COLLECTOR’S CORNER: WINCHESTER MODEL 1873’S BY RAY HOUSE
Growing up in rural central Kansas, I have been associated with firearms all my life. Beginning with a lever action BB gun, shooting and hunting have been a life long hobby. Collecting lever action Winchester rifles began in 1978, when after selling my microscope from medical school, I bought a Model 1873. I had always enjoyed reading about firearms and their uses especially during the Westward Expansion, so the Winchester Model 1873 which is commonly called “ the gun that won the west” was a natural for my first Winchester.
Winchester produced 720,610 Model 1873s from 1873 until the clean up in the 1920s. The last gun was shipped to Abercrombie and Fitch of New York in 1933.
The Model 1873 was the first reliable center fire rifle. The iron and latter steel frame was stronger and lighter that the brass 1866. The 44 Winchester center fire (44 W.C.F.) was more powerful than the rim fire ‘66 cartridge and was also reloadable.
The 44WCF (44-40) was the only cartridge initially offered for the Model ’73. In 1879 the 38 WCF (38-40) was offered, followed by the 32 WCF (32-20) in 1882 and 22 caliber rimfire in 1884.
Model 1873s were offered in three versions. Sporting rifles had 24-inch barrels in round or octagon styles. Carbines had 20 inch round barrels. Muskets had 30 inch round barrels and were fitted for bayonets.
During manufacture of the 1873 there were three styles. These were divided into first (1873-1879), second (1879-1882), and third (1882 onward). The dust cover design is one of the easiest ways to determine model numbers. The first models used the “mortised design” where the dust cover is installed along the grooves cut in the top of the receiver. Second model guns have the dust cover central guide rail attached to the receiver with a screw. The rail for the third model dust cover was machined into the receiver.
Standard finish on the Model 1873 was blue. Casehardening was available for order and was often accompanied by special wood or other special features. Nickel, silver, and gold plating were available for special order from $3.00 to $10.00 extra. Engraving was and option costing from $2.00 to over $100.00, but was rarely over $20.00.
Sporting rifles came standard with 24’ barrels. Barrels could be ordered from 14 to 36 inches in round, octagon, or ˝ octagon, ˝ round configuration.
Standard guns had straight grain walnut but extra grain walnut could be special ordered often with checkering. Pistol grip stocks were an option to the straight grip of standard guns and were more likely to be of fancier grain walnut.
Crescent butt plates were standard on sporting rifles while a modified shotgun style was used on both carbines and muskets. Full shotgun style butt plates were available for order on sporting rifles. Guns in 44 and 38 caliber had a trap in the butt plate for storage of cleaning rods.
There are a number of good reference books about the Winchester Model 1873 including “ The Winchester Book”, by George Madis and the definitive work, “ Winchester’s New Model 1873” by Jim Gordon. The Cody Firearms Museum at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming is an excellent resource and for a fee can give specific information on a particular gun based on the factory ledgers of serial numbers.
Due to the sheer number of Model 1873s produced, they are still a common sight at most gun shows. Winchester would manufacture a wide variety of options so there are always unique variations of the guns. Factory letters verifying such special order features are always a good idea, as well as purchase from a reputable dealer.
With the rise in popularity of cowboy action shooting events, the Model 1873 is again seeing renewed interest along with the Colt single action army revolvers that were made in the same caliber as the Winchester rifles. Prices realized for Mode 1873s vary widely based on rarity and condition. Guns will sell from $500 for well-used specimens to over $100,000 for special order deluxe guns in excellent condition such as 1 of 1000’s.
Many of these guns have fascinating histories and with the large number of guns available they make a great collector weapon.
wish to thank the membership for sponsoring my Winchester Model 1873
display at the upcoming national NRA convention in Kansas City, and
would encourage all members to attend.
The author enjoys traveling with his wife and three sons. He is a Diagnostic and Interventional Radiologist in Salina, Kansas. Special thanks to Dr. House for being our featured exhibitor this past January. Ray brought part of the display that will be used to represent OGCA at the NRA Annual Meeting and Exhibits this May. Good luck to Ray and the entire OGCA team going to Kansas City.