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Propellant Profiles
Rifle Magazine
January - February 2005
Volume 37, Number 1
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 217
On the cover...
From the Winchester Custom Shop comes a stainless Model 70 with full octagonal barrel featuring a Burris 3-9x scope in Burris rings and mounts. Also featured is a Doug Turnbull restored Winchester Model 1892 lever action. Rifle photos by Gerald Hudson. el
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Winchester’s Models 1873 and 1892 leverguns naturally beg for comparison. Essentially they fired the same cartridges, were designed for the same purpose and operated in the same manner. Yet in­ternally they were vastly different. If the Model 1873’s production life had ended when the Model 1892’s began, such a comparison would be moot. The scenario then would have been a new, improved design making an older one obsolete. But that did not happen. Winchester produced both models concurrently for over 30 years, and in fact for at least awhile priced them identically. That makes a comparison more valid.

Winchester almost had to name the Model 1873 the Model 1874. That’s because according to the late George Madis’s The Winchester Book, the factory managed to get only 18 made by the end of 1873. Still it was a first: the first centerfire repeating rifle chambering a cartridge that could be reloaded. As such, it was an instant success. Later on Winchester billed it as “The Rifle That Won the West.” That was good advertising but not true. Big-bore, single-shot rifles made the West safe for Winchesters.

Before the Model 1873, Winchester produced the Model 1866 chambered for the .44 Henry Rimfire. It too was a success, but Winchester realized it needed its repeating   rifles to deliver more power. The .44 Henry Rimfire variously was factory loaded with bullets weighing from 200 to 220 grains and black-powder charges from 23 to 28 grains. Generally speaking such a cartridge from a 24-inch rifle barrel would give about 1,100 fps. For modern shooters to gain some perspective on a Model 1866’s power, those loads would about equal the muzzle energy delivered by one of today’s .357 Magnum revolvers – hence Winchester’s need for a more powerful cartridge.

In the black-powder era, the only way to make a cartridge more powerful was to make it larger. Whereas a .44 Henry case was only about .88 inch long, the new .44 WCF introduced with the Model 1873 was 1.31 inches. Bullet weight remained 200 grains, but the powder charge was upped to 40 grains. That represented a 43 percent increase, and it translated into a couple hundred feet more velocity. In its early literature, Winchester stated the .44 WCF from the Model 1873 was effective out to 300 yards on game such as deer and bear. That was extremely optimistic, because the .44 WCF from a 24-inch rifle was giving about the muzzle energy someone can achieve from a .44 Magnum handgun today.

Prior to the Model 1873, Winchester relied on a material called “gunmetal” for its rifle receivers. Because of its appearance most people called it brass. With the Model 1873, Winchester switched to ferrous alloys for the receivers. Until the early 1880s, the Model 1873’s action was machined of iron. After that steel was used. Another first for the Model 1873 was that its action was equipped with side plates and a dust cover. The side plates were removable so the receiver’s interior could be cleaned – a fine idea during the black-powder era, and the dust cover was a great help when most people traveled on dirt roads via horse power. Collectors divide Winchester Model 1873s into First, Second, and Third Models – sorted mainly by how the dust cover was attached to the frame. The bulk of production was in the Third Model.

One thing that did not change between Winchester’s early “brass” frame Model 1866 and the later Model 1873 was basic mode of function. With either, as the rifle’s lever was operated, a brass cartridge lifter received a round from the magazine, raised it in line with the chamber and then the bolt shoved it in. Lockup was by means of two toggle links, which broke over center to hold the bolt closed. It was not    a strong system but perfectly adequate for black-  powder pressures.

By the mid-1880s, the firearms designing genius John M. Browning was working for Winchester, and one of his first tasks was to come up with a strong levergun capable of taking full-size rifle cartridges. This was the Model 1886, and it quickly gained considerable popularity. However, Winchester’s leverguns firing “pistol-size” cartridges were also very popular. In fact the Model 1866 with its .44 Henry Rimfire cartridge was made into the 1890s, and by 1892 well over 400,000 Model 1873s had been produced. Therefore, Winchester had John Browning downscale the basic Model 1886 design to accommodate “pistol-size” cartridges – actually the very same ones the company was using in the Model 1873.

This new levergun was named the Model 1892 and is testimony to John Browning’s genius that he was able to redesign a levergun so much and yet have it retain the basic Winchester look. For example the Model 1892 still was loaded through a gate on the receiver’s right side, and cartridges were stored in a tubular magazine hung beneath the barrel. Lowering and raising the lever still fed a cartridge into the magazine and simultaneously cocked an exposed hammer.

On the other end of the spectrum, gone were the weak toggle links and the heavy brass cartridge lifter. In place of the toggle links were now twin locking bolts that held a breechblock shut when a cartridge was chambered. And instead of the heavy brass lifter, the Model 1892 had a pivoting ramp that brought a round from the magazine and then lifted to angle it in front of the chamber. Not only was the Model 1892 a much stronger design than the Model 1873, but it was also much smoother of operation.

It was also lighter. A look at the 1899 Winchester catalog (reproduced some years ago by Wolfe Publishing Company) reveals interesting figures. First off, Winchester considered 24-inch round barrels as standard on both models, along with a fairly deep crescent-shaped butt capped in steel. A standard Model 1873 rifle weighed 81?2 pounds, as compared to a Model 1892 rifle at 61?2 pounds. Incidentally, both models set up that way would carry 15 rounds in the magazine and were priced at $18. If the buyer wanted to order an octagonal barrel – and many did – the price went up to $19.50 for each model. Then a Model 1873 weighed 9 pounds and the Model 1892 was only 63?4 pounds.

Let’s look at saddle ring carbines, since in the heyday of both Models 1873 and 1892 many people still traveled on horseback. Winchester set up both models in carbine form with 20-inch lightweight round barrels and its distinctive carbine buttstock with slightly curved steel buttplate. A Model 1873 saddle ring carbine weighed 71?4 pounds, but the Model 1892 went only 53?4 pounds. Both models would hold 12 rounds and were priced at $17.50.

In the late 1800s, Winchester welcomed special orders. Both Models 1873 and 1892 could be had with such options as shotgun or pistol-grip buttstocks, extra light or extra heavy barrels, extra short or extra long barrels, set triggers, color casehardened actions, fancy wood, checkering, engraving and much more.

Sighting equipment on both versions of Winchester’s pistol cartridge leverguns were the same. Saddle ring carbines had a foldup, ladder-style, open rear sight graduated to an extremely optimistic “20,” which evidently stood for 2,000 yards. That is just plain silliness, as in my experience-based opinion, the effective range of a Model 1873 or Model 1892 carbine is around 100 yards. Their front sights were small blades pinned to studs brazed to the barrels just behind the front barrel band. However, it should be mentioned that some Model 1873s did have the front sight as a nub on top of the front barrel band. The only means to change windage was to drift the rear sight.

Sights for the rifle versions of both models were much more realistic. They were buckhorn types with simple notched sliders underneath for elevation adjustment. As standard the front sight was a silver blade dovetailed into the barrel. Windage could be adjusted by drifting either (or both) the front or rear sights in their dovetails. The single Winchester Model 1873 saddle ring carbine in my collection is not drilled and tapped on its tang for mounting a peep sight. It is of 1899 vintage. A rifle version of that model made the same year is drilled and tapped. All my Model 1892s, whether carbine or rifle, are factory ready for peep sight mounting. In my experience one is much more likely to encounter Winchester Model 1892s fitted with tang-mounted peep sights than Model 1873s.

Another version of the Model 1873 that bears mention is the musket. Winchester was always on the lookout for military contracts and actually got several from abroad, but none from the U.S. Army. According to the Madis book, about 5 percent of Model 1873 production was in musket form. These are interesting rifles in that for some reason Winchester fitted them with carbine buttstocks. They had 30-inch, full-round barrels with an almost full-length forearm attached by three barrel bands. The rear sight was an open notch with flip-up ladder graduated to 800 yards. They were priced at $19 sans bayonet and held 17 rounds. Bayonets ran an additional $2.50 to $3.50 depending on whether one wanted an angular or saber type, respectively. Model 1892 Winchesters were also available in musket form at the same price in 1899, but judging from my experiences in attending dozens of gun shows, the Model 1892 muskets are far rarer than the Model 1873 muskets.

Now, let’s look at cartridges. As mentioned previously the intro­ductory round for the Model 1873 was the .44 WCF. A few years later a .38 WCF was offered. Some sources say it came about in 1874, but that’s nonsense. Winchester was just getting the model off the ground that year. The .38 WCF came about in 1879. One must wonder why Winchester even bothered with a .38 after it had the .44, because the two are so close in dimensions. Factory bullet weight for the .44 was 200 grains, and for the .38 it was 180 grains. Bullet diameters were .425 inch and .400 inch, respectively.

According to Winchester’s 1899 catalog, it had several loads for its .38- and .44-caliber rounds suitable for use in both its levergun models. The company made the .44 WCF with 40 grains of black powder but with 200- and 217-grain bullets – the latter weight labeled for Marlins and Colt pump-action rifles, but was also fine for Winchesters. The 40-grain charge is responsible for the name now commonly used for .44 WCF, which is, of course, .44-40. The .38 WCF cartridges as listed in that 1899 catalog used 180-grain bullets but 38 grains of black powder. When listed for Marlin rifles, the cartridges are rated as having 40 grains of black powder. Again the common name for .38 WCF today is .38-40. It is interesting that Winchester never labeled its leverguns as “.38-40” or “.44-40.” They were always marked “.44 WCF” or “.38 WCF.” Also interesting is the fact that after Winchester added a caliber other than .44 to its line of Model 1873s, it inscribed the bottom of the brass cartridge lifter as to the rifle’s chambering. It was a nice touch.

In 1882 Winchester added the .32 WCF caliber to the Model 1873, which should win some sort of prize for being one of the smallest centerfire cartridges chambered in the heaviest rifle. Then in 1888 both .22 Short and .22 Long were added to the Model 1873’s lineup. They are instantly recognizable by the lack of a loading gate on the receiver’s right side.

When the Model 1892 was introduced, Winchester offered it chambered for all three of these WCF rounds. That was logical, because Winchester had been so successful in the Model 1873. Then in 1895 it also added the .25-20 WCF, and in the 1930s even chambered some Model 1892s in .218 Bee. Those are so rare I’ve never even seen one. The 1899 catalog contains some useful and insightful information about how Winchester felt about its Model 1873 and Model 1892 calibers. They say the .44 WCF was good for deer, bear, mountain sheep and antelope. Then it’s stated that the .38 WCF is good for deer and smaller game, while the .32 WCF is meant for squirrels, geese and such. The .25-20 WCF was for even smaller stuff, but it doesn’t say exactly what.

Here’s something good. In 1899 Winchester listed the black-powder .32, .38 and .44 WCF loads for its Model 1873. Then in the Model 1892 section, Winchester again lists them, but also has smokeless powder loads in the same calibers. What I meant by insightful above is that Winchester obviously meant that its 1899-made Model 1873s were black powder only guns, while its stronger, newer Model 1892s were fine for smokeless loads too. That’s something we should keep in mind today.

Because of the Model 1892’s strength, some of today’s reloading manuals list powder charges above and beyond anything that should ever be fired in a Model 1873. Furthermore, just a few decades back, it was common for reloading manuals to give .44 WCF/.44-40 loads specifically intended for the Model 1892 that surpassed the .30-30 in muzzle energy. I have a 1960’s Lyman manual on my desk that contains loads breaking 2,000 fps with 200-grain bullets from a 24-inch Model 1892. The same manual also has .38 WCF loads breaking 1,900 fps with 180-grain bullets from the 20-inch barrel of a Model 1892 carbine. Nowadays Lyman’s 48th Edition Reloading Handbook lists no .38 WCF/.38-40 rifle loads at all, and its heaviest .44 WCF/  .44-40 rifle loads stop in the 1,400 to 1,600 fps level.

I think that’s good, and again base the opinion on personal experience. Cartridge cases intended for these rounds are noted for their thin case walls. When loaded to such high pressures, case life is short – sometimes as short as one or two firings. Once on the mountain behind my house, I took a shot at a deer with a Model 1892 .44 using one of those hot 1960’s vintage loads. I missed, but that was better than wounding the critter, because when a second cartridge was levered into the chamber it stopped short. Looking on the ground at my feet, it was discovered that only half the fired case ejected; the front half was still in the chamber and required tools at home for removal. Further experience has taught me that a black-powder powered, .44-caliber bullet will knock down a deer just fine inside 100 yards, and that’s pretty much the range limit of this type of levergun considering the sights and trajectory involved.

That brings us to shooting the Models 1873 and 1892. Is one better than the other in the accuracy department? Not according to my own experiences. I feel that bore diameters tended to vary more with the early versions of the Model 1873. Most of the later Model 1873 .44-caliber barrels I have slugged, say those made after about 1890, are pretty close to .427 inch in the grooves. Only a couple of .38s have passed through my hands, and they too were late issue. Their barrels slugged at .400 inch. However, I have been able to slug a few 1880’s vintage .44s with barrels that went up to .432 and .433 inch. In my rack now are both .38- and .44-caliber Model 1892s, and their barrels match those late issue Model 1873s in dimensions.

It’s interesting to note that Winchester experimented with rifling twist rates for its pistol-size cartridges. With the .38s and .44s one turn in 36 inches to one turn in 40 inches was used. The .32s used one turn in 24 and one-in-30-inch twists. Nowhere have I been able to find reference to the twist rate of a .25-caliber Model 1892 barrel.

In my collection are two Winchester .38s that will help with this comparison. Each is a standard version of the Models 1873 and 1892 complete with round 24-inch barrels and crescent-shaped butts. They were fired at 100 yards for group and the results charted. Also included are a couple of loads from both Models 1873 and 1892 carbines in .44 and .38 caliber, respectively. My feeling is that it is safe to say the average Model 1873 or Model 1892 Winchester rifle would group in about 2 to 4 inches at 100 yards – ammunition quality being an important factor. With carbines I’d say that any group under 4 inches at that range should be considered pretty good.

Until the early 1920s, Winchester manufactured both Models 1873 and 1892 concurrently. When all was said and done, about one million of the latter and three-quarters of a million of the former were made. But when one compares the two firearms side by side, the obvious question must arise, “Why did Winchester continue with the Model 1873 when it had a stronger, lighter model chambering the same cartridges at the same price?” My opinion is Winchester continued with the Model 1873 for the same reason Colt continued to make the Single Action Army revolver in large quantities after far more modern handguns were on the market. That’s because people were still buying them.

And why was that? Again this is my opinion, but I feel it was because of the history connected to each of those guns. The American West was fascinating to people then, as it is today. Both the Colt Single Action Army and the Winchester Model 1873 were part of that history. People didn’t want to let them go. They still don’t.

Personally speaking, the Model 1873s are my favorites. Not only do I fire them in cowboy action events but have even used mine to take deer and small varmints at reasonable ranges. I admit that my favoritism stems from the historical connection. The Model 1873s were actually used in the Old West, but by the time of the Model 1892, the frontier had disappeared. That said, if today I actually needed to carry a levergun on horseback, it would be a Model 1892 carbine, and the same gun would serve admirably for a home defense fire­arm in locales where it is difficult to own handguns. It speaks well for both models that they were    designed in the nineteenth century but still see much use in the twenty-first century.

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