September 23, 2010
Oliver Winchester had a problem. His fast-shooting Model 1873 lever action was immensely popular, but its initial .44-40 and .38-40 chamberings were woefully underpowered when compared to the heavier-hitting single-shots of the day.
To be sure, the Model 1876 is no tack driver — never was — but it is a nostalgic hunk of lever-action history that can give recreational shooters and hunters a medium-range big game rifle that can be relied upon, shot after shot. And that's exactly what Oliver Winchester set out to do.
The little toggle-link lever gun simply didn't have the receiver length or strength to handle the cartridges that big game hunters demanded, and Winchester was losing out. Clearly something had to be done.
That something was the Winchester Model 1876. Debuting at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, the longer, stronger lever action was appropriately dubbed the Centennial Model and subsequently received a commendation from the judges as "...the best magazine rifle for sporting purposes yet produced."
At first glance, the Winchester Model 1876 looked like a Winchester '73 on steroids. While still retaining its toggle-link action, the receiver had been lengthened, the wood was thicker, and the overall gun had been significantly bulked up.
Winchester had hoped to design a rifle that would handle the new .45-70 Government cartridge, but the '76 action was just a tad too short. So, complementing its more muscular persona, the Model 1876 was chambered for a new proprietary cartridge, the .45-75 Winchester Centennial. But even though the .45-75 packed five more grains of black powder than the .45-70, in order to cycle through the receiver it could carry only a bullet that weighed 350 grains. Thus, while its velocity was greater that the .45-70, the bullet hit with less force than the army's 405-grain slug.
Nonetheless, the cartridge and rifle proved to be a commendable combination and, until Marlin came out with its Model 1881 in .45-70, was the most powerful lever action you could buy. In 1879 a more potent .50-95 Express and a popular .45-60 caliber were added, along with a flat-shooting (for the day) .40-60 in 1884.
Four different versions of the Model 1876 were offered: a 28 inch barrel Sporting Rifle; an Express Rifle with 26-inch barrel and half-magazin;, a full-stocked 32-inch barreled musket; and a full-stocked carbine with a 22-inch barrel. In all, a total of 63,871 guns were produced by the time the Model '76 was discontinued in 1897.
During its 21-year existence, the Model 1876 was praised by outdoorsmen and law enforcement agencies, including the Canadian Northwest Mounted Police (which ordered a number of .45-75 carbines) and no less a public figure than Theodore Roosevelt, who, when heading west in 1883 and again in 1885, armed himself with two Model '76 Sporting Rifles and a carbine.
In more recent times it found fame as the rifle used by Steve McQueen in the 1980 movie "Tom Horn" and in 2001 as a slicked-upped Model '76 carbine carried by Tom Selleck in the movie "Crossfire Trail."
Today, because of its relative scarcity and the fact that most of these guns saw hard use on the frontier, any original Model 1876 in halfway decent shape is a costly treasure. Consequently, as far back as the 1990s hunters, Cowboy Action shooters and reenactors began asking for a Model 1876 — the only early Winchester lever action that had not been replicated.
But it took well over a decade for Cimarron Firearms — in concert with A. Uberti of Gardone Val Trompia, Italy — to finally answer the call.
In 2006, the first production model of the 1876 Centennial Rifle made its appearance, and I got a shooting sample that I took to Angeles Shooting Range in Lake View Terrace, California (angelesranges.com). The replica I held was like taking a mint gun right off of Winchester's Centennial display in Philadelphia. Today, according to S.P. Fjestad's Blue Book of Gun Values, a similar like-new '76 would run well over $6,500, so the replica, priced at $1,395 (about the same as a well-worn original "beater") seemed like a bargain.
Cimarron's '76 compared exceptionally well with my original Winchester '76 Sporting Rifle. Like my original, the Uberti Centennial '76 sported a 28-inch octagon barrel, was expertly fitted with premium walnut stocks and tipped the scales at just a tad over 10 pounds. The most notable difference was that the Uberti rifle featured a case-hardened receiver, which was reserved for deluxe rifles on the originals.
The prototype was chambered for .45-60; since then, .45-75 and .50-95 Express chamberings have been added. Both black powder and reduced pressure smokeless loads are available from Ten-X (tenxammo. com) and Buffalo Arms (buffalo arms.com).
The full-length magazine tube held 10 rounds of .45-60, and I found the buckhorn sights easy to line up with the front post. The trigger broke crisply at 5.85 pounds, and using Ten-X 300-grain flat-nose smokeless loads, the big rifle consistently printed four-inch groups at 100 yards — exactly like my original .45-60.