During the last quarter of the 19th century there were a number of companies that turned their hands to manufacturing lever action rifles. Names like Evans, Whitney and Spencer have long since faded into obscurity. Only two manufacturers found lasting success in the lever gun market: Marlin and Winchester. Of the two, Winchester was by far the dominant force in the marketplace. Among Old West aficionados, two Winchester models really stand out: the Model 1873 and its John Moses Browning-designed successor, the Model 1892.
The 1873 Winchester is often called the gun that won the west. Even though that designation has fueled its share of gunroom debates over the last hundred years, at least the ’73 was there. But you’d never know it if you got all of your history from Hollywood movies. According to most of the movies made during the 20th century, the only lever gun on the western frontier was the ’92 Winchester. So it’s safe to say that, while the ’73 Winchester won the “real” west, the model ’92 won the “reel” west.
According to Hollywood, 1892 Winchesters were used as early as 1843 by Comancheros on the Texas frontier and by Texas lawmen in the 1880s. Right through the 1960s it was rare to see any lever action rifle besides a ’92 in an American-made western movie, regardless of the supposed date of the action.
The one notable exception was Ray Mann’s 1950 classic, Winchester ‘73, starring Jimmy Stewart. As the title suggests, a ’73 Winchester played an important part in the story. In that movie they used an actual ’73, and we should all be grateful that they didn’t just use a ’92 and call it a ’73. That’s exactly what they did in that same film for all the other lever actions used. In several scenes, characters referred to their Henry or Spencer rifles, but each time they were holding a ’92 Winchester. If you’re any sort of firearms buff, that kind of anachronism makes you wince, and can ruin an otherwise fine film.
Taylor’s 1873 Sporting Rifle: Caliber: .45 Colt • Barrel: 24.25 inches OA Length: 43.25 inches • Weight: 8.5 pounds (empty) Sights: Drift adjustable brass bead front, step adjustable semi-buckhorn rear Stocks: Two-piece walnut • Action: Lever • Finish: Color casehardened Capacity: 14-shot mag • Price: $1010
EMF Hartford 1892: Caliber: .44-40 • Barrel: 24 inches OA Length: 41.5 inches • Weight: 6.9 pounds (empty) Sights: Drift adjustable blade front, step adjustable semi-buckhorn rear Stocks: Two-piece hardwood • Action: Lever • Finish: Color casehardened Capacity: 13-shot mag • Price: $600
Hollywood’s love affair with ‘92s didn’t stem from an ignorance of history. It was purely a function of cost and availability. Even in the 1930s, an original Henry rifle was a priceless antique. It was too difficult and costly to get enough original 19th century lever guns to stock the studios. Model 1892s were still in production into the early 1940s. And, with a production run of just over a million rifles, there were plenty of guns available to the studios at reasonable prices. Little did they know that they’d be conditioning our malleable young minds to believe that the Model 1892 was the quintessential cowboy lever gun.
Seeing John Wayne taming the celluloid west of the 1880s with his ever-present 1892 carbine made me wonder. If Wayne had stepped off the set of Rio Bravo and into a “way-back” machine that transported him from the Reel 1880s Texas to the Real 1880s Texas, would he have had a technological advantage over the local gunslicks who were toting their archaic 1873 rifles? Personally, I tend to doubt it. The 1873 overlapped with the 1892 for 32 years of its production run, and the 1873 actually outsold the 1892 for five of those years. So, far from being blown away by the ’92, the 1873 remained popular in its own right into the 20th century. But they were both excellent rifles. So let’s take a side-by-side look at an 1873 and an 1892 and decide for ourselves which one we’d rather have been armed with.
I’d have enjoyed using original ‘73s and ‘92s for this test, but without a “way-back” machine of my own to pick up factory new rifles, a test of originals becomes more a test of how well they were maintained rather than a test of their innate quality. So, rather than use original rifles, I picked up a couple of modern reproductions that we could use for comparison. We’ll start with the Model 1873.
Taylor’s Model 1873
The Model 1873 Winchester is the most beautiful rifle of the 19th century. Our test gun came from Taylor’s & Company. The original 1873 rifle was a tremendous success for Winchester. They produced 720,610 over an amazing 50-year production run. Any gun produced over such a long period will exhibit some variations in its design. From the design of the dust cover, Taylor’s replica appears to be based on the third model 1873, which started production in 1882.
Taylor’s 1873 repli-cas are manufactured by the Italian firm of A. Uberti. The Uberti folks have been making replica firearms for over 50 years, and they definitely know what they’re doing. Our test gun is a lovely specimen of their sporting rifle. The 24.25-inch octagon barrel is nicely polished for a production gun. And, having draw-filed and polished my share of octagon barrels, I can say that it isn’t an easy process if you want to do it right. Round barrels are much less labor intensive to polish. That’s why Colt abandoned octagon barrels with their 1860 Army model.
On Taylor’s 1873, the barrel, the full-length tubular magazine, the forearm cap, the dust cover and the crescent butt plate are all finished in a dark, hot blue. The balance of the metal is color casehardened. I have given Uberti a hard time about the color casehardening on their revolvers, but I’m more pleased with the finish on their rifles. On my ’73 the color casehardening was well done. It had a smoky, gunmetal background that was swirled with clouds of darker grays and blues.
The stocks on Taylor’s 1873 are finished in typical Uberti style. They sport their signature red stain over decent, straight-grained walnut. I’d like to see Uberti try an authentic looking walnut stain with an oil finish on their rifle stocks. Don’t get me wrong, the stocks are attractive, but they could be more so if they looked more like the originals. The wood to metal fit is good, but not excellent. The wood is a little proud of the metal in most places where they touch. But, red stain aside, this is a beautiful replica of the gun that won the real west.
Even though .44-40 would have been more appropriate, I ordered the 1873 chambered for the non-period-correct .45 Colt cartridge. Purists may shudder, but I already had a ’73 carbine in .44-40. However, I didn’t have a single rifle chambered for .45 Colt, so this piece was acquired to fill that deficiency. I noticed that the fat, straight-cased .45 Colt rounds were hitting, and sometimes catching, on the mouth of the chamber. And, like most Italian-made replicas, the action on Taylor’s ’73 was a bit stiff and rough. The trigger pull on my rifle was a stout nine pounds.
I decided that a tuneup was in order to help this rifle live up to its potential. I took it to a local gunsmith and, for the cost of an hour or so of shop time, he chamfered the chamber mouth, smoothed up the action and reduced the trigger pull to a comfortable four pounds. All of that was done for around 50 bucks. When he was finished I had a smooth-handling rifle that fed its ammo reliably.
The only thing left to do before heading to the range was to install a light trigger block safety spring from Long Hunter Shooting Supply. In Model 1873 rifles the trigger is effectively locked in the safe position until the action is fully closed and the lever presses in a small detent that frees the trigger safety. This is a good system, particularly on weak toggle link actions where a round firing out of battery could have unpleasant consequences. In fact, it was so good that Winchester used it again on the Model 1894. But most of these safeties are too stiff for their own good. That’s not a problem on the hunt or at the practice range, but in a fast cowboy action contest it can be a problem.
Consequently a lot of shooters just remove the safety spring, which totally disables the mechanism.
A better approach is to replace the stock spring with a lighter model that won’t require a walnut-crushing grip on the lever and wrist to close. Long Hunter markets a nice one. You have to completely strip the action to install it, but, with toggle link actions, that’s pretty easy.
Model 1873 Range Time
With that done it was time to hit the range. I had filled my shooting bag with a couple of boxes of Black Hills factory ammo along with a 100-pack of my black powder reloads. The Black Hills ammo pushed a 250-grain bullet out of the ‘73’s 24-inch barrel at an average of 1037 feet per second (fps). I fired 50 rounds from the 25-yard bench and put them all into one ragged hole that grew to be about an inch and a half across over the course of shooting. Practically speaking, this gun will shoot 1-inch groups at 25 yards.
When I switched to my black powder handloads, made with 35 grains of 2Fg Goex black powder pushing a 255-grain PRS big-lube bullet from a Lee Precision mould, velocity climbed modestly to 1043 fps. Accuracy was exactly the same from 25 yards as with the Black Hills ammo. Moving to the 50-yard range opened groups up to three inches for both types of ammunition. If we could find a better shooter, I think the rifle can do better.
EMF Model 1892
With the real west gun tested, it was time to enter the reel west with the Model 1892. Our test gun came from the venerable replica importer, EMF. Dubbed the Hartford Model, EMF’s ‘92s are made in Brazil by Rossi. Like the 1873 the ’92 has a 24-inch octagon barrel and full-length tubular magazine. The polishing on the blued barrel isn’t as fine on the ’92 as it had been on the ’73. Light draw filing marks are still visible on the barrel flats. The color casehardening on the receiver is attractive, but quite muted. The stock wood is plain, but very nice. It’s some exotic Brazilian hardwood, but it manages to look like honest walnut. It’s ironic that Rossi’s mystery wood looks more like walnut than Uberti’s actual walnut.
Some of you will remember that I wrote extensively about this rifle a few issues ago. As I said then there were a couple of things I didn’t like about it. One was the funky safety on the top of the receiver. I also did not like how rough and stiff the action was. I could have cured that with 20 years of constant use, but at my age, I didn’t think I could afford the investment in time. So I sent the ’92 off to Steve Young of Steve’s Gunz.
As an option with the action job, Steve Young can remove the offensive safety and replaces it with an innocuous steel plug. Steve also converted the action from rough and gritty to smooth as oiled glass.
Steve is better known in Cowboy Action Shooting circles as Nate Kiowa Jones. He said he became a specialist in 1892s because, “All the easy guns were taken.” Be that as it may, sometimes only a specialist will do, and Steve is the man when it comes to getting the kinks out of a Brazilian ’92. When Steve was done I could cycle the ‘92’s action with one finger. Now it only takes 5 pounds of force to cycle the action on that ’92. Even my tuned ’73 takes 6.5 pounds of force to cock. The trigger pull from the factory was 5.5 pounds, which isn’t bad. But, after Steve’s action job, the trigger pull on the EMF ’92 was 2.5 pounds of pure pleasure. Steve also removed the unsightly and unnecessary Rossi safety from the bolt, and he replaced the yellow plastic magazine follower with one made from blued steel.
Model 1892 Range Time
I have to admit that this rifle handles like a dream. Even though it handles like a custom firearm, it has good solid work-a-day looks that allow me to toss it behind the seat of my pick-up truck with no qualms. It can take rough conditions. This rifle has become my general purpose, knocking-around lever gun. And this gun hits what it’s pointed at. Black Hills 200-grain, .44-40 rounds average 1248 fps. And I can keep all my shots in a 2-inch circle at 50 yards.
That’s a good rifle. But is it a better rifle than the venerable ’73? Here’s how I see them stacking up. The ’92 is 2 inches shorter than the model 1873 with the same length barrel. And the model 1892 weights in at nearly 2 pounds less than its older rival. When it comes to portability I’d have to call it… advantage ’92.
However, the ’92 is adapted from the model 1886 rifle, which had to accommodate the .45-70 cartridge. So the ’92 achieves its shorter overall length by incorporating an angled feeding system. This is more complex than the 1873’s straight line feeding system, and it has more of a tendency to jam than the 1873. So, for reliability… advantage ’73.
The action on the 1892, with its twin, mortised locking lugs is as strong as a bank vault. The toggle link action on an 1873 is nowhere near as strong, but it is more than strong enough to do its job. So this one is advantage ’92…but so what?
My 1873 holds 14 rounds of 250-grain, .45 Colt ammo in the magazine. When it’s fully stoked and ready for trouble, you have 15 rounds to send after the bad guys. In contrast, even with the same length magazine, the ’92 holds only 13 rounds. The toggle link action’s lifter accommodates the extra round in the 1873. So, for sustainability in a fight…advantage ’73.
Finally, if we did hop in the “way-back” and appear in 1880s Texas, we’d better have brought our own modern, smokeless ammo to stoke our ‘92s because the only ammo we’d find in 1880 would be loaded with black powder. And, when it comes to black powder cleanup, the 1873, with its removable side plates and easily disassembled action, is much more user-friendly than the ’92. So, when it comes to maintenance the advantage goes to the model 1873.
So which one is the best? Each of you will have to decide that for yourselves. I’m keeping both of mine. But I will say this. If I ever get to take a ride on the “way-back” machine, I’ll be bringing the ’73 with me.✪