Evolution of an Icon: Winchester Lever-Action Rifles
Established in 1866 in New Haven, Connecticut, Winchester Repeating Arms Company has made some of the most visually and culturally iconic lever-action rifles in American history. Unless you’re a lifelong student of them, it can be hard to keep all of the details of the different models straight. What follows is an effort to help you identify all of the different models, how to differentiate between them visually, and provide you with some history of each model along the way. It is important to note that the list is by no means exhaustive, but it’ll make sure you don’t confuse a Model 1876 with a Model 1894, or a Model 1873 with a Model 1886.
WINCHESTER MODEL 1866 LEVER-ACTION
Number Manufactured: Approx. 170,000
Years of Production: 1866 to 1898
Identifying Features: “Brass” frame; flush sideplate; 1/2 oval loading gate (early models may feature a rare flat loading gate)
This model holds the distinction of being the first gun made under the Winchester name and is a direct descendant of the Henry rifle. A hand guard and loading gate patented by Winchester factory Superintendent Nelson King in 1866 were the principal alterations in creating what became the Model 1866. The loading gate facilitated faster and easier reloading, while the hand guard prevented the shooter’s hand from getting burned on the metal magazine tube. It also eliminated the “Henry hop” where the shooter’s front hand would have to reposition as the magazine follower approached the receiver after every shot. Because of its distinctive “brass” frame (technically a bronze alloy known as gunmetal or “red brass”) , it was often called the “Yellow Boy” on the American frontier. Chambered for the .44 rimfire cartridge, the rifles and muskets held 17 rounds; carbines held 13. For more in-depth information identifying your Winchester 1866, read our previous article How to Identify a Winchester 1866.
WINCHESTER MODEL 1873 LEVER-ACTION
Number Manufactured: Approx. 720,000
Years of Production: 1873 to 1919
Identifying Features: Irregularly shaped, protruding sideplate with pointed lower-left corner; full oval loading gate, sliding dust cover, shorter elevator & ejection port than Model 1876
Sometimes called “The Gun That Won the West,” it was the first Winchester to use centerfire cartridges (as opposed to rimfire) and to have a standard iron frame with a removable sideplate. The gun came in a variety of standard configurations, including the 20” round barrel carbine, 24” octagon or round barrel rifle, and the 30” round barrel musket. Standard calibers included .44-40 (.44 WCF), .38-40 (.38 WCF), and .32-20 (.32 WCF). Early 1873s were only available in .44 WCF, so these guns will not have caliber markings. After other calibers were introduced, markings were placed on the barrel just in front of the receiver and on the brass elevator.
Because the Model 1873 fired cartridges that popular revolvers were eventually chambered in (such as the Colt Single Action Army), many owners benefited from the convenience of only having to carry one caliber for both their rifle and their revolver. Between 1884 and 1904, .22 rimfire was an additional available caliber, with less than 20,000 being made in that configuration.
Specially selected premium quality guns were marked “One of One Thousand” or “One of One Hundred.” Extra care was given to these guns to ensure the highest quality assembly and the greatest achievable accuracy. Only 136 “One of One Thousand” and 8 “One of One Hundred” Model 1873s were ever made.
Plenty of famous figures in the Wild West owned Model 1873s. In 1880, William H. Bonney – better known as “Billy the Kid” – posed for his only known photograph. In it, he has a holstered revolver and a Winchester Model 1873 carbine. In 1883, “Buffalo Bill” Cody began his travelling “Wild West Show.” One of the many guns he used during this time period was an engraved and gold-plated Model 1873 in .44 WCF. The gun’s engraving features Buffalo Bill himself on horseback in pursuit of a buffalo.
WINCHESTER MODEL 1876 LEVER-ACTION
Number Manufactured: Approx. 63,800
Years of Production: 1876 to 1897
Identifying Features: Irregularly shaped sideplate with rounded lower-left corner, full oval loading gate, sliding dust cover, longer elevator and ejection port than Model 1873
Essentially a bigger version of the Model 1873, the 1876 featured a larger and stronger receiver to fire rifle cartridges like the .45-77 WCF, .50-95 Express, .45-60 WCF, and .40-60 WCF. This meant the rifle’s ammo was no longer compatible with that of a revolver, but this was a small sacrifice to make in order to gain the significantly larger punch that rifle caliber cartridges offered. Four different barrel lengths were offered: 32” round barrel musket; 28” round, octagon, or half-octagon sporting rifle; 26” round, octagon, or half-octagon express rifle; and 22” round barrel carbine.
Like the Model 1873, select premium quality 1876s were also marked “One of One Thousand” or “One of One Hundred.” Only 54 of the former and 8 of the latter were made.
Theodore Roosevelt praised the Model 1876, calling it, “…by all odds the best weapon I ever had, and now I use it almost exclusively…” His first custom order from Winchester was in 1881 and it was for a consecutively numbered pair of 1876s. He ordered another 1876 – serial number 38,647 – in 1884 of which he was very fond. Chambered in .45-75, the barrel was half-octagon, it had a half magazine, a color case hardened receiver, a checkered pistol grip and forend, and full engraving by John Ulrich. Roosevelt was photographed with this gun on many occasions. Perhaps it’s only more famous use was its appearance in the move Tom Horn starring Steve McQueen.
WINCHESTER MODEL 1886 LEVER-ACTION
Number Manufactured: Approx. 160,000
Years of Production: 1886 to 1935
Identifying Features: Solid frame with no sideplate, vertical locking bars, full oval loading gate, no elevator, no dust cover
The Model 1886 was John Moses Browning’s first attempt at a high-powered lever-action rifle. Distinguished by its vertical locking bars, this model was designed to take the caliber advantage of the 1876 one step further. These rifles were capable of firing even more powerful cartridges suitable for big game, such as .45-70, .45-90, and .50-110. The 1886 was offered in a total of ten different calibers. This made the Model 1886 very popular with hunters in the American West. In an effort to aid portability, takedown, extra lightweight takedown, and extra lightweight versions were also available for the 1886. Evolving cartridge designs and a high cost of manufacturing during The Great Depression are what led to the demise of the Model 1886.
Color case hardening was standard on receivers until 1901, with serial numbers up to approximately 122,000. Blued finish replaced case hardening as standard in 1902 until the end of production in 1935.
Model 1886 serial number 1 formerly held the record for the highest price ever paid for a single firearm. Sold in April 2016 by Rock Island Auction Company, the rifle fetched $1,265,000. In addition to the impressive serial number, historic provenance helped drive the price up. This rifle was presented to Captain Henry W. Lawton, a recipient of the Medal of Honor, for his involvement in the capture of legendary Apache leader Geronimo. Lieutenant George E. Albee, an employee with Winchester and friend of Lawton, obtained the gun and presented it to him. There was so much amazing history behind that story, it warranted its own two part article. You can read part 1 and part 2 here.
WINCHESTER MODEL 1892 LEVER-ACTION
Number Manufactured: Over 1,000,000
Years of Production: 1892 to 1945
Identifying Features: Smaller solid frame with no sideplate, 1/2 oval loading gate is rounded on only one end, vertical locking bars, no elevator, no dust cover
This model was essentially a scaled down version of the Model 1886. It was chambered for the same lower-powered cartridges as the Model 1873, plus .25-20, with the .44-40 cartridge being the most popular chambering. This model was destined for fame on both the small screen and the big screen in the hands of cowboys and outlaws alike. Even though the model was anachronistic in some westerns, that small detail was overlooked because of the rifle’s ability to fire 5-in-1 blanks. Model 1892s can be seen in the hands of John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn character in Hollywood’s True Grit and Chuck Connors’ portrayal of Lucas McCain in the TV series The Rifleman.
Annie Oakley owned and used a Model 1892 during her performances in the “Wild West Show.” Her example was chambered in .44-40, elaborately engraved, sported a half-octagon barrel, and a shotgun-style buttplate. The rifle was a smoothbore and had no rifling because Oakley used birdshot in this gun during her performances to minimize the risk of any errant rounds in the arena.
WINCHESTER MODEL 1894 LEVER-ACTION
Number Manufactured: Approx. 7,000,000
Years of Production: 1894 to 2006
Identifying Features: Solid frame with no sideplate; 3/4 oval loading gate is rounded at both ends, no vertical locking bars, no elevator, no dust cover
While the 1894 was available in a variety of calibers, more than 80% of all Model 1894s are chambered for the .30-30 cartridge. The .30-30 was the first American small-bore smokeless cartridge, and the Model 1894 was the first rifle chambered for it in 1895. The combination of the Model 1894 and the .30-30 became the quintessential American deer rifle during much of the 20th century; indeed, it is still popular among many 21st century hunters as well. Because of this popularity, the Model 1894 has the distinction of being the first commercial sporting rifle to sell more than seven million units, and the highest selling commercial centerfire rifle to date.
The Model 1894 underwent a name change around 1927, which is approximately when the one-millionth gun was produced. At that time, the name was shortened from “Model 1894” to “Model 94.”
In 1924, the Model 55 was introduced as a Model 94 variant until production ceased in 1932. Then, the Model 64 was introduced as a replacement for the Model 55 in 1933 with two different periods of manufacture; 1933-57 and 1972-73.
WINCHESTER MODEL 1895 LEVER-ACTION
Number Manufactured: Approx. 425,000
Years of Production: 1895 to 1940
Identifying Features: Box magazine below the action; no loading gate
Patented by John Browning in November 1895, this rifle was a departure from Winchester’s previous offerings – both functionally and visually. The Model 1895 was the first Winchester rifle to incorporate a box magazine below the action. All previous models utilized a tubular magazine in which cartridges were loaded tip-to-primer. This was fine with earlier cartridges that had flat or round-nosed bullets. The Model 1895, however, was designed to accept spitzer cartridges which had pointed-nose bullets. Loading pointed bullets tip-to-primer increased the potential of an accidental primer detonation. By incorporating a box magazine, the cartridges could be stacked horizontally on top of one another, eliminating the risk of any contact with the primer.
The 1895 had two distinct frame styles. A “flatside” frame with no fluting or ridge contours was found on rifles made in 1895-96 within the first 5,000 serial numbers. The remaining 420,000 rifles featured a frame with fluting and ridge contours.
The Model 1895 was a favorite of Theodore Roosevelt. He used two on his 1909-10 African safari, chambered in .405 Winchester. After his trip, he reported that, “[t]he Winchester .405 is, at least for me personally, the medicine gun for lions.” When that caliber was introduced in 1904, the Model 1895 became the most powerful lever-action rifle ever made. The 300-grain bullet had more than 3,000 ft.-lbs. of energy and an initial muzzle velocity of more than 2,000 f.p.s.
In 1915, Winchester received a large contract with the Russian government for rifles chambered in 7.62mm Russian. More than 293,000, or 66% of the total model production, were chambered for the Russian cartridge.
There are far more variations in barrel length, shape, caliber, metal finish, wood grades, and other special order features than could possibly be covered here. Despite the many differences between the models, there is one feature that they all generally share: carbines and muskets have barrel bands while rifles have forend caps (with the exception of the Model 1895).
While this piece was not intended to be the definitive source on Winchester lever-action rifle model designations, I hope it provided you with enough information to pique your interest, so that you’ll seek out one of the many weighty tomes about Oliver Winchester and his ubiquitous rifles. A word of caution: if you get bitten by the collector bug, it’s a lifelong affliction.
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