How to Identify a Winchester 1866
By Joel Kolander
Winchester Model 1866 rifles need no introduction – they WERE the introduction. An American legend was born with them that would eventually “win the west” and lead an entire industry for roughly a century. With this kind of heritage, one can expect a high level of collectibility. The fact that they are antique rifles, by definition, doesn’t hurt either. Well, for those who may have picked up their first Model 1866 rifle, or who have one and may not know much about it, this guide is for you. It won’t dive into the minutia seen in Madis’ The Winchester Book (which I highly recommend to anyone who wants more details than they can fathom), but it will point out some helpful rudimentary information that can point you on your way toward fully investigating your collector firearm. Hopefully, it may also help assist in determining a value should you ever decide to sell your gun. Without further ado, let’s take a look at how to identify the Winchester Model 1866.
First of all, the 66 Winchesters and every model thereafter, came in all sorts of special order varieties, so if yours doesn’t fit an exact definition found here, that’s OK. Take it with a grain of salt and start investigating your specific rifle. It may be a variation from the factory, a period modification, or a modern change. Variations from the factory are numerous and affected everything: front sights, rear sights, grooves in the rifling, end caps, markings, screws, side plates, loading gates, sling loops, buttplates, and so on. These often changed several times throughout the 1867 – 1898 production run. Most other features could be custom ordered (wood type, barrel length, shotgun butt, plating, engraving, etc). The “standard” features of the guns are listed in their respective areas, most frequently covering barrel length, magazine length, and the stock. However, one feature that can be found in nearly all 1866 models is the caliber: .44 Henry rimfire. A few late production 1866s were configured to fire .44 Henry centerfire, and period conversions may have been performed to fire .44 Henry CF or other .44 caliber cartridges available at the time. Long story short, if your 1866 isn’t in .44 Henry RF, you have some investigating to do.
Confused what you have? Let’s narrow down what it’s not. In the picture below is a Model 1866 with another rifle it is often confused with: the New Haven Arms Henry Rifle
People often see the yellow “brass” receiver (which is actually a bronze alloy called “gun metal”) and may quickly jump to a conclusion depending on which model they’re more familiar with. However, inspecting the two side-by-side quickly reveals significant differences in both appearance and design. First, one will notice that the right side of the receiver possesses a loading gate, where the Henry rifle does not. The Henry must be loaded via the magazine tube near the muzzle and because of this has an external follower that must be manually depressed prior to loading. It is the absence of this exposed follower that allows the Winchester 1866 to have a fully enclosed magazine and a wooden fore end under the barrel. This keeps dirt out of the magazine, protects the hollow metal tube magazine, and allows for better handling of the rifle. Other changes are internal as are some of the barrel markings as the company transitioned from the New Haven Arms Company into Winchester Repeating Arms.
The rifle that came after the Model 1866 is the Winchester Model 1873. Let’s take a look at a few of their differences.
The most visually defining distinction, of course, is the color of the receiver. Model 1873 rifles were originally created with forged iron, but in 1884 switched to forged steel; available either blued or case-hardened. Next, notice, the raised sideplates on each side of the receiver of the 1873. The “Gun the Won the West” also incorporated a dust cover over the ejection port in the top of the receiver, though this went through many changes. Not visible to the naked eye, the frame for the 1873 was made much stronger than that of the 1866; allowing the rifle to take advantage of the recent advances in cartridge technology and fire more powerful rounds. Once the switch to steel was made, the rifles were also lighter and cheaper to produce. The 1873 also incorporated a trigger block, which prevented the gun from firing if the gun were not completely in battery. This is not a key identifying feature, but is worth mentioning here as the rifles’ differences are detailed.
That said, the 1866 came in three different styles: rifle, carbine, and musket.
The standard configuration for the rifle is a 24-inch octagon barrel, crescent buttplate, and a full-length magazine. More could be written about standard markings and features, but as mentioned earlier, they changed so frequently throughout their production that listing the changes requires a thorough reference work. Rifles were the second-highest produced 66, trailing far behind the ubiquitous carbines.
Often referred to “Saddle Ring Carbines” or abbreviated as “SRC” these were smaller than the 1866 rifles. This can be seen in the shorter barrel and forearm, as well as the lack of a forend cap. As the nickname implies, a mounting loop and ring were affixed to the left read side of the receiver so that the firearm could be secured while a riding a horse, either being tied to the saddle or worn by the rider via a carbine sling. Also note the presence of a barrel band in lieu of the fore end cap. Their standard configuration is a 20-inch round barrel and a full-length magazine. The butt stock will vary with the crescent butt stock (shown here) or carbine butt stock (as shown on the musket below).
Often confusing to those unfamiliar, the Winchester 1866 musket is not a muzzle loading longarm. “Musket” is merely a term given to the longer gun to differentiate it from other lengths of the same model. However, this term is relatively modern. In 1866, “musket” meant a large bore, long, and clumsy firearm, so Winchester instead termed it the “Infantry rifle.” Very much earning this moniker by looking a lot like a traditional musket, one immediately notices the longer fore end and the additional barrel band. Muskets are far and away the rarest of the Winchester Model 1866 family, but in the current collecting climate, often do not bring the prices of their more numerous brethren. Standard features of a model 1866 musket are a 27-inch round barrel, 24-inch magazine, 17-inch length fore end, and a flat buttplate with a trapdoor.
There are four different models of the 1866 rifle, and the differences are slight, but numerous. In fact, subsequent models of Winchester would not go through near so many production changes as the 1866. Later on, Winchester Repeating Arms would run like a finely oiled machine, but in the early years, many changes were incorporated during the production, so the information documenting this model is vast by necessity. Again, this article will attempt to serve as a rudimentary guide and leave the fine detail work to the already well-established resources on the topic.
The good news is that 1st Model 1866 Winchesters are pretty easy to tell from the rest. They’re often called “flatside” models because the front of the receiver doesn’t flare out to meet the fore end. Some collectors think it’s because the loading gate is flat, instead of with the scallop (a.k.a: recess or cartridge channel) we’re all familiar with, but some 1866 models do possess a scalloped or recessed loading gate. The other telltale feature of a 1st model 1866 Winchester is what is known as the “Henry drop,” even though it was even more distinct in the Henry’s predecessors. This feature is the downward curve of the receiver, forward of the rifle’s hammer. This becomes less pronounced in each subsequent model. 1st models also have an additional screw (two total) in the upper tang and no externally visible serial number. It is stamped on the side of the tang, so the stock must be removed in order to see it. Also not readily identifiable by looking at the outside are the beveled front and back of the sideplates, just like on a Henry rifle. Later models would only be beveled at the front and depend on a long mounting screw to secure the rear. All first model rifles and carbines possess saddle rings, but ensuing models would only see the saddle rings on the carbines. No first models should have a half-cock position for the hammer.
Second model Winchester 1866s are extremely similar to First Models, but when you know what to look for, the differences become readily apparent. First off, the “Henry drop” begins to smooth out in the Second Model, and we also see the introduction of a flared front end of the receiver to meet the fore end. Serial numbers remain hidden until around SN 21000, after which they appear on the lower tang between the trigger and main-spring adjusting screw. Second Models appear in approximately the 15,500 – 25,000 serial number range, and were only available in rifle and carbine styles. Also, half-cock positions began after SN 23,000, so most will not have this feature.
Even less of a “Henry drop” here. This model has the serial number externally stamped in block numerals behind the trigger (with a few exceptions regarding the location). Most have the Henry and King’s patent barrel markings, though the Henry name was eventually dropped, listing only the date in the barrel address. Serial numbers are around 25,000 – 149,000, making it far and away the highest produced of the four models. By the third model, Winchester had worked out many of the early design changes, so in addition to their drastic increase in production, they also began to produce excellent, custom pieces more frequently as well as stunning exhibition works.
Here the Henry drop is all but gone and the serial numbers have switched from block letters to a more script-like font located further rearward – between the lever latch and the tang screw. Third and fourth models are so similar, this is often the easiest way to tell them apart. Barrel markings remained the same as the third models. Full magazines and trapdoors in the carbine style buttplate were standard features. Serial numbers range from 149,000 – 170,101.
Hopefully, this article has been of some assistance to those not already familiar with all things Winchester. As you can see, by memorizing a few key characteristics one can quickly become versed in Winchester Model 1866 rifles far beyond the layperson and even ahead of many other collectors. We look to extend this series with other models of the Winchester rifles. If you have suggestions of other manufacturers and models, we’d love to hear from you in the comments. Thanks for reading and remember to check back every week for more gun content geared toward gun collectors at every level of expertise.
Madis, George. The Winchester Book. Brownsboro, TX: Art and Reference House, 1985. Print.
McDowell, R. Bruce. Evolution of the Winchester. Tacoma, WA: Armory Publications, 1985. Print.
Wilson, R. L. Winchester: An American Legend. Edison: Chartwell, 1991. Print.