Those who shoot Cowboy Action matches need three types of firearms. These are handguns (two, generally), an appropriate double or pump shotgun, and a lever-action rifle taking what amounts to a handgun cartridge. This latter can be the source of joy or misery, depending on its caliber match, or lack thereof, to the handguns.
In days of old, there were, commonly, just four calibers that permitted the cowboy to pack one size of ammo for both rifle and handgun. They were the .44 Rimfire (developed for the Henry rifle, then used in the 1866 Winchester and the Colt Single Action Army), and the .32/20, .38/40, and .44/40. These last three cartridges were all originally designed for the 1873 Winchester lever-action rifle. The first of them was the .44/40, and it was the most popular, probably because shortly after its introduction in 1873, Colt’s brought out the Single Action Army in the same caliber. Sales of rifles with matching-caliber handguns were brisk, though the most popular caliber for the Colt was the .45 LC. The saddle-mounted adventurer often wanted a rifle on his horse, and it made lots of sense to have both rifle and handgun take the same cartridge. It makes just as much sense for today’s Cowboy Action shooter, but he or she has some options unavailable in the 19th century.
A fellow we know shot in his first few cowboy matches this past summer. He used the guns he had on hand, which were a pair of single-action .45 Colts, an old 10-bore double shotgun, and a Navy Arms copy of the Winchester 1873 lever-action carbine in .44/40. He told us he had significant problems along the way.
As you can probably guess, some .44/40 ammunition ended up in the chambers of his .45 Colts. This did no damage to the guns, but the brass was bulged almost beyond repair. The bullets, which only occasionally made contact with the barrels, generally failed to hit the targets, even as close as 10 yards.
This resulted in frustrating performances, as you might guess. Also, this fellow—and he’s not alone—doesn’t like reloading .44/40 brass. This slightly bottle-necked round requires lubrication prior to resizing, and that’s an added step in the reloading process. Face it, after the first thousand rounds or so, reloading ceases to be a source of amusement. However, straight-sided .45 LC brass can be reloaded with carbide dies, which means the brass doesn’t have to be lubricated, nor wiped off later. No matter how simple the lubrication process might be with state-of-the-art spray-on lubes, it’s a step that many shooters don’t want to take, and the .45 LC offers a good way out.
If rifle and handgun take the same ammunition, the overall preparation process is greatly simplified. However, there’s a price to pay in having a .45 LC lever rifle. The Henry, 1866, and 1873 were never made in .45 LC. That means the all-.45 LC shooter gives up authenticity, which is a very large part of the Cowboy Action scene. It’s your choice, but if you go with the .45 LC we guarantee you won’t be alone.
Today’s rider of the Cowboy Action range—or the real range, for that matter—has many options in his choice of a .45 LC lever-action rifle. These include copies of the Winchester 1873, 1866, plus the Henry rifle and 1894 Winchester. We wanted to see how a few of these stacked up for use by the Cowboy Action shooter, so we obtained a Henry rifle with brown barrel and brass frame, made by Uberti and sold by Cabela’s, a Uberti-made copy of the Winchester 1873 from Cimarron, and a Winchester 1894 AE. All were in .45 LC. We tested them with Black Hills’ 250-grain, round-nose, flat-point, cast-bullet Cowboy ammunition, Winchester’s 250-grain cast-bullet cowboy loads, and CCI Blazer fodder with a 200-grain JHP bullet. Here’s what we found:
Henry Rifle by Cabela’s
This rifle was gorgeous. It grabbed our eyes and our fancy as soon as we saw it. The wood was very nice, and the brass receiver and buttplate nicely set off the browned (not blued) barrel. The case-colored lever worked smoothly and precisely, and we got our hopes up that this might be a real winner. The 24.3-inch barrel was octagonal, nicely polished with reasonably sharp corners. The full-length integral magazine tube added to the weight, giving the rifle a satisfying heft in the hands. Unloaded weight was right at 9.0 pounds. We would not be happy packing this weight all day, but for Cowboy Action shooting the weight, we thought, might be an advantage.
The Henry rifle was developed in 1860 and was used to some extent in the Civil War. It was chambered for the .44 Henry rimfire, one of the first successful metallic cartridges. Both rifle and cartridge were developed out of the Smith & Wesson/Volcanic repeating handgun design by Benjamin Tyler Henry. Original Henry rifles in good original condition are today very rare, and their price will often run well into five figures. Original boxes of ammunition, unopened, can easily run to $2,000 a box, so shooting or converting an original Henry for today’s sport is out of the question.
Thus the Uberti-Cabela’s rifle makes lots of sense for the Cowboy game, with its strong sense of history and eye-grabbing appeal. Cabela’s offer three finishes for the barrel: blued, browned or in-the-white. We can’t imagine either of the other two finishes appealing as much as our browned version (originals were blued). The plum-brown color of the barrel and loading tube made a pleasant contrast with the brass receiver, the slightly tiger-striped walnut, and the brass butt plate. The case colors of lever and hammer were a pleasant contrast to the rest of the rifle. The sides of the brass action were polished flat with sharp corners. The wood pores were perfectly filled and the grain clearly visible through the hard varnished surface. The inletting was outstanding. Overall we thought the workmanship and fitting were excellent, a strong cut above the commonplace.
One minor complaint was that the bottom of the buttstock was too shad-bellied, and it didn’t look quite right. All our reference photos showed a nearly straight line from trigger to toe. The Cabela’s Henry would look better if that line were straight.
The left side of the butt stock had a 1-inch rotating sling swivel mounted right behind where right-handers rest their faces. It did not make contact with our faces. The barrel also had a U-shaped mount screwed to it a foot short of the muzzle. No sling was provided. These details, plus the rear and front sights and their mountings were all true to original Henry rifles, something not often seen in reproduction arms.
Sights were a thoroughly useful flat-top rear with V notch and a wide, flat-top post front. The front insert was non-ferrous, probably brass, as on originals. It had a sharp rear edge and gave an excellent sight picture in all lights. The rear sight had a flip-up ladder sight with friction slide for longer ranges. It was a close copy of original Henry rear sights.
The barrel was an interesting piece of machining. The octagonal portion was integral with the magazine tube. We say “octagonal,” but it had only five flats. The bottom half of the barrel blended into the magazine tube in a smooth curve. The more we looked, the more we appreciated the workmanship.
Once we found out how to load the Henry—a pleasant challenge explained below—we found the rifle held 13 rounds in its magazine, plus one in the chamber, if desired. Originals held 15 rounds of the slightly shorter Henry rimfire cartridge beneath their 24-inch barrels. This Henry had a spring-loaded trap door in the buttplate, so well fitted we almost didn’t see it. It covered a hole 5/8-inch in diameter by 7.5 inches deep. Original rifles probably had a cleaning rod in there.
On the shooting bench, the Henry was smooth. The lever worked very evenly and relatively easily throughout its travel, and fed cartridges reliably, unless we screwed up. With this design, the brass cartridge follower protruded downward from the magazine bottom, and was driven toward the butt by a spring as rounds were used. The follower ran into our supporting hand, or the machine rest, when we didn’t pay attention, so rounds didn’t feed when there was no spring pushing them into place in the carrier. With a bit of use, this dangling follower was not much of a problem.
Though the rifle had no forend wood, we didn’t notice the barrel getting hot, but it did get noticeably warm in our winter testing. On hot summer days, this could be a big problem. Not only would your supporting hand grasp bare steel in the heat of the day, the barrel could get uncomfortably hot in heated “battles” where many rounds were fired. A glove might be handy.
The Cabela’s Henry had an astonishingly awful trigger right out of the box, in great contrast to the rest of the rifle. The trigger was over 8 pounds, with a big hitch in its break. We suspected a burr or roughness on the sear or hammer, so we gave the rifle our instant-gunsmithing trigger job.
When you have a balky trigger on a firearm that has an outside hammer, you can sometimes burnish the contact surfaces between hammer and sear, and improve the trigger pull. Make sure the piece is unloaded, and then point it in a safe direction. Cock the hammer and, using either your thumb or a suitable tool, press on the hammer in the direction of its fall. Press as hard as you can, hold the pressure, and pull the trigger. If the trigger won’t go, release a bit of the pressure on the hammer until the hammer falls. Do this half a dozen or more times in succession. Then try the trigger pull again. Sometimes this does nothing, but sometimes it does wonders. This simple task resulted in a trigger pull on the Henry of 5.5 pounds with just a bit of creep.
Loading was exceptionally easy, once we figured out how. (No fair reading the manual!) This was accomplished by pulling the magazine follower all the way forward, exerting slight pressure against the stop, and swinging the last 5 inches of follower to the side. We chose to lay the rifle nearly horizontal to insert the cartridges, so they would not fall 2 feet and land with the primer hitting the previous round.
We found the Henry had a slight accuracy problem with two of our test brands of cowboy ammo. Four out of every five shots with Black Hills and Winchester ammo landed within about 2 inches of each other at 50 yards, but one of the five shots was always outside the main group. We got excellent accuracy with Blazer fodder. It averaged under 2 inches. The other two brands averaged around 3.5 to 4.0 inches. The overall accuracy with all loads was more than good enough for Cowboy Action shooting.
This Uberti-built, $950 rifle was a well made, smooth-handling and slick little carbine. The bluing was very nicely done on well-polished and lightly brushed steel, resulting in a slightly matted and very attractive finish. If there were any plastic parts on this rifle we couldn’t find them. The only non-ferrous metal was the cartridge lifter, of brass as on original Winchester 1873s. The lever and hammer were attractively case hardened, again as they were on originals. The checkering on the hammer was, like that of the Henry, sparse but sharp and adequate for its task. There was a rotating latch for securing the lever, a slightly different design from that on the Henry. Another safety device was the half-cock position, just as on original versions of this carbine. There was a lock-out, as on originals, that prevented the rifle from firing unless the lever were fully upward, tight against the tang. On our original sample and on a few other originals we’ve seen, the lever’s spring compresses the blocking piece on its own. This one required a too-strong squeeze of the firing hand, which we found to be an annoyance during serious shooting.
The wood pores were completely filled, and the very hard finish had a near-glossy sheen that showed the grain well. The good walnut was extremely well inletted to the steel everywhere, forend, along the tangs, and at the butt plate. The left side of the rifle’s receiver had a U-shaped stud with the so-called “saddle ring” dangling there. The V-notch rear sight made an excellent sight picture with the flat-topped front post. The rear sight also had a flip-up ladder with numerals marked from 2 to 9.
When we first handled this little carbine, our general reaction was highly favorable. With its 19-inch barrel, it was much handier than the Henry rifle. It was lighter as well, weighing in at 6.9 pounds. This carbine, in its original .44/40 configuration, was an extremely popular number with Texas Rangers back in the bad old days, and with riders of the purple sage as far back as 1873, when it first saw the light of day. We’re sure that’s because the 1873 carbine’s compact handiness was, and is, endearing. Also, it had enough power for any self-defense use, and, with proper loads, would work on deer.
The 1873 Winchester, on which this Cimarron/Uberti is based, has a very simple action. The bolt is a plunger that travels forward and backward within the action, driven by the lever. As the lever is moved downward, the plunger extends out the rear of the action and cocks the hammer. During its last fraction of movement, the lever causes the brass cartridge carrier to rise up, bringing a fresh cartridge in line with the chamber. As the lever is raised, the bolt/plunger drives the cartridge into the chamber. During the last fraction of upward movement of the lever, it causes the cartridge carrier to drop back down in line with the tubular magazine again. The last upward movement of the lever locks the two broken-leg side supports into place, securing the bolt against the (relatively low) pressure of the cartridge. The rifle is then ready to fire. The hammer had a half-cock position, so the carbine could be carried with a round in the chamber and the hammer lowered, with nothing resting on the firing pin.
True to history, the Cimarron 1873 had a sliding door that covered the action until the rifle was put into play. Cycling the lever opened the door, where it stayed until manually pushed forward again. Ejection was by a hook mounted on top of the breech bolt. This dragged spent rounds, or live ones, out of the chamber until they were ejected from the rifle by the rising cartridge carrier. Ejection force depended on the speed of operation of the lever.
Our rifle had a trigger pull of just under 4 pounds with quite a bit of creep. Our quickie burnishing job didn’t help at all. Loading was easily accomplished by inserting the rounds into the door on the right side of the action. Each round was held securely just before it went fully into the rifle, permitting the next round to shove it home. This procedure was followed until the rifle was loaded to capacity. The magazine held ten rounds. It was possible to load the chamber and insert another round, if desired, for a total of 11 rounds.
At the range, the Cimarron felt right at home to one of our shooters who had experience with the carbine in .44/40. He claimed the 45 LC version did not recoil significantly more. Recoil of the .45 Long Colt cartridge in a 7-pound rifle is very slight.
Would this 1873 carbine would be better for the game of Cowboy Action shooting than the Henry? We can’t answer that for everyone. The prime use of the rifle or carbine in that game is to strike multiple targets quickly, which means the rifle must be swung from one to the next, stopped, and the shot touched off. Misses are very costly. A heavier rifle may very well stay on target much better than a lighter one during the rapid-fire, nerve-racking heat of a cowboy “battle.” Ranges are generally short, seldom over 25 yards, at generous-size targets that might be steel plates a foot square. We found the Winchester to be a “nervous” rifle compared with the Henry during rapid-fire handling. The 1873 was faster switching targets and stopping the swing for the next shot, but the Henry stayed on target better when we rushed the trigger squeeze. Your choice.
On the range we found the rifle to be very slick, nearly identical in feel to the Henry in its operation (except for loading), and again very smooth in the lever movement from one end to the other, and back again. Oddly, we found a similar 4 + 1 shot grouping on the targets with the Winchester and Black Hills ammunition. Again the Uberti-built .45 LC barrel shot its best group with Blazer 200-grain JHP. All groups were smaller than 4 inches at 50 yards, more than good enough for Cowboy competition. The sights would have to be drifted and perhaps filed for perfect centering of your chosen load, but that’s not a problem.
Most Cowboy Action shooters go for the correct rifle for the period from which their character has been developed. If you’re packin’ a brace of converted percussion handguns from the post-Civil War period, the Henry might make more sense than a copy of the Winchester, which didn’t appear until 1873. We’re guessing the handiness of the latter carbine will tend to make it your first choice over anything heavier. However, we know one successful shooter who started out with a carbine and switched to a full-length rifle. The added weight gave him better accuracy. If you miss in Cowboy Action events, you can pretty much count yourself out of the running.
This 16-inch-barrel carbine weighed in at 5.8 pounds and cost $375. It was a horrid little rifle for Cowboy Action shooting. Its one big (very big) advantage is that it cost half as much as the cheapest of the other two rifles tested. Workmanship was plenty good enough and accuracy was acceptable, though neither attribute was as good as on the other two rifles tested. Worst of all was the pain associated with operating the 94AE’s lever, again in comparison with the smooth ease of Cabela’s Henry and Cimarron’s 1873.
As the Winchester’s lever was moved downward, the bolt traveled about half an inch rearward as the locking plate dropped out of the way. Then the bolt ran into the hammer. The hammer offered strong resistance, so the operator would press harder and harder on the lever as the hammer moved to full cock. At the moment the hammer got to full cock, resistance on the lever dropped to zero, freeing the lever to fly forward and bang into its stop, with your fingers getting a hard knock as it did so.
Our fingers got a severe bruising when we tried to fire the rifle as quickly as possible. Fast shooting is the name of the Cowboy Action game, and this rifle isn’t the best choice. Further, the action held only eight shots, not nine as some ads suggest. To clarify, the rifle held eight shots in its tubular magazine. For Cowboy events, the chamber must stay empty with the action open, and many stages require the firing of ten rounds. That means you’ll have to load two more rounds for every stage, and do it with a hand that has been bruised from working the lever. Winchester does make a version of this rifle that holds more rounds, but the lever mechanism is the same.
Having said all that, we realize the low cost, light weight, .45 LC caliber, and compact dimensions of this rifle will appeal to many. Further, Cowboy Action shooting is by no means the only good use for such a rifle. Let’s take a closer look at what your money buys.
The wood was a sturdy-looking piece of walnut with a hard, well applied finish. Pores were filled, and the wood finish had a non-glossy sheen to it. The wood had no checkering. Inletting was acceptable but by no means perfect. There were gaps between wood and action in many places. The well fitted butt pad was checkered and did a good job of holding the rifle in place while the lever was worked. Sights were a flat-topped post front, dovetailed into the barrel, and a modest buckhorn rear with a U central notch. This was attached via a long springy arm to a dovetail in the barrel. Elevation was by a stepped slide working against the spring.
All the metalwork was well polished and flat with no sharp edges where they didn’t belong. The screw holes were not dished from polishing, and the semi-gloss bluing was well done. The left side of the action held a saddle ring, that ancient device mounted just below the modern cross-bolt safety, which some consider to be useless. However, the cross bolt can be disabled, and it’s there if you want to use it. The hammer was a rebounding design that could not strike the firing pin unless the trigger was pressed. There was, therefore, no half-cock position. The little Winchester was all steel and walnut.
The trigger pull had a nasty three-stage creep before it broke. We gave it our instant-gunsmithing burnish job and the result was a very clean trigger, with zero felt creep. It broke at 5.4 pounds.
At the range we found no problems with the rifle’s function. Though this rifle was lightest of all three rifles by quite a bit, recoil was insignificant. Accuracy was stringy, with no exceptional groups nor any bad ones. Most groups were vertically strung, which might indicate a wood-to-barrel-contact problem
Gun Tests Recommends
Henry Rifle by Cabela’s, $750. Buy it. We had no problems at all with this delightful rifle. If you’re in the market for a classy .45 LC rifle for Cowboy shooting, or just want to own a shootable piece of history, this gun is worth the money.
Cimarron 1873, $950. Buy it. We liked this incarnation of the 1873, but would certainly fix the force needed to close the lever against the lockout mechanism. Also, we’d shop around for a street price of around $800. Before you pop for either the 1873 or Henry, handle them and try to imagine how they’d work for you personally. Although both were winners, there was a world of difference in their feel in rapid fire from the shoulder.
Winchester 94AE, $375. Conditional Buy. If you want a fun-gun that matches your single-action sixgun for weekend shooting, or need a handy carbine for home defense in a powerful cartridge that any adult can handle easily, this Winchester 94AE might be for you.If you’re after a long gun for serious Cowboy competition, pardner, stay away from this ‘un. The pain of the lever would take its toll on your hand, we think.
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