WINCHESTER LEVER GUNS
By Mike Venturino
with photos by Yvonne Venturino
What Winchester Repeating Arms accomplished in 40 years was a manufacturing and marketing phenomenon that will never again be equaled in American arms making. In the 40 years starting in 1866 and running to 1906, the company produced no fewer than 1,803,000 lever-actuated repeating rifles and carbines in seven different models. Those models were the 1866, the 1873, the 1876, the 1886, the 1892, the 1894 and the 1895. Production figures were taken from information published by the late George Madis and rounded to the nearest thousand.
To put that number into perspective, according to the official U.S. Census, the population of the United States in 1900 was about 76 million people. Divide the U.S. population by Winchester’s arms production during the 40-year period and it comes out to one Winchester lever gun for every 42 Americans – man, woman, and child. That is mind-boggling even in light of the fact that not all of Winchester’s guns remained within U.S. borders. Some flowed around the world to military organizations and into hunters’ hands.
Winchester’s seven models of lever-action repeaters were chambered for no fewer than three dozen cartridges, 25 of which were developed by Winchester’s own technicians. The Model 1873 and the Model 1892 were chambered for cartridges that were small enough to be fired in revolvers as well as in rifles. Those cartridges were the .44 WCF, the .38 WCF and the .32 WCF, which are also known as the .44-40, the .38-40 and the .32-20. In its 1899 catalog, Winchester mentions only black-powder loads in reference to the Model 1873, but the discussion of the Model 1892 includes smokeless rounds. One can only conclude that Winchester was trying to steer shooters away from firing the new “nitro” powder loads in the older and weaker 1873 action.
Three of Winchester’s lever guns were “weaker action” models: the 1866, the 1873 and the 1876. Toggle links locked the bolt forward in firing position, and the system was strong enough for mild black-powder pressures. The actions begin to get “iffy,” though, when coupled with smokeless powders, especially if the toggles are excessively worn or cracked from age or hard use.
When John M. Browning became Winchester’s main brain in the mid-1880s, he did a remarkable job of designing stronger lever guns while retaining the company’s trademark style. But when Winchester turned him loose with the Model 1895, it was quite different from what had gone before. It also didn’t have much appeal for American rifle buyers. While Winchester did sell nearly 427,000 Model 1895s, 294,000 of those went to the Russian Imperial Government during World War One. At least one of those guns made it all the way to the Korean War, where it was reclaimed by American troops and returned to the states.
The story of Winchester Repeating Arms began in 1866 with a rifle model that was at first called “the Improved Henry.” The original Henry rifle, introduced in 1862, was designed by B. Tyler Henry and manufactured by the New Haven Arms Company. It was a lever-action repeater that fired a rimfire-primed, 200-grain, .44-caliber lead alloy bullet powered by 23 to 28 grains of black powder in a copper case.
Henry rifles are unique in appearance because they have no forearm, just the naked barrel and magazine tube. The reason there’s no forearm is because its presence would have blocked movement of the spring-loaded follower in the front-loading magazine tube. The lack of a forearm meant that a Henry’s barrel soon became uncomfortably hot if the gun was fired rapidly. Protective gloves would’ve been handy accessories for Henry riflemen.
In 1866 the Henry rifle was redesigned so that cartridges could be loaded through a port in the receiver. Since the magazine follower was now internal, the rifle now had a forearm and also a new name – the Model 1866 Winchester. By this time Oliver Winchester had become the major stockholder of the New Haven Arms Company, and he also decided to rename the company after himself. It became the Winchester Repeating Arms Co.
The receivers of early Henry rifles were made of iron, but that soon changed to an alloy referred to as “gunmetal.” Today both Henry rifles and Model 1866 Winchesters are commonly said to be brass-framed. The rimfire .44 Henry cartridge certainly was no powerhouse. Its 200-grain bullet was propelled to a muzzle velocity of perhaps 1,150 fps from a 24-inch barrel. Any number of modern, four-inch-barreled handguns can deliver more energy than the .44 Henry cartridge. Its rimfire priming was also notoriously unreliable. Both the Henry and the Model 1866 Winchester had double-strike firing pins that simultaneously struck the cartridge rim in two different spots to provide more reliability. Toward the end of the 1866’s production run in the 1890s, a centerfire version of the .44 Henry cartridge was produced.
When they could get them, the Plains Indians used both Henry rifles and Model 1866s in their clashes with the U.S. Cavalry and frontiersmen. Archeologists have unearthed evidence of both arms having been used at several sites, including the 1874 Battle of Adobe Walls in Texas and the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn and the 1877 Battle of the Big Hole in Montana.
Winchester’s next step was the Model 1873. It used the same toggle links as the 1866 to close the bolt, but its receiver was at first made of iron and then later of steel. The ’73 also had removable side-plates that made it easier to clean the gun’s internal workings. Along with the ’73, Winchester introduced its first centerfire cartridge that made reloading feasible. It was called the .44 Winchester Centerfire or .44 WCF.
Although ’73 Winchesters were produced for half a century, all of the rifle’s chamberings were introduced in the first dozen years of its existence. After the .44 WCF came the .38 WCF, which was simply the .44 case necked down. A new case, however, was designed for .32 WCF. Also added were .22 Long and .22 Short versions of the 1873. The .22s can be identified at a glance because their receivers have no loading port. For its .22s, Winchester went back to front-loading magazine tubes.
Winchester’s last toggle-link model was an effort to make a repeater that rivaled the power of Sharps and Remington single-shot rifles. Called the Centennial Model after the year of its introduction, the Model 1876 was first chambered for the .45-75, after which came chamberings for .45-60, .40-60 and .50-95. The Model 1876 was essentially a stretched-out Model 1873. It weighed 10 pounds, and it was the company’s least successful lever-action rifle. Winchester sold ’76s off and on until the late 1890s, but all told, fewer than 64,000 of them were made. They certainly didn’t replace the big-bore single-shots.
Winchester didn’t introduce any more new lever guns until Browning began doing the firm’s designs. In 1886 his design team produced the model named for that year. It was based on a new method of bolt lock up whereby twin lugs were raised when the lever was closed. The Model 1886 was the first truly “strong” lever gun, and with it Winchester could finally chamber cartridges rivaling the single-shots. There were 10 chamberings in five bore sizes. The first nine originated as black-powder rounds, but the last, the .33 Winchester introduced in 1903, started out as a smokeless cartridge. The other Model 1886 cartridges were the .38-56, .38-70, .40-65, .40-70, .40-82, .45-70, .45-90, .50-100 and .50-110. The only one of the 10 that wasn’t a Winchester design was the .45-70 Government. Except for the two .50 calibers, all the rounds used the .45-70 case head. The smaller capacity rounds used a 2.10-inch case length, and the larger ones had a length of 2.40 inches. The .50s were based on the old .45-75 case head, also with a case length of 2.40 inches. Both .50s could be fired in the same chamber, but they differed in powder charge and bullet weight. Winchester billed them as separate cartridges because the rifles that fired them had different twist rates.
With Browning’s input, the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. went on a roll in the 1890s, introducing three new models in just four years. The first was the Model 1892, which is basically a scaled-down Model 1886 with similar twin locking lugs. In its chamberings for the ’92, Winchester returned to the pistol-cartridge concept of the 1873. The new design was strong enough to accommodate increasingly popular smokeless cartridges, and in 1895 the .25-20 was added to the lineup by squeezing the .32-20 to take .257-inch bullets. The .218 Bee also was a ’92 cartridge, albeit a rare one, but it came out after the time frame under discussion here.
Winchester’s Model 1892 is one of the most delightful lever guns ever devised both to shoot and to carry. As a full-length rifle it barely weighs 6½ pounds, and it’s only 5½ pounds as a carbine. The carbine version was one of the best lever guns ever for horseback carry, and Winchester’s sales reflect the gun’s popularity. More than a million Model 1892s were produced before it was dropped from the line in 1941.
Winchester’s next gun was the game-changer – the Model 1894. Browning modified the design a bit, making the lever two stage or what might be better described as drop-link. That enabled the ’94 to be nearly as small as the ’92 and yet function with much longer cartridges. Instead of the bolt locking with two rear lugs, it locks with one large lug that has a center aperture through which the hammer strikes the firing pin. The Model 94 was intended from the beginning to be used with smokeless cartridges, but ironically the first rifles produced were for black-powder loads – the .32-40 and the .38-55. While the receiver was strong enough for smokeless cartridges, the barrel steel was not tough enough for jacketed bullets, and jacketed bullets were deemed necessary for the high velocities of smokeless loads.
In 1895 Winchester obtained durable nickel-steel for its barrels, and the first smokeless cartridge for the Model 94 was introduced. It was the .25-35 WCF, soon to be followed by the .30 WCF or .30-30. In 1901 the .32 Winchester Special came along. It was nothing more than the .30 WCF case expanded to take .321-inch bullets. The rest is history. The Model 94 became America’s iconic deer rifle with about six million being produced in this country before production shifted to Japan. The 94 was chambered for other cartridges along the way, but only the five mentioned above concern us here.
The year 1895 also marked the appearance of a markedly different Winchester lever-action rifle. The Model 1895 was the first lever gun with a box magazine, which also meant it was the first lever-action that could be safely loaded with pointed bullets. Introductory cartridges for the Model 1895 were two of Winchester’s own plus one popularized by the U.S. Government – the .30 Army better known as the .30-40 Krag. Winchester’s developments were the .38-72 and the .40-72. Winchester borrowed on the old .40-70 Sharps Straight case but increased its length from 2.50 inches to 2.58 inches. About 1904 the Model 95 was offered in a true heavy hitter, the .405 Winchester, a round forever tied in American minds to President Theodore Roosevelt. It was also based on the .40-70 Sharps case, but Winchester made it impossible to chamber .405 rounds in .40-72 rifles. They did so by increasing the thickness of case rims to .020 inch and raising bullet diameter from .406 to .411 inch. The worry was not the strength of the action but rather the fact that the mild steel barrels of the .40-72 couldn’t endure the stress of jacketed bullets. Along the way the Model 1895 was also offered in .30-03, .30-06, .303 British, .35 Winchester and the Russian 7.62x54mm.
Here’s a memorable tidbit: Winchester’s Model 1895s came only with round barrels except for the guns chambered for the two black-powder cartridges. They could be had with either octagon barrels or half-round/half octagon barrels. Speaking of round and octagon barrels, starting with the Model 1873 and until the Model 1895, Winchester offered round barrels on their lever guns as standard. Octagon barrels were an extra-cost option, but octagon barrels nevertheless were more prevalent than round.
During this time Winchester operated what must have been a very busy custom shop because plenty of lever guns that still exist bear features well beyond standard catalog listings. Custom barrel lengths were one such option. Barrels could be had as short as 12 inches or as long as 36 inches. Set triggers were another a common option. Some were double-set types, but they were rare. Most were either close-coupled double sets or the single-set variety. Straight grip stocks with crescent steel buttplates were standard, but pistol-grip stocks with either crescent or flat, shotgun-style buttplates could be special ordered.
All the Winchester models mentioned here were also available as carbines. Most travel in that era was either on horseback or by wagon, and that made every pound significant. Almost all the carbines sold by Winchester were what collectors today refer to as “saddle-ring carbines.” A stud attached to the left side of the receiver held a steel ring, the idea being that the carbine could be attached to a saddle by a thong of leather threaded through the ring. The standard carbine barrel length for Models 1866, 1873, 1892 and 1894 was 20 inches. For Models 1876, 1886 and 1895, carbine barrels were 22 inches. Slightly curved steel buttplates were standard issue for all carbine models. For some reason Winchester chose to put nearly full-length forearms on Model 1876 carbines and also on some Model 1886s. The idea behind carbines is shaving weight, so it didn’t make sense to put extra wood on them but Winchester did it nevertheless. Some of Winchester’s most famous carbines were those produced in .45-75 caliber for Canada’s Northwest Mounted Police.
All Winchester lever guns from the Model 1886 through the Model 1895 could be had in military musket form, that is with extra-long long barrels and nearly full-length stocks held in place by steel bands. For a modest extra charge, buyers could order bayonets to go with the muskets. Buttplates for the muskets were the same as those used on carbines.
A long treatise would be required to cover Winchester’s handling of rifling twist rates. Suffice it to say the company gave considerable thought to the matter, and I’ll cite a couple of examples. Take the .45-caliber Model 1886s for instance. Those made for .45-70 had a twist rate of one turn in 20 inches, but the twist for the .45-90 was 1-in-32. Why the difference? Because the .45-70 was intended for bullets ranging from 330 grains to as heavy as 500 grains. The .45-90, however, was an “express” cartridge shooting a lighter, 300-grain bullet at higher velocity. Or consider the .50-caliber Model 1886s. Winchester viewed their Big Fifties as two completely different cartridges even though they used the same cartridge case. The difference was in bullet weight – 300 grains for one and 450 grains for the other. As best as I can determine from my research, the rifles meant for 300-grain, .50-caliber bullets had 1-in-60 rifling, but those meant for 450-grain bullets had a 1-in-54 twist. I once owned a .50-caliber Model 1886 for the 300-grain bullet. It was actually caliber-marked “.50 Ex.” Since I’ve never seen one of the 600 or so ’86s made for the 450-grain bullet, I can’t say how they were marked.
The four decades between 1866 and 1906 must have been an exciting time for an avid rifleman. Winchester must have kept such a fellow both interested and broke. They have practically done that to me! Of the 25 cartridges Winchester developed and chambered in their lever guns in that 40-year time frame, I have handloaded for all but the Model 1886’s .38-70 and .50-100-450.
And that will be the topic of our next installment.