Educational Zone #126 – Interesting Firearms – The 1873 Winchester Rifle

One day at church, my friend Joe asked me if I would be home on Monday.

I said that I would, Lord willing, and he said he was bringing something to show me.

On Monday morning, Joe showed up with an old 1873 Winchester rifle in .32-20 caliber.

It was as rough as any rifle I’ve ever seen that was still in working condition.

Here it is.

Here it is.

It was found by Joe at a gun show many years ago, and he had bought it as a “wall hanger” to go over a fireplace. But he noticed that the action seemed to work and it had all the springs still in it and he wondered if it would still fire.

The 1873 Winchester is one of the only rifles that were ever the “star” of a movie. It was the title in “Winchester ‘73” starring Jimmy Stewart in 1950.

Joe said, “I want to give this rifle to you with one condition, I want you to refinish it like you’ve done with other guns and post on the Box O’ Truth about how you did it.”

Now, before we get started, let’s talk a minute about refinishing old rifles. If this rifle was in NRA “Good” or even “Fair” condition, it would only lower the value to refinish it in any way. But this one is in “Very Poor” condition and has almost no value to a collector. I would not cut the barrel or the stock or anything like that. I will only do what I can to stop the rust and make it look presentable again.

I decided not to try to refinish the wood as that would require disassembly of the rifle, and it looks like if I tried that, some of the screws would fall apart. I do not believe I should try to take this one apart.

Let’s look at some of the problems with this rifle.

It looks like someone stored it standing on the muzzle and somehow it got wet and the water rusted the front of the barrel terribly.

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In fact the front of the magazine is almost rusted completely through.

The inside of the barrel would make a grown man cry. It looked like the inside of a well-used sewer pipe.

But when I shined a light into the barrel, I could see some faint remains of rifling.

I might be able to clean up that barrel and get it to shoot again.

The wood was not too bad, but looked like it was just dirty.

I thought that the wood would clean up really nice.

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The rifle had very bad rust on the surface and deep pitting in many areas.

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I took off the side plate and was impressed to find that the internals of the rifle’s mechanism seemed to be in good working order, if a bit dirty.

That was a good thing to find.

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And with the lever down.

And with the lever down.

I went to work on the barrel, cleaning it out and letting it soak and cleaning it again until I had it about as clean as I could get it. I then took it to the range and shot 50 rounds of old factory .32-20 ammo that Joe had given to me through it. It did not shoot “groups”, it shot “patterns”.

The .32-20 cartridge was designed as a black powder cartridge. It originally used .32 caliber bullets over 20 grains of black powder, hence, .32-20. It was probably the old black powder that ruined this barrel, as it was not properly cleaned. But I will shoot smokeless powder in it from now on.

I have found before that sometimes if you shoot and clean a bad barrel, and shoot and clean it, and shoot and clean it; it will sometimes get “better”.

I took the rifle home and cleaned it again and again. I also reloaded the brass with some 100 grain Remington JSP bullets that I had. I cleaned the brass and neck-sized it only, and reloaded with a mild load out of the reloading manuals. Most reloading manuals have two sections for .32-20 ammo, one for 1873 actions (which are mild) and one for new guns (which are hotter).

Long story short, I got the groups to get smaller and finally got it to shoot pretty well for a 138 year old rifle.

Here are a couple of targets that I shot at 25 yards.

Here are a couple of targets that I shot at 25 yards.

One was fired with a load of Accurate Arms #9 powder, and the other with a load of Accurate Arms #7.

Notice how much better the rifle “likes” the AA-#7.

Firearms will sometimes show a “preference” for one powder over another.

I went to work on the clean-up project. I started by removing grime from the wood. I just used some Liquid Gold to clean it up and it turned out pretty nice.

I used a Very Fine wire brush to remove some of the worst rust. But mostly I just cleaned it really well and oiled the metal.

I decided not to have any major work done, such as re-barreling the piece or having a new magazine built for it, as that would require a lot of money and this old rifle is not worth investing that much into it.

I cleaned off the rust and oiled the metal to stop the rust.

I opened up the side plate to look inside the action, and it looked very nice, but dirty. I cleaned it out and re-lubricated it and put the side plate back on.

I finished all the work I was going to do and put it back together.

Continued below...
Here it is, at the range.

Here it is, at the range.

The .32-20 is a very mild round, originally intended as a cartridge that could be loaded into both rifles and pistols, allowing a cowboy to carry the same ammo for both rifle and pistol.

Some old timers used to claim it was a deer cartridge, but I believe that is asking too much of this small round.

Here’s a round compared to a .30 Carbine round.

Here’s a round compared to a .30 Carbine round.

As you can see, they are similar in size, but not in power, as the .30 Carbine is a much higher pressure cartridge.

The .32-20 is also a bottle-necked case, while the .30 Carbine is a straight walled case.

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Recoil is almost non-existent.

It is a pleasure to shoot and I can get some reasonable groups with it now.

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Let’s look at the rifle closely.

Here is the markings on the grip.

Here is the markings on the grip.

The caliber is marked under the action.

It says “.32 CAL”, which is how this round was designated at that time.

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The rounds are loaded through a loading gate on the right side of the action.

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It has a crescent moon shaped butt plate, which can be painful in larger calibers, but is no problem with this light recoiling load.

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There is a dust cover that covers the action…

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And it slides back when cocked to allow ejection of the spent brass.

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When the action is opened…

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The brass plate under the action is raised up to load the next round.

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One problem old lever actions had was the lever “falling” when worn.

The rifle has a “Lock” to keep that from happening.

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And you can just slide it to the side to work the action.

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The brass action bars lift the next round to the chamber.

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And the shell is pushed into the chamber by a steel bar, that also contains the firing pin and extractor.

This is the “weak” part of this action.

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I told Joe that I was not going to refinish it and the reasons why, and he agreed.

He said he was glad that I was enjoying shooting it.

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Conclusions:

Thanks Joe. This old rifle is a pleasure to shoot and reload for, and I am going to enjoy playing around with it.

2 Comments on Educational Zone #126 – Interesting Firearms – The 1873 Winchester Rifle

  1. You seem to know a lot about gun restorations! There is an old lever gun that I would like to buy and make it usable again, but I don’t know if it would be do-able, so I thought I would ask you what you think. I can send pictures too. The gun is over 100 years old and was buried most of that time in Nevada (pretty dry I would think.) The rust is not nearly as bad as the muzzle of the gun you wrote about, fairly minor pitting I would say, but completely covered never the less. The action is also seized, probably just as rusty inside as out. What do you think, can the action be freed with a product like Evapo-Rust?

    I would love to hear your input. Thanks, Jonathan

  2. Old_Painless // April 22, 2016 at 3:31 pm // Reply

    Sorry for the slow response, Jonathan. I would not be able to tell you much unless I saw the rifle in person. But if the action is seized, you might have to take it to a gunsmith. That would probably be your best bet.

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