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Identifying Winchester Lever-Action Rifles

By T. Logan Metesh

 

It can be hard to keep all of the details of the different models of Winchester lever-action rifles straight. What follows is an effort to help you identify all of the different Winchester models. It is important to note that the list is by no means comprehensive, but it’ll make sure you don’t confuse a Model 1876 with a Model 1894, or a Model 1873 with a Model 1886.

 

WINCHESTER MODEL 1866 LEVER-ACTION

Approximately 170,000 Model 1866 rifles were made between 1866 and 1898. This model holds the distinction of being the first gun made under the Winchester name and is a direct descendant of the Henry rifle. A hand guard and loading gate designed by Nelson King were the principal alterations in creating what became the Model 1866. This model also saw the introduction of a loading gate on the sideplate – something that would be iconic on future models. Because of its distinctive brass frame, it was often called the “Yellow Boy” on the American frontier. Chambered for the .44 rimfire cartridge, the rifles and muskets held 17 rounds; carbines held 13.

1866 Winchester

WINCHESTER MODEL 1873 LEVER-ACTION

Approximately 720,000 Model 1873s were made between 1873 and 1919. Sometimes called “The Gun That Won the West,” it was the first Winchester to use centerfire cartridges (as opposed to rimfire) and to have an iron frame with a removable sideplate. The gun came in a variety of standard configurations, including the 20” round barrel carbine, 24” octagon or round barrel rifle, and the 30” round barrel musket. Standard calibers included .44-40 (.44 WCF), .38-40 (.38 WCF), and .32-20 (.32 WCF). Because the Model 1873 fired pistol caliber cartridges, many owners benefited from the convenience of only having to carry one caliber for both their rifle and their revolver. Between 1884 and 1904, .22 rimfire was an additional available caliber, with less than 20,000 being made in that configuration.

1873 Winchester

WINCHESTER MODEL 1876 LEVER-ACTION

Between 1876 and 1897, approximately 63,800 Model 1876s were made. Essentially just a bigger version of the Model 1873, the 1876 features a larger and stronger receiver to fire rifle cartridges like the .45-77 WCF, .50-95 Express, .45-60 WCF, and .40-60 WCF. This meant the rifle’s ammo was no longer compatible with that of a revolver, but this was a small sacrifice to make in order to gain the extra punch that rifle caliber cartridges offered. Four different barrel lengths were offered: 32” round barrel Musket; 28” round, octagon, or half-octagon sporting rifle; 26” round, octagon, or half-octagon express rifle; and 22” round barrel carbine. This was also the first Winchester model to offer a pistol grip style buttstock.

1876 Winchester

WINCHESTER MODEL 1886 LEVER-ACTION

Approximately 160,000 1886s were made from 1886 to 1935. This model was designed to take the caliber advantage of the 1876 one step further. These rifles were capable of firing even more powerful cartridges suitable for big game, such as .45-70, .45-90, and .50-110. The 1886 was offered in a total of ten different calibers. This made the Model 1886 very popular with hunters in the American West. In an effort to aid portability, takedown, extra lightweight takedown, and extra lightweight versions were also available for the 1886.

1886 Winchester

WINCHESTER MODEL 1892 LEVER-ACTION

Approximately 1,000,000 Model 1892 rifles were made between 1892 and 1945. This model was essentially a scaled down version of the Model 1886. It was also the first Winchester rifle designed for smokeless powder. It was chambered for the same lower-powered cartridges as the Model 1873, plus .25-20, with the .44-40 cartridge being the most popular chambering. This model was destined for fame on both the small screen and the big screen in the hands of cowboys and outlaws alike. Even though the model was anachronistic in some westerns, that small detail was overlooked because of the rifle’s ability to fire 5-IN-1 Blanks. Model 1892s can be seen in the hands of John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn character in Hollywood’s True Grit and Chuck Connors’ portrayal of Lucas McCain in the TV series The Rifleman.

1892 Winchester

WINCHESTER MODEL 1894 LEVER-ACTION

Arguably the model successful of Winchester’s lever-action rifles, approximately 7,000,000 Model 1894s were made between their introduction in 1894 and when production ceased in 2006. While the 1894 was available in a variety of calibers, more than 80% of all Model 1894s are chambered for the .30-30 cartridge. The combination of the Model ’94 and the .30-30 became the quintessential American deer rifle during much of the 20th century; indeed, it is still popular among many 21st century hunters as well. Because of this popularity, the Model 1894 has the distinction of being the first commercial sporting rifle to sell more than seven million units.

1894 Winchester

WINCHESTER MODEL 1895 LEVER-ACTION

Approximately 425,000 Model 1895s were made from 1895 until 1940. A departure from their previous offerings – both functionally and visually – the Model 1895 was the first Winchester rifle to incorporate a box magazine below the action. All previous models utilized a tubular magazine in which cartridges were loaded tip-to-primer. This was fine with earlier cartridges that had flat or round-nosed bullets. The Model 1895, however, was designed to accept high-powdered spitzer cartridges which had pointed-nose bullets. Loading pointed bullets tip-to-primer increased the potential of an accidental primer detonation. By incorporating a box magazine, the cartridges could be stacked horizontally on top of one another, eliminating the risk of any contact with the primer.

1895 Winchester

These helpful identification hints can’t replace the literally hundreds of books full of deep-dive identification material for Winchester lever-action rifles that has been published, but it’ll give you a good start. Happy collecting!