THE .44 REPLICA LEVERGUNS

BY JOHN TAFFIN

            All the dots are connected, the picture is totally painted, the cycle is complete; we now have access to replicas of every 19th-century Winchester levergun. As this is written the last piece of the puzzle was completed with the introduction of the Chaparral brand Model 1876 Winchester. This is part of a good news, bad news scenario as corresponding to the arrival of the Model 1876, Winchester has announced the closing of their plant and the end of the ’94 Winchester which has been in production for more than 110 years. However so many millions of Model 1894s were manufactured that I don’t think we need to worry about running out of them; and during the last quarter of the 20th century, and even in this new century in some cases, either Browning or Winchester or both have provided replicas of the Models 1886, 1892, and 1895 leverguns.

            Since we are here concerned with .44 caliber leverguns our focus is on the re-creation of the 1860 Henry, 1866 Yellow Boy, 1873 Winchester, and the 1892 Winchester all of which are now readily available in replica form from Italy, Japan, or South America. All of these are chambered in the legendary .44-40 and it is even possible to find a few .44 Special leverguns. Not only are these leverguns readily available they are of excellent quality. Metallurgy today is certainly better than it was in the middle of the 19th-century, however the 1866, 1866, and 1873 replicas follow the old toggle link action and are for standard loads only. On the other hand, the original1892 Winchester, with its twin locking bolts is a very strong rifle, and probably even stronger than the Model 1894. Both Rossi and Browning have chambered the Model 1892 in .44 Magnum and in Rossi’s case even in .454.

            The first replica goes back to the 1930s with the Model 1892-style Tigre from South America being made under a special agreement with Winchester.  Steve McQueen’s two Mare’s Legs were actually built on Tigres. These sold for $39.95 in the 1950s. Originally designed for military use, mine has a 22” barrel, sling swivels, and a ladder sight.

            Replica leverguns are available from so many sources; some that come immediately to mind are Cimarron, EMF, Navy Arms, Taylor’s & Co., and Uberti. In addition to replica leverguns we now also have the Colt Lightning pump action rifle being offered by AWA, Beretta, Cimarron, Navy Arms, Taurus, Uberti, and United States Firearms. Some, but not all, of these are available chambered in .44-40. In addition to the leverguns and pump guns, take-offs on Josh Randall’s Wanted Dead Or Alive Mare’s Leg are now reality with JB Custom offering such on the Model 1892 action and AWA doing likewise with the Lightning action. Both are available in .44-40 with the Model 92 version also in .44 Magnum.  

Very few of us will ever be allowed to even handle much less shoot a real 1860 Henry. However thanks to replicas we can all enjoy a true copy of this historic and legendary, and I might add extremely important piece of firearms history. The Henry rifle did not have a long history being in production only from 1860 to 1866 with somewhere around 13,000 having been produced. In 1866, the Henry was improved with a King's Patent, named for Nelson King who followed B. Tyler Henry as Oliver Winchester's shop foreman. This first Winchester, the 1866 Yellow Boy used the same .44 Rimfire ammunition but it was loaded through what has now become the traditional loading gate on the right side of the receiver. The 1866 was also fitted with a wooden forearm.

            While I am certainly no expert when it comes to original 1860 Henrys, it also certainly seems to me that the modern version of the 1860 Henry is a true to the original replica. "That damned Yankee rifle that you loaded on Sunday and fired all week" is offered by Navy Arms in at least three versions all with 24” barrels and holding 13 rounds. The brass framed Military Henry Rifle is available in .44-40 as is a case colored receiver version, and also a third option with a blued receiver. Sights consist of brass blade front matched up with a long-range, flip-up, ladder-style rear sight. With the rear sight down in its normal position, the Navy Arms 1860 Henry was right on the money at 50 yards. All three versions weigh right at nine pounds.

            Anyone that can hold one of these rifles in their hands and not have their soul and spirit and heart stirred by the historical significance of such a great firearm is in emotional trouble! There is something very special about releasing the end of the barrel, allowing it to swivel to the right, dropping cartridges into the magazine, locking the barrel into place, and then shouldering the butt stock. Sight down the barrel, feel a gentle nudge against the shoulder as a .44 WCF round is fired, operate the lever, and experience the almost sensual feeling of the new round being chambered. The 1860, 1866, and the 1873 all chamber differently than subsequent leverguns with a cartridge coming straight up and into the chamber with a smooth feeling that no other rifle can duplicate.

            In my limited experience the 1860 Henry is not as accurate as the 1866 or 1873 replicas, and I am sure this has to do with the swivel barrel feature. One caution needs to be mentioned. There is always a possibility of a slam fire occurring if the follower is allowed to slam home instead of being gently lowered on the stack of cartridges. This could especially be a problem in cold weather when fingers do not function properly. However, the added bonus is the fact that loading the 1860 Henry magazine is a lot easier for cold fingers than trying to push cold cartridges into a cold and reluctant loading gate with near-frozen fingers.

            When shooting from a bench one also has to be careful to allow the follower to move towards the receiver as each cartridge is levered into the chamber. If the follower is allowed to hang up the gun will not function. This same caution applies when firing this forearm-less levergun as it is really easy for the offhand to interfere with the follower's operation.

Test-Firing The Navy Arms 1860 Henry .44-40  24” Octagon Barrel. Groups Are 10 Shots.                                       

Load                                                                MV                  25 Yards          50 Yards

Black Hills 200 Cowboy                                   1075 fps           2”                     3 ¼”

Magtech 225 Cowboy                                      919 fps            1 ¼”                 2 ¾”

PMC 225 Cowboy                                          966 fps            1 ¾”                 2 ½”

Ultramax 200 Cowboy                         1150 fps           1 ¾”                 3 ½”

3-D 200 Cowboy                                             1192 fps           1 ¾”                 2 ¾”

Oregon Trail 200/8.0 gr. Unique                       1127 fps           2”                     3 ¾”

Oregon Trail 225/8.0 gr. Unique                       1038 fps           1 5/8”               3 ¾”

            Just as the 1860 Henry, the 1866 Winchester was also chambered in .44 Rimfire. This cartridge has been long out of production and when found will cost several dollars apiece and chances are pretty good they won’t even fire. I would love to see the return of the .44 Rimfire with replicas of both the 1860 and 1866 so chambered. Since we can’t have the original we can have the next best thing, the .44-40 in both rifles, and thanks to Cimarron the 1866 Yellow Boy/Winchester is also available in .44 Special. The .44 Special has been heavy loaded by many experimenters, myself included, over the past eighty years.  These loads are not for the 1866 Winchester; standard pressure loads only need apply.

            Cimarron's .44 Special 1866 Carbine has a beautiful brass receiver, curved brass butt plate, and a 19” round barrel. Sights consist of a front blade which is part of the barrel band while the rear sight is a standard notch with an added flip-up blade that allows the use of two more settings for long-range shooting. With the regular sight in use this .44 Carbine is pretty much on the money.

            Even though chambered for the .44 Special, the Yellow Boy will also accept, chamber and fire .44 Colt loads even though the rim diameter is smaller than that found on the .44 Special. Some care must be used in selecting .44 Colt loads however. The 1866 feeds its cartridges straight back onto the lifter, and if the cartridges are too short, it will allow the base of the next cartridge from the magazine to protrude into the action, locking in up.  What this simply means is .44 Colt loads using Oregon Trails’ 225 grain RNFP in Starline's .44 Colt brass will feed and chamber properly; shorter bullets will not. The use of semi-wadcutter bullets in the .44 Special are possible, however they may not enter the chamber smoothly and quickly. The following loads were test-fired in the Cimarron 19” Yellow Boy with groups being five shots at 25 yards.

.44 Colt Loads

Load                                                                            MV                  Groups

Black Hills 230 RNFP                                      821 fps            1 3/8”

Oregon Trail 225 RNFP/4.0 gr. TiteGroup                   906 fps            1 3/8”

Oregon Trail 225 RNFP/5.3 gr. WW231                     932 fps            1 3/8”

Oregon Trail 225 RNFP/5.2 gr. N-100                        1031 fps           1 3/8”

Oregon Trail 225 RNFP/4.3 gr. Red Dot                      935 fps            1 ¼”

.44 Special Loads

Load                                                                            MV                  Groups

Black Hills 210 RNFP                                      825 fps              7/8”

Winchester 240 RNFP                                     868 fps            1 1/8”

Oregon Trail 225 RNFP/4.0 gr. N-100                        874 fps            1 ½”

Oregon Trail 240 SWC/5.8 gr. Unique             1,007 fps          1 ¾”

Oregon Trail 225 RNFP/6.0 gr. Universal                     932 fps            1 ¾”

Oregon Trail 225 RNFP/5.2 gr. N-100                        1009 fps           1 ½”

Oregon Trail 240 SWC/5.5 gr. WW452AA                 990 fps            1 ½”

            At least four distinct Model '73 Winchesters are made by Uberti of Italy and also offered by Navy Arms as well as other distributors and importers. There is the 24" Rifle with octagon barrel; the round barreled 19" Carbine; the Sporting Rifle with pistol grip stock and choice of a 24" or 30" barrel, all available in .44-40, and my test levergun, the Navy Arms 1873 Border Model. Navy Arms says of this model that the original 1873 Short Rifle was very rare and available on special order only. It was very popular in the Southwest along the Mexican Border in the 1870s and 1880s, and it is easy to see why as this is a very handy and easy to use lever gun.

            The 1873 Border Model has a brilliantly case colored receiver mated up with a red colored wood for forearm and butt stock, and blued barrel and crescent shaped butt plate. As with the original there is a sliding dust cover over the top of the exposed action and a small locking lever to hold the operating lever in place. The front sight is a black post riding in a dovetail, thus easily adjusted for windage, while the rear sight is a buckhorn  on a sliding ramp to adjust for elevation.

            The 1873 has a unique action that is unlike any later models. As with the 1860 and 1866, the cartridge is fed back onto a lifter from the magazine tube and this sliding brass lifter then comes straight up and the cartridge is fed into the chamber by the bolt. It makes a most distinctive sound in operation that endears itself to its users much like the clicks of a Colt Single Action as the hammer is drawn back. With its short but heavy octagon barrel, the 1873 balances very well and comes right up on target. As with the 1860 Henry and the 1866 Yellow Boy, the Model 1873 does not have a strong action and should not be subjected to loads that are anywhere near the heavy class. Test-Firing of the .44-40 Model 1873 Octagon Barreled Border Model Short Rifle with a 19” barrel consisted of the following loads with groups being three shots at 50 yards:

Load                                                                MV                              Groups

Black Hills 200 .44-40                         1151 fps                       1 1/4"

Hornady 205 .44-40                                        1002 fps                       2 1/8"

Winchester 225 .44-40                         925 fps                        1 3/8"

3-D 200 .44-40                                               1032 fps                       1 1/2"

Oregon Trail 225/8.0 gr. Unique                       1181 fps                       1 3/8"

Oregon Trail 225/7.0 gr. WW231                    1074 fps                       1 1/8"

            The slickest Winchester ever, the Model 1892 is well represented by Navy Arms with five models. Unlike the Model 1873 and most of the rest  of Navy Arms offerings, the Model 1892 comes not from Italy but rather from Brazil and the Rossi factory that formerly turned out Model '92s  for Interarms. The standard Rifle Model has a 24" octagonal barrel and the choice of either a blued or case colored receiver with real American walnut found in both the forearm and butt stock. Joining the rifle is the 20" round barreled carbine, the most popular of all the original Model 1892s as seen by millions of us in four decades of John Wayne movies. The test gun from Navy Arms is Model ’92 Short Rifle, a mate to the above mentioned '73 Border Model Rifle with a blued receiver, and stocked with real walnut. Navy Arms says of these carbines that the originals were ordered by the Eagle Hardware Co. of Eagle Pass Texas and marketed as "Texas Specials."  This Model '92 comes with a full octagon barrel, one-inch longer than the 1873 Border Rifle at 20". The blued barrel, receiver, lever, foreend cap, and crescent shaped butt plate are all set off well by the good quality American walnut used for stocking this new-old model. Sights are not as good for my eyes as those found on the Model '73 with a black post front mated up with a square notch rear on a sliding ramp. 

            The front sight is set in a dovetail for easy windage adjustment while the rear sight is also on sliding ramp for elevation changes. Both the dovetail mounted front sight and the walnut used in the stocks are upgrades by Navy Arms from the previous models offered by Interarms. The operation of the action is also much smoother than Rossi's I have worked with in the past. Fired with the same loads as the Model 1873, the '92 was not as consistent however the most accurate load turned out to be one of my most used  .44-40 loads, the Oregon Trail 225 RNFP over 8.0 grains of Unique. It clocks out at 1150 fps and puts three shots into 5/8 of an inch at 50 yards. I think I am satisfied with this level of accuracy.

            The Model 1873 may not be a strong action; the Model 1892, however is a very strong action and as such can be used for many more varied activities than the 1873. It also deserves better sights and I can easily foresee a gold bead front sight mated up with a Lyman #66 receiver sight. In my old Lyman Cast Bullet Manual there are loads for the .44-40  in the Winchester '92 consisting of a 205  grain cast bullet at 1900 fps, a 215 grain gas check at 1850 fps, and a 200 grain jacketed bullet at 2100 fps! All loads were assembled with #2400. Times change and powders and primers change and I don’t believe I want to push the 1892 that hard..

            The following .44-40 loads are for use in Model 1892 leverguns only. Some are much too heavy for the old toggle oink actions of the Models 1860, 1866, and 1873. Groups are five shots at 50 yards:

Load                                                                MV                              Groups

Hornady 200 JHP/20.0 gr. H4227                    1256 fps                       1 1/4"

Remington 200 JFP/22.0 gr. H4227                 1537 fps                       1 3/4"

Remington 200 JFP/8.0 gr. Unique                   1056 fps                       2"

Remington 200 JFP/9.0 gr. Unique                   1197 fps                       2"

Speer 200 JFP/10.0 gr. Unique                        1366 fps                       2 1/4"

Speer 225 JHP/10.0 gr. Unique                        1309 fps                       2"

AA LTD 205 RNFP/8.0 gr. Unique                  1193 fps                       1 5/8"

Burgess 200 RNFP/8.0 gr. Unique                   1191 fps                       1 3/4"

Oregon Trail 200 RNFP/10.0 gr. Unique          1390 fps                       2"

Oregon Trail 225 RNFP/10.0 gr. Unique          1360 fps                       1"

            The Model 1892 Mare’s Leg of Josh Randall is now available to shooters. Jim Buchanan of J.B. Custom looked for a manufacturer who could produce a quality Mare's Leg on the Model 1892 action, and the natural choice was Rossi, the longtime producer of 1892 lever action replicas dating back to the days when they were known as The Puma and offered in .44 Magnum. In the past two decades Rossi has greatly expanded their lineup of 1892 lever guns adding the .44-40 as well as octagon barrels and stainless steel versions.

            The Mare's Leg, as expected from Rossi, is a quality "handgun" beautifully finished and fitted with nicely grained walnut forearm and abbreviated buttstock with the wood to metal fit also in the excellent category. Sights are the traditionally supplied elevation adjustable buckhorn mated up with a brass bead front sight in a dovetail allowing for windage adjustment. The Mare's Leg holds six rounds and can be safely carried with one in the chamber as it does have the top mounted Rossi safety. This is a fun gun pure and simple used from the hip (the same way Josh Randall/Steve McQueen did it) popping fist-sized rocks at handgun distances.

I've had one of the early .44 Magnum Rossi's for a number of years and recently requested a companion M92 in .44-40. The Rossi is a less expensive alternative to the original Model 1892 Winchester with a retail price about one-third as much as good used original Winchester 1892, and about half as much as the imported replica 1866 or 1873 leverguns. Sights are the standard elevation adjusting style on the rear mated up with a front post fitted into the barrel band. The rear sight can be adjusted laterally by tapping the sight to the right or left in its dovetail slot. The action on the .44-40 is much smoother than that on the early .44 Magnum,, and the wood on the forearm and butt are also much darker on these test guns and all other Rossi carbines I have seen than on my old .44 Magnum. The following are very pleasant shooting loads for the .44-40 Rossi 20” levergun; groups are three shots at 50 Yards:

Load                                                                            MV                  Groups

Oregon Trail 200 RNFP/7.0 gr. WW231                     1076 fps           7/8"

Oregon Trail 200 RNFP/5.3 gr. N100              1017 fps           1 1/4"

Oregon Trail 200 RNFP/4.8 gr. Clays              927 fps            1"

Oregon Trail 200 RNFP/9.0 gr. Herco             1244 fps           2 1/2"

Oregon Trail 200 RNFP/7.0 gr. Universal                     876 fps             1 3/8"

Oregon Trail 200 RNFP/5.0 gr. Bullseye                      1020 fps           7/8"

Oregon Trail 200 RNFP/8.0 gr. Unique                        1195 fps           1"

Oregon Trail 200 RNFP/8.5 gr. Universal                     1145 fps           1 3/8"

Oregon Trail 200 RNFP/10.0 gr. Unique                      1377 fps           2 "

OregonTrail 200 RNFP/5.0 gr. Goex FFg                    1220 fps           1 1/4"

Oregon Trail 200 RNFP/36.5 gr. Goex FFFg               1311 fps           2"

            For those who choose to shoot .44 Special sixguns, Rossi's M92 Carbine chambered for .44 Magnum works fine with .44 Special loads. For use in the .44 Special and .44 Magnum, Black Hills Cowboy Action Shooting load has a flat point bullet weighing 210 grains. In the Rossi, this load clocks out at 918 feet per second and shoots into seven-eighth's of an inch for three shots at 50 yards making it a perfect, easy shooting, close-range varmint load. The .44 Magnum Rossi will handle the full bore .44 Magnum loads making it a good hunting choice for the traditionally minded levergun fancier.                   

            Colt Model 1884 Lightning Rifle:  The Colt Lightning 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. At least six manufacturers and/or importers have promised Lightning-style rifles for several years, however they are just now starting to appear and the only .44 caliber Lightnings I have been able to test thus far, thanks to both AWA and Jim Martin who owns both of them, are an AWA Lightning and a Lightning Bolt both chambered in .44-40.

AWA is offering beautiful recreations of the Colt Lightning Pump Rifle in .44-40 with a choice of round or octagon barrels with lengths of 20” or 24”. Magazine capacity is 10 rounds, wood is excellent quality walnut, and the receiver is available in blue, genuine bone and charcoal color case hardened, nickel plated, and even hard chrome. Limited editions are also offered with A, B, C, or D engraving. Shooting a Lightning is quite a bit different than shooting a Winchester. With the latter, the offhand holds it into the shoulder and the shooting hand works the lever and the trigger; with a Lightning the shooting hand never leaves its position, which also means the trigger finger is always in the same position, and the offhand works the action. With practice this should translate into the Lightning being be much easier to shoot accurately. My favored .44-40 load for everyday use consisting of the Oregon Trail 225 grain RNFP over 8.0 grains of Unique clocks out at over 1200 fps with nine shots under 1 1/2” at 30 yards.

The Lightning Bolt is the handgun version of the Lightning Rifle with the butt stock cut short as on the Wanted Dead Or Alive handgun/rifle and also has a 12” barrel. Magazine capacity is five rounds and all the extras found on the Lightning are available from AWA on this abbreviated version. It is even easier for me to shoot from the hip than the lever action style and the same load mentioned above clocks out at 1060 fps from the shorter barrel.

As shooters we are indeed fortunate to have so many quality choices in replicas; however, now we leave the Replicas for the Reals and the Rugers.

 

37-1) The El Tigre .44-40, bottom, has a slightly longer barrel than the original

Winchester Model 1892.

 

 

 

37-2) Two superb leverguns in replica form, the 1873 Winchester and

1866 Yellow Boy, allow shooters to enjoy the leverguns of the 1860s and 1870s.

 

 

 

37-3) All the replica 1892s Taffin has fired have been exceptionally accurate.

 

 

 

37-4) For a design that is more than 130 years old, the 1873 Winchester still

shoots superbly.

 

 

 

37-5 This is truly a Special ‘73 Winchester replica chambered in .44 Special.

 

 

 

37-6) Taffin looks with great appreciation upon the Winchester 1873

chambered in .44-40.

 

 

 

37-7) A 21st century version of a 19th-century combination is found in the

1873 Winchester replica and a 3rd Generation Colt Single Action, both in 44-40.

 

 

 

37-8) Shooting a Model 1892 replica in the Idaho Desert is nothing but pure pleasure.

 

 

 

37-9) Most 1873 replicas have a capacity of at least 10 rounds.

 

 

 

37-10) Oh my! A favored .44-40 loading in an 1892 replica shoots wonderfully well.

 

 

 

37-11) With Hornady’s 200 grain JHP shooting this well in a replica .44-40

Model 1892 in its time to check the calendar to see when deer season starts

 

 

 

 

37-12 & 37-13) Originally offered in .44 Rimfire, modern replicas of the

1860 and 1866 are chambered in .44-40.

 

 

 

37-14) Taffin says you have to love a rifle such as an 1892 replica .44-40

that shoots accurately and does it was very little recoil

 

 

 

37-15) The octagon barreled Navy Arms 1873 Border Model and

 

37-16) 1892 Border Rifle both have a capacity of ten rounds of .44-40s.

 

 

 

37-17) Shooting an 1873 Winchester levergun gives the same spiritual feeling

as shooting a Colt Single Action sixgun.

 

 

 

37-18) They may all look like 19th-century firearms, however they are instead

a replica 1860 Henry, an antiqued 3rd Generation Colt Single Action, and a

Cimarron Traditional Finish Model P all chambered in .44-40.

 

 

 

37-19) Replica 1873s are available in several forms including those with barrel

lengths of 20” and 24”.

 

 

 

37-20) Taffin considers this 1873 Winchester especially Special as it is chambered

in .44 Special.

 

 

 

37-21) The first, and still one of the best, Winchester replicas is the El Tigre

manufactured in South America in the 1930s under a license from Winchester.

 

 

 

37-22) The latest replica long gun is the Lightning. Taffin is shooting the

AWA version in 44-40.

 

 

 

 

37-23) Lightning strikes twice!  This is AWA’s Lightning Bolt, a Josh Randall

style pump action Mare’s Leg, also in 44-40.

 

 

 

 

37-24) Both AWA Lightnings are shown; the top gun is the full-sized Lightning

while the bottom version is the handgun Lightning Bolt. Both are chambered in 44-40.

 

 

 

37-25) JB Custom offers their lever action Mare’s Leg in .44-40 and .44 Magnum

as well as .45 Colt

 

Chapter 36   Chapter 38