December 08, 2014
By Layne Simpson
Shooting the new Winchester Model 1892 Short Rifle in .44 Magnum reminded me of what a wonderful little rifle it really is. Doing so also brought back memories from my youth. Until my father bought a Ruger Deerstalker in .44 Magnum in 1962, his one and only deer rifle was a Winchester 92 in .44-40. When I shot it for the first time, I figured it just had to be one of the most powerful rifles in the world.
Over the years a few rifles have been designed and cartridges were developed specifically for them. The 1903 Springfield and Winchester 94 are examples. But more rifles have been designed to handle cartridges already existing at the time, and there is no better example than the Winchester Model 1892. This story actually begins with the Winchester Model 1873, introduced during that year. Two of its chamberings, the .32 WCF and .38 WCF, enjoyed considerable popularity, but the .44 WCF soon became the most popular deer cartridge in America. By the way, those three Winchester cartridges would become more commonly known as the .32-20, .38-40, and .44-40.
Winchester's other lever-action rifle, the Model 1876, was basically a larger version of the Model 1873 designed to accept big cartridges like the .45-75 Winchester and .50-95 Express. The two actions were capable of handling some of the old blackpowder cartridges, but by the mid-1880s smokeless powder was just over the horizon, and the toggle-link locking system they shared was a bit weak for the higher pressures. The fact that the Marlin Model 1881 was sturdy enough to handle the .45-70 Government cartridge while the Model 1876 was not had long been a sore spot at Winchester, so it was first to go.
The Model 1876 was replaced with the John Browning-designed Model 1886 during that year. In addition to having a more compact action, its breeching system is considerably stronger. Closing the lever elevates two vertically traveling locking bolts into engagement with opposing slots at both sides of the breechblock and receiver. Browning designed the Model 1886 for use with blackpowder cartridges, but the action proved capable of handling the higher smokeless powder pressures generated by the .33 Winchester.
The Model 1886 was a resounding success, and when the time came to replace the Model 1873, Winchester management queried John Browning about the possibility of designing a smaller version of the '86 for the .44-40 cartridge. They were in a bit of a hurry, so they offered, in addition to his usual fee, a $10,000 bonus if the design was completed inside 60 days. Browning countered with a 30-day delivery along with a $20,000 bonus and collected his money about three weeks later. FYI: Adjusted for inflation, $20,000 in 1892 is about the same as $466,000 in today's dollars.
The Model 1892 was introduced by Winchester during that year in .44 WCF, .38 WCF, and .32 WCF. Later, in August 1895, .25 WCF was added. Although never cataloged, a few were made during the late 1930s in .218 Bee. While not an exact copy of the larger Model 1886, both actions share a number of design details, including the same breech-locking system.
Only solid-frame Model 92s were built initially, but a takedown version was introduced during the second year of production. The major variations were described in the Winchester catalog as Sporting Rifle, Fancy Sporting Rifle, Carbine, and Musket. The rifle had a 24-inch barrel and a 13-round magazine, while the barrel of the carbine was 20 inches long and magazine capacity was 11 rounds. Popular among the military in South America and other foreign countries, the Musket had a forearm that extended out near the muzzle of its 30-inch barrel. Its magazine held 17 cartridges, and a bayonet was optional at a modest cost. When Winchester discontinued the Model 92 in 1941, just over 1,000,000 had been built. That total also includes Model 53 and Model 65 rifles (see the accompanying sidebar).
Among the Model 92's distinctions is that it was the first repeating rifle to be converted to .44 Remington Magnum. Within weeks after the cartridge was introduced in 1955, Ward Koozer and other gunsmiths across the country began rechambering Model 92s in .44-40 for it. One of my father's hunting pals owned a Koozer-modified carbine, and how my young heart lusted for it! Ruger introduced its gas-operated carbine in .44 Magnum in 1961, and a few years later Marlin resurrected its Model 1894 specifically for the cartridge. In 2007 Winchester built a limited number of a John Wayne commemorative Model 92 in .44-40, but oddly enough, management never saw fit to bring it back permanently in .44 Magnum.
Through the years many thousands of Model 92 clones have been built in Spain, Italy, and Brazil, but the magical name "Winchester" is missing from their barrels. Now, after all these years, we have a factory-built Winchester Model 92 in .44 Magnum, and while it is made in Japan rather than New Haven, Connecticut, as in the old days, the quality and workmanship leave absolutely nothing to be desired. In addition to having an action as smooth as the one owned by Dad many deer seasons ago, the original look and feel of a Winchester are there.
The 2014 Short Rifle
Among other information stamped on the barrel is "Caliber 44 Rem Mag ONLY," the message emphasized by the use of caps in that last word. Whoever made the decision to include that information may have been unaware of the fact that the .44 Magnum is a lengthened version of the .44 Special, and the rifle feeds and shoots both cartridges without a hitch. Only the Black Hills .44 Special load was shot for accuracy, but I also function-tested the new Model 92 with CCI Blazer loaded with the 200-grain Gold Dot and Remington ammo loaded with a lead bullet weighing 246 grains. Overall lengths of those three loads were 1.425, 1.495, and 1.435 inches respectively, whereas the .44 Magnum ammunition used in the accuracy test ranged from 1.575 to 1.650 inches.
Bullet nose shapes and profiles of the .44 Magnum ammo varied considerably — from the pointed FTX bullet of the Hornady LEVERevolution load through the wide meplat of the Buffalo Bore softnose load to the huge expansion cavities of the Barnes VOR-TX and the Federal load with the Swift A-Frame bullet. Regardless of cartridge length or bullet shape, the little Model 92 fed each and every round of .44 Special and .44 Magnum ammo from magazine to chamber with silky smoothness. Using the .44 Special increases magazine capacity to 11 rounds, giving the cowboy action shooter an extra shot while rescuing innocent young maidens from steel bad guys. And since recoil is much lower than for .44 Magnum ammo, the .44 Special is an excellent option as a practice load for both oldsters and youngsters.
I'm sure some traditionalists will criticize the two-position safety on the upper tang. I grew up with lever-action hammer guns without safeties and would just as soon not have one, but I will have to admit the tang safety is less noticeable than the safety button on the side of the receiver as appeared on the Winchester Model 94 for several years. If the trigger is squeezed while the rebounding hammer is cocked and the safety is engaged, the hammer will fall but its travel is arrested before it makes contact with the inertia-style firing pin.
There is a bit more to the safety system than that. If the rifle were to be accidentally dropped while its hammer is cocked and the safety is disengaged, the system is designed to block the hammer from contact with the firing pin, should the hammer fall. And since the magazine is unloaded by cycling cartridges through the chamber, making sure the safety is engaged prior to doing so should make the rifle a bit safer in the hands of an inexperienced shooter. If John Browning could somehow rise up from the grave and spend a few days in our litigious society, he might approve of adding a safety to his design. I doubt if the same would hold true for the rebounding hammer and inertia-style firing pin.
According to the 2014 Winchester catalog, the Model 92 weighs 6 pounds, but my postal scale indicates half a pound more. That's still light for a deer rifle and 2 pounds lighter than the current Model 1886 Short Rifle in .45-70.
The buckhorn rear sight is drift-adjustable for windage and elevator-adjustable for elevation. The front blade with its 0.065-inch gold-colored bead is dovetailed to the top of the round barrel. Such a pity that the receivers of lever-action rifles are no longer drilled and tapped at the factory for the easy installation of an aperture-style sight. Adding that type of sight from Lyman or Williams would add very little weight to the rifle and make it much easier to shoot accurately. If the rifle were mine, it would wear just such a sight. Gunsmiths usually charge $30 to $40 for the installation. That along with a trigger job would make a great little rifle even greater and likely shrink group size as well.
Fit between the metal and walnut stock borders on flawless. The same goes for polishing of all metal and the application of bluing. Another pat on the back goes to the person at the factory who applied the satin finish to the wood. The bore of the 20-inch barrel shines like new money with not a single tool mark in sight. It is button rifled with six lands and grooves at a twist rate of 1:26 inches. Unlike rifles with slower twist rates, the Model 92 stabilized bullets weighing up to 305 grains, yet accuracy proved to be satisfactory with those of less weight.
Fine checkering on the hammerspur is nicely executed, but thumb grip could be improved with more sharply pointed diamonds. The Model 92 receiver is as trim as you will find on any rifle chambered for a centerfire cartridge. Its circumference just forward of the loading port is 5.28 inches compared to 5.50 inches for a Winchester 94. When measuring my Winchester 9422 in .22 Rimfire, I was surprised when it proved to be a bit more of a handful than the Model 92. When it comes to carrying a rifle with one hand, nothing else comes close to the compactness of the Winchester 92.
The Model 92 is also available in a new Large Loop Carbine version, a styling first brought to the attention of lever-action rifle buffs many years ago by actors John Wayne and Chuck Connors. It differs from the Short Rifle version in other ways as well. Both stocks have blued steel buttplates, crescent style on the Short Rifle and "carbine" (as described in the Winchester catalog) on the Large Loop Carbine. Both are sharply curved and extend over the top of the stock, but the toe of the Short Rifle buttplate ends in a sharp point. While quite traditional in appearance, it could prove to be painful should a quick shot be taken at a deer with the stock improperly shouldered.
The forearm of the Large Loop Carbine is held in place by a barrel band, while a second band out near the muzzle holds the tubular magazine in place. The shorter forearm of the Short Rifle has a steel nose cap. Its magazine is supported by a steel band attached to the bottom of the barrel and up front by a slotted-head pin that travels vertically though the magazine plug and screws into the barrel.
The trigger inspector at the factory must have been texting when the Model 92 I am shooting passed by. In addition to having a whole lot of creep, its pull exceeds 6 pounds in weight with a half pound of variation. But it could be luck of the draw rather than typical. I say this because the trigger of a Model 1886 Short Rifle in .45-70 that arrived at about the same time as the Model 92 has absolutely no creep and breaks crisply at 5 pounds with a mere 2-ounce variation.
It is not unusual for a lever-action rifle with a tubular magazine to be choosey about its diet, and the Model 92 proved to be so. But when one is good, it can be very good. The little Winchester averaged less than 2 inches with five loads, and I consider that quite remarkable for a rifle designed over 120 years ago wearing open sights. The smallest five-shot groups I fired during this project were 0.72 inch with Buffalo Bore ammo loaded with a 240-grain hard-cast bullet and 0.81 inch for Black Hills ammunition loaded with a 300-grain JHP. Three of the loads had cast bullets, and neither left a trace of leading in the barrel.
Friends and I used to chase black bears on foot in extremely steep and rough country. It was covered with mountain laurel about as thick as the hairs on the backs of the hounds that seemed to have even more fun than their owners. Our group found the ideal rifle to be short, lightweight, quick pointing, and chambered for a cartridge with an abundance of up-close punch — like the Winchester Model 92 in .44 Magnum.
The rear sight is a buckhorn style.
The front sight is a gold bead type.
The Model 92 Short Rifle in .44 Magnum is lightweight, quick to point, easy to carry, and delivers 10 rounds of up-close firepower.
Closing the lever elevates two vertically traveling locking bolts into engagement with shoulders at both sides of the breechblock and the receiver.
The new-for-2014 Model 1892 uses a rebounding firing pin.
It also has a two-position safety located on the tang.