock, a full-length magazine and a crescent buttplate. Carbines were offered with shorter 22-inch, round barrels and full-length forearms. Muskets were also produced with 32-inch, round barrels and full-length forearms. The Model 1876 could be ordered with a variety of factory options, including set triggers, special barrel lengths and weights, custom wood and engraving, custom sights, pistol-grip stocks and different buttplates.
Winchester still sought the government’s largess, and that took another decade and the development of the Model 1886. In the interim, Oliver Winchester had passed away in 1880 at age 70, and the company was now being headed by his son-in-law, Thomas Grey Bennett, who brought John Moses Browning into the Winchester fold in 1883.
The Model 1886 was Browning’s second design, part of an agreement to give the company “right of first refusal” on all future designs. From 1883 on, Winchester purchased all of Browning’s patents for rifles and shotguns, whether the company built them or not. The idea, in the mind of T.G. Bennett, was to keep the competition from getting any of Browning’s designs. And it worked for almost two decades.
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Receiver length had been one of the key issues that stalled Winchester’s development of a lever-action rifle to chamber the longer and more powerful .45-70 Government cartridge. The toggle link moved horizontally with the action of the lever, driving the bolt to the rear to cock the hammer while the spent shell case was extracted, and then forward with the closing of the lever to chamber a new round. The horizontal movement of the toggle link in relation to the size of the receiver limited the length of travel and the size of the cartridge case that could be loaded or extracted. It was also too fragile to withstand the chamber pressures that would have been developed by a .45-70. No one at New Haven was thinking beyond traditional Winchester design. But John M. Browning felt no such limitations. The 1886 was stronger and more efficient, and his new bolt design did away with the need for a separate, sliding dust cover over the breech.
Browning’s lever action worked with vertical locking bars to secure the bolt, rather than the older toggle link dating back to Benjamin Tyler Henry’s 1860 design. The vertical locking bars were stronger and required less space to operate, creating a receiver that was actually shorter than the Model 1873’s yet capable of chambering the .45-70 cartridge. The Model 1886 was produced in four standard versions: rifle; carbine with shotgun-style buttplate; musket with extended-length forearm; and the Extra Light Weight Rifle. Barrel lengths varied from 26 inches for rifles, 22 inches for the Extra Light Weight Rifle and carbine (full-stock and takedown versions), and 30 inches for the musket variant.
The Browning design was an unrivaled success, proclaimed by many as the best rifle in the world with production exceeding 160,000 by 1935. Remarkably, Winchester continues to bring back the 1886 from time to time in various versions. Today, Winchester offers a Deluxe 1886 in .45-70 Government with a 24-inch, octagonal barrel and a color-casehardened frame, as well as a blued 1886 Short Rifle with a round barrel.
Navy Arms 1873
Fortunately for enthusiasts of the legendary Winchester Model 1873, Winchester still offers this model, and Navy Arms, another legendary name in firearms, has a series of 1873 lever actions made by Winchester and custom finished by Turnbull Manufacturing. The latest model shown here has the full octagonal barrel, hand-fitted Marbles sights consisting of a semi-buckhorn rear and a gold bead front, a color-casehardened frame, a deluxe American walnut stock with full checkering, a “Winchester red” finish and a steel shotgun-style buttplate.
The Navy Arms Model 1873 exhibits the outstanding color casehardening made by Winchester and bone-charcoal color casehardened here in the United States to Navy Arms specifications. The rich hues of blue, rust, brown and gray are remarkably close to the original Winchester finishes from the 1870s, and the Navy Arms version comes with either a 20- or 24¼-inch, highly polished, blued, octagonal barrel. The historic Winchester name is stamped on the receiver tang and barrel. The Navy Arms Model 1873 rifles are available in .45 Colt and .357 Mag/.38 Special chamberings.
The 1873 models are also ideal for SASS competition, as they come standard with a Winchester short-stroke kit preinstalled. This shortens the length of travel for the lever when ejecting and chambering a round, thus speeding up shooting times by a few thousandths of a second, which could make a difference in competition. Of course, this level of quality and authenticity come at a price. This 1873 has an MSRP of $2,500, so it is not for the faint of budget. But considering what a restored Turnbull original 1873, or better still, an original in 98 percent or better condition is worth today, the price is more in line with competitive models from Italy that are outstanding in every way but lack the one essence of authenticity that only the original maker can offer: the Winchester name. The 1873 is also available from Navy Arms in a striking French grey finish for $2,350.
With original Centennial models relegated to highly prized and costly collectable status, a demand arose for a modern reproductions. The first and most vocal proponent was Mike “Texas Jack” Harvey, the owner of Cimarron Firearms in Fredericksburg, Texas. Mike had already pursued the development and production of numerous Colt and Winchester reproductions manufactured in Italy by Uberti. In 1999, he suggested the construction of an 1876 Centennial, and Uberti agreed to take up the project, but it took until 2007 to complete. Since then, the 1876 has relived its fame through the Uberti reproductions that emulate the originals in remarkable detail.
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The Uberti shown was delivered from Taylor’s & Company Firearms and is similar to the .40-60 model favored by Teddy Roosevelt. The octagonal barrel on the Taylor’s model is 28 inches in length, and the gun has a hefty 10-pound weight. It is finished with a deluxe walnut stock and forearm, traditional sights consisting of a buckhorn rear and a dovetailed front sight, and it has an 11+1 capacity in .40-60. The receiver has traditional Italian color casehardening.
Pedersoli Model 1886
Last comes the heavy-hitting .45-70 that gave Winchester one of the most powerful lever-action rifles in history, the Model 1886. As manufactured by Davide Pedersoli to the exact specifications of the John M. Browning design, the Pedersoli 1886 has a highly polished, blued, 26-inch, broached-rifled, octagonal barrel; a brilliantly color-casehardened receiver; and a select American walnut stock and forearm with fine hand checkering. Weighing in at 9.81 pounds and measuring 44.78 inches in overall length, this is another big gun for the trail but also one of the most accurate and powerful.
This is the latest Model 1886 to come from Pedersoli and is noticably different from the earlier 1886/71 version the company offered, which was originally chambered for the .348 WCF. The Model 71 was also known for being the last “big-frame” lever action produced by Winchester. Originally advertised as “The Universal Big Game Rifle,” the Model 71 was welcomed with enthusiasm by big-game hunters. This new Model 1886 from Pedersoli, however, harkens back to the Old West lever actions carried by Roosevelt, cowboys and lawmen in the late 19th century, and it’s the newest addition to the handcrafted Pedersoli rifle line for 2016. The 1886 will be imported exclusively by the Italian Firearms Group (IFG) and available through IFG dealers.
Navy Arms Winchester Model 1873
- Caliber: .357 Mag/.38 Special, .45 Colt
- Barrel: 20 inches
- OA Length: 39.4 inches
- Weight: 8.5 pounds (empty)
- Stock: American walnut
- Sights: Marbles bead front, semi-buckhorn rear
- Action: Lever
- Finish: Casehardened
- Capacity: 10+1
- MSRP: $2,500
Taylor’s & Company 1876 Centennial
- Caliber: .45-60
- Barrel: 28 inches
- OA Length: 48 inches
- Weight: 10 pounds (empty)
- Stock: Walnut
- Sights: Front blade, buckhorn rear
- Action: Lever
- Finish: Blued, casehardened
- Capacity: 11+1
- MSRP: $1,557
Pedersoli Model 1886
- Caliber: .45-70
- Barrel: 26 inches
- OA Length: 44.78 inches
- Weight: 9.81 pounds (empty)
- Stock: Walnut
- Sights: Bead front, buckhorn rear
- Action: Lever
- Finish: Casehardened
- Capacity: 8+1
- MSRP: $2,050
For More Information
Italian Firearms Group
Taylor’s & Co. Firearms
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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.