Winchester 1895

Into the modern age

Winchester 1895 Sporting Rifle .40-72 WCF (Blackpowder) from the Outlawswinchesters collection.

Winchester 1895 in .405 WCF May Help Revive a Great Oldie

Text and Photos
by Glen I. Voorhees Jr.
Western Field Editor

The Winchester repeating rifle traces its beginnings to the Volcanic and New Haven Arms Companies. Through mergers and patent acquisitions it became the Henry Rifle. They were well into production of their 1866 .44 Rimfire (RF) before the Winchester name replaced that of Henry. The rest is history.

Oliver Winchester always had top designers and engineers who seemed to stay one step ahead of competition. When centerfire cartridges were first introduced, Winchester jumped in with both feet and coupled them with the company's then-new 1873 Winchester (the gun that won the West).

Colt Firearms Co. was another front-runner in the firearms industry, and quickly chambered their famous Colt Single Action, previously only in .45, for the new .44-40 WCF, and later for a long line of other centerfire Winchester-pioneered rifle rounds. Colt saw the advantage of matching a pistol cartridge with the long arm. One round that could be carried to stoke both the pistol and the rifle! The other side of this equation, never seemed to dawn on Winchester.

The new 1873 action could be adapted to shoot the .45 Colt, the most popular handgun cartridge in the West. This would have been the hands-down choice for the frontiersman. My curiosity is peaked that Winchester never made this obvious move.

Improved Lever Guns
Lever guns for the next two generations went through many improvements, but the basic design of the 1866 was evident in all of the succeeding updates. It wasn't until the Model 1894, followed by the 1895, that major changes brought the lever-action into the modern age.

Winchester realized that the future would be dominated by high pressure and high velocity smokeless powder cartridges. The tubular magazines of the lever-action were not designed to handle the sharp-pointed bullets that helped these modern bullets perform in many applications. In the tubular magazine configuration, a cartridge could slam back during recoil, and the pointed bullet of the following round could act as a firing pin and set-off the primer of the bullet in front, causing a round to go off in the loading tube-not a pretty picture.

Therefore, the Model 1895 was the first lever-action to employ a box magazine. This allowed the pointed bullets that were being developed at that time (mostly military proprietary cartridges) to be shot safely. The US Army was in the process of adopting a new .30-caliber as the military propriety round.

Winchester's hopes were pinned on getting a government contract, but the only tender they received was a contract for 10,000 trial guns. Their largest offering was a contract from Russia for 293,818 "muskets." All of the rifles for the Russian contract were made in 1915 and 1916, and were chambered for the 7.62mm Russian. Of the total production of the original Model 1895, that contract represented 66% of the total.

Other Chamberings
The 1895 Winchester was first introduced in the .30 US Army cartridge (.30-40 Krag). In fact the .30 US Army amounted to 75% of all domestic sales, though the .38-72 WCF, and .40-72 WCF, were introduced that same year. In 1898 the .303 British chambering was added to the line. It wasn't until 1903 that the .35 WCF showed up, followed in 1904 by the .405 WCF. Then in 1905, the .30-03 appeared, and finally the .30-06 in 1908. That rounded out the 1895 line.

Like so many Winchester and Colt designs it was John Browning's mechanical genius that fostered this rifle. Approximately 370,000 rifles were made from 1895 to 1931. Not a long run, but surely a major step in the evolution of modern high power lever-action repeating rifles and carbines.

Other than the destination of the Russian contract musket and the 10,000 delivered to the US Army, I have no way of determining the distribution of the 1895 throughout the country. I suspect the majority traveled west. It was an instant success with the Texas Rangers and lawmen of West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

The frontier had been tamed in the rest of the country, but these areas were still subject to raids from Indians, (the last Indian raids occurred in the early 1930s) and Mexican Banditos raided for many more years. For that matter, the Mexican Army is once again making incursions along the border to protect drug smugglers, even shooting at our Border Patrol units in Arizona and Texas.

Poncho Villa
Ranchers, cowboys, and hunters in the US found the 1895 the ultimate modern rifle. Poncho Villa favored it so much that he saw to it that his "elite personal guard," were equipped with the 1895.

The most famous champions for the 1895 were prolific and much-admired Western writer Zane Gray and President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt had a special fondness for the .405 cartridge. He carried at least two .405s on his safari to Africa. While hunting there, his guide, Tarlton, told him to grab his big double rifle (a .450-400). To quote Roosevelt in Scribners Magazine, "Tarlton took his big double-barrel and advised me to take mine, as the sun had just set and it was likely to be close work; but I shook my head, for the Winchester .405 is, at least for me personally, the medicine gun for lions."

The Winchester 1895 in .405-caliber was, for its day, a power house capable of handling any game on this continent, and it performed admirably on all African species.

The .405 is the most powerful rimmed cartridge ever developed for a lever-action rifle. Winchester factory loaded 300-grain bullets that trucked down range at 2,200 feet-per-second (fps), developing an amazing 3,220 foot-pounds (FP) of muzzle energy. Handloads using 57 grains of IMR 3031 could coax 3,400 FP of energy with the 300-grainer.

I hope that the .405 will have the same resurrection as the .45-70. That round was considered obsolete, and most gun writers and manufacturers had pretty well condemned it to the graveyard. Many said the .45-70 was a dinosaur. A few diehards, however-including this writer-have always been proponents of the .45-70.

(First model flatside)

Range Test
At the range, I set up my "Sure Shot" shooting bench (San Angelo All-Luminum Products Inc., 4954 Space Center Dr., Dept. GWK, San Antonio, TX 78218; phone: 800-531-7230), and my "Bench Master" (Desert Mountain Mfg., 44950 Elk Mountain Rd., Dept. GWK, Banks, OR 97106; phone: 800-477-0762) rifle rest. Both products, I believe, are essential for those who don't shoot at a designated range. I prefer to shoot at a range I have developed in the desert. For test purposes this gives me the greater freedom to experiment without having to worry about other shooters.

I found the Winchester .405 performed as I had hoped. It was hard-hitting, accurate, and ready to take on all comers. Regardless of the game, this is a knockdown round that shouldn't be judged by its age.

I was fortunate enough to get ammo from Old Western Scrounger Inc. (800-877-2666) and from Hornady. At this time, they are the only companies that are loading the .405. Old Western ammo is loaded in Australia, where this cartridge still has a steady clientele. Both loadings travel at 2,200 plus fps.

Putting the .405 on paper proved interesting. Both companies' ammunition shot to the same levitation. While Hornady's shot to the right, the Old Western equivalent impacted to the left (see photo). Accuracy with the Old Western brand was slightly better than Hornady. Accuracy with both was well within what I call hunting parameters.

With some help from ammunition manufacturers and additional gunmakers, such as Marlin, Ruger's Number One Single Shot and Ballard Rifle Company, the .405 could become another "come back" cartridge. I am sure that it would be as popular as the resurrected .45-70, and could surpass it.


See now also for Colt: