Winchester Model 1873 Rifle Review
June 18, 2013
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.
No Slouch, Performance-Wise
Buckhorn sights and shiny brass beads don't play nice with my eyes, but I still managed to milk some pretty good five-shot, 50-yard groups out of the new Winchester '73. But before I went prone for serious accuracy testing, I spent some time running a box of random .357 Magnum and .38 Special ammunition through the rifle to get a feel for handling characteristics and reliability.
Like most '73s, it comes to the shoulder well, points naturally, and cycles with a velvety "ka'shuck-shink." Other than a few .38 Special full-wadcutter cartridges that refused to chamber smoothly, the rifle ran with perfect regularity. (As most '73 enthusiasts know, these rifles are best served roundnose or roundnose flatpoint fare; wadcutters and semiwadcutters tend to hang up on the edge of the chamber.)
Before I got the rifle too dirty, I settled down to accuracy testing. And though I struggled with the iron sights, I was surprised by some of the excellent groups I achieved. Typically, accuracy was best with the magnum-length cases, no doubt owing to the longer jump to the rifling when shooting .38s. That said, Hornady's 125-grain JHP XTP load was the single most accurate, serving up 2 MOA groups.
I handloaded a stout 180-grain Hornady XTP load (useful for self-defense or hunting) and a light 125-grain hard-cast RNFP load for plinking and cowboy action work. The most important aspect of that endeavor was the element of overall cartridge length.
Overall cartridge length is critical when loading for the Model '73 — and most pistol-caliber lever-action rifles. The '73 has no magazine cutoff; the cartridge carrier serves to block the magazine as it lifts a round for chambering. But if the round in the block is too short, the base of the next cartridge in line protrudes back into the carrier block and will lock up the action.
When loading the 125-grain cast bullet in .38 Special cases, overall length was much too short. As a result, my loads for the '73 are crimped at the front of the grease groove rather than in the crimping groove, making overall length adequate for reliable feeding.
Interestingly, the 125-grain cast-bullet "cowboy" handload gave erratic accuracy, even though the chronograph showed quite low extreme spread and standard deviation numbers. As I mentioned earlier, I'm guessing the poor accuracy was due to the fairly long jump that the short little projectiles must make from the mouth of the .38 cases to the rifling leade. The issue would likely best be solved by either loading .38 cases with a heavier cast bullet that has a longer bearing surface or by loading the 125-grain cast bullets in .357 Magnum cases with a bulky, case-filling propellant like Trail Boss. (Unfortunately, I had neither the heavier cast bullets nor the Trail Boss powder on hand, so my theory is just that: a theory.)
The accuracy results are listed in the accompanying charts. If pressed to choose one jacketed factory load for all-around use, I'd go with the Remington UMC 125-grain JSP load; it was second-best shooting and came out of the rifle's muzzle at a rather impressive 2,174 fps.
After the accuracy testing and chronograph numbers were in the bag, I got down to making the rifle dirty. It ran flawlessly, and I got it hot enough to make me jump when my grip slipped lightly off the wood forearm and came into contact with metal. After a little practice, I could empty the full 10-round magazine at my 10-inch Caldwell Magnum Rifle Gong in nine to 10 seconds with only an occasional miss at 25 yards. Mind you, that was with .357 Magnums.
My Lyman digital trigger scale showed an average of 4 pounds, 2 ounces over a series of five pulls. The variation was just 3.5 ounces. The crispness of the trigger made it tolerably easy to shoot well.
In addition to being well built, shooting accurately and reliably, and looking great, at $1,299 the all-blued version the 21st-century Winchester '73 is priced comparably to most of the Italian Model '73 reproductions. Some of them are very nice rifles, but I have to admit that having "Winchester Model 1873" rollmarked on the tang is a pretty attractive reason to purchase the Japanese-made version¾not to mention the quality put into the rifle.
Winchester is also offering a version with a casehardened action at $1,579. Yep, it looks great, but is it worth the extra $280? That depends entirely on your tastes.
Though it pains me to say this, and purists will gnash their teeth, chambering the new Winchester in .357 Magnum is a good, commonsense decision. Competitive cowboy action shooters will like it. Plinkers and small-game hunters with a sense of panache and history can afford to shoot it. Homeowners could do much worse for a defense gun. Even deer hunters can make good use of a quick-handling carbine in .357 Magnum, as long as they keep ranges reasonable and place shots carefully.
Even dyed-in-the-wool tactical shooters with no interest in walnut and blued steel can hardly fail to be moved by a well-built Winchester 1873, let alone most gun guys with a streak of the historian in them. Wander down to your local dealer and pick up one. Shoulder it, glance down the gleaming blue barrel, and run the silky action. You'll avoid the hordes of shoppers sucking up AR-15s, and just maybe your mild interest will evolve into something closely resembling lust.