Winchester 1892

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From: Guns Magazine  |  Date: 11/1/2005  |  Author: Venturino, Mike

(foto;Winchester Model 1892 .44/40Cal. Karabijn)

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My first article upon signing up with GUNS was a piece on my all time favorite Winchester lever gun--the Model 1873. Now I'm going to tell you why the Model 1892 Winchester was better. Am I contradicting myself? No way. There's a big difference between favorite and better!

The Winchester Model 1892 was lighter, stronger, faster and more reliable. During the Model 1873's 1/2-century production span (1873 to 1923), about three quarters of a million guns were sold. In a similar production life (1892 to 1941) about one million Model 1892s were made, so for every three 1873s, there were four 1892s. Perhaps their plentitude accounts for Hollywood using so many in the movies, even when said movie was set decades before the Model 1892's advent.

By 1892 Winchester had been making lever guns firing pistol-size cartridges for 26 years, and to say that they were popular with American gun buyers is a drastic understatement. Between 1866 and 1892 Winchester had sold about 400,000 Model 1866s and Model 1873s combined. Such sales can only be considered enormous considering the population of the United States at that time.

Power Boost

The Model 1866 was chambered for the puny .44 Henry rimfire round and the Model 1873 was made for .44 WCF, .38 WCF, and .32 WCF, which everyone today calls .44-40, .38-40, and .32-20. Despite what we modern hunters think about "adequate deer cartridges," the old-timers merrily blasted deer with all of those relatively tiny rounds. But, by 1892, smokeless powders were making their advent, and Winchester knew the toggle-link design of their older lever guns weren't up to snuff for the pressures these new propellants could generate. They were willing to let the old .44 Henry wither and die, but not the three pistol-size WCFs.

Timing favored Winchester, because starting in the mid-1880s the firearms designing genius John M. Browning went to work for them. With other engineers he first came up with the huge Model 1886, which was Winchester's first successful lever gun chambering true rifle cartridges. The Model 1886 used twin locking bolts, which rose at the rear of the bolt making a much stronger system than the old toggle link design. It was but a small project to reduce the 1886's size and make a brand new lever gun chambering the old Model 1873's WCF cartridges. Actually John M. Browning (& company) deserves a hearty atta-boy for coming up with a radically new lever gun yet maintaining the Winchester look so familiar with gun buyers. (If nothing else that benefited movie makers of a later era.)

The 1892 Debuts

When introduced, the Model 1892 had to have made quite a stir. At that time the average deer rifle (rifle--not carbine) weighed about 81/2 to nine pounds or more. Eight and one half pounds was catalog weight for a Model 1873 rifle. Conversely the new Model 1892 rifle weighed only 6 1/4 pounds. Incidentally those weights are for 24" round barrels. Add a half pound to each for octagon barrels. For comparison purposes note that a Model 1873 carbine with 20" barrel weighed 7 1/2 pounds but a Model 1892 carbine weighed a mere 5 3/4 pounds. That doesn't sound like much to us pickup and SUV drivers, but it dam sure made a difference to horseback travelers!

And what did all this lightness, strength and reliability cost gun buyers? Not a cent. In Winchester's 1899 catalog the Model 1892 and Model 1873 were priced identically. It is a little known fact that Winchester offered both models with 24" round barrels as standard for $18. If octagon barrels were the buyer's desire then the price went up to $19.50. Carbines were a bargain--they were only $17.

Besides the round barrels, here's what was considered standard for Winchester Model 1892s. Rifles had steel-capped crescent-shaped buttstocks with straight pistol grips, and rifle forearms had steel nosecaps. Carbines had Winchester's unique semi-crescent shape again capped in steel and with straight grip. Carbine forearms were secured to the barrel with a steel band and there was another steel band near the muzzle holding the magazine tube to the barrel. (There was an exception to that which we will touch on later.) Finishes were blue overall for the most part, but some custom order guns did have color case hardened receivers, in which case the buttplate and forearm cap matched the receiver.

Model 1892 rifles had a buckhorn rear sight as standard. It could be raised or lowered by means of a notched slider beneath it. Front sights were dovetailed into the barrel and were mostly simple silver blades. To zero a Model 1892 rifle either or both the front and rear sights could be drifted in their dovetails. Carbines had folding ladder rear sights with very optimistic graduations all the way to 20, which presumably meant 2,000 yards. That's a joke, as the extreme practical range of an iron sighted carbine is less than a tenth of that. Carbine front sights were thin blades pinned to a stud brazed to the barrel. The rear sights on carbines could be drifted in their dovetails to help with zeroing but that front sight was fixed. By 1892 tang mounted peep sights had become fairly common, and so Winchester drilled and tapped all their rifles and most carbines to accept them.

Most Accommodating

The late 1800s were a glorious time for gun buyers, simply because you could order any number of optional features and even the biggest gun makers would be happy to accommodate you. Model 1892s could be had with shotgun-style buttstocks, capped in steel or hard rubber, pistol grip buttstocks, extra heavy, extra light, extra short or extra long barrels, half round/half octagon barrels, partial length magazine tubes, fancy woods, checkering, engraving, set triggers and on and on. By the 1890s, Winchester even offered take-down lever guns, but comparatively speaking they were enormously expensive. Takedown Model 1892s sold for a whopping $25.

When the Model 1892 was introduced it was chambered for the .44 WCF, .38 WCF and .32 WCF cartridges. Today we call those rounds .44-40, .38-40, and .32-20, but it's worth noting that Winchester never stamped their firearms like that. They always used the WCF moniker. In 1895 Winchester added the .25-20 WCF to the pot, and then all the way in the 1930s even made some Model 1892s in 218 Bee caliber. Despite my known weakness for haunting gun shows I have never seen a single Model 1892. 218 Bee. Here's that exception I mentioned above. For some reason when Winchester made Model 1892 carbines in .38 or .44 caliber they put a second steel band around magazine tube and barrel out near the muzzle. When the carbine was made in .25 or .32 caliber they omitted that second barrel band.

Size Confusion

If all these caliber markings begin to sound confusing to some uninitiated lost soul reading this article let me make things a bit more clear. The .25-20 WCF was just the .32 WCF case necked down, and the .218 Bee was just the .25-20 WCF necked down again. The same was true of the bigger bores: the .38 WCF was only the .44 WCF case necked down. Let me help some more; the .38 WCF was in no way a .38 caliber. It used .400"/.401" bullets. And it really wasn't a .38-40 either because Winchester's own 1899 catalog said it was loaded with 38 grains of black powder, which is what the "40" in the name is supposed to stand for. While we're at it let's take a shot at the .44 WCF too. It wasn't a .44, but actually in the beginning was a ".425" because that's the size of bullets it was first loaded with. Later they were increased to .427". I think cartridge designers and namers were escapees from asylums for the logic impaired! Many still are.

What about the much vaunted strength of the Model 1892? Back in its heyday perhaps that counted for something. Today it means little. How's that? In the earlier years of the 20th century the ammo makers put out some special "high velocity" .38-40 and .44-40 loads, which were never meant to be fired in handguns or old long guns like the Model 1873. Old reloading manuals even had special "1892 sections" for super hot loads. For instance, it wasn't uncommon for manuals to list loads that would drive 200-grain .44 bullets 2,000 fps. That meant the .44-40 actually had more muzzle energy than a .30-30. What those old manuals did not mention was that such loads were very hard on the guns. Extended use of them would cause the steels used in the bolts to compress resulting in excessive headspace. Also, the relatively thin brass used in .44-40 factory loads would separate after a firing or two at such high pressures. I was a little more adventurous (or stupid) in my youth, so take my word for it. Those separated cases are a bugger to get out of chambers!


Lyman still has a section in their .44-40 load data (Lyman 48th Edition Reloading Handbook) with special loads for rifles as strong as the Model 1892 generating pressures as high as 22,000 CUR Their .44-40 loads for handguns and weak rifles are kept to 12,800 CUP and 13,700 CUP respectively. Personally, I have preferred those weaker loads for my Model 1892 shooting since I learned that even black powder powered .44 bullets would kill deer pretty darn good.

And that brings this to me and Model 1892s. At this writing I have been shooting them for 20 years, having bought my first just after attending my very first "End of Trail" cowboy match. It was a .44-40, and I was ignorant enough when trading for it that I didn't even realize it was a special order rifle. It carries the standard 24" round barrel, but has a shotgun buttstock with hard rubber buttplate. By the next year my wife wanted to start participating in cowboy action shooting, so I let her try that first Model 1892, thinking its shotgun butt would be kinder to her bony shoulder. The saying, "No good deed goes unpunished," comes to mind. Right away she said, "This one's mine. You go find something else." And so it has been all these years.

Next came another round-barreled Model 1892 rifle; this one a .38-40 and it was special for two reasons. It was a Christmas gift from my friend Hank Williams Jr. and it had been restored by someone who obviously knew what he was doing. It was patterned after a custom order Model 1892 with beautiful color case hardening on receiver, buttplate, and forearm cap, and a lustrous blue on barrel and magazine tube.

Back in 1998 I participated in one of Thunder Ranch's Triad classes (rifle, handgun & shotgun training). For a rifle, I used this Model 1892 and brothers, was there some snickering from the AK and AR armed fellows the first morning when I appeared holding it! By the end of the second day there weren't any snide comments. I just went on shooting during the stoppage clearing drills because we couldn't make it jam for any reason. I also kept shooting while others were fumbling with magazines because I slipped rounds through the loading gate during the slightest pause, and mostly there was an absence of remarks because most of my shots were centered up out to 100 yards.

My third Model 1892 came at another "End of Trail" when it was still legal in California for individuals to sell guns to one another. I had been so busy during the event that only on the last day did I make it to vendors' row. There on the table of a fellow I knew well sat a Model 1892 carbine and a Colt Lightning pump action. I asked him, "Why are these still here?" He replied, "'They're .38-40s and everyone's afraid of the caliber." I wasn't and made a good deal for both.

Duke Down Under

There's also a story about my last Model 1892. It's a half magazine .44-40, and I first saw it laying on a vendor's table at a New Zealand cowboy action event called Trail's End, where I was a guest in March 2000. With the exchange rate, the price was ridiculously low by American standards. I grabbed for my wallet, but was stopped when informed that I needed a New Zealand tourist firearms license to buy. Then hope returned when I was told the head official in charge of such things would attend the event's big dinner that night. To make a long story short I got the permit, bought the rifle, and brought it home in my suitcase (with appropriate paper work).

(foto; Winchester short carbine)

Other Winchester Model 1892s have come and gone over the years, mostly the .25s and .32s of which I've never developed the fondness felt for the bigger bores. Every one of my Model 1892s is a darn good shooter, considering their open or peep sights. The rifles will generally group in about 2 1/2" to 3 1/2" at 100 yards, while the average for the carbine is about an inch bigger. It is my experience-based opinion that across the board with Winchester lever guns, the rifles are more accurate than the carbines, and that I attribute to the latter's barrel bands. Perhaps their shorter sight radius is a factor too.

In the accompanying chart I've listed several .38-40 and .44-40 loads assembled with a variety of components. Someday in the not too distant future we'll do some cartridge specific articles on these old-timers and delve deeper into reloading and shooting them for both handguns and long guns.

All this pro-Model 1892 talk has to bring a question to mind for those who read my laudatory GUNS piece on the Winchester Model 1873. That is, "If the Model 1892 is the better gun, why do you call the Model 1873 your all time favorite lever action?" The answer is history! I like to consider myself a "shooting historian" and the Winchester Model 1873 was in the thick of things in the Old West. Archaeologists have proven no less than eight of them were involved in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, and by 1875 it is recorded that Texas Rangers were buying them out of their own pockets for scalper's prices of up to $50. What kind of history can be connected with the Model 1892? Homesteaders used them to keep coyotes out of their hen houses, or bring home some venison. Despite what movies portray the "Wild West" was more or less settled by the time Model 1892s came along. I even bet some of the aging frontiersmen who were still around during the Model 1892 heyday, looked them over and thought, "Too bad, we didn't have these years ago. They sure are a fine rifle."

.38 WCF (.38-40) 24" BULLET POWDER VELOCITY (GRAINS WEIGHT & TYPE) (BRAND & GRAINS WEIGHT) (FPS) 180 RN/FP Trail Boss 5.5 980 180 gr. RN/FP HP38 6.8 1,212 180 JSP Winchester Factory N/A 1,140 180 RN/FP Black Hills Factory N/A 1,173 180 RN/FP Ultra-Max Factory N/A 963 BULLET COMMENTS (GRAINS WEIGHT & TYPE) 180 RN/FP Cowboy action load 180 gr. RN/FP Black powder duplication load 180 JSP Winchester Factory Accurate load 180 RN/FP Black Hills Factory Good for non-reloaders 180 RN/FP Ultra-Max Factory very mild RELOADING THE WINCHESTER MODEL 1892 .44 WCF (.44-40) 24" BULLET POWDER VELOCITY (GRAINS WEIGHT & TYPE) (BRAND & GRAINS WEIGHT) (FPS) 200 RN/FP Trail Boss 6.0 937 200 RN/FP HP38 6.8 1,061 200 RN/FP Ultra-Max Factory N/A 1,200 200 RN/FP Black Hills Factory N/A 1,069 225 RN/FP Winchester Factory N/A 852 BULLET COMMENTS (GRAINS WEIGHT & TYPE) 200 RN/FP Cowboy action load 200 RN/FP Author's plinking load 200 RN/FP Ultra-Max Factory Black Powder duplication load 200 RN/FP Black Hills Factory Good cowboy load 225 RN/FP Winchester Factory Pretty puny LOAD CHART NOTES: All chronograph figures are for five shots taken with PACT Professional Model chronograph with start screen approximately six feet away. The 180-grain bullets in .38 WCF handloads are from Oregon Trail Bullet Co. and the 200-grain bullets in .44 WCF handloads are from Desperado Bullet Co. Handloads made with Starline brass and Winchester Large Pistol Primers.

From: Guns Magazine  |  Date: 11/1/2005  |  Author: Venturino, Mike

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