June 1, 2009

An Early 1873 Winchester

In the course of preparing our report on the .45LC lever rifles, we also examined an original Winchester 1873 rifle, made in 1884, chambered in .38/40 caliber. This rifle was in excellent condition, though minus most of the finish on its receiver. It was fitted with a folding Lyman #1A aperture sight from the period in which the rifle was built, and also had a four-piece original cleaning rod in the trap in its butt stock.

We compared the Cimarron version with it, and were pleased to find the new rifle was a close copy f the original, at least to casual observation. Yet the old rifle had soul, plus other qualities the new one lacked. This old Winchester had a full-length octagonal barrel that had a bore which looked like it was made this morning. It gleamed and glowed in its way-over-century-old glory. The inletting looked good on the outside, and inside it was as carefully inletted as were some very high-grade double shotguns we’ve inspected. The rifle had the unmistakable mark of careful craftsmen everywhere.

One side of the stock was “decorated” with small nails that spelled out “1885” and “Bear,” plus nine marks. The other side had “Deer” and 26 marks. The .38/40 in its blackpower loading was certainly capable of downing any deer that ever lived, but if in fact the original owner shot nine bear with this rifle, we suspect the bear must have been small eastern or northern blackies. For sure they weren’t griz, or the rifle might have had a few more scratches on it. We test fired the old rifle, and were totally amazed at its stunning accuracy. We fired it with a modest cast-bullet handload built around bulk bullets from Bull-X Bullets, 520 N. Main, Farmer City, IL 61842, (309) 928-2574. Our 50-yard groups were all under an inch in diameter. The owner showed us a target fired at 200 yards, which had five out of ten bullets within 1.5 inches of each other, the remaining giving a 4-inch group.

Clearly, the early Winchester rifles, at least some of them, were tack-drivers. A rifle such as this can be purchased today for around $1,000 to $1,500, depending on condition, features, caliber, and of course the whim of the seller. If you can make do with any of the original calibers of lever rifles, these make entirely viable firearms for Cowboy Action shooting. The only problem is in finding one to your specifications, and realizing that you’re buying an old and perhaps very used rifle with the intent of putting it to rather rambunctious work. You can expect to have some sort of breakage along the way. You can also expect to have some minor, perhaps major, problems with it before you get it to shoot to your satisfaction.

The action might be worn and won’t necessarily be as smooth or dependable as anew rifle. However, with reasonable care you can expect to get most of your money out of the piece when and if you sell it. It may also escalate in value, which modern reproduction rifles probably won’t. An old Winchester might just be for you. They are certainly worth a good look. You can’t get more classy than to shoot the “real thing.”