By John Taffin, GUNS Magazine
Early Winchester lever-action rifles used a toggle-link action designed by B. Tyler Henry for the 1860 Henry. Henry was Winchester’s shop foreman and designed the toggle link action of that first successful levergun. Chambered in .44 Rimfire, it loaded from the front much like today’s lever-action .22 with a tube magazine. This was followed in 1866 by the “Yellow Boy” using the same cartridge but now cartridges loaded from the “King’s Patent loading gate” in the side of the receiver. Then in 1873 further improvements soon resulted in steel frames and a new cartridge the .44 Winchester Center Fire, or .44 WCF, more commonly called today, the .44-40.
All three of these Winchesters, the Model 1860, the Model 1866, and the Model 1873 where the slickest operating Winchesters ever offered and today replicas of especially the latter are the first choice of Cowboy Action Shooters looking for the ultimate in speedy operation. With the coming of the double-locking bars in the John Browning-designed 1886, Winchesters were made much stronger, however they operated differently, and generally not as smoothly as the originals. With the toggle-link action, which basically operates like a knuckle, cartridges in the magazine tube come straight back and then straight up to feed into the chamber. The lifter is quite different than later models, which will often operate with different length cartridges such as .44 Special and .44 Magnum and certainly .38 Special and .357 Magnum, which brings us to the model at hand.
The latest offering as far as Winchester leverguns is the Model 1873 Short Rifle. Just as with the original this new version has the old toggle-link action and feeds cartridges straight back from the magazine tube and straight up. We will talk about the attributes of this new rifle shortly, however first we address this style of feeding. As I said it is very smooth, however there is a glitch. Sometimes. This new rifle is advertised as taking both .357 Magnum and .38 Special cartridges. Maybe. The problem is cartridge length. When the cartridge comes straight back out of the magazine tube onto the lifter, if it is too short it allows the next cartridge in the magazine tube to also try to enter and the lifter locks up on the rim of that second cartridge and the action will not work.
The Winchester Model 1873 is now at work in its third century thanks to this excellent rendering by Miroku. The buttstock of the Model 1873 is well-fitted with nice grain and a curved steel buttplate.
My 1873 Winchester replica chambered in .44 Special will also work with .44 Colt but only if I use bullets which are long enough and seated out far enough so the latter is about the same overall length of the former. Standard-length .44 Colt cartridges lock up the action and the same thing happens with .38 Special cartridges when used in this new Winchester rifle.
I tried to make up some dummy .38 Special cartridges to see just what would work. Using regular semi-wadcutter bullets the cartridges were too short and jammed up the action. The only cartridge I found I could use was loaded with the relatively long roundnosed 168-grain cast lead bullet, however the other problem is plain-base bullets don’t shoot very well in most lever-action rifles unless they are very low velocity, and this new rifle is not an exception. With .357 Magnum factory loads or properly assembled .357 Magnum handloads with gas-checked bullets everything works fine.
Next, shooting this fine rifle