THE LEGENDARY LEVERGUNS—THE .44 WINCHESTER CENTERFIRE

BY JOHN TAFFIN

Let’s review our journey thus far.The history of leverguns goes back to 1848 with the .54 caliber Hunt which operated not by a lever but by a ring and used the first “self-contained” ammunition called the Rocket Ball. This "levergun" used a hollow base bullet in a tubular magazine and separate priming pellets. Operating the ring fed a bullet into the barrel and automatically placed a priming pellet. In 1849 the Hunt was improved to the Jennings which also used a hollow base bullet containing the powder charge and separate priming pellet. In 1854 two men who were destined to become famous, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson improved the Jennings into the Volcanic which was the first levergun that really looked like a levergun and it actually worked. However, the metallic cartridge case had not yet arrived and it still used a bullet with the powder charge in the base. The first cartridge case would be a result of these two partners but it was the .22 Rimfire in a seven-shot tip-up revolver in 1857.

One of Smith & Wesson's partners was a shirt manufacturer by the name of Oliver Winchester. When the Volcanic Repeating Arms Co. went out of business in 1857 Winchester acquired the rights to the Volcanic and hired a plant superintendent by the name of B. Tyler Henry. The Hunt, Jennings, and Volcanic were very underpowered and did not work all that well. Everything was now in place for a real levergun to emerge. In 1860, B. Tyler Henry received a patent for a truly landmark rifle. With a lever operated action and the .44 Rimfire copper cartridge case, the Model of 1860 or .44 Henry was born. This was a tremendously important firearms advancement coming at a time when the single-shot muzzle loader ruled. There is much truth to the advertising saying a man armed with a Henry rifle and on horseback simply could not be captured. With its seventeen round capacity, the Henry was as far removed from the single-shot percussion rifles that preceded it as a Word Processor is from the first typewriters. This first true levergun and first true .44 cartridge offered totally previously unheard of firepower.

As we have seen the 1860 Henry had a brass (actually bronze alloy) frame and loaded not through a gate as subsequent  centerfire leverguns but was rather loaded through a tube from the front much like many of today's .22 leverguns. The repeating capability was a giant step forward but the way of loading was a serious drawback when it came to reloading as the rifle could not be subject to immediate use as it was being reloaded. Additionally there was no forearm to protect the tubular magazine from dents and dings.         When Oliver Winchester lent his name to a levergun, the first Winc­hester came forth as the 1866, or as it was soon called due to its brass frame, the Yellow Boy. By adding a forearm and using King’s patent, King had replaced Henry as plant superintendent, to provide a loading gate, Winchester set the stage for a whole line of great leverguns. The 1860 followed by the 1866 were both great steps forward but the best was yet to come.

And that short history of leverguns brings us to 1873 and the now legendary Winchester 1873’s arrival. The Model 1873 Winchester differed from the 1866 in several areas. The frame was now made of iron, then steel in the 1880s instead of the brass/bronze alloy used in the 1860 and 1866, and the cleaning of the action was made easier by the fact the Model 1873 had removable side plates. The actions of the 1860, 1866, and 1873 models are all basically the same using what is known as a toggle link action. The toggle link operating the action was certainly not very strong by today's standards however all three rifles used relatively low-pressured black powder shells. One of the great advantages of the toggle link action was its incredible smoothness. Operating the lever of any of the first Winchesters seems almost effortless and feeding of cartridges coming straight back from the magazine tube, straight up the lifter, and then into the barrel as the lever is closed is almost a spiritual experience.

We’ve seen the development of the .44 from the round ball of the Walker to the .44 Rimfire of the 1860 Henry, the .44 American of the S&W Model #3, the great improvement of the .44 Russian, and the advent of the .44 Colt for use in converted to cartridge firing Model 1860 Colts. It was now time for another change. The ammunition for the 1873 Winchester was no longer rimfire as the .44 Henry but a reloadable centerfire, the .44 Winchester Center Fire or .44 WCF, or as it is simply and more commonly known today, the .44-40. The .44 WCF also use an inside lubricated bullet rather than the outside lubricated bullet of the .44 Rimfire. Being a centerfire the .44 WCF was not only reloadable, Winchester marketed reloading tools.

The .44 WCF differed in two other ways from the Henry. The case was lengthened to 1.3” and instead of being a straight-walled .44 as all the others the .44 WCF is a tapered case with a slight bottle-neck. The .44 WCF in the Winchester 1873 arrived the same year as the .45 Colt in the Colt Single Action Army and it is very close to being a .45 case necked down to .44; this may have been done for greater case capacity or ease of chambering or both. Whatever the reason the .44-40 is one of the all time great cartridges.   

 

Today there are very few companies offering custom options on any of their firearms. There are exceptions of course such as Freedom Arms and USFA, however most rifle purchases are a pick from the standard catalog line. Not so with the early days of Winchester. The Model 73 could be purchased as a rifle with a 24” round or octagon barrel or special ordered with longer barrels; the carbine came with a 20” barrel while the musket had a 30”. Buttstocks could be ordered in straight grip or pistol grip configuration and with a curved or shotgun style butt plate; stocks could be standard walnut or extra fancy wood; and set triggers were also available in the single or double set trigger variety. Magazines were normally full-length however abbreviated magazines were available as were Trapper versions with a barrel shorter than the now legal 16”. In addition to a round or octagon barrel one could have a combination of both. Approximately 80 percent of all Model 1873 Winchesters were chambered in .44-40.

Mention The Gun That Won the West and most people think of the '73 Winchester. In the 1950's movie with Jimmy Stewart, entitled Winchest­er '73, the Winchester was the real star with the whole plot revolving around a very special One of One Thousand Model 1873 Winchester. Winc­hester selected Model '73s that were above average in accuracy and they became One of One Hundred or One of One Thousand examples at premium prices.

The Volcanic had been very underpowered, however the .44 Rimfire of the 1860 and 1866 used a bullet of approximately 200 grains with a muzzle velocity at about 1100 fps. But with the coming of the longer and larger .44 WCF cartridge case using 40 grains (the “40” in .44-40) of black powder, muzzle velocity was increased to 1250 fps. By today's standards that is not very powerful for a rifle, however it is about the equivalent of a Heavy Loaded .44 Special sixgun. It proved to be potent enough for whitetail deer and black bear and more than one grizzly was taken down with the .44 WCF. Men on the frontier knew how to make do with what they had.

The Winchester 1873 would be made from 1873 all the way through 1923 with just under three-quarters of one million being produced. If we use 1900 as the start of rifles suitable for smokeless powder the beginning serial number that year was 541,329; however, all Winchester 1873s should be checked by a competent gunsmith before being fired. I found my ’73 Winchester in a gun shop in Ozona Texas while on a deer hunt on the Penn Baggett Ranch. It had been re-blued and the butt stock and forearm had both been replaced or refinished or both, and the barrel while shootable was not all that great. But the price was only $400 making it an investment worth rebuilding. It was sent off to Brian Cosby at Cosby Custom Gunsmithing where the barrel was relined and the action was rebuilt. I now have a safe to shoot original 1873 Winchester .44-40 with a pristine barrel for less than the cost of a modern replica.

Winchester was now on a roll. Three years after the introduction of the Model 1873 a larger version, the 1876 emerged for much more powerful cartridges such as the .45-60 and .45-75, and it holds special significance as it was Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite hunting rifle while he was a ranchman in the Dakota Territory. The 1876 still used the basic toggle link action and brass lifter of the 1860, 1866, and 1873 leverguns and the action was neither long enough nor strong enough for the .45-70. Ten years later John Browning entered the picture and sold Winchester the design for the Model 1886 which replaced the toggle link action with twin rear locking bolts giving leverguns a great leap forward strength wise.

We've taken the long way around the barn to get to the next Winchester. The 1860 became the 1866 which was upgraded to the 1873 which was enlarged to the 1876 which led to the newer and stronger action of the 1886 of John Browning and now the direction was reversed and the 1886 was miniaturized into the Model 1892. This is overly simplified but it works for our purposes.  John Browning's first levergun the large and powerful 1886 Win­chester chambered in such cartridges as the .45-70, .45-90, and .50-110 was a great levergun but overly powerful and large for most uses. So Brow­ning combined the best attributes of the 1873 and 1886 by downsizing the '86 into a modernized version of the Model 1873 and chambered in the same .44 WCF. Instead of the toggle link action of the 1873, the 1892 had the much stronger double locking bolts of the 1886.

When the Model 1873 emerged the West was still very wild and it was used mostly as a battle rifle for lawmen, outlaws, and frontiersman. However, it was never adopted by the U.S. Army, which stayed with their more powerful single-shot rifles. By the time the Model 1892 arrived the West was considerably tamer and it became the rifle of the farmer, the rancher, and the hunter. Contrary to what Western movies often portray, the 1892 was not used in the Civil War nor in the 1870s and 1880s, which is the setting for most Western movies and TV show. At least some of the more recent Westerns, especially those made for TV, are much more concerned about authenticity than those movies turned out from the 1930s through the 1970s.

As a young kid I was most impressed, even if it wasn’t authentic, the first time I saw John Wayn­e in the movie Stagecoach, which was made the year I was born. By the time I was ten it was making the rounds of that new medium television and I was almighty impressed as I saw the Duke stop the stagecoach by twirling his Model '92 with a special large loop lever. Wayne would use this special levergun for nearly forty years in some truly great movies. The large loop lever has no practical value but rather is good only for movie effect. “That’s mighty big talk for a one-eyed fat man!” Who can ever forget the climatic scene in True Grit as Rooster Cogburn squints through his one good eye, pulls in his stomach and shouts, “Fill your hand you sunnovabitch”. With the reins in his teeth, his Colt Single Action in its left-hand, and twirling his Model 1892 in his right hand, Rooster takes on the whole Ned Pepper gang successfully. Not very likely to happen in real life but it certainly made a great movie scene.

The large loop .44-40 Winchester Model ’92 would chatter nearly as fast as a machine gun in the hands of Chuck Connors’ portrayal of Lucas McCain, The Rifleman, in the 1950s TV series; and it was cut down to handgun size, almost, and used by Steve McQueen as Josh Randall in Wanted Dead Or Alive. Randall’s Mare’s Leg was an illegal cut-down rifle by federal standards and a federal agent was required to be on the movie set at all times. Now the Mare’s Leg is being legally produced in replica form as a handgun by Rossi and imported by J.B.Custom. 

When I started shooting seriously in the 1950s, levergun fanciers were grabbing up Model 1892's for conversions to both .357 and .44 Magnums and Arizona’s Ward Koozer did a brisk gunsmithing business with these conversions. These made excellent companions to the new magnum sixguns from Ruger, the .357 and .44 Blackhawks but it seemed a shame to convert the grand little .32-20s and .44-40s to the Magnum chamberings. With so many conversions being done, the supply of original shooter grade Model 1892s began to dry up. Today we have a whole line-up of Winchester Model 1892s in replica form available in .32-20, .38-40, .357 Magnum, .45 Colt, .454 Casull, and three .44s, Magnum, Special, and WCF. Winchester even had a special run of Japanese made 1892s a few years ago in .32-20, .38-40, and .44-40 and Browning offered their B92 in .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum a couple decades ago. Another “Model 1892” emerged and sold for $39.95 in the 1950s. This was the El Tigre produced in South America under special licensing from Winchester. I have experience with only one El Tigre and it is an excellent rifle rivaling the quality of the real Model 1892. We will look at all these replica .44 “Winchesters’ in later chapter.

As mentioned earlier the Model 1892 did not replace the model 1873 in everyone’s heart and they ran concurrently for 30 years. The Model 1892 would last until 1931 with over one million being manufactured. Just as with the Model 1873, the Model 1892 was available as a carbine with a 20” barrel; rifle, 24”; and a musket, 30”. The special options of the Model 1873 carried over into the 1892 with both round and octagonal barrels offered, several styles of sights, standard walnut or fancy grade stocks, and crescent or shotgun style butt plates

Several years ago I ran into a fellow at Winter Range with a beautiful octagon barreled .44-40 Model 92. He had just bought it, was shooting it for the first time, and not doing well; so he offered to sell it to me. We agreed on a price and I told him to contact me when I got back home and the arrangements would be made. He turned out to be a very honest man as he called me to give me the very sad news as to the reason he was not doing well with it; it had a ring in the barrel. Sigh! Three years ago I missed out on a original Winchester 1892 chambered in .44 WCF at Shapel’s with a price tag of somewhere around $900. It pays to be patient as that rifle just resurfaced two months ago at Buckhorn Gun Shop and I was able to pick it up for considerably less money so I now have two Winchester 92s, the El Tigre and an original both chambered in .44 WCF. I might mention that the El Tigre was built as a military rifle and as such has a 22” barrel, sling swivels, and a ladder type rear sight. I don't think I will be shooting it out to the 1000 yards marked on the rear sight.

The four .44 Winchesters, 1860, 1866, 1873, and 1892 are all an important part of our nation’s firearms history. The 1873 may have been the Gun That Won The West, however the 1892 is just about the handiest rifle ever made. Think of it as a Perfect Packin’ Pistol in rifle form.

Winchester was not the only firm offering .44 caliber rifles. The Colt Lightning, a pump or slide action rifle, was originally produced in three frame sizes, the mid-size chambered in .32-20, .38-40, and .44-40; a scaled down smaller version for .22s; and finally a larger size to accommodate more powerful rifle cartridges such as  .38-56, .40-60, .45-60, .45-75, .45-85, and .50-95.  The Colt Lightning rifle did not last long as it arrived in 1885 with both the medium and large versions gone before the dawning of the 20th century, while the .22 Lightning survived until 1903. Today at least six manufacturers and/or importers have cataloged Lightning-style rifles, with four of them offered in .44-40.

Marlin also offered a .44-40 levergun, the Model 1894, from the same year as the model number until 1935.  Marlin’s .44 is probably an even better rifle than the Winchester 1892 as it has side ejection of spent cartridges instead of the top ejection of the Winchester. This is especially handy for anyone who wishes to scope a lever gun. The 1894 Marlin .44 resurfaced in 1969 and has been made in both .44 Magnum and .44-40 with both round and octagon barrels and several barrel lengths. We will also look at the Marlin in greater depth in the chapter on modern .44 leverguns. Stay tuned.

 

6-1) Examples of three versions of original Winchester ‘73s used by Mike Venturino,

who supplied the photo: a Musket, a Rifle, and a Saddle Ring Carbine.

 

 

6-2) Pictured are two special order Model 1892 .44-40s, top one has a

half magazine and the bottom a shotgun butt.

Photo courtesy of Mike Venturino.

 

 

6-3) Winchester’s two .44 lever gun cartridges: the .44 Henry of the

1860 and 1866, and the .44-40 of the 1873 and 1892.

Photo courtesy of Mike Venturino.

 

 

6-4) Original leverguns from Winchester include the toggle link 1866 and 1873;

and the 1886 and 1892 with double locking lugs.

 

 

6-5) Did the original 1866 Winchester shoot as well as this Uberti replica?

 

 

6-6) Taffin shooting the Navy Arms 1873 Border Rifle chambered in .44-40.

 

 

6-7) Uberti offers two Winchester replicas, the 1873 and the 1866,

which are every bit as well made as the originals.

 

 

6-8) In addition to the standard replica Model 1873 with a case hardened frame,

full blue models are also available as this .44-40 Taffin is shooting-- and enjoying.

 

 

6-9) The Winchester 1873 and 1892 were both offered in .44-40, .38-40, and .32-20.

The preferred battle and hunting rifle was chambered in .44-40.

 

             

6-10) The Winchester 1892 was not the only .44 WCF levergun available.

Marlin also offered their excellent Model 1894 in .44-40.

 

Chapter 5        Chapter 7