Gun that won the West
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The Winchester Model 1873: then & now; it might not be the strongest lever action rifle ever made, but 700,000 customers can't be wrong.
From: Guns Magazine | Date: 1/1/2005 | Author: Venturino, Mike
(Foto; 3e. Model 1873 Karabijn .44 Cal.)
Winchester ,liked to bill the Model 1873 as "gun that won the West." Of course that's nonsense. The Sharps Model 1874 single shot made the "West safe for Winchesters!
Regardless, the Model 1873 is one of the more significant firearms in American history. Its production life spanned five decades and nearly three quarters of a million were produced. That translates into enormous popularity; especially considering that the population of this country was a mere fraction of what it is today. Here's something else to consider. When the much stronger and lighter Model 1892 Winchester was introduced chambering the same exact cartridges (plus a couple of others) it would have been reasonable to think that the older Model 1873's days were numbered, But Winchester manufactured the two lever guns concurrently for almost 30 years and they priced identically in the 1899 catalog. That was $19.50 for standard rifles and $17.50 for standard carbines.
A little known fact is that the Model 1873 darn near was the Model 1874. That's because according to the late George Madis' The Winchester Book the factory only shipped 18 of them by the end of 1873. But they certainly did get into full swing. In the decades of the 1880s and 1890s production almost always exceeded 20,000 per calendar year. Some years topped 39,000 and in 1891 more than 40,000 were made. As late as 1910 over 25.000 were made in a single year. If you know anyone working for a major firearm manufacturer today ask him what he would think about selling 40,000 of one model in a year.
Here's another little known fact. According to archaeology done at the Little Bighorn Battlefield in recent years, historians know that no less than four Model 1873 Winchesters made it to that battle in June, 1876. They must have been in Sioux or Cheyenne hands as there is no record of them being carried by anyone in the 7th Cavalry. But it does prove that his model spread around the country rather quickly.
The Model 1873's story did not end completely when Winchester dropped it in 1923. Fast forward 50 years and the Italians entered the picture. By the early 1970s the replica market was in full swing and the late Val Forgett, founder of Navy Arms. prevailed on A. Uberti & Company to start reproducing Winchester lever guns. He told me personally that the first one made was the Model 1866, but within a few years the Model 1873 started to be imported over here. Nowadays. Model 1873s are sold by numerous importers such as Cimarron Arms, EMF. Dixie Gun Works, Navy Arms, and so forth. One and all they are made in the Uberti factory located in northern Italy. And in my opinion they possess the finest quality of all the replica guns imported today. Production figures of Uberti Model 1873s made during the last three plus decades are not available to me, but it is safe to say that they are a significant fraction of the total produced by Winchester.
When Winchester introduced the Model 1873 it was a first in several ways. It was their first firearm to take centerfire, reloadable cartridges, and it was their first firearm to use ferrous metal for the receiver. Through the 1870s Model 1873 frames were machined of iron, but then the switch was made to steel in the 1880s. The reason stronger materials than brass (actually it was an alloy called "gun-metal") were needed was that Winchester wanted more power from their lever guns. Winchester's previous rifle was only chambered for the .44 Henry Rimfire cartridge. It carried a 200-grain bullet over 28-grains of black powder. For the sake of perspective consider this. A Model 1866 Winchester firing that round gave muzzle velocity of about 1,100 fps and muzzle energy about equal to a stoutly loaded .357 Magnum revolver with 4 barrel.
By making the frames of iron and going to centerfire ignition Winchester not only enabled the cartridge to be reloadable, but it was able to carry 40 grains of black powder under a 200-grain bullet. That raised muzzle speeds to about 1.300 fps. Again for the sake of perspective, that made the new .44 cartridge about equal to some of today s lower end .44 Magnum handgun loads. Winchester never marked any of their guns ".44-40" but that is how we know the round today. Winchester always inscribed them ".44 WCF."
Winchester produced the Model 1873 in three basic versions. There were rifles. which had 24" round or octagon barrels. straight grip stocks, and steel-capped crescent butts. Carbines had 20 lightweight, round barrels, straight grip stocks, and a steel capped and slightly curved butt. Then there were muskets. These had 30" round barrels and, interestingly, used the exact same buttstock as carbines. Of course, there were near endless custom options offered in those days. They included but were not limited to extra long or extra short barrels, extra heavy or extra light barrels, set triggers, pistol grip stocks, shotgun butts, color case-hardened actions, and you get the picture.
It is also worth saying here that the modern Italian made Model 1873s are also being made in musket, rifle, and carbine versions. For some reason the carbines have 19" barrels and the rifles 24 1/4" barrels. There is even a Sporting Rifle version with pistol grip and checkering. Actions can be color casehardened or blued.
As said above, the introductory caliber for Model 1873s was .44 WCF (.44-40). Some sources say that the .38 WCF (.38-40) came along in 1874. That's silly. They were just getting the .44s out then. A more likely date given by some research sources is 1879, with the .32 WCF (.32-20) coming along three years later. Starting in 1888 some Model 1873s were made in .22 Short and .22 Long caliber. They can be spotted at a glance because there is no loading port on the action's right side. According to Madis' book 80 percent of all Winchester Model 1873 production was in .44 caliber. Only five percent was in musket form.
The Italian replica Model 1873s can also be had in the above calibers, excluding the .22s although in the past some were made chambered for the .22 LR. Try to find one for sale. Furthermore, due to cowboy action competition the Italians have also chambered Model 1873s for .357 Magnum, .44 Special, and .45 Colt. Not all importers bring in Uberti Model 1873s in all the above calibers, but be sure all of them are available at one place or the other.
Note one thing here. Those original .32, .38, and .44 WCF cartridges are all tapered or bottleneck in shape. Their designers knew what they were about. The taper not only helped with smooth feeding, but it kept gas from leaking back past the cartridge case walls. Model 1873s chambered for modern straight cases are famous for cartridge case walls burned black and even leaking gas back out the action. Stand to the side of someone shooting a Model 1873 chambered for .45 Colt and loaded with black powder. You will see. None of this means that the Model 1873s chambered for modern straight cases won't function and shoot well. What it does mean is that the people who designed such things in the 1870s had it figured out.
Model 1873s, whether made by Winchester or by Uberti are not strong guns. By their very design they are weak. The Model 1873 mode of lock-up is a toggle link. When the lever is lowered, cartridges are fed out of the magazine and lifted into line with the chamber by means of a brass cartridge lifter. In my opinion one of the nicer touches of original Winchester Model 1873s is that after more than one cartridge was cataloged the bottom of the brass litter was inscribed with the caliber. Anyway, when the lever is raised the cartridge is then chambered and the toggle link breaks over center to lock the bolt closed. This is not a strong system but it served just fine for the black powder era.
(foto; Winchester 1873 rifle 38/40 3e model)
So here's the situation. Winchester Model 1873s made in the 1870s out of iron should never be fired with anything but black powder loads. And they should not be fired at all unless a competent gunsmith checks the toggle links, Furthermore I would not shoot any original Winchester Model 1873 with anything but black powder unless it was made after smokeless powder factory ammunition had arrived. For example I have a Model 1873 .38-40 made in 1899 and a Musket .44-40 made about 1905. I do shoot smokeless powder handloads and factory loads in them but do so very carefully! And likewise with my Italian made replicas.
But this is important. The handloads are only those that would be safe in handguns such as the Colt Single Action Army or a clone thereof. Just because Model 1873s are rifles does not mean they are stronger. They are not. Now here's one last opinion that is hard for some to accept. About the most power you can safely get out of a Model 1873--Winchester or Uberti--can be done with black powder. My black powder .44-40 handloads with 200- to 215-grain bullets will clock in the 1,200 to 1,250 fps range depending on exact rifle or carbine they are fired in. None of the smokeless loads I'm willing to fire in my Model 1873s beat that. I've shot deer with the black powder loads shown in the accompanying chart broadside at about 75 yards and got through-and-through penetration.
And speaking of loads. Only a few of my favorites are included in the accompanying chart because our editors have promised to allow me to do some cartridge specific articles on old Winchester calibers and others in the near future. We'll delve deeper into specific cartridges then. Suffice it to say here that when shooting with most any Model 1873 with open sights, five-shot groups at 100 yards run in the three to tour inch range for me. Someday I'm going to put some target sights on one of these things and see what it will really do.
Now at this point I know someone is about to pucker up and whine, "Shoot black powder? No way am I going to clean up that mess." Let me tell you this. In 1993 I bought a Cimarron Arms Model 1873 .44-40 Sporting Rifle. It has been my mainstay for cowboy action competition, and has been fired many, many thousands of rounds--mostly black powder loaded rounds. I clean it upside down so that any crud pushed back towards the receiver falls out of instead of into the action. It takes me less than five minutes to clean and oil it up. Never in over 10 years of use had I taken off the receiver's sideplates for cleaning. This year I did and the innards were nearly spotless. (Admittedly that would not be the situation if I had been firing it with straight-walled cases all those years.)
If I seem enthusiastic about the Model 1873--whether Winchester or Uberti--it is because I am. A sample each of musket, rifle, and carbine from Winchester and a carbine and rifle from Uberti reside in my racks. Many more of both types have come and gone. My Model 1873s get fired more than any other of my two dozen or so lever guns. All five are either .44 WCF or .38 WCF. The modern cartridges or the .45 Colt don't interest me in Model 1873s. I would like to have one of the Uberti .22 LRs someday.
To me the Model 1873 epitomizes the Old West lever gun. Certainly Henrys and Model 1866s were there in the wildest of times but we can't shoot them today in their authentic .44 Henry rimfire chambering. Winchester Model 1892s are beauties in form and function but they came along too late for what I consider the real West of Indian Wars and cattle drives. Farmers used them to keep foxes out of the hen houses The Model 1873 is as close as we can get to experiencing a lever action rifle or carbine as it would have been in the hands of an 1870s frontiersman. They fascinate me.
Winchester model 1873 Musket from the Saris collection
LOAD CHART--AUTHOR'S FAVORITES 100 YARDS 5-SHOT GROUPS .44 WCF Cimarron Arms Model 1873 Sporting Rifle 24 1/4" BULLET POWDER VELOCITY (FPS) GROUP (INCHES) 214 RN/FP 34.0 Goex FFFg 1.222 & 18 4.50 RCBS 44-200FN 6.8 Win. 231 1.142 4.13 200 RN/FP Black (NA) 1.238 3.75 Hills Factory .38 WCF Winchester Model 1873 Standard Rifle 24" (circa 1899) 180 RN/FP 34.0 Goex FFFg 1.281 3.50 Oregon Trail 6.8 Win. 231 1.189 3.00 180 RN/FP Black (NA) 1.182 3.88 Hills Factory LOAD CHART NOTES: Group figures are for a 5-shot group fired at 100 yards from sandbag rest. Chronograph figures are for 5-shots taken with a PACT Model IV Timer set in chronograph mode with start screen at approximately six feet. RCBS bullet No. 44-200FN was cast of 1:20 tin to lead alloy, sized .428" and lubed with SPG. Oregon Trail's 180-grain RN/FP was sized .401" and carried their lubricant. Brass for smokeless loads was Starline. For Black powder loads it was Winchester Primers for both were Winchester Large Pistol.