Winchester Model 1873 Sporter Case Hardened .357 Carbine
By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
Several firearms contributed significantly to the settling of the American western frontier, but at the end of the period, only one became known as "The Gun that Won the West." If we took a poll of modern shooters, a bit fuzzy about American history and influenced by television, we suspect that many would ascribe The Gun that Won the West title to the Colt 1873 Single Action Army (SAA) revolver. Most classic western movies show cowboys and Indians using handy Winchester Model 1892 carbines, the successor to the Model 1873. However, the Model '92 was introduced too late to have seen much real action in the old west.
The firearm for which the phrase was actually coined is the subject of this review, the Winchester Model 1873, about 720,000 of which were built between 1873 and 1919. There was even a major motion picture, Winchester '73 starring James Stewart and Shelley Winters with Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis, made about this most famous of all American rifles.
Offered in musket, rifle (24" barrel) and carbine (20" barrel) forms with many options, the Model '73 was chambered for short Winchester rifle cartridges, including the .44-40, .38-40 and .32-20, all early centerfire numbers. The .44-40 Win. became the most popular rifle cartridge of its day. It was the .30-30 of its time and credited with harvesting more North American game than any other cartridge. Colt adapted their famous SAA revolver to these cartridges to allow ammunition commonality on the frontier, where stores were scarce and ammunition precious.
The Model 1873 is based on the Benjamin Tyler Henry designed action previously used in the original Henry rifle and the Winchester Model 1866. The 1873 action is basically the same as the Model 1866 action, including the loading gate in the right side of the receiver designed by Nelson King. However, unlike the brass receiver of the 1866 Winchester, the 1873 receiver is steel, required by the change from the .44 Henry rimfire cartridge to the higher pressure, .44-40 centerfire cartridge.
The '73 is an exposed hammer, tubular magazine fed, lever action repeater. You swing the lever down and forward to extract and eject the fired case, then back and up to its starting position to chamber a new cartridge and lock the action. Operating the lever also cocks the hammer, readying the rifle for the next shot.
Unlike the later John Browning designed Winchester lever actions, the Henry design uses a cartridge carrier that raises and lowers vertically in what is effectively an elevator shaft in the receiver, directly behind the breech. This "cartridge elevator" considerably lengthens the receiver, but is very smooth in operation and allows completely controlled cartridge feeding. Removing the receiver's sideplates allows easy access to the action.
The 1873's small breech block is held closed by the finger lever operating a relatively weak toggle-link system. This action is adequate for the original .44-40 and now the .357 Magnum cartridge, but it is not long or strong enough to handle the .30-30 and other high velocity, smokeless powder cartridges introduced in the Model 1894.
The Model 1873 action is smoother and faster to operate than the later Model 1894, even though the total lever movement is about the same. The 1873's mainspring is easier to compress when the hammer is thumb cocked. In addition, the hammer's tall spur gives the thumb more purchase.
No ejector, per se, is required in the 1873; the rising cartridge carrier block simply pushes the fired and extracted case out the open top of the receiver as it raises a new cartridge into alignment with the chamber, no matter how slowly or rapidly the finger lever is operated. It is an interesting process to watch and, when shooting from a bench rest, fired cases just plop onto the shooting table when the lever is operated slowly.
The 1873 is completely insensitive to position or attitude. It feeds and ejects properly with the rifle held at any angle, including flat on its side or completely upside down. This must have been a boon to mounted riflemen on the frontier. In fact, the 1873 carbine became the most popular rifle in the West for mounted use and was routinely carried in a saddle scabbard by cowboys.
B. Tyler Henry's open top action is also easy to single load. Just operate the lever far enough to completely withdraw the breech block, without raising the cartridge carrier. Slip a cartridge into the chamber from the top and use the lever to close the action. The Winchester 1873 action is very user friendly.
To protect the open top action from the entry of rain, snow, or crud a cover is provided that slides on a dovetail machined into the top rear of the receiver. Just manually slide the protective cover forward to seal the action. When the lever is operated the cover will automatically be slid rearward, clear of the ejection port. This was a new feature introduced with the Model 1873; it was not present on the previous Model 1866 action.
The Winchester Model '73 was discontinued in 1919, 27 years after the introduction of its erstwhile replacement, the Model 1892, which was based on a completely different lever action designed by John Browning. This extended production life after the introduction of the Model 92, available in the same cartridges, is an indication of the enduring popularity of the Model '73. The Model 1873 was the most popular rifle of its time and the fourth best selling of all Winchester lever actions. (The Model 94, with over 7,000,000 sold and still counting, is the champion.)
Now you can own the real thing, a brand new, genuine, Winchester Repeating Arms Model 1873 carbine. These new '73s are furnished with an oil-finished walnut stock, classic crescent buttplate and 20" round barrel, just like the original. If you won’t settle for a copy, this rifle is for you.
As you probably know, Winchester Repeating Arms has changed ownership since Oliver Winchester's day. Olin Industries, the manufacturers of Western Cartridge Company ammunition, purchased Winchester in 1931 and still owns the rights to the Winchester name. Olin produces modern Winchester brand ammunition. Today's Winchester Repeating Arms Company was established by FN/Browning and Winchester rifles are produced under license from Olin by FN in the U.S. (the Model 70 bolt action) and by FN/Browning's longtime corporate partner Miroku in Japan (lever actions and Model 1885 falling block rifles).
Thus it is that a genuine Winchester Model 1873 rifle is being made in Japan, as are the new Model 94's and other Winchester lever actions. Not to worry, however, as in our experience the Miroku made Winchester lever actions are the best ever. Miroku has long produced fine Browning firearms, including high grade Citori O/U shotguns, and their quality and workmanship is renowned around the world. This new Winchester Model 1873 is no exception; it is exquisite. In fact, Winchester claims that the new 1873's are ready for Cowboy Action competition in every way.
The Model 1873 has been reintroduced in 2013 in two models, which are functionally identical. The standard catalog version comes with a highly polished and deeply blued receiver, barrel, magazine tube, buttplate, lever and forend cap, complemented by a walnut stock and forearm The SHOT Show Special is a limited edition version of the same carbine, but its polished/blued barrel and magazine tube contrast with a color case hardened receiver, buttplate, lever and forend cap. The Specials come with high grade walnut stocks and forearms. For this review, Winchester sent us a Case Hardened SHOT Show Special '73.
Rather than introduce these new Model 1873 rifles in hard to find, obsolescent calibers, Winchester wisely chose to chamber them for the immensely popular .357 Magnum/.38 Special cartridges. Modern shooters can own a Model 1873 and a revolver chambered for the same cartridge, as did their frontier forbearers.
The only changes we could find from the original Model 1873 action are a small bevel on the inner right side of the cartridge carrier to deflect the ejection of fired cases slightly to the right (instead of perfectly straight up) and the addition of a new striker/firing pin block that prevents the firing pin from contacting a chambered cartridge unless the trigger is pulled back. These subtle, internal changes increase safety without detracting in any way from the appearance, operation or handling of the rifle. The original hammer half-cock and lever disconnect safeties remain.
The left side of our test gun's barrel is roll marked: WINCHESTER Model 1873 -- Caliber .357 Mag - .38 Spl. ONLY. It's nice to again see the Winchester name on a new Model 1873 carbine.
Our 1873 test rifle is stocked in very nice black walnut. The fit and inletting are perfect, with the wood left slightly proud, as it should be on a new rifle. We would rate this between AA and AAA wood, just as Winchester claims. In plain English, it is extra fancy walnut with beautiful color and figure. It is much better than the wood shown in the Winchester 1873 catalog photo at the top of this page. The satin oil stock finish is smooth, but the wood pores were not completely filled. A couple more coats of stock oil would be desirable. We rubbed-on a couple coats of Johnson's furniture paste wax, which we have found excellent for use on gunstocks, to help seal, protect and beautify the walnut.
The color case hardened receiver, buttplate, lever and forend cap are very attractive. The barrel, magazine tube, action cover, loading gate, hammer and trigger are highly polished and hot blued. The solid brass shell carrier, true to the original, is a nice touch. Overall, the metal finish of the new Winchester Model 1873 is excellent. Interestingly, the large top and bottom tang and buttplate screws are timed with fore and aft slots, although the other screw heads are not.
Out of the box, the single-stage trigger pull of our test rifle measured five pounds per our RCBS pull scale. This is at least a full pound heavier than we consider acceptable, but at least the trigger pull is clean with minimal take-up. It would not due for a long range hunting rifle, but is probably adequate for plinking, short range hunting, home/ranch/farm defense and other purposes for which an iron-sighted .357 carbine would be deemed suitable. With a lot of use, the trigger pull will smooth and lighten. However, serious competition shooters will probably spring for a trigger job.
Safety is provided by a traditional, manual half-cock (really "quarter-cock") hammer notch and the newly designed firing pin block to prevent accidental discharge in case the rifle is dropped and the hammer forced. A traditional, spring loaded, lever disconnect blocks the trigger unless the breech is fully closed and the lever held in its full upright position. We found the trigger stop spring unnecessarily heavy. You must squeeze the lever against the bottom tang with more force than usual before you can fire the rifle.
Not being a fan of traditional buckhorn style rear sights, we immediately ordered a Lyman tang mounted peep sight for our '73. (The same model sight we used on the Uberti '73 replica previously reviewed.) Unfortunately, it did not arrive in time for this review, so we were forced to do our test shooting with the supplied iron sights that require more accommodation than our aging eyes can deliver.
The other addition serious hunters will require is sling swivel bases. The new 1873 has the same magazine tube diameter as the new Model 94 and uses the same sling swivel studs.
We tested the Winchester 1873 with factory loaded ammunition that we had on hand. This included Remington/UMC .38 Special with 130 grain FMC bullets, Remington/UMC .38 Special +P with 125 grain SJHP bullets, Remington/UMC .357 Mag. with 125 grain JSP bullets and Winchester Super-X .357 Mag. with 158 grain JHP bullets.
We shot our groups for record at our usual iron sighted rifle distance of 50 yards. (To approximate 100 yard results, multiply the group sizes by two.) For targets we used chose Hoppe's 25 yard slow-fire pistol targets with a 5-1/4" black bull's eye, as these were the most visible targets that we had on hand for use with iron sights.
The winter weather in Western Oregon blessed us with mostly sunny skies and a high temperature of 43-degrees F. The wind velocity was maybe three MPH. The recorded groups consisted of three shots from a warm, but not hot, barrel. We rested the rifle on sandbags. The average 50 yard group size for all loads tested was 1.58"
This time out, Jim shot the smallest individual group (1.0") and Chuck managed the best overall average with all loads (1.3"). Everyone agreed that this is a very accurate rifle. In every case, the largest groups with all types of ammunition were our fault, which we blamed on the buckhorn rear sight.
It is very easy to manually cock the hammer. Despite the relatively light hammer spring, the hammer blow on the firing pin puts a substantial dent in a primer.
Even with its traditional steel buttplate, the recoil of full power .357 Magnum cartridges is very light in this 7-1/4 pound rifle. The crescent "rifle" style buttplate helps keep the rifle at the shooter's shoulder when levering-off fast repeat shots. The small beveled area on the cartridge carrier keeps ejected brass from landing on the shooter.
We found the Winchester Model 1873 great fun to shoot. The action operates smoothly, precisely and there were no malfunctions of any kind in the course of our testing.
The little carbine weighs enough for steady offhand shooting, without being a burden to carry. Empty, it balances directly under its breech face. Perfect balance and a flat receiver make the '73 very comfortable to carry. Shooters accustomed to bolt action and semi-automatic hunting rifles will be startled by how easy this traditional carbine is to carry in one hand and how fast it handles.
Winchester's reborn Model 1873 carbine is suitable for short range hunting, plinking, or cowboy action shooting. A shooter with good eyes, after adjusting the rear sight for his or her favorite load, could take this Winchester '73 hunting as-is.
It could also serve nicely as a home defense rifle. It is handy, accurate, very reliable, shoots fast, holds a lot of cartridges and (due to its side receiver located cartridge loading gate) can be reloaded without taking it out of action. Winchester '73 carbines were beloved for those very characteristics on the Western frontier, where they were used to protect plenty of homesteads and save many lives.
Note: The expanded version of this review with full shooting results is available on the Product Reviews page.
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