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
This Winchester lever-action rifle is manufactured by Miroku in Japan. Even though no longer manufactured in the United States, these leverguns do not need to take a backseat to any of the original Winchesters. These are beautifully made rifles, very nicely finished and fitted, and they not only work well they also shoot very well. This particular Short Rifle has a 20-inch round barrel, deep blue finish, and nicely grained walnut stock and fore-end. The buttstock has the traditional curved steel buttplate which is a problem with heavy recoiling cartridges, at least for me, however with a rifle weight of just over 7 pounds, recoil with any of the .357 Magnum loads is not a problem.
The traditionally styled semi-buckhorn rear sight (above) of the Model 1873 is
adjustable for windage and elevation. The front sight (below) is a Marble gold bead.
As with the original the Winchester/Miroku has a sliding dust cover over the action. Here, the dust cover of the Winchester Model 1873 is in the open position, automatically opened as the lever is worked. It must be closed manually.
Sights consist of a semi-buckhorn matched up with a Marble gold bead front sight. This bead sight fills in the rounded notch in the rear sight perfectly for my eyes and when shooting at 40 yards, the distance at which I did the majority of the testing, the gold bead covers a 3-inch orange circle. The tang is drilled and tapped for the installation of a tang sight which normally works better for most eyes than the original-style buckhorn; however, this is such a slick little rifle I would be hesitant about cluttering it up with a tang sight. Just as with the original 1873, this modern version has a sliding dust cover to keep dirt and debris out of the action. When the lever it is operated this dust cover on the top of the receiver slides to the rear and stays there until it is pushed forward with the thumb.
Both the front and rear sights are set in a dovetail and can be tapped right or left to adjust the windage, while the rear sight can be raised or lowered to adjust for elevation. At least for my eyes and hold and, of course, loads it would not be difficult to sight in just about perfectly at 40 yards. With factory .357 Magnum loads functioning was perfect with no feeding problems whatsoever. Seven different loads were tried with the best accuracy being from the Black Hills 125-grain JHPs giving a 3-shot, 1-inch group at 40 yards with a muzzle velocity of 2,055 fps and the Speer 125-grain GDHP with the same accuracy and a muzzle velocity of just over 2,300 fps.
Switching to my .357 Magnum handloads gave a few surprises, or at least unexpected results. I had four loads to try two of which used 160-grain plain-base bullets. Over 14.0 grains of Alliant 2400, they were all over the paper and I did not bother with the second load. However, switching to the Lyman/Thompson gas-checked, 158-grain from mold 358156 resulted in exceptional accuracy. Using the same 14.0 grains of 2400 and CCI Small-Pistol primers resulted in a muzzle velocity right at 1,850 fps and an amazing 3-shot, 1/2-inch group at 40 yards. I’ll take this any day! My other handload consisted of a 187-grain gas-checked bullet over 13.0 grains of WW296 for over 1,525 fps and a 3-shot, 1-inch group at 40 yards. Either one of these loads would certainly work for short-range hunting.
When Winchester first announced the Model 1873 would be chambered in .357 Magnum, there were many who wondered why not in .44-40? I certainly would like to see it chambered in the original cartridge, however there are more .357 Magnum shooters out there than .44 WCF adherents. If I could have only one rifle it would be a .22. If only one centerfire rifle, it would be a lever-action .357 Magnum simply because it is not only a grand companion to many great .357 sixguns, it also will certainly do about 95 percent or more of anything we need to accomplish with a rifle. Having 10 rounds of the magazine is also especially comforting. I think Winchester made the right choice starting with the .357 Magnum chambering; however, I hope Winchester also follows up with at least other versions in .44-40, .38-40, and .32-20.