If a rifle can be nostalgic, it’s hard to argue against the Winchester 1873 lever-action rifle being crowned king of the sentimental hill. Often known as “the gun that won the west,” handling and beholding the 1873 Short Rifle conjures images of cowboys, campfires, cattle drives on horseback, and good guys saving the day. While not the first successful lever-action rifle, the 1873 was an evolutionary descendent of the famous Henry rifle, which arguably made the lever-action design commercially viable. In one of those historical twists, one of the primary Henry investors was a shirt manufacturer named Oliver Winchester. One thing led to another, and before too long the name on the door read Winchester Repeating Arms Company. If you want to learn a bit more about the greatest lever action rifles of all time, check out Bryce Towsley’s article right here on Range365 One of the nifty features of many lever-action rifles like this one was the ability to share ammo between the revolver on the hip and the rifle socked away in a horse-mounted scabbard. In fact, the legendary Buffalo Bill Cody did exactly that with a pair of Colt Peacemaker single-action revolvers and an 1873 Winchester rifle while working as an Army Scout. Choosing a Lever Gun While the Winchester 1873 was originally chambered in .44-40 / .44 WCF like Bill’s, we chose to get our hands on one chambered in the more readily available .45 Colt caliber. Besides, that’s the same caliber as the Uberti 1873 Cattleman El Patron revolver we looked at recently. Since it’s a bit challenging and even more expensive to buy 150-year-old rifles, we’re looking to classic gun maker Uberti to provide the solution. Located near Gardone Val Trompia in the Italian Alps, the company has been manufacturing reproduction revolvers and lever-action rifles for nearly 70 years. Yes, they’re passionate about preserving and celebrating history by creating replica versions of classic firearms.
When searching for a companion to the 1873 Cattleman El Patron revolver, I quickly zeroed in on the Uberti 1873 Short Rifle. I have to confess that I’m a bit of a sucker for octagonal barrels on lever-action rifles and this one has one for its full length. If a historical firearm can be considered sexy, that would do it.
This one is compact and handy with its 20-inch barrel. It’s easy to carry, light to shoulder, and doesn’t cause fatigue when shooting off hand. Your horse may also appreciate the more compact size.
This particular model features a gorgeous case-hardened receiver, trigger, hammer, and lever. Case hardening is a process that calls for baking steel with bone and charcoal to harden the outer layer of the steel for strength and corrosion resistance. It also makes for a supremely cool appearance with its swirls of blue, yellow, green, and other colors.
Other steel parts like the magazine loading door, butt plate, tubular magazine, lever lock, bolt, and barrel are blued steel, and the contrast is simply elegant. A wood stock and fore end complete the package.
The sights are old school. The front is a blued steel blade located about an inch behind the muzzle. It’s fitted in a dovetail cut in the barrel, so if you need to adjust windage (side to side), then you simply drift that side as required.
The rear sight presents a small square notch in the based of a semi-circular cutout in the blade. The larger half circle space draws your eye to the small notch in the bottom. Line that notch up with the front blade and you have a precise sight picture.
The entire rear sight unit rests on an elevator. By sliding that forward or backward into one of six different notched positions, you can control the vertical component of bullet impact. This is helpful not only for accounting for longer shots with bullet drop but matching the sights to your specific choice of ammunition.
Loading and Unloading
Much of what makes a lever-action rifle so cool is its method of operation. Manually driven, the user rotates the lever behind the trigger to eject spent cartridge casings, load a new one, and cock the hammer. It’s simple and utterly reliable. Here’s how it works on the 1873 Short Rifle:
A tubular magazine under the barrel holds 10 rounds of .45 Colt. An internal spring keeps pressure on that stack of cartridges, pushing them towards the receiver. Cartridges are inserted one at a time through a spring-loaded loading gate on the right side of the receiver, directly into the tubular magazine.
Inside the receiver, you’ll see a brass carrier. That’s a hollow box sized to fit a round. In fact, the next cartridge in the magazine rests in this carrier while the bolt is in the closed position.
As you lower the lever, swinging it forward, the bolt withdraws from the chamber, cocking the hammer as it does so, and the carrier rises so that the cartridge inside is aligned with the chamber. As you close the lever, the bolt closes, pushing the cartridge in the carrier into the chamber.
Just as the bolt closes, the carrier springs back into the “down” position. That clears space for ejection and allows the tubular magazine spring to push a new cartridge into the carrier.
It sounds complicated, but it’s an elegant and simple loading and unloading solution. With a little practice, you can complete the firing and reloading cycle surprisingly fast.
There’s a manually operated dust cover that you can close over the open chamber and carrier area. That’s handy when riding dusty trails to keep your action clean. When you lower the lever, this cover is automatically retracted to allow for spent case ejection.
There’s also a lever latch that locks the lever in place against the lower receiver tang to prevent inadvertent movement during transport. Before operating the lever, you’ll have to rotate that into the unlocked position.
Range Test: More Barrel, More Velocity
I tested the same ammo that I used for the Uberti Cattleman 1873 El Patron single-action revolver, in part because I wanted to see what performance benefits I got from the longer 20-inch barrel. Up to the point where friction overcomes the benefit from a bullet spending more time in the bore getting pushed by expanding gas, you’ll usually get extra velocity for each additional inch of barrel length.
The 1873 Short Rifle offers 15 inches more than the Cattleman revolver, so I expected big results.
|1873 Revolver||1873 Short Rifle|
|Federal Semi-Wadcutter Hollow Point .45 Colt 225 grain||813 fps||1,056 fps|
|Blazer JHP .45 Colt 200 grain||870 fps||1,143 fps|
With the Federal lead bullets, I measured an increase of 243 feet per second. The jacketed Blazers moved 273 feet per second faster. So, that nets about to about 17 feet per second of gained velocity for each extra inch of barrel length.
That sounds good, but what does it mean? Let’s consider the Blazer loads as an example. Let’s assume that we zero both revolver and rifle at 25 yards.
From the revolver, flying at 870 feet per second from the muzzle, by the time it reaches 100 yards, that bullet has dropped over 17 inches, slowed down to 796 feet per second, and is carrying 281 foot-pounds of energy.
When shooting the same bullet from the rifle, the bullet still drops aggressively because it’s heavy and relatively slow. At 100 yards, it’s dropped just under 10 inches and by 125 yards, it’s matched the 17-inch drop from the revolver.
On the other hand, the rifle round maintains the velocity and energy performance characteristics to over triple the distance. At 300 yards, the bullet is still moving at 803 feet per second with 286 foot-pounds of energy.
So, in short, using the same ammunition in a rifle instead of a pistol increases the effective range—a lot.
Bullet drop is a predictable thing, so adjusting for that is easy. That’s why the 1873 short rifle has an elevation adjustable rear sight. You can’t adjust for velocity and energy, so that’s the big benefit to using the rifle.
I did plenty of offhand plinking and had no problem hitting paper and steel targets at 25, 50, and 100 yards. I did shoot some groups at 50 yards using the 225-grain Federal Semi-Wadcutter Hollow-Point loads.
Considering this was done with iron sights and my not-so-hot eyes, I was pleased with five-shot groups that ranged between 1.56 and 1.94 inches.
Most groups had three holes touching and two flyers that opened the group pattern, so I figure my imprecise sighting had something to do with the flyers.
An Affordable Piece of History
If you’re fortunate enough to have something like an original 1873 lever-action rifle in your collection, that’s great for you! For the rest of us, and those who want to enjoy shooting one without risk of tearing up an heirloom, check out the Uberti classic reproductions.
This rifle is absolutely a work of art. Not only can you appreciate its character and appearance, you can shoot it without worry. This model carries an MSRP of $1,209.
Uberti 1873 Short Rifle SPECS
- Caliber: 45 Colt
- Barrel: 20″, Octagonal
- Number of Grooves: 6
- Twist: Right
- Finish: Color Case Hardened Frame, Buttplate, and Lever
- Magazine Capacity: 10+1
- Barrel: Octagonal
- Stock: A-grade walnut
- MSRP: $1,209