When I traveled to South America last November in pursuit of a puma with outfitter German Brandazza Hidalgo of GBH Safaris (www.gbhsafaris.com), the last thing I expected was to fall in love. But that’s exactly what happened when, on the first day, Hidalgo uncased the slickest little Winchester 1892 I’ve ever seen.
Winchester designed the Model 1892 specifically for smaller, low-pressure rounds like the .32-20, .38-40, and .44-40. Those rounds were becoming increasingly popular at the time because they could be fired in revolvers and lever guns, and the ’92 came out at the perfect time to take advantage of that trend. Another reason the ’92 was so successful so fast was that it was smoother feeding and much smaller and lighter than the 1873 it replaced.
Over a million were made between 1892 and 1938. It was offered in various barrel lengths and configurations, including takedown versions and compact models with 14- and 15-inch barrels. It was very popular in the States and around the world, including Canada, South America, and the South Pacific. Most of those guns were ordered with 20-inch barrels, but the 14-, 15-, and 16-inch versions were very popular in the jungles of South America.
It was one of those 14-inch ’92s in .44-40 (.44 WCF) that I fell in love with in Argentina. Sure, the stubby 1892 looked cool, but there was something about the way the trim, short-barreled lever gun felt in my hands that made it almost impossible for me to put it down. The thin stocks fit my hands perfectly, and the short-stocked, short-barreled rig came up to my shoulder and on target fast and easy. That 100-year-old gun also carried a wonderful patina that could only be duplicated with the passage of time and some hard, honest use. It cycled smooth as glass and fed perfectly, too.
Hidalgo only had some vintage Winchester ammo in the old red and yellow Winchester boxes and some South American ammo of dubious origin, but that was enough for me to get a feel for the carbine on the range. I hadn’t shot a .44-40 in a very long time, so I was pleasantly surprised at its incredibly mild recoil. The combo hit a few inches high but grouped pretty well from offhand at 35 paces, which is about the farthest I expected to shoot a puma. The only unsettling thing was the occasional odd flyer that hit smack-dab in the middle of the bull. Still, I was pleased with its accuracy, so I decided that it would be just the ticket for some of the hunting I had planned for the week.
My first chance to carry the 1892 was while hunting hogs with dogs. The brush was very thick on the estancia, with lots of nasty thorns that pulled and poked at every step, which is probably why those short-barreled Winchesters were so popular with the Argentines. Though my client’s rifle kept hanging up on the brush, impeding his progress and even sending him tumbling at one point, I moved through the brush with much less difficulty. In fact, the only holdup for me was that I am such a sissy. Had I not been so busy trying to keep from tearing off any more of my skin than was absolutely necessary, I could have raced full speed through the brush with that diminutive lever gun. When the dogs caught a big boar, I was right on their heels and dispatched it neatly with a single .44-40 slug.
Four days into the hunt, the gauchos found a puma track that was big enough and fresh enough to follow. They went off on horseback to work the trail with their dogs while Hidalgo and I tried to keep up on foot. We didn’t have much luck keeping up, but we did our best, and I didn’t complain because walking seemed far safer than riding one of the wild young ponies the gauchos were trying to train on the job. As I bulled my way up and down the hills and through the thick thorn brush, I was happy I was carrying the featherweight Winchester.
Two hours and several miles into our walk, one of the dogs began to bark and, shortly, the chase was on. Fortunately for me, the cat was headed right towards us. I ran as fast as I could towards the ruckus, and it wasn’t long before the entire motley crew converged in a brushy draw, the dogs at full cry. When I came over the hill, the gauchos were waving me to the mouth of the draw. I didn’t realize they were pointing out the cat, not showing me where to go, and it was too noisy with all the dogs barking and yelling to understand what they were frantically screaming in Spanish, so I charged right towards the bush where the cat chose to make its last stand.
I was practically on top of the cat before its throaty roar brought me skidding to a stop. The dogs had bayed it up at the base of a thick stand of brush, and the cat was doing its best to fight off the howling hounds. I backed up a step, levered in a round, and fired at its chest. I held a bit low to compensate for the fact that the gun was hitting high on the range, and the shot felt good, but the cat’s only reaction was to roar louder and swat at the dogs again. I was suddenly not so sure about the shot.
The gauchos managed to call the hounds back so I could shoot again. By then, the first shot was taking effect and the cat was hanging its head, so I held right between its eyes to take it between the shoulder blades. Unfortunately, that shot proved to be one of the dead-on flyers I’d experienced on the range. Rather than sailing high between the shoulders, the round smacked the cat just below the eye. It did the job, but it won’t make the taxidermist very happy.
When the photos were done, the gauchos offered me the horse they’d tied my puma on to ride out. I mounted up and kicked the horse into gear, but it didn’t take me long to realize the foolishness of that plan. I’m an experienced enough rider to realize the folly of riding a green pony with a giant lion
on its back. Still, for the few minutes I was atop that horse with my lion strapped to the back of my saddle and that 14-inch Winchester in my hands, I was transported back to a wonderful time and place, where carrying a fine gun every day was as normal as carrying a cell phone is today. I think those old gauchos got the better end of that deal.