March 27, 2023
By Jeff John
For most of America’s early history, the United States felt secure from invasion, and it maintained a small, not always well armed army and navy. European countries, on the other hand, constantly armed and rearmed to remain militarily competitive with each other.
A turnbolt mechanism in a centerfire cartridge became a staple there early on, but America simply adopted the percussion musket converted to centerfire during the Civil War. However, the value of a repeating rifle had been proven by the the Spencer of that era. Problem was, this rimfire repeater and its short, stubby cartridge just didn’t have the power and range a modern army required, and other repeating mechanisms weren’t capable of handling the greater power required for serious military cartridges.
That is, until the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine—generally referred to as the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On display there were many new, fantastic firearms. One was a turnbolt repeating rifle designed by one Benjamin B. Hotchkiss capable of handling the current centerfire military cartridges. Winchester purchased the rights.
The U.S. Army was impressed by the wide variety of new repeating mechanisms as well. A competition for a new repeating rifle was authorized in late 1877 and saw designs from lever to various turnbolts tested. The Winchester Hotchkiss was the winner, and the Army adopted it for advanced trials in rifle and carbine form in .45-70. (As an aside, the military Hotchkiss gained a following worldwide with arms sales to China and Central and South America usually found chambered in the bottleneck .43 Spanish.)
The Winchester Hotchkiss is a smooth-working arm holding five rounds in a tubular magazine within the butt plus one in the chamber. Mine is a rare First Model 1879 civilian carbine. First models are identified by the giant rotating mag cutoff/safety on the right side under the bolt.
The Army was dissatisfied with this rotating switch, and Winchester introduced the “New Model” as an improved Second Model in 1880. Second models have a simplified cutoff/repeater lever atop the receiver on the right side and a similar bolt/trigger locking safety lever on the left. Both operate by pushing forward or pulling back.
To confuse collectors, the old Model 1879 continued in production concurrently with the Second Model, so serial numbers are of little help in dating. In addition, mine has the Second Model’s “false tang” behind the receiver and the long bolt handle of the First. The bolt handle was shortened in the Second Model. Good news is the Cody Museum has the Winchester records, including those for the Hotchkiss.
Operation of the First Model is straightforward, and the procedures apply to the Second and Third models with variations in safety/mag cutoff switching locations. Like many other early bolt actions, the bolt handle root doubles as the only locking lug. Open the cock-on-opening bolt and push the cartridges rim first into the magazine one at a time from the top, firmly pushing them over the rim catch.
On my First Model, the giant switching lever under the bolt rotates (clockwise only) to set the safety or turn the rifle from a repeater to a single-shot. A small, U-shaped notch on this lever indicates orientation by feel or sight. On Safe, the U-notch is at the 12 o’clock position and locks the bolt closed while also blocking the trigger.
Turning it to the three or nine o’clock position sets the rifle to repeating fire. In repeater mode, a cartridge doesn’t advance unless the trigger is squeezed, thus the chamber can be loaded or unloaded with the magazine in reserve. Turning it to the six o’clock position sets the rifle for single loading, with the magazine in reserve.
When fired, the trigger frees the next cartridge for loading. Open the bolt, pull it back, and the spent round is ejected and the new round rockets up under spring pressure. Pushing the bolt closed feeds the round. Operation is fast and relatively quiet—although the only way to unload the magazine is by squeezing the trigger over an empty chamber to release each cartridge one at a time.
Barrel length of this carbine is 24 inches with an overall length of 43.5 inches. As befits a carbine, it has a half stock with a single barrel band held by a spring to hold the barrel in place and a saddle ring on the left side.
Carbines were fitted with a rear sight similar to the one on the Trapdoor Springfield but without windage adjustment. The front is a blade that’s pinned in. The broad, flat buttplate is comfortable to shoot.
Sporting models were cataloged as having 26-inch octagon or half-octagon barrels. Longer barrels were optional along with fancy wood. Military models came with full stocks on rifles and 32-inch round barrels, a wiping rod and provision for a bayonet.
The gun handles 405-grain bullets easily. Long 500-grain bullets just fit the mag, but the noses extend up the feed ramp far enough to make opening the bolt difficult.
Weight of my carbine is 8.2 pounds, and weighs eight pounds, 10 ounces with six (5+1) .45-70-405 cartridges aboard. Oddly enough, the payload in the back doesn’t materially affect the balance as might be expected. The carbine handles the same loaded or unloaded, with the balance point ahead of the trigger guard for comfortable one-hand carry. The stock is bulky, though, and the only distraction to such carry.
The big fly in the soup is stock breakage at the wrist. It’s not an “if” but a “when.” The magazine tube weakens the stock, and the recoil forces are applied right where the wrist bends. Winchester added a “false tang” atop the wrist to help mitigate this—to little avail. The fix is obvious today, but it would another decade or so before Paul Mauser created the recoil lug at the front of the receiver to arrest action recoil before it got a running start on the wood at the receiver tang.
Winchester took a different path after hiring William Mason away from Colt. Mason simply broke the gun in half and inserted a steel receiver between the butt and fore-end. Mason’s improvements solved other problems, too. By putting the safety lever and cartridge cutoff levers on the side of the receiver, he eliminated the problem of dirt entering the action after those parts were moved to the top the receiver for the Second Model.
Approximately 84,000 Hotchkiss rifles were produced for military sales around the world—but not to the U.S. Army. In the end, the Army decided to stay with the single-shot Trapdoor Springfield. That gun eventually gave way to the adoption of the .30-40 Krag in 1892, even though by that time rimmed cartridges and loading with loose ammunition were fast becoming obsolete.
Collector value of the Hotchkiss has been on a roller coaster over the last few decades. The Hotchkiss Carbine sold for $22 when new. A gun in similar condition to mine now goes for between $2,200 and $2,700.