Uberti Winchester 1876
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- Last updated: 27/01/2017
Though a huge AR15 fan past and present, I also have a soft spot for lever-action rifles – for that read Winchesters. My favourite has to be the 1873, OK when compared to the moderner designs it’s not as quick or practical, but the sheer elegance of its classic lines and also shootability makes it for me.
As a design the 1873 is the penultimate rifle in a series that started off with the Henry, which was based on the old Volcanic. The Henry morphed into the brass-framed 1866, which was improved into the iron-framed 1873. The problem with both the 66 and 73 were that they were chambered for pistol calibres, so could not compete with the larger bore rifles of the day in terms of power and range. So Winchester were losing it in comparison to the competition and it was not until the introduction of the John Moses Browning designed 1886 that they really had a rifle that could handle the big bores and compete on even terms.
However the gap between the 73 and the 86 was filled by what I consider the ultimate and last true Winchester - the 1876. I say this as the Browning-designed 1886 with it’s rear locking action and open-topped receiver was the blue print for all of their future lever-actions, up to and including the latest 94 AE (angle eject) guns…
With my penchant for big bore lever-actions the 76 has been a bit of a holy grail for me, as it’s the one example I have never shot and also rarely seen. My fascination with this big Winchester doubtless comes from the film ‘Tom Horne’ about the true life Indian scout and stock detective, who used an 1876. In truth the 76, as we shall see, is nothing but a larger and stronger 73, and in reality about as far as the design could go, as the feed system presents insurmountable problems on cartridge overall length (COL).
Hey, You’re Just a Big 73…
Over the years the Italian reproduction firearms industry has come up with a lot of good products to fuel the interest of historical shooters everywhere, and I reckon Uberti’s 1876 is going to be another winner. I first saw the rifle at IWA 2006 and had been promised an example by UK importers – Henry Krank & Co Ltd - when they hit our shores. Typically with the interest in the USA and Europe, we Brits had to wait nearly a year before rifles started rolling in. In my opinion it was certainly worth the wait, as what came out of the plain white box was perhaps the epitome of the classic lever-action rifle.
The 76 is nothing more than a bigger 1873 and so far Uberti are only offering one version, which they call the Standard. The build offers a tapered, octagonal 28” barrel with full-length magazine tube with a supporting ring as opposed to a band. The wood is lightly varnished A-grade walnut and shows a straight-hand stock with crescent butt plate and storage trap. The metal finish is blue on all the steel and colour case hardened on the action. Sights consists of a semi-buck horn, elevator wedge at the rear and a medium height blade up front. Both these are set in dovetails for windage adjustment too. Doubtless Uberti’s mid-range tang sight can be fitted, to give a bit more precision.
Ejection is straight up and back, and - like the 73 - the 76 shows a sliding dust cover over the port; quite a modern feature for the late 1800s. Weighing in at 10 lbs and 44 ½” from butt to muzzle this is a big and impressive design. My test gun came in 45-60 Winchester, which is the only calibre shown on the Uberti website, though I have seen other 76’s offered in 45-75 Winchester, but I imagine that is for the US market only…
The two limiting factors on the 76 are the strength of its locking mechanism and the way it feeds the rounds from the magazine into the chamber. The whole Henry 1866 and 1873 range use a simple toggle lock, which acts like a knee joint. When the leg is straight direct pressure on the foot passes up through the joint, which is solid. Operating the lever unhinges the toggle so opening the action. As can be imagined this is not the strongest system in the world, OK for pistol calibres 44-40 WCF, 45 Colt etc, but feed it something much hotter and watch out. That is probably one of the reasons that Uberti do not offer any of this range in 44 Magnum.
Unlike the 1886 and later models, the 73 uses a vertical sliding brass block that lifts the cartridge into the path of the bolt that moves forward to chamber it. This then make the rifle critical of a COL that’s too long, as the unfired round won’t fully exit the magazine so causing a feed jam. So by using a longer cartridge the length of the feed block needs to be increased accordingly, so you end up with a far longer action, which in truth will reach a limit of practicality.
For example, they never chambered the 76 in 45-70 Government, which at an average COL of 2.525” was considered too long. The 45-60 is pretty much a reduced length 45-70 with a COL of 2.280”. The 45-75 and also 50-95 Winchesters, which were designed for the 76 got round this by using a bottle necked case, so wider with a good powder capacity but the same COL.
The biggest bugbear of classic rifles is the calibre, as most are now obsolete. So with the exception of 45-70 Govt, it needs to be made and that includes the brass. This is why I consider 45-60 a good compromise in the 76, as it’s not difficult to make the ammo using 45-70 cases, as I was to discover. However, it would seem likely that the 76 is going to be popular and doubtless some specialised ammunition manufacturers will produce a Cowboy Action style loading or two.
Loading data is near non existent and I spoke to Hodgdon and Hornady on the subject and here is the advice I got: use a maximum case length of 1.890”, never use anything heavier than 300-grain bullets. A maximum velocity of 1350 fps should never be exceeded. Chris Hodgdon sent me a page from an old copy of Cartridges of the World, which gave a smokeless load of a maximum of 25-grains of IMR 4198. With blackpowder you should be able to get between 50-60 grains in the case with slight compression, but as ever I would advise you start well below this and work up.
Finding 45” calibre 300-grain bullets also proved to be a problem, as I had also been told that a diameter of 456-457” was best for the 45-60. Kranks gave me some Sierra 300-grain JHP, which I was advised would work, but at a reduced powder charge as the pressure would be increased by the copper jacket and maybe diameter too. Plus, as Sect 5 projectiles, you could not buy them for range use. I toyed with the ideas of using 405-grain hard cast lead but I was worried that they would be too heavy; again increasing pressures. If you’re into casting then making a 300-grainer is not a problem, but if you’re not, then what do you do?
The solution came from The Bullet Cache, a company who specialise in big bore projectiles. Owner Robin Shafe has sent me some examples of his work, which I put in May 2007 Products. A call to him explaining my problems produced a small selection of 300-grain bullets in a number of styles. In the end we agreed on a 300- grain round nosed hollow base with a copper gas checked to stop lead erosion. Sized at .457” they proved to be ideal.
A call to Lee Precision got me a set of 45-60 dies inside two weeks and I was then ready to proceed. Conversely you could simply grind about ¼” off a set of 45-70 dies to achieve the same end, all you are doing is reducing the length so that the case can be properly neck expanded and crimped.
Blisters on My Fingers
The biggest pain was cutting down the 45-70 brass, as you have to lose .24” off the neck. Using my hand-operated Lyman trimmer this took some doing and got me some serious blisters. Where I to continue then I’d get a drill adaptor kit to allow me to use power.
Once trimmed to length and de-burred the actual process was as easy as loading any straight-walled case - size/de-cap, neck expand and seat/crimp. Making sure of course that the COL did not exceed 2.305”, which is the length of the cartridge lifter block. I found a COL of 2.280” to be ideal.
I started off with 24-grains of IMR 4198 using the 300-grain lead and 22-grains of the same with the 300-grain JHP, both set off by a standard, large rifle primer. Popping off one of each showed that there were no signs of pressure. Over the chrono the lead load was doing 1250 and the jacketed 1075 fps. In the latter case I would move up ½-grain at a time to the maximum of 25-grains just checking for signs of pressure, excessive recoil and hard extraction.
With the lead I then moved to 25-grains (maximum) and the chrono told me that this load was producing 1337 fps average speed. So this was very much where I wanted to be with it. I would guess that Uberti have made a stronger and truer action than the original, simply by the fact they can use better quality materials and also keep tolerances tighter. Plus the larger size means that the toggle can be bigger and stronger too. However, never lose sight of the fact that this is an old-style mechanism, designed for blackpowder cartridges and low level smokeless reloads, so keep it sensible and safe…
Initially the 76 was a bit stiff in terms of feed, but after a very few rounds it smoothed up to the same nice level as my 1873. The gun was a pussy cat to shoot, as might be expected, with those big cases ejecting easily. Though having to scrabble around in the dirt to find every one of them was a bit of a pain, but as I had put so much effort into making them, I did not want to lose even one…
But the whole thing came together beautifully, with my love of big bore lever-actions being proved every time I pulled the trigger. Accuracy was exceptional, but then again I have never shot an 1873 that has not been good. My old 44-40 model could hit empty shotgun shells set out at 50-hards every time and at 200 would group into 12” if not better even with the basic iron sights. The 76 proved no different; at 100 yards it would easily stay inside a 4” square and I have no doubt be equally as good at 200 and even 300 yards; especially if fitted with a tang sight.
If I have one criticism of the 1876 then it’s the trigger pull, which is 8 lbs + with ease. It’s crisp enough and being a large rifle it’s not too hard to hold on target with good results, but lighter would be better. I spoke to an American who has the 76 and he told me his was the same.
What you would actually do with the 1876 remains to be seen, as the calibre doesn’t have the legs for 600-yard work as a comparable 45-70 would. Plus its rapid-fire ability is of no use for this sort of competition. Being a full bore rifle calibre I doubt if it could be used on most pistol ranges. But all that aside, it’s an absolute beauty and I would love one in my collection, as the sheer pleasure of a big, classic lever-action makes it all worthwhile.