December 11, 2017
It goes without saying that Winchester lever-action guns played an important part in American history. Often termed the "Gun that Won the West," the famed Model 1873 alone accounted for three quarters of a million sold until it was discontinued around 1919. It's now back, but it's not your great-great grandfather's rifle.
While the top of the line "working" gun is the Model 1873 Sporter with an octagon barrel and a case-hardened receiver, there are four other models plus a special 150th Commemorative gun. The latter features a high-grade stock, scroll engraving with gold accents, adjustable tang sight complete with a crescent buttplate and fore-end cap. At almost $3,400, it's aimed squarely at the serious collector.
We received a Sporter straight stock (the same gun is available with pistol grip stock), and it's a faithful reproduction of the 1873, with well-executed design and finish. It is chambered to .357 Mag. or the original .44-40 Win. According to Winchester, the wood falls between Grades II and III. On my gun, this would be an understatement; to me it is a step above Grade III, and listing for $1,740, it might easily become my collectible.
The wood on my sample had more than an adequate figure in what stock makers call "crotch feathering" radiating from the pistol grip upward. The figure was just about as even on both sides, without any pin knots or irregularities, and the finish was satin, smooth and even. The fore-end also had a nice amount of figure, and gauging the color, I believe it was cut from the same blank as the buttstock. The fore-end was finished off with a metal cap, and at the rear of the buttstock, you will find a crescent buttplate — both of which are color case-hardened.
The metalwork is first class, too, and the gun's maker — Miroku of Japan — devoted a lot of time to the initial positing and the bluing on the 24-inch blued barrel. It's a full octagon from muzzle to receiver, and it's treated to a Marble Arms gold bead front sight. The rear is a semi-buckhorn, and the combination creates a sight picture reminiscent of the older plains rifles. The full-length magazine tube holds 13 rounds of .357 or .44 caliber ammunition or 14 rounds of the popular .38 Special ammunition so widespread in Cowboy Action shooting matches.
Like its predecessor, the receiver features a sliding cover and works flawlessly. Under that is the breech bolt with the ejector at top center and the brass cartridge lifter. The sideplates fit as if molded to the gun, and the color case-hardeningâ€¦well, you have to see this gun in real life to appreciate the color. The color case-hardening is carried over to the lever, and the stock features a lock behind the lever to keep it secure. The tang is drilled and tapped for an optional aperture rear sight.
I have to say this has to be one of the smoothest, if not the smoothest, lever guns I have ever cycled. The action moves as if it is on ball bearings. Those into the competitive sports will not need to run down to the gunsmith for tuning; it has already been done.
There is no thumb safety on the gun to spoil the looks or the operation, instead Winchester has installed a new firing pin block and disconnect safety as well as the usual half-cock hammer position plus a trigger stop to make sure the action is fully closed before setting off a round.
The hammer is also well tuned. It pulls back without hesitation and breaks at five pounds with just a hint of creep. Loading the gun through the loading port was equally smooth thanks to the deep recess of the port.
Curved buttplates are famous for being shoulder-busters, but even with .357 Mag. loads, the recoil isn't enough to spoil the fun of shooting this rifle. However, when shooting from the bench, the stock's amount of drop was taxing at times, especially firing long strings.
I did have trouble with shorter, lighter 110- and 125-grain bullets I had handloaded into .38 Special cases. Seems these bullets are too short for sure feeding, requiring me to cycle the action more than once to chamber a round. For this reason, if I would use this gun for competition, I would use only .357 cases for failproof feeding regardless of the bullet weight.
Other than that, the gun was a joy to use — especially with powder-puff .38 Special loads. Accuracy was never a problem with open sights at 50 yards, a precision-type aperture sight would surely shrink those groups a bit. In all, I think Winchester did a super job with this gun, and any lever-action fan would be wise to check it out.