If you haven’t noticed yet I tend to have a fondness for lever-action rifles. I’m not sure if it’s because my first firearm had a lever, or if it’s because I grew up watching old westerns on television with my dad on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Whatever the reason may be I’m happy to be afflicted with that fondness as there are few things in life that I enjoy more than spending a day at the range shooting a quality lever-action.
Today we are looking at a new production version of what is often considered to be Winchesters most popular and most successful lever-action rifle of all time, the Model 1873 – also known as “The Gun that Won the West.” As the name implies it was originally introduced in 1873 and was chambered for the .44-40 cartridge – with offerings in .38-40 and .32-20 both being offered later in production. The 1873 was offered in three variations: a 24″ barreled rifle, a 20″ barreled carbine, and a musket. The 1873 was never originally offered in the standard military cartridge .45 Colt due to feeding problems, and due to the 1873’s popularity Colt was forced to manufacture a .44-40 version of the Single Action Army revolver called the “Frontier Model.” In all, over 720,000 Model 1873 Winchester’s were produced between 1872 and 1919.
Today’s example is a Winchester 1873 Short Rifle in .357 Mag with the color-case hardened finish (sku# 534202137). This model features a blued 20-inch round barrel, a full length 10 round magazine tube and nicely figured Grade II/III Black Walnut furniture. The Short Rifle weighs in at approximately 7-pounds 4-ounces empty and has an overall length of 39-inches. MSRP at the time of this writing is $1579.99.
One of the first things I noticed after taking this rifle out of the box was the fit of the sights to the barrel. All too often on today’s firearms the sights are ill fitted with space visible between the sight and the gun’s barrel. That isn’t the case with this rifle as the sights are resting right on the barrel as they should be and no light can be seen in or above the dovetails. It’s careful attention to the little details like this that are a clear sign of quality craftsmanship.
The front sight is a Marble’s gold bead type, while the rear is a traditional semi-buckhorn style with four step elevator.
The metal finish on the Winchester `73 also deserves mentioning. The rifle features an attractive chemical color case-hardened finish on the receiver, lever, forearm cap and crescent butt plate. On the original Winchester rifles color case-hardening was available as an added cost extra, so the color case-hardening can be considered just as authentic as it is attractive. The rest of the rifle’s metal parts have a high polish black finish similar to most modern gloss finished Brownings and Winchesters. These pieces include the barrel and magazine tube, trigger, hammer, and the dust cover on top of the receiver.
The original Winchester Model 1873 had an evolution with small but noticeable changes during its 50-year span of manufacturing. This newest rendition from WInchester represents one of the last versions, or third model, because it has the hidden hammer and trigger pivot screws and the dust cover slides on an integral “ramp” on the top of the receiver. Also, the dust cover has no thumb dimple in the top.
This rifle also has a trigger block safety which doesn’t allow the trigger to be pulled unless the lever is held tightly against the lower tang. In other words, the trigger block doesn’t allow the gun to be fired unless the action is completely closed. On the original Winchester 1873’s the trigger block safety didn’t became a standard feature until 1879.
The standard barrel length for a Model ’73 rifle was 24 inches, but factory records showed that barrels were produced from 14 to 36 inches. The 20 and 24-inch versions were by far the most popular and considered the standard, so it was smart for Winchester to offer both when they decided to resurrect the 1873 and put it back into production a few short years ago.
The .357 Magnum chambering is by far the most popular with CAS shooters due to the economy of being able to shoot .38 Special ammunition. Once caveat with .38 Special ammo however is that you have to watch the overall length of the cartridges. The 1873 was originally designed to work with .44-40 ammo which had an overall length of 1.600-inches. Modern .357 Magnum ammo has a SAAMI spec length of 1.590-inches, while .38 Special ammo is typically loaded to a length between 1.425 and 1.550-inches depending on bullet type and weight. The 1873 will function with any ammo having a length of 1.450-inches or greater, but operates much more smoothly the closer you get to the .357 Magnum length of 1.590-inches. Hand loaders can seat their bullets out a little longer to ensure smoother cycling, but those buying off-the-shelf ammunition will want to make sure it falls within an acceptable range.
Another note regarding ammunition in these lever guns is that they require flat-point bullets. Pointed bullets should never be used due to a risk of chain-ignition in the magazine tube under recoil. The preferred bullet type for these rifles is the round-nose flat-point (RNFP) or truncated nose flat point (TCFP) types as they seem to work best with the lifter block. Jacketed hollow-points are also acceptable for you hunters out there.
The fit and finish on this sample is very well done and shows the craftsmanship that has earned the Japanese gun makers at Miroku an excellent reputation. The wood to metal fit is spot-on, the figuring in the wood is gorgeous, the case-coloring is beautiful and the action cycles smoothly with no noticeable rough spots or binding.
One pleasant surprise with this rifle was the trigger. It’s no secret that the triggers on Miroku made guns tend to be rather heavy, but that isn’t the case with this Winchester `73. The trigger breaks at a very crisp and consistent 3-lbs. 12-oz. and just has a hint of over-travel to it.