March 24, 2011
An obscure and rare Colt lever gun provides a unique view into the early days of the gun industry.
The early 1880s were exciting times for the firearms industry. As if the Army fighting the Indian Wars wasn't enough, Americans were literally blazing their way across an untamed West. In response to those civilian needs, Winchester had dominated the market with its ubiquitous Model 1873, most notably in its popular .44-40 chambering--the first commercially successful reloadable metallic cartridge.
Meanwhile, the Colt Single Action Army was literally king of the handguns. And not only was it the official sidearm of the U.S. Army and the ultimate choice of pistoleros, but in 1878 it was chambered for the same .44-40 cartridge that had made the Winchester Model 1873 so popular.
Riding high on its reputation and seeing a dramatic jump in Single Action Army sales since its introduction of the Frontier Six-Shooter (as the .44-40 SAA was called), Colt began contemplating taking an even bigger bite out of America's demand for firearms by entering the lever-action market. After all, what could make more sense--and potential profit--than a .44-40 rifle and revolver combination from the same manufacturer?
As the two leaders in the civilian firearms field, Winchester and Colt were already rivals of sorts. Winchester had explored the possibility of making a revolver as early as 1876, and Colt had previously carved a small but significant niche with its Colt-Berdan military rifles and carbines, as well as with cap-and-ball rifled muskets and side-hammer revolving-cylinder rifles during the War Between the States.
More recently, Colt had achieved a small amount of notoriety with its well-built Model 1878 double-barreled sidelock shotgun, which had started to cut into Winchester's smoothbore sales, even though Winchester's shotguns were imported.
In retaliation, as recounted by Herbert Houze in his excellent book Winchester Repeating Arms Company--Its History and Development from 1865 to 1981, Winchester began importing British Bulldogs made by Webley & Son--large-caliber, double-action pocket pistols that were purposely priced well below Colt's larger but more expensive Model 1878 Double Action Frontier.
Thus the stage was set, the battle plans drawn. Colt decided to retaliate by developing a lever-action rifle that would knock Winchester out of the saddle.
To accomplish this goal, Colt purchased the patent for a lever-action rifle from an inventor named R.L. Brewer, but more importantly, it obtained the patents and enlisted the talents of Andrew Burgess, a relatively obscure firearms inventor who, in light of his accomplishments, should be much more prominent than he is.
To be sure, Burgess may be familiar to some as the creator of a rare slide-action rifle and the unique Burgess Folding Shotgun, which was made from 1892 to 1899. But Burgess was much more multi-dimensional than that, or even as someone who would soon lend his name to the only lever-action rifle Colt would ever produce.
For one thing, he was a skilled photographer whose family-owned farm in Dresden, New York, bordered the homestead of famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. Burgess ended up working with Brady and photographically documented Reconstruction in the post-Civil War South--as well as, it is rumored, documenting the execution of the French-installed Emperor Ferdinand Maximilian in Mexico.
Later, Burgess photographed the Franco-Prussian War before returning to the United States in 1871. Prophetically, that year Burgess was granted a patent for an improvement on the Peabody rifle.
From then on, Burgess divided his career between photography and the firearms industry, spanning a career of 35 years in which he would be granted a total of 894 patents. Many of his ideas would be adopted by firms such as Marlin, Whitneyville Armory and, of course, Colt.
The year 1871 was pivotal for Burgess in more ways than one, for that same year he married Eudora Tiffany, heiress to the Tiffany jewelry empire, and whose father subsequently financed many of Burgess's firearms inventions. Burgess eventually established a gun manufacturing factory in Owego, New York, near the Susquehanna River, where he put many of his ideas to work.
An original ad for the Burgess, which Colt dubbed its New Magazine Rifle.
The Colt rifle was not the first lever action Burgess created. In 1878 he had joined forces with Eli Whitney Jr. of the Whitney Arms Company to produce the short-lived Burgess
Repeating Rifle, a lever action that was plagued by feeding problems. But this may have been the Burgess gun that got the attention of the Colt Patent Firearms Company.
The rifle that Burgess subsequently designed and licensed to Colt left no doubt as to its intended target, so to speak, for at first glance, it appeared similar to the Winchester 1873 with its tubular magazine, exposed hammer, and stock and fore-end configurations.
But the Burgess had a more graceful, smooth-sided receiver without side plates and utilized a different lever and toggle-link locking system. A rampant Colt was stamped on the left side of the receiver, and the steel bolt of the Burgess was visible through an elongated cutout in the receiver top (there was no sliding dust cover, as with the Model '73).
By virtue of its solid, one-piece construction, the Burgess receiver, although slightly shorter than the Model '73, was stronger.
The Burgess loads by pushing the cartridge into the magazine against a sliding gate instead of pushing forward as on the Winchester.
The Burgess had another distinctive physical feature: Instead of a loading gate, the rifle had a spring-loaded sliding cover w
ith a slight lip. Cartridges were pushed straight ahead, then down into the tubular magazine, rather than pressed down and forward as with the Winchester.
Additionally, unlike the Winchester '73, the Burgess did not have the additional trigger safety that was released by fully closing the lever. The result was a more graceful lever, somewhat akin to future Winchester models 1886 and 1892.
The Burgess rifle debuted in 1882 as Colt's New Magazine Rifle. Two models were offered: a 12-shot carbine with a 20-inch barrel and a 15-shot rifle available in 251„2-inch round, octagon and half-octagon barrel.
The guns were blued, with case-hardened lever and hammer, and the blued barrels bore a two-line stamped Colt manufacturing legend.
The Burgess name was stamped on the lower tang, underneath the lever. Some rifles had a sliding trapdoor in the buttstock for storing a four-piece cleaning rod.
Although a few .32-20 and .38-40 experimental arms were produced, the only caliber offered for public sale was .44-40. The carbines were priced at $24, while the round-barreled rifle sold for $25 and the octagon and half-octagon versions were $27 each.
Additionally, longer barrels could be special ordered for $1 per inch more, and fancy wood and hand-checkered stocks could be special ordered.
Needless to say, Winchester was less than pleased with the emergence of the Burgess on the marketplace. Not only was it a well-built firearm, it was identically priced to the Model 1873 carbine and rifle.
In the past, Oliver Winchester would simply buy out, absorb or outsell his competition, and Thomas G. Bennett, Winchester's son-in-law and president of the company at the time, continued his late father-in-law's tradition.
But Colt was too big to buy out and, with its own marketing skills and a national sales force that rivaled Winchester's, it was too powerful an adversary to intimidate. One can't help but wonder if Colt told its dealers that if they wanted delivery of the famed Colt Single Action Army, they had better order a few Burgess rifles and carbines as well.
By 1883, Winchester realized it had better do something to curtail sales of the Burgess, and one can only imagine the reaction at corporate headquarters when it was learned that Buffalo Bill Cody had been presented with an elaborate gold- and silver-plated Burgess rifle engraved with his name and "with Compliments of Colts Co."
It did not take long for Winchester to retaliate, and in his book Houze gives a detailed account of the cost-cutting, backstabbing and maneuvering that went on.
The most dramatic event occurred when Bennett asked his new designer, William Mason--who had previously worked with Remington and Colt--to come up with a revolver that could be manufactured by Winchester to compete with the Colt Peacemaker. Mason produced a .44-40 single action and possibly a double-action .44 to go up against the Model 1878. There is speculation that at least a dozen samples were produced.
Bennett went to the Colt factory in Hartford, Connecticut, "armed" with a few of the Winchester prototype pistols in a leather satchel. There he met with Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin, general manager and president of Colt.
According to the late Edwin Pugsley (a long-time Winchester employee who was married to Oliver Winchester's granddaughter and who was interviewed for R.L. Wilson's Winchester--An American Legend), old-timers at the Winchester factory told him that Bennett was innocently seeking advice from Franklin on the manufacturing of Winchester's new pistols. But chances are this was a clandestine way for him to tell Colt to get out of rifle manufacturing or Winchester would be adding revolvers to its catalogs.
It is fairly certain that these two astute businessmen realized such an arms race would be costly to both companies. As a result, Bennett and Franklin shook hands with a gentleman's agreement that Winchester would not proceed with further development of its revolvers, and Colt would cease making the Burgess rifle.
Thus, in 1885, the Colt Burgess was withdrawn from production, with only 3,810 rifles and 2,593 carbines produced. Needless to say, today they are seldom encountered. Even well-worn rifles can command thousands of dollars on the collector's market, and minty guns are easily in the five-figure range.
So it was only a matter of time before A. Uberti would decide to tool up and produce a replica of a rifle that was seldom encountered even when the Old West was new. Uberti's replica Burgess was announced in 2009--the same year Colt let the trademark on the name expire.
The Burgess had a solid receiver and an oval ejection port that lacked the sliding dust cover of the Winchester.
An octagon-barreled rifle and a round-barreled carbine are being produced, as well as a 20-inch octagon-barreled short-rifle. Chamberings are in .44-40 and .45 Colt, the latter a cartridge never chambered in the original guns but offered now to placate cowboy action shooters.
As might be expected, demand for the Burgess was high, but the guns were initially slow in coming, with the .45 Colt rifle making its appearance first. That spawned a rumor that the .44-40 version would not be offered, but these guns are now being delivered. Initial importers are Taylor's & Co., Cimarron Fire Arms, and, of course, Uberti USA.
Interestingly, Taylor's now owns the Burgess name. The company's CEO, Tammy Loy, told me that as soon as it learned Uberti was manufacturing the Burgess, it acted quickly to get the trademark paperwork and patent filed.
Taylor's was also the first to have a replica Burgess for testing, and I got an octagon-barreled rifle in .45 Colt--although I would rather have had a .44-40 carbine. Nonetheless, the rifle performed flawlessly and drew the prerequisite amount of stares and favorable comments on the range.
The rifle balances exactly like my Uberti replica 1873, and the initial opening of the action is as smooth, but due to the toggle link setup of the Burgess and possibly by the newness of the gun, there is a slight resistance on the takeup of the lever, although this is not as readily apparent in rapid-fire cycling.
The trigger broke consistently at four pounds, and using Winchester cowboy loads, the rifle printed a 11„2-inch five-shot group at 50 yards. However, I found that .45 Colt Winchester Silvertip ammo will not feed in this rifle, a situation I have reported and that hopefully will be corrected.
I don't expect this same problem with the slightly necked
down .44-40 cartridge, and of course, for cowboy action shooting, the .45 caliber chambering in the Burgess should present no problem as long as you're shooting cowboy loads.
Taylor's & Co. offers its Burgess rifle for $1,426 and the carbine for $1,388, while Uberti sells both the 1883 rifle and carbine with case hardened frames for $1,499. Cimarron prices its carbine at $1,468 and $1,656 for both the regular and short rifles.
There is a bit of irony in the fact that Andrew Burgess sold his Burgess Gun Company to Winchester in 1899. However, he continued patenting inventions until 1906, even though he was in failing health. He died in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1908. One can't help but wonder what this prolific firearms inventor would have thought had he known his once-banned rifle would be resurrected and made in Italy, as one of the newest guns of the 21st century.