Winchester Model 1885 Low Wall Hunter Rimfire .17 WSM Rifle
By Chuck Hawks
John Browning's first commercial success was his Model 1878 falling block, single shot rifle that was hand built in his family gun shop in Ogden, Utah. A Winchester (www.winchesterguns.com) representative discovered the Browning rifle and in 1883 Winchester purchased the rights to the design. It was introduced two years later (after Winchester techs had made some improvements) as the Winchester Model 1885. This was the beginning of a long relationship between John Browning and the Winchester company. I have read that between 1885 and 1920, when the Model 1885 was discontinued, some 140,000 were produced.
As most Guns and Shooting Online readers probably know, there are two models of the 1885, a High Wall and a Low Wall. This refers, literally, to the height of the receiver walls. The High Wall is a heavy action intended for the most powerful cartridges and it supplies more support to the vertically sliding breech block. The Low Wall is a lighter action that is more than adequately strong for more moderate cartridges and its lower receiver side walls make loading a fresh cartridge easier. Guns and Shooting Online has previously reviewed a High Wall .45-70, as well as Low Wall .243 centerfire and Low Wall .17 HMR rimfire rifles.
I am a fan of single shot hunting rifles in general and fully developed falling block actions in particular. They are fast and easy to load and unload. The absence of a repeating action allows a single shot rifle to be about four inches shorter in overall length than a repeater with a barrel of the same length. For example, a short action Winchester Model 70 Featherweight bolt action rifle with a 24 inch barrel is 4.25 inches longer than a Low Wall. A properly designed and manufactured falling block action is also very strong, with much more bearing surface to keep the breech block closed against the stress of firing than a typical bolt action.
Hammerless or concealed hammer falling block actions, such as the fine Ruger No. 1, are available and the No. 1 functions properly and reliably. However, I regard the modern Winchester Model 1885 to be the apex of falling block action design. No manual safety is required and therefore it cannot be fumbled or forgotten in a moment of excitement. The action is self-cocking, just like a No. 1, and the rebounding external hammer allows an instant visual check of the action status. An ejector kicks out fired cases when the falling block is lowered. (Less developed falling block actions, such as the Sharps, do not have all of these advantages.)
Modern Winchester Model 1885 rifles are produced in Japan by Miroku, Browning/Winchester's long time corporate partner. Miroku built firearms are known for their excellent quality, performance and finish. In addition to the Model 1885 and other Winchester historical rifles, Miroku builds the very highly regarded Browning Citori O/U shotguns and the famous Winchester Model 94 lever action rifles.
For 2017, the Model 1885 Hunter Rimfire rifle is offered in .17 HMR, .17 WSM, .22 S, L, LR and .22 WMR. The .17 WSM is the most capable of all rimfire varmint cartridges and, with a sage rat hunt scheduled at the beginning of May in Christmas Valley, Oregon, this is the caliber I requested.
The .17 WSM performs like a centerfire cartridge, but with the nominal recoil and muzzle blast of a rimfire. According to Winchester, it provides about 2.5 times the down range energy of the .17 HMR, along with a 40% flatter trajectory and reduced wind drift. At 150 yards the .17 WSM delivers about twice the energy of the best .22 Magnum loads.
It also shoots flatter than some centerfire .22 caliber varmint cartridges and it has become my favorite sage rat/ground squirrel and all-around varmint hunting cartridge. It will also do for small predators within its +/- 1.5 inches maximum point blank range (MPBR).
The current Low Wall Hunter Rimfire is an honest all steel and walnut rifle with a machined steel receiver. As far as I can tell there are no substitute materials (aluminum, plastic, etc.) used anywhere in its construction. The external metal finish is nicely polished and hot blued. The falling block is left in the white and polished. The chamber is also bright polished.
The Low Wall's falling block action is operated by an under lever and powered by coil springs. Operating the lever lowers the breech block to allow loading. It also cocks the external, rebounding hammer, functionally similar to a Winchester lever action repeater. There is no need to manually cock the hammer, unless you have previously manually de-cocked it.
The .17 Winchester Super Mag (WSM) rimfire cartridge requires an unusually strong hammer blow for reliable ignition. The Low Wall .17 WSM's hammer is powered by heavy, dual hammer springs. Consequently, firm thumb pressure is required on the rather short hammer spur to manually (safely) de-cock the hammer.
Alternatively, a cocked hammer can be uncocked by opening the lever and then closing it about half way. You will feel a distinct catch in the lever travel at this point. Pull the trigger (you should hear a click when the trigger releases from the sear notch) and then finish closing the action with the lever. The hammer will be lowered safely to the uncocked position.
A non-selective ejector kicks out spent cases when the action is opened and a deflector at the rear of the action can be set to catch the brass, or rotated by a coin (I used a penny) to send it out to the right or left. The ejector has sufficient force to kick spent cases well clear of the action.
The trigger is adjustable for weight of pull (between 3.5 and 5 pounds) by means of a small set screw behind the wide, grooved trigger blade. Out of the box the trigger pull was about four pounds. Turn the screw in to lighten the pull.
After adjustment the trigger pull measured 3.5 pounds per my RCBS pull gauge, the minimum specified pull weight. This is about a pound heavier than I prefer for a varmint rifle, but good by modern standards. The trigger breaks clean, without creep, although there is some over-travel. Overall, this is a good trigger, much better than average.
The 24 inch, sporter contour, button rifled, octagon barrel is threaded into the receiver, not just pinned like many rimfire rifles. It has considerable taper over its full length. I measured its diameter at the muzzle as 0.563 inch across flats. The rifling twist is one turn in nine inches.
Semi-buckhorn open iron sights are provided and the receiver/barrel is drilled and tapped for scope mounting. Unlike some previous Low Wall rifle models, there is no top tang behind the Rimfire Hunter's receiver. Consequently, a tang mounted peep sight cannot be fitted.
There are a pair of scope mounting holes drilled and tapped in the top of the receiver and a second pair drilled and tapped in the barrel. The latter are cleverly hidden beneath the rear sight elevation adjustment slider, so the rear sight must be removed from its dovetail to mount a scope. After removing the stock rear sight, I used a folding rear sight ordered from Brownell's to fill the dovetail.
A rigid, one-piece, blued steel, scope mounting base made by Talley is available from Winchester ($104.99). This base is effectively a quarter rib grooved to accept excellent Talley steel scope rings. These rings ($99.99) are also available from Winchester. I used one inch scope rings to mount a Leupold VX-1 4-12x40mm riflescope with a gloss black finish to match the rifle's polished and luster blued metal finish.
The durable Leupold Gold Ring VX-1 provides sharp, clear views of the target and enough magnification for shooting small varmints to beyond the maximum point blank range of the .17 WSM cartridge. Actually, due to heat mirage, I did most of my shooting on our Christmas Valley varmint hunt with the scope set at about 8x.
The Low Wall's nicely shaped stock is a classic design with a moderately curved pistol grip, fluted comb and an elegant Schnable fore-end. The commendably slender fore-end is mounted solidly to a hanger that allows the barrel to be free floating. The wood to metal fit is good. There are no unsightly gaps, not even around the barrel channel; you have to look closely to see that the barrel is free floating. The stock looks great, feels good in the hands and is very functional.
This new Model 1885 Low Wall stock is styled to resemble the original, but it has a moderate pistol grip hand and much less drop at comb than would be found on most 19th Century rifles, making the modern Low Wall Hunter ideal for use with telescopic sights. Indeed, the comb is too high for me to comfortably use the supplied iron sights.
This is inconsequential, as the .17 WSM cartridge definitely requires a telescopic sight to take advantage of its ballistic potential. Actually, I think the iron sights should be omitted from Low Wall Hunter Rimfire rifles in .17 HMR, .17 WSM and .22 WMR calibers, as they serve no useful purpose.
The butt stock and slender Schnable fore-end are made of what Winchester calls Grade 1 black walnut with generous, four panel, 22 lpi cut checkering. The test rifle's stock shows some nice figure with black grain streaks and I would consider it semi-fancy grade.
There is no pistol grip cap (there should be!), but the butt terminates in a thin, black, Pachmayr butt pad with a basket weave pattern. I always prefer rubber butt pads, as they are unlikely to slip when the rifle is propped uptight on a slick surface. Blued steel sling swivel studs are included.
The wood is given an oil finish and this finish is the only deficient area I found about the whole rifle. Not that I am opposed to an oil finish, but in this case several more coats of stock oil should have been applied to seal the wood pores and achieve the luster finish this rifle deserves. Of course, the rifle's owner can apply the required coats of stock oil after purchasing the rifle.
Alternatively, several applications of Johnson's paste wax furniture polish will achieve a desirable, although less durable, result. Since I could not abide the semi-finished stock and this was a test rifle, I chose the paste wax option. The result was a far more pleasing appearance that enhanced the walnut's attractive grain.
I did my test shooting with the Low Wall Rimfire Hunter at the Izaak Walton outdoor rifle range south of Eugene, Oregon. This facility provides covered bench rests and target stands at 25, 50, 100 and 200 yards. The Spring weather was pleasant with the afternoon high temperature in the mid-60's F and only a light, variable breeze.
After bore sighting with a Bushnell optical bore sighter, I fired three rounds to center the point of impact at 25 yards. Final zeroing and all shooting for record was done at 100 yards, shooting both three and five shot groups. I used a Caldwell Fire Control Lead Sled rifle rest and Champion Redfield Precision Sight-In targets.
The kind folks at Winchester Ammunition provided two .17 WSM loads for this review. The Winchester Elite Varmint HV load uses a 20 grain polymer tipped bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 3000 fps, while the Winchester Elite Varmint HE load uses a 25 grain polymer tipped bullet at a muzzle velocity of 2600 fps. The 20 grain bullet shoots somewhat flatter (its MPBR +/- 1.5 inches is about 205 yards) and the 25 grain bullet offers a bit less wind drift and slightly more energy on target beyond 150 yards. From a ground squirrel's perspective, either is lights out with a solid hit.
Despite the differences in MV and bullet weight, the trajectory and wind drift of these two loads are similar out to at least 150 yards and both should be zeroed to hit 1.5 inches high at 100 yards to take advantage of the .17 WSM's maximum point blank range (+/- 1.5 inches) for varmint shooting.
It quickly became apparent that the test rifle strongly preferred the 25 grain bullet (HE load), as my 100 yard groups with the 20 grain bullet (HV load) were erratic. Therefore, I quit shooting with the 20 grain ammunition and shot for record exclusively with the Winchester Elite HE 25 grain load. The MPBR (+/- 1.5 inches) of this load is about 186 yards and the bullet falls through the line of sight at 161 yards (the +/- 0 distance).
100 Yard Shooting Results
Every rifle is different and just because this rifle liked the 25 grain bullet does not mean the next one will. For instance, the .17 WSM Low Wall we reviewed in 2014 shot fine with the 20 grain Winchester HV load. Always test as many different loads as possible in your rifle to determine its preferences.
The stock design fits me well and feels good in the hands. With its Leupold 4-12x40mm scope, the rifle balances between the hands, about two inches forward of the front edge of the receiver. It points and swings smoothly. The comb aligns my eye with the riflescope in its standard height rings when I mount the rifle.
The Low Wall functioned perfectly, as you would expect from an expensive falling block rifle. There were no malfunctions of any kind.
Notes on Sage Rat Hunting
There is no doubt that a center of mass hit with a 17 grain, .17 HMR bullet is absolutely devastating to sage rats (Beldings ground squirrels). Blood and guts everywhere, dead is dead and at 100 yards a 25 grain .17 WSM bullet cannot kill small varmints any deader than a 17 grain .17 HMR bullet, or for that matter a 30-40 grain .22 WMR bullet.
It can hit small varmints farther away, however, and it is more suitable for the largest varmints and small predators, particularly as the range increases. The .17 WSM delivers more energy at 200 yards than the .17 HMR and .22 Magnum do at 100 yards.
The .17 WSM is shoots flatter than the .17 HMR as distances increase and bucks the wind better. The latter is of considerable importance, as excessive wind drift is the Achilles' heel of all rimfire varmint cartridges. Farmland and prairies are generally pretty flat and flat country tends to be windy most of the time. This is certainly true in Christmas Valley, Oregon.
I have been a fan of the .22 WMR for my entire life, especially for small game hunting. When the .17 HMR was introduced it was embraced by the entire Guns and Shooting Online staff, including myself. The .17 HMR is an excellent small varmint cartridge. However, there is no question that, as applied to use in varmint rifles, the .17 WSM handily out performs both of the earlier rimfire magnums and does so without a significant increase in muzzle blast or recoil.
One of the big advantages of using a single shot rifle, such as the Low Wall, when hunting varmints that may pop-up from a burrow at random moments, only to disappear just as quickly, is that no time is wasted loading magazines, with the rifle out of order while you do so. You can shoot, eject the fired case and load a new cartridge quickly and easily, ready to shoot again in seconds. A single shot rifle cannot shoot a five or nine shot string as fast as a repeater, but it can shoot all day without significant down time, always ready for the next varmint to appear.
A word about optics. In our party of five hunters, all shooting .17 HMR or .17 WSM rifles, only one used a very high power riflescope (6-18x). Two of us used 4-12x scopes, one person used a 3.5-10x scope and one person used a 3-9x scope. Due to heat mirage and a restricted field of view, magnification in excess of 10x is rarely necessary in the field, even for the flat shooting .17 WSM cartridge. The shooter with the 3-9x scope on his .17 HMR Low Wall rifle did comment that he would have liked a little more magnification at times, perhaps a 4-12x scope.
The 1885 Low Wall Hunter Rimfire is basically a deluxe centerfire rifle that is offered in rimfire calibers. This means it is one of the strongest and best made rimfire rifles ever. It is both very safe and very convenient to use. In .22 LR or .22 WMR it would make a fine small game hunting rifle. In .17 HMR or .17 WSM it makes a fine varmint rifle. Add the largest varmints and small predators to the possible menu and .17 WSM definitely becomes the preferred caliber.
Note: A full review of another Winchester 1885 .17 WSM Low Wall rifle can be found on the Product Reviews page.
Copyright 2017 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.