The Early Winchester Rifles
Dr. John Woods 07.14.20
Well before those bolt action rifles bearing the famous name Winchester, the company produced several of the most iconic lever action rifles in history. These models were so well known, respected, and revered, that more than 100 years later originals fetch premium collector values. That, and most of them are still produced as originals or replicas.
Many lever action rifle aficionados falsely believe that Winchester’s first-ever lever action rifle was the Henry, which “could be loaded on Sunday to shoot all week.” However, that was not the case, exactly. A fellow by the name of Benjamin Tyler Henry designed the Henry Rifle while employed at Smith and Wesson. They decided to focus on handguns, so other investors formed the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company about 1855. Oliver Winchester was one of the owners.
Eventually Volcanic folded and the assets went to Oliver Winchester and his New Haven Arms Company. Winchester used the basic Henry Rifle action design, modified to produce the Winchester Models 1866, 1873, and the 1876. As they say going forward, the rest is etched in history.
The 1866 or “Yellowboy” rifle was so named because of its brass, gold colored frame. As with all Winchester lever actions, many models and feature variations can be found. Over 170,000 1866s were produced from1866-1898. The standard chamber for all 1966s was the .44 Henry Rimfire.
Though the .44 Rimfire was considered fairly weak in many regards, it ushered in an entire era of effective lever action rifles by Winchester. Nearly all were of Browning design or heritage. Beginning in earnest with the 1866, Winchester build upon each next rifle improving on action design and function as well as the capability to handle ever more powerful loads.
Next came the Model 1873 portrayed as “The rifle that won the west.” The 1873 was produced with a myriad of features in nearly every aspect of the rifle over its production years of 1873-1923 with a total production of roughly 720,609 rifles. The 1873 came chambered mainly in the .44-40, then the 32-20, 38-40 and the .22. Replicas of the 1873 are still made by Uberti in Italy.
The 1876 was a much lesser known Winchester rifle. The ’76 was basically just an oversized 1873 capable of handling heavier cartridges such as the 45-75, 50-95, 45-60 WCF, and the 40-60. Steve McQueen made the 1876 in 45-75 famous in the movie Tom Horn. Many barrel types, sights, stocks, triggers, dust covers and other features were offered. The 1876 was offered until 1898 with a total production of 63,871. Cimarron Arms is offering the 1876 again made by Uberti including a special Tom Horn model.
To produce a lever action rifle really capable of handling the big stuff in centerfire rounds, Winchester brought out the 1886. This Winchester beauty was termed “one of the best gun actions ever developed.” This was a Browning Brothers collaboration as well. Chambers included the 45-70, 45-90, 40-82, 40-65, 38-56, and the 50-110. Later they added the 40-70, 38-70, 50-100-450, plus the .33 WCF in 1903. Quite a selection of offerings.
Barrels included lengths out to 34-inches, round and octagonal. Take down models were offered as well. As per Winchester lever actions, features from the factory were almost too many to count, much less detail. In those days Winchester was still in the business of offering customizations its customers were willing to pay for.
The 1886 was a heavy rifle, weighing over 9 pounds, but the weight was able to handle the recoil of the more powerful rounds it chambered. Buttstocks varied from flat shotgun types to crescent models. Sight options included tang mounted adjustable target sights. Production ran until 1922 at 159,337 rifles.
Squeezed in during the 1886 production and understanding that some models were manufactured at the same time Winchester introduced the truly iconic lever gun, the Model 1892. The ’92 was made to fulfill a role of chambering a number of handgun cartridges in a rifle so shooters could use one cartridge in two guns.
A host of WCF rounds were chambered in the 1892 including the .25, 32, 38 and 44 WCFs. The rifle was made in carbine, rifle, and musket versions with multiple features. Over one million 1892s were made. The ’92 was highly glamorized in Hollywood western movies which contributed in great part to its prolonged and successful sales numbers.
Winchester 1892 rifles have continued in production under one company name or another. Other rifle makers copied the 1892 to bring them out as replicas. This includes Rossi and some others. Mossberg makes a ’92 like rifle, but it is chambered for the 30-30. The 1892 lives on.
The final rifle described here in the early series is the forever classic 1894. This was my first lever action back in college that took my first deer. The study of the 1894 will make you dizzy. Some collectors spend an entire lifetime researching the ’94 and trying to locate the more rare versions.
Before production of the original run ended in 1942 also due to demands for WWII over 1.3 million rifles were manufactured. With modern production after the war I believe that number to be well over 7.5 million by now made by Winchester, USRA and others including the Browning Japanese versions.
Markings alone on Winchester 1894 rifles can be difficult to trace. That being part of the fun of collecting them. Variations abound as per normal for a Winchester. Chamberings included the 30-30 or .30 WCF, the .32 Winchester Special, .25-35, .32-40, and the .38-55. Features included long barrels, short barrels, different magazines, barrel profiles, engravings, plating, buttplate options, stock checkering, special wood, pistol grips, set triggers, special sights, and even takedown rifles.
Winchester manufactured other models of lever action rifles includes the Models 53, 65, 55, 64, 71 and the 1895. These were all high quality rifles in the Winchester tradition though perhaps some not as well-known except the 1895. Teddy Roosevelt saw to that with the 1895, one of his favorite hunting rifles. The 1895 deserves its own study.
Winchester is iconic in the history books of firearms manufacture in America. The name endures today. Though perhaps overshadowed by modern bolt action rifles today, the lever action is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. Perhaps you should search for your favorite Winchester lever action while you can.