When Winchester Repeating Arms Co. introduced their first rifle to utilise centrefire cartridges whose spent cases could be reloaded, they ushered in a new era in the company’s history, and the rifle itself became a firearms icon.
1873 – A great year
If you are interested in firearms of the American West then you will realise that 1873 was a great year. Not only did we have the introduction of the Winchester rifle that is reproduced here, but with the US Ordnance Department’s standardisation of U.S. small arms in .45 calibre, we saw the launch of the famed Colt Single Action Army revolver in .45 Colt calibre, and the adoption of the .45-70 Government cartridge for the Army’s Trapdoor Springfield long arms. Original examples of these three guns have become favourites among collectors and the reproductions have established themselves as the guns of choice for many shooters and re-enactors worldwide.
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The first of the Winchester Model 1873 rifles were chambered for the .44 Winchester Centre Fire (W.C.F.) cartridge, better known today as the .44-40. By the second year of production, 1874, the .38-40 (.38 W.C.F.) was added to the line and in 1882, the .32-20 (.32 W.C.F.) completed the line-up of centrefire cartridges for this rifle. Colt would go on to offer their venerable Peacemaker in these three calibres to make ‘companion’ guns for the rifles.
From 1884-1904, Winchester turned out around 19,500 guns in .22 rimfire calibre, this variant available only in full-length rifle configuration. The centrefire versions of the Model 1873 were offered as a carbine with a 20” round barrel, a rifle with 24” barrel (round or octagonal) and a 30” barrelled musket, this latter variant was aimed at military sales. The rifles had Winchester’s traditional crescent-shaped butt plate, while the other two variants had what is sometimes termed a ‘shotgun’ butt plate, with much softer contours. Buyers were offered an extensive choice in the ’73, with a variety of finishes, barrel lengths, sights, magazine lengths as well as de-luxe finishes to both metal and wood.
Probably the most famous variation of this model is the ‘1 of 1,000’ as featured in the James Stewart movie “Winchester ’73”. These were guns that performed exceptionally well in accuracy tests before shipping. Only 136 of these guns were made and all serial numbers are documented in the Winchester Museum records, which are held at the Buffalo Bill Historical Centre in Cody, Wyoming. As a publicity stunt for the movie, Winchester attempted to locate all of these guns and owners were offered a new Winchester Model 1894 rifle in exchange for details of their rifles.
During its 47-year production run (1873–1919) the factory turned out a total of 720,610 examples of the Model 1873 in its various guises. Although shooters and collectors of today’s Uberti reproductions of this model do not have the variety of options of the original buyers, the Henry Krank catalogue lists well over 50 versions of the 1873, no two of which are the same.
Still going strong/h3>
The Winchester Model 1873 is one of the most popular lever guns on the Cowboy Action Shooting circuit, principally because of its light, smooth action which lends itself nicely to “slicking” and the addition of the short-stroke kits which, as the name suggests, shortens the length of the lever throw to cut down your times. This option is now offered directly from the factory – check for availability.
Without a doubt, the least popular of the three centrefire versions was the smallest, the .32-20, and so it continues with the modern reproductions. Today’s shooters have a much greater choice of calibres, although there is no rimfire version in the Uberti line-up, and the range includes all of the popular ‘pistol calibre’ cartridges.
Most modern shooters, when choosing a gun like this, will opt for the straight-wall cartridges like .45 Colt or .357 Magnum, in the belief that they are easier to load than the bottleneck cartridges. To some extent, this may be true but these rifles were designed in the black powder era and the bottleneck cases ensured much better case obturation, preventing a lot of blowback into the action.
Check out someone using light target loads in a .45 Colt lever-action and the chances are that the brass will exhibit considerable powder burns on the exterior of the cases, as they are not expanding enough to fill out the breech. A similar loading in a .44-40 will likely exhibit much cleaner cases. Also, remember that the toggle-link action of the 1873 is considered a comparatively weak action and should you opt for the .44 magnum version, be careful not to try to load up to the pressures that, say, a Winchester model 1982 rifle would take, as the latter is much stronger.
Over the years, most of the major manufacturers have produced rifles for this round but had it not been for the advent of Cowboy Action Shooting, the .32-20 cartridge would probably have been all but dead by now. In its original loading, 20-grains of black powder behind a 115-grain lead bullet, it is seemingly a decent small and medium game cartridge out to 100 yards or so but there are much better options in today’s market.
Uberti has made their name by producing accurate reproductions of the major American handguns and rifles from the mid to late 19th century, with models from Colt, Remington and Winchester featuring heavily in their catalogue.
The case colours on modern reproductions vary quite a lot from gun to gun and on this example, they are predominantly grey, mixed with blue and tan. As well as the receiver and its side plates, the colours are applied to the lever, hammer and trigger. The sliding dust cover over the ejection port is blacked. From the closed position, this cover opens with the first throw of the lever and remains open until manually closed by the shooter. All other metal parts are finished in a blue/black gloss, with the muzzle being left white. The walnut stock and forend are rather plain compared to some I have seen plus have the normal Uberti gloss. Wood to metal fit is good, with only the slightest raised edges to the wood.
Rear sights on the Uberti 1873 rifles are identical across the board, being a semi-buckhorn blade with a sliding elevator. The blade’s base is dovetailed into the barrel, allowing lateral movement. The front sight and its integral base are also dovetailed into the top flat and can be moved sideways with a small screw to lock it in place. Carbine versions share the same rear sight as the rifles, but the front is part of the barrel band and has no adjustment. The top tang does not have provision for fitting an optional sight but has a nice authentic-looking model marking, which looks like it could be hand engraved.
Should you choose the .32-20 cartridge as a CAS competition gun, you will have a slight advantage over the bigger cartridges in terms of lighter recoil coupled with the same slick operation of its big brothers, unless that is, you need to do a reload part way through a stage. The three original centrefire cartridges are all the same length, with the two larger ones utilising the same case but obviously, the one we have here is a much smaller diameter. In the original rifles, Winchester used a different brass cartridge lifter for the .32-20 but with Uberti, all three appear to use the same part. This can sometimes make loading the smaller cartridge a bit fiddly, particularly if you are trying to do it quickly.
My own .32-20 rifle is used primarily at 25 yards, with an occasional foray to 100, so my complement of reloaded ammunition is a fairly light combination of a home-cast 115-grain bullet, backed by either 2.3-grains of Trail Boss or 3.8-grains of Unique. The weight of this rifle ensures that felt recoil is quite mild with either of these loads, with the Unique having an edge accuracy wise at the longer distance.
Right out of the box, the operation of the lever is fairly slick on these rifles and experience has shown me that it gets better with time. Unless you are seriously into competition, work on the action should be unnecessary, apart from possibly lightening the quite heavy trigger pull. I shot this rifle alongside a 40-year old Uberti Henry and the difference in triggers was enormous. Likewise, the cost of the short-stroke action is not something that I would consider, but each to their own. Feed, extraction and ejection are performed faultlessly every time. The toggle-link action is very simple and it would be prudent to take the side plates off annually to clean and lubricate the joints.
If you think the Winchester 1873 is your kind of rifle, then check out the Henry Krank catalogue or website for the full available range.