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Winchester Model 1873 Rifle Review

by Joseph von Benedikt   |  June 18th, 2013 6

Winchester Repeating Arms has resurrected the historic Model ’73 lever action, and it is a smooth operator.

Commonly referred to as “the gun that won the West,” Winchester’s Model 1873 was the first really successful centerfire repeating rifle. It was an accurate, ergonomic, reliable rifle chambered for revolver-compatible cartridges so that shooters could carry one type of ammo for both their long gun and their sidearm.

It is likely that Model 1873 rifles participated at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and assuredly they did so in later battles of the Indian Wars as well as the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 and Canada’s North-West Rebellion.

On a personal note, the first centerfire rifle I fired as a boy was an Italian reproduction Winchester ’73 chambered in .44-40.

An improvement on Winchester’s brass-framed .44 Rimfire Model 1866 (and its predecessor, the Henry rifle), the Model 1873 was built on an iron frame and chambered for the then-new .44 WCF (Winchester Center Fire, a.k.a. .44-40 Winchester). Shortly after, .38 WCF (.38-40) and .32 WCF (.32-20) were added. All told, some 720,000 rifles and carbines were produced between 1873 and 1919.

Rifles were commonly built with a 24-inch octagon barrel and weighed upwards of 9 pounds, especially when the tubular magazine was stoked with 14 rounds of ammo. Of course, that was an era when special orders were commonplace, so rifles with barrels measuring 30 inches and more weren’t entirely unusual. The most popular common variation was the round-barreled carbine, which sported a 20-inch tube and was—in essence—the AR-15 of its day: fast, maneuverable, and high capacity.

For 19 years the ’73 was king of the cross-caliber rifles, and though John Browning’s Model 1892 displaced it in terms of greater strength and better engineering, to this day most serious cowboy action shooters consider the 1873 to be the smoothest feeling, fastest-cycling pistol-caliber lever-action design ever made.

Uberti and other Italian manufacturers have offered Model 1873 reproductions for decades, and most of them are of reasonably good quality. I slightly resent the “Miroku, Japan” stamp on the new-for-2013 Winchester-made gun, but it’s been 94 years since Winchester produced a Model 1873 and—foreign-made or not—I’m glad to see it back in the line. And it must be said, there is no question about the quality of the Winchester lever guns coming from Japan. Mechanics are excellent, wood-to-metal fit is satisfactory, and the bluing and polishing are simply outstanding. There’s a very good chance that a century down the road the Miroku guns will be considered in the way we now consider the Fabrique Nationale Belgian Brownings of old.

The New ’73 Up Close
The Achilles’ heel of the Winchester ’73 is its mechanical lockup. Like the Henry Rifle and Winchester ’66 before it, bolt lockup is achieved via a simple toggle mechanism rather than any sort of crossbolt. Excessive pressure can distort toggle pins and create excessive headspace. While it is strong enough to support the .357 Magnum—and the new Winchester ’73 is chambered for it—the lockup is arguably too weak to handle the .44 Magnum or modern, high-pressure .44-40 loads.

When the lever is lowered and rotated forward, it cams the bolt rearward (sliding the dustcover open if it is in the shut position), extracting the spent cartridge in the chamber, and pushing the hammer to a cocked position. As the lever enters its final few degrees of rotation, it lifts the cartridge carrier (a brass block that lifts the fresh cartridge horizontally into line with the chamber). The cartridge carrier block serves double duty as a mechanical ejector. As the block rises, it contacts the bottom of the empty case, which is still held firmly by the extractor at the top of the boltface, and pops the empty skyward as energetically or gently as the user wishes. It’s worth noting that although the newly made Winchester functioned flawlessly no matter how gently I worked the lever, Model ’73s, like most lever actions, are happiest when operated with gusto.

Rotating the lever back to the rear pushes the fresh cartridge into the chamber, drops the cartridge carrier block, engages the extractor, and leaves the hammer cocked. The dustcover remains open until it’s manually slid shut.

A spring-loaded trigger block safety is located behind the trigger, and the rifle cannot be fired until the lever is squeezed up against the tang, which depresses and disengages the trigger block. At the rear of the lever, a small rotating lever lock serves to lock the action and keep the trigger safety depressed.

Winchester kept to the original design—even to the exclusion of any sort of attorney-appeasing tang or crossbolt safety—with only one exception that I could detect: The firing pin is a rebounding, multiple-piece design rather than one piece. There is also a retaining screw and pin or block of some sort in the top rear of the receiver, which—without entirely disassembling the rifle—I believe to be related to the two-piece firing pin.

The only flaw I could find on the early-production sample rifle reviewed here is in the trigger block. The return spring became stuck or disengaged because the block remained permanently in the disengaged position. It hurt not a whit during my shooting tests, but the fact remains that it did not function.

The new Winchester ’73 is fitted with a round, 20-inch barrel; a crescent buttplate; and a steel-capped forearm. The wood is nice walnut, well fitted, leaving most wood-to-metal joints just slightly proud on the wood side. The tang is drilled and tapped for a tang sight. The rear barrel sight is a buckhorn style, and the front is Marble’s gold bead, which, if I am not mistaken, is not entirely period correct. But offsetting it is the lovely caliber rollmark in the bottom of the brass cartridge lifter—a touch neglected by many Italian makers in the past. It’s a handy, good-looking carbine.

Speaking of rollmarks, the only discordant part of the whole assembly is the “Made In/Imported By/Trademark Of…” biography stamped into the right rear of the barrel beside the rear sight. Oh, well, we can’t have everything. This Winchester is clearly engineered for use—for serious cowboy action shooters and other guys who want a historic model rifle to shoot—rather than to please purists. If nothing else, the choice of the introductory caliber—.357 Magnum rather than .44-40—tells us that.

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