Winchester 1873 Military Musket
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- Last updated: 26/01/2017
A lot of the layman’s knowledge about firearms is picked up through the media of film and television and in the past they have been responsible for some amazing gaffs. These days historical reality seems to be par for the course, no doubt due to the hordes of re-enactment groups who know how it should look.
One of the biggest mistakes perpetuated by Hollywood was that the US Cavalry of the frontier period 1870-1890s used Winchester lever-action rifles. And to make it worse in films from the 1950-1970s it was usually the Winchester 94 carbine that was shown in the trooper’s hands – a rifle that wasn’t even around at the height of the conflict on the frontier.
On the other hand, many people consider the Winchester rifle as a purely civilian item, carried by cowboys and men both good and bad. But this is in fact not the case, as the company made a series of what were officially known as Military Muskets aimed no doubt to replace the single-shot Service rifles of the period. They were also aimed at the growing export market and this is in fact were most went, as they were never accepted by the country of their creation, which preferred the archaic Trapdoor Springfield. The reasons were simply – the TD was originally a breech-loading conversion of the old Civil War .58 Springfield rifled musket. Though by the 1870s the guns were purpose built and chambered in 45-70 Government, but the musket-like side hammer system was far from cutting edge.
This however, didn’t bother the US Ordnance Board as they were cheap and their lamentable lack of firepower meant they weren’t expensive to run. However, and in favour of the Board, you could have argued that the Winchesters were chambered for what was in fact a pistol cartridge – 45 Colt etc., and therefore under-powered and a short-range option… But the main reason was doubtless financial.
Civil War Promise
Personally the calibre thing doesn’t hold water for me, as back in the American Civil War some Federal units were privately equipped with the Henry lever-action rifle chambered in 44 Rimfire, yet it gained a fearsome reputation from the Confederate forces and in fact became a highly prized battlefield pick up by them whenever possible.
However, after the war and as I have already detailed, repeaters like the Henry and the butt-loading Spencer fell foul of the Ordnance Board’s penny pinching attitude. So and though proving themselves as superior weapons in many ways - they were superseded by a technically inferior design.
Though not a purpose-built military rifle, the Henry must be considered as the first Service lever-action to be used in significant numbers in a major conflict. As the rifle’s creator B Tyler Henry got together with Oliver Winchester to improve the design into the 1866 Winchester (by that time Henry had moved on) the seed had doubtless been sown for a lever-action that would appeal to the military.
The 1866 – perhaps better known as the Yellow Boy due to its brass frame - was a popular rifle. It also sorted out some of the Henry’s major shortcomings – it’s lack of forend, the external magazine follower and the curious muzzle trap filling, magazine system. With its gate-loading receiver, which allowed cartridges to be pushed in from the back end and the wooden forearm that stopped the firers hands getting burned on a hot barrel the ‘66 was quite some improvement.
Like the Henry and the Volcanic before it - the 66 used a toggle locking system and vertical cartridge lifter block. The former functioned like a knee joint and when locked was straight and broke downwards. Not the strongest design but adequate for the cartridges it was chambered for.
Enter the 1873
Without changing the basic mechanical design the 66 was improved with an iron frame with detachable side plates, making it much stronger, a sliding ejection port cover and a safety interlock plunger. The resultant rifle, possibly the most famous Winchester of all time, was called the 1873. It was also famous as it was chambered for a new cartridge the 44-40 Winchester Centre Fire (WCF). Built for the 73 it was quickly adopted by Colt in their 1873 Model P single-action revolver and it became the first recognised dual-purpose round of ammunition. Although many shooters think the 45 Colt is more famous the 44-40 gets my vote.
Personally I feel that the 1873 is the best looking of the whole Winchester family, as it has a timeless elegance about it that none of the others – excepting perhaps the 1876 can match.
As well as the plethora of carbines, sporting rifles made on the 1873 frame Winchester also offered it as a Military Musket. This was not a new venture for them as the 1866 was already available in that format and had sold well throughout the world. Though the doubtless lucrative home market was never cracked, due to reasons I have already explained.
Obviously the superior firepower of lever-actions repeaters like this made a military version a very viable proposition and that is what Winchester did with the 1873 and later 1876 as well. Even later they made a version of their box magazined 1895 lever-action for the Tsarist government chambered in the Russian 7.62x54R. Historically not a lot has been heard about the effectiveness of these military lever-actions, even though sales were brisk throughout the world. Most noted is the use by the Turks at the battle of Plevna where they used the 1873 with great effect against the Russian forces.
As an aficionado of Service Rifles I have to admit to never having handled the 1873 Musket, though in terms of operation it would have to be identical to the standard sporting models. Neither have I seen one at any classic competitions or shoots, such is its rarity. So it was with some surprise and pleasure that I heard Aldo Uberti of Italy were producing such an item.
Hearing and Touching
However, hearing and actually touching were, as I discovered, two very different things. I first heard of the Military Musket about four years ago and expected to see it in the UK inside a year at worst. But the importer never ever got them in to my knowledge. In fact it was only this year with the change of the Uberti agency going to Henry Krank & Co Ltd that we the British shooting public have the chance to see a much larger percentage of Uberti’s range again, and I should, like to thank Pete Moore (Editor) Shooting Sports magazine for kindly letting me borrow the rifle after he had finished with it.
Uberti’s biggest 1873 to date has been the Sporter. This with its 30” octagonal barrel and full-length magazine is a unique and beautiful looking rifle. The Musket is based on this, though a lot more utilitarian in styling. The barrel profile is round and a bit slimmer and the magazine tube stops about 2 ½” from the muzzle, thus reducing the capacity to 15 cartridges. This has been done to allow the fitting of a bayonet, which is an optional extra. Not a lot of use to today’s shooters, but that’s how it was and Uberti have stayed faithful to the original.
Most different is the full-length forend, as befits a Service rifle of this type, and the three-barrel bands. The middle one features a fixed sling swivel. The butt offers a straight-hand style with a simple rounded steel butt plate, underneath is the second swivel, only this one is free to rotate.
The action is colour case hardened with that lovely blue/grey/black swirling pattern. The barrel, bands, hammer, butt plate and lever are all beautifully blued with the cartridge block in brass.
The sights to are a departure from the semi buckhorns mostly found on Uberti’s range of Winchesters. The front is a simple block with a blade on top; this also acts as the bayonet lug for the socket/spike design. The rear is the military buckhorn style that was fitted to the latter Trapdoor Springfields, which was a definite improvement over the earlier flip-up ladder.
The sight consists of a flip-up ladder with a double sliding V-notch, which is employed for both short and long-range use. For shorter distance the ladder is down and the notch plate slides up a pre-cut ramp and the raised V is used. For longer ranges the ladder is flipped vertical and the block with integral V slides up and down. However, the Buckhorn also offers limited windage correction by the simple expedient of sliding the double V block left or right. This is quite an advance over having to drift the front sight left or right with a hammer and punch.
This 1873 was chambered in 45 Colt, which is an excellent round, firing a 250 grain lead flat nosed bullet at around 800 fps. Uberti have chosen to keep things simple with the Military Musket as its only alternative chambering is that other great old timer - the 44-40 WCF. I’ve got no complaints on that score, as I like to keep things traditional.
In truth the biggest changes with the Military Musket are the sights and forend, as the butt is lifted straight off the civilian carbine and everything else is identical. The 1873 mechanism was taken from the 1866, which was from Henry and initially the Volcanic. Winchester’s next rifle - the 1886 - was designed by John Moses Browning for the company. The only slight aside was the 1876 – this was nothing but a stretched and larger 73 frame made to accept the rifle cartridges of the time 45-70 Govt.or 40-65 Winchester. This was done to offer a full-bore rifle that could be competitive with others of its type. The 76 is also famous as the Tom Horn rifle and it was also offered as a Military Musket and also bought by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
I have to say that though it’s a standard Uberti 1873 mechanism, I really like their re-creation of the Military Musket. For those who admire the classic Winchester Sporters it may appear a bit Spartan, but if nothing else it’s certainly distinctive. It also offers a proper military lever-action for Classic competition and I would imagine it will be of interest to certain members of the British Western Shooting Society (BWSS). I would love to get one to add to my collection of service rifles.
If you think that all that rifle with its 30” barrel is a bit much for the 45 Colt, you might be surprised by its performance potential. Though hardly a true long-range cartridge the 45 and the 44-40 are easily good enough for 200 yards and 300 at a push, given the right sights. In fact I have seen someone shoot the Quigley with a 44-40 1866 and believe it or not hit the 600 yard target – OK not the bucket, but it just goes to show you doesn’t it? It also means you can use this classic on approved pistol ranges too…
What I find heartening is that Uberti have bothered to re-create this certainly rather special 1873 variant. It was only two years ago that Armi Sport launched their Henry repeater and not long before that, that Pedersoli made the full Trapdoor Springfield range. In the handgun days the hinged-frame Schofield revolver was another good example. It seems to me that the reproduction companies are now starting to cast their net wider in terms of product. This bodes well for the future, as there are other firearms that would be ideal for such a re-birth. And I have heard that an 1876 Winchester might just be on the cards.
1: Uberti’s Winchester 1873 Military Musket, an unusual derivative of probably their best inhouse lever-action sporting rifle
2: Though the Henry can trace its design back to the Volcanic it was the first lever-action rifle that saw service in a major conflict and set the pattern for three great Winchester rifles
3: The Winchester 1866 – a better Henry with a proper wooden forend and redesigned magazine system
4: Here we see a 30” Sporter with octagonal barrel and pistol grip stock and tang sight, this is one highly distinctive version of the 1873
5: The 1873 changed to an iron frame (steel in later versions). Note the colour case hardened finish and separate side plates
6: Like the Henry the 66 and 73 used a vertical brass cartridge-lifting block
7: The major improvement of the 66 that was carried through onto the 73 and 76 was the frame mounted loading gate that allowed cartridges to be pushed in from the rear
8: Detail of the lever and the lever lock
9: The Buckhorn ladder sights is unusual in that it offers limited windage correction – a useful feature on a rifle such as this
10: Action fully open showing the rear extension of the breech block that cocks the hammer – note the brass cartridge block in its upper most (feed) position
11: The 1873 mechanism provides an interlock plunger, that locks the trigger unless the lever is fully up against the stock, I suppose it’s a primitive form of grip safety
12: The Musket offers a plain straight hand stock with simple curved butt plate, the rear sling swivel can rotate through 360º
13: The magazine tube stops 2 ½” from the muzzle to facilitate fitting the bayonet
14: The 73 action originally offered an iron frame, Uberti make it today as a steel forging, technically this repro is stronger than the original
15: Uberti have chosen to keep things simple with the Military Musket, so it is only available in 45 Colt or 44-40 WCF
FEATURES: Sling swivels, rear sight Buckhorn style with elevation and windage, front sight fixed blade on block