WHEN I WAS A COLLEGE STUDENT back in the 1970s, I was engaged to a girl whose old Yankee family owned a small, two-man sawmill operation. As a part of the sawmill operation, her family also owned a huge tract of mature forestland. The young lady was certainly desirable in her own right, but her ability to provide access to some prime hunting ground did nothing to diminish her appeal.
I suppose that her family had been on that land since 1676 after they whipped the Narragansett Indians during King Phillips War. And, like all good Yankees, they didn’t throw much away. So there was lots of neat old stuff around her homestead. But my favorite artifact by far was a Winchester 1892 rifle chambered in .44-40. This was a full-sized rifle with a 24-inch octagon barrel and a Lyman tang sight. It was the smoothest lever action I’ve ever shot. It was awfully pretty too.
We all know that break-ups are a messy business, and unfortunately, when that young lady and I decided not to marry, I also lost my visitation rights with the ’92. I’ve been carrying a torch for that rifle all these years, and I suppose that has warped my memory a bit. In my mind I remember that old gun as being so smooth and lovely that none of the modern reproductions have been able to compete with it. So, for all this time, I haven’t had a ’92 rifle in my gun cabinet. But 32 years is long enough to pine for a lost love. I was finally in the market for a ’92.
You might wonder what got me so keen to get a ’92 after all these years. The answer is that after 10 years of shooting black powder exclusively in Cowboy Action Shooting (CAS) matches, I decided I needed to expand my horizons. I intended to shoot an occasional match with smokeless powder. This was a tough decision for me, and I’m certainly not abandoning black powder. But there are times when my travel schedule just doesn’t leave time for cleaning four black powder guns after a match. So if the choice is between shooting smokeless powder or skipping the match, I’d rather shoot smokeless. Besides, this has been a great excuse to set up a whole new battery of shooting irons. And you should never miss an opportunity to exercise a really good excuse to buy new guns.
I selected a pair of 1890 Remington revolvers as my smokeless handguns because their 1890 designation makes them the closest in time to the smokeless powder era. Using that criterion I should have opted for an 1894 Marlin as my smokeless rifle, but the urge to recapture a bit of my youth by shooting a ’92 again had been growing in me.
Even discounting my adolescent infatuation with the ’92, I’d still have had a yen for one. They are neat little shooters. Essentially ‘92s are dainty versions of the 1886 Winchester. In the ’86 Winchester, John Browning solved the seemingly insurmountable hurdle of producing a lever action rifle that could handle the .45-70 cartridge without having a receiver that was the size and weight of a blacksmith’s anvil. Browning solved that problem by combining a pivoting feed ramp with a very strong twin vertical locking bolt system.
Thomas Bennett, the head of Winchester, was so fond of the 1886 rifle that, when he was thinking about replacing the 1873 model, he asked Browning to design a replacement based on the ’86 design. Bennett was so hot to get the rifle he offered to pay Browning $10,000 if he delivered the rifle in three months and a $5,000 bonus if he could produce a prototype in two months. Browning told him to make it $20,000 and he’d have it in a month. And that’s just what happened.
The 1892 model was a huge success for Winchester. Over a 49-year production run they sold over one million of the little rifles. As with its predecessor, the 1873, the ’92 Winchester was chambered for all the 19th century’s dual use cartridges, the .44-40, .38-40 and .32-20. Because of the inherent strength of Browning’s design, modern era copies of the ’92 have even been chambered for the .44 Mag. And that’s a round you’d never want to fire in a toggle link action like the Winchester 1873.