Winchester Firearms Masterpieces

Winchester Firearms Masterpieces

Lee, Robert M

Celebrated in American history and popular culture and heralded by hunters and gun enthusiasts worldwide, the Winchester is as American as a product could be-and is still going strong.

Beginning with the Model 1866, the company created a series of tube-fed lever-action rifles that would come to represent the “Old West” more than any other long arm.

The saga of Winchester offers a history which so captures the imagination that a veritable army of amateur and professional historians and collectors exists. By owning some of the finest examples made, these individuals likely wish to capture the spirit of the rifle instrumental in the winning of the West. This story showcases some of those arms.

The Model 1866

Popularly known among American frontier Indians as the “Yellow Boy,” the Model 1866 was not only the first Winchester, but the first in a series of rifles that would prove to be an extraordinary success. Over 170,000 were built from its introductory year to 1898 in .44 rimfire caliber, the rifles standard with 24″ barrels. All 1866s were in .44 rimfire, and the frames were standard in brass.

It was in 1866 that the company’s name was changed to Winchester Repeating Arms Co, recognition of the fact that Oliver F.Winchester was the largest shareholder, and had directed his full attention to gunmaking, the business which had gradually drawn the entrepreneur away from his shirt-making enterprise.

The 1866 is also a landmark model in that it was the first on which factory engravers created elaborate and striking decorations, some for display in exhibitions and others for special gifts. Launched at the same time was the engraving dynasty of the Ulrich family-who would reign as the supreme Winchester engravers from c. 1866 through the mid-20th century. The 1866 was also the first model to spread the Winchester name internationally.

The Model 1873

The first steel-framed, lever-action Winchester, the Model 1873 far outstripped any predecessor arm in total production: More than 720,600 were built in center-fire calibers and more than 19,500 in .22 rimfire. Primarily made in .44-40 Win., .38-40 Win. and .32-20 Win. chamberings, the 1873 is recognizable by its pronounced sideplates. Further, the model designation was standard roll-marked on the upper tang.

Serial markings were from No. 1 on up, with the marking carrying on the tradition of the Model 1866, located on the lower tang.

The Model 1866

A larger-framed version of the Model 1873, the 1876-or Centennial Winchester-was chambered for more powerful and harder-hitting cartridges, such as the .40-60, .45-60, .45-76 and .50-95. Made through 1897, the total production was more than 63,800, serialized individually from 1 on up.

Among its most ardent enthusiasts was Theodore Roosevelt, who owned several of them, and used them with his characteristic gusto on big-game hunts in the Dakota Territory and as a working rancher.

Because of the dramatic scale of the receiver, some of the most stunning engraved Winchesters are Model 1876s.

The Model 1886

Generally recognized as the most gifted firearms inventor of all time, John Moses Browning, along with four of his brothers, opened the Browning Gun Factory in Ogden, Utah Territory, in 1879. In setting out to make a single-shot, falling-breech rifle designed by John and patented late that year, the brothers inadvertently attracted the attention of Winchester’s Thomas Gray Bennett, who acquired the rights for manufacture and sale of the rifle, now known as the Model 1885.

When Bennett struck the agreement for the single-shot rifle, he also got a commitment from Browning to give Winchester first refusal on a new model of lever-action rifle then in the experimental stage. This proved to be the Model 1886-the first Winchester lever-action robust enough to accept the more modern, big-game smokeless cartridges then becoming viable.

The Model 1892

Winchester followed up the Model 1886 with the Model 1892, whose action was similar to its larger caliber predecessor, but the frame was smaller and chambered for milder rounds like the .25-20 Win., .32-20 Win., .38-40 Win. and .44-40 Win. The 1892 was intended as a successor to the Model 1873 and proved a huge seller: more than 1,004,000 in the line through 1941.

The rifle was built in a take-down version, serializing was in its own range, including such attractive variations as the “Trapper’s” Model with barrels as short as 14″.

Although examples of the Model 1892 were engraved, they are considered scarce and are seldom seen by collectors.

The Model 1894

By far the best-selling of all lever-action rifles in history, the Model of 1894 has remained in production into modern times. Chambered for .25-35 Win., .30-30 Win., .32-40 Win., .32 Win. Spl. and .38-55 Win., the vast majority of examples have been in .30-30 Win. Serial numbering began with 1, though significant numbers of commemoratives in the ’94 series have had their own ranges. Another noteworthy feature of the Model 94 was that it was offered from the outset to accept smokeless cartridges-and was Winchester’s first rifle so manufactured.

Copyright National Rifle Association of America Dec 2004

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