THE WINCHESTER 73 TOOK THE SHOOTING WORLD BY STORM IN 1873, AND THE NAVY ARMS VERSION OF IT BEING MADE TODAY IS A REAL WORK OF ART.
There are may cliches that describe the Winchester 1873, and most of them, the good ones anyway, have merit. My opinion is that it was probably the most popular lever- action long gun in the United States from its inception throughout the 19th century and maybe into the 20th century.
At its introduction, the Model 1873 was important for several reasons. Not like a best varmint rifle, lever-action rifles and carbines had been hugely successful since their development, including the first variant, the Henry Repeating Rifle, designed by B. Tyler Henry. As most lever-action aficionados know, the Henry put its users at a clear advantage due to its ability to quickly fire .44-caliber bullets at targets, which varied from Civil War participants to marauders, criminals, and others.
The first actual Winchester lever-action repeater came about in the form of the Model 1866, which is celebrating its 150th birthday this year. The Henry Repeating Rifle Co. changed its name to the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. that year. Like the Henry rifle, the ’66 sported a brass frame and fired the .44 Rimfire cartridge. Nelson King, who had succeeded Henry as the shop foreman, received a patent for what was known as the “King’s Improvement” in 1866. The improvement was actually the spring steel loading gate on the right side of the receiver. This same design, or a close version of it, is still in use today.
The .44 Rimfire cartridges used in the Henry and ’66 rifles were rather delicate. The cartridge rims, which had to be folded during manufacture, were very thin and light in order to produce proper detonation. This caused frequent misfires and bulging of the cases. With the advancement of technology in metallurgy, an improved method of cartridge-making was developed: the centerfire primed cartridge. The use of heavier rims enabled manufacturers to increase the powder charge from 28 grains in the .44 Rimfire to 40 grains in the centerfire cartridge, thus the introduction of the best 308 rifle (.44-caliber bullet over 40 grains of blackpowder). The Rimfire had been made of copper and the centerfire from brass, which allowed the cases to be reloaded, unlike the Rimfire.
With the development of the centerfire cartridge, engineers at Winchester went to work on some improvements to the Model 1866. After considerable testing, the Model 1873 was introduced, though few actual rifles left the Winchester factory that year.
The Winchester ’73 took the shooting world by storm, and by 1882 the gun was available not only in .44-40, but also in .38-40 and .32-20. These were all marked on the firearms as W.C.F., or Winchester Center Fire. A few ’73s were later available in .22 rimfire. Various adjustments were made to the old ’73s over the years, and the customer could custom order virtually any feature. The original Model 1873 production came to an end in 1923, with more than 720,000 total pieces manufactured.
Enter Navy Arms
I’ve been wild about Winchester lever-action rifles for years, and I’ve always recognized the Model 1873 as one of the most classic and revered lever guns of the Old West. When I first discovered that Navy Arms of Martinsburg, West Virginia, was planning on turning out slicked-up modern versions of the classic Model 1873, I was elated. Navy Arms is owned and operated by my friend Val Forgett III. I have a long history with the For- gett family. Val’s dad, Val Forgett Jr., was the founder of Navy Arms and a fine man. I had the great fortune of being invited on a New Mexico muzzleloader hunt with my dad, Mr. Forgett, and several other big shots when I was about 12 years old. He showed me a great deal of kindness and patience, and I’ve always appreciated him. Val III is no different. Like so many of us, he has a fondness for old guns, partially evidenced by his line of Model 1873 rifles, which are, in my book, masterpieces.
I first saw one of the Navy Arms ’73s at last year’s SHOT Show, and I was stunned. The workmanship, fit, and woodwork were superb, and so was the beautiful metal finish by Turnbull Restoration. I immediately began pestering Val to send me one for testing. The wait was excruciating, but it was worth it.
When I received the Navy Arms ’73 I was taken aback not only by the beauty of the gun, but also by the all-around feel of it. When you first handle this rifle, you realize immediately it’s not some everyday Winchester copy. It is, indeed, made by Winchester and bears the Winchester markings on the barrel and tang, which is a very satisfying note. Of course, the Navy Arms marking is also on the barrel and so is the Turnbull logo. The color-casehardening on the rifle’s receiver is gorgeous (typical Turnbull).
Along with the receiver, the hammer, lever, trigger, forearm cap, dustcover, and steel buttplate are also color-casehardened. Another fine touch to my liking is the fact that the screws and the lever latch are brightly fire-blued, adding even more to the classic look of the rifle. The rifle is fitted with Winchester deluxe red-colored walnut, a feature that Val is particularly proud of. The wood is beautifully figured. Originally, Winchester had a proprietary wood coloring that was applied to many of its stocks, producing the distinct red coloring. This modern ’73 has matched it very closely, if not perfectly.
The buttstock and forearm are beautifully checkered. At close inspection, my eyes can detect no flaws in the checkering. The feel of the wood is a gratifying experience. The rifle features a shotgun butt rather than a crescent butt; I’ve always preferred the shotgun butt because I find it easier to shoulder quickly. As I stated, the steel buttplate is color-casehardened and nicely checkered. The buttplate screws are also fire-blued.
The Navy Arms 1873 rifles are prefitted with a short-stroke action. I’m not active in cowboy action shooting, but I understand some of the organizations don’t allow this feature. Regardless, I like it, and it works for me. The 1873 action is quite unique and is often referred to as a toggle action. The cartridge is fed from the magazine tube back to the cartridge carrier, then upward, where it is then chambered by the bolt. Of course, this is all a result of working the lever down, which extracts and ejects the casing and cocks the hammer, then working it up, which chambers the live cartridge. The Navy Arms ’73, like the originals, features a brass cartridge carrier. The bottom of the carrier, which fits flush with the bottom of the receiver when not engaged, features the rifle’s caliber in script, as did the original Winchester ’73s.
My gun features a 20-inch octagon barrel with a bright blue finish. The rifle is also available in a 24.25-inch-barreled version. (I love the shorter gun; it’s perfect for saddle carry and brush-work.) The bluing is superbly done on the barrel, magazine tube, and loading gate. The sights are a traditional semi-buck-horn rear with the step elevation adjustment. The front sight is a standard brass bead sight. Both sights are dovetailed into the barrel and can be drift adjusted for windage.
Unfortunately, Navy Arms doesn’t offer the 1873 in the original Winchester pistol calibers, but it is available in .45 Colt and .357 Magnum/.38 Special. My gun is chambered in .357/.38 and is a decent shooter in .357 Magnum.
The ’73 on the Range
After receiving the Navy ’73, it didn’t take me long to get out and fire it. I wasn’t disappointed. I didn’t initially shoot the gun on paper; I just wanted to plink with it at various ranges to get a feel for it. I began by shooting at my old steel plate at 50 yards. After a few practice shots, I was whacking it easily, offhand. The feel of the rifle was very comfortable, and working the action was a breeze from the shoulder. I was stimulated by the satisfying ring of the toggle action, which is a very distinct sound. I then began shooting farther out at various rocks and had great fun walking the bullets in at longer distances. That initial shooting was done with Black Hills 158-grain JHPs. The rifle had little recoil and was an absolute pleasure to shoot.
For the serious shooting, I set up my shooting bench and target stand at 50 yards. Using a sandbag rest, I began firing Federal 125-grain JHPs. That loading averaged 2.0 inches and 2,087 fps. The next load was Hornady LEVERevolution 140-grain FTX. It, too, performed well, averaging 2.25 inches and 1,748 fps. CorBon 125-grain JHPs were next. They printed 2.75 inches and had a velocity of 2,203 fps. The last .357 Magnum ammunition fired from the bench was the Black Hills 158-grain JHPs, and the rifle liked that ammo quite well. It averaged 2.00 inches and 1,537 fps. Then I tried some .38 Specials. Speer’s 125-grain Gold Dots grouped 2.25 inches and measured 1,320 fps.
There are several considerations regarding the accuracy of this rifle off the bench, first being the sights. I did my accuracy testing at the beginning of the Southern New Mexico spring, which produces constant wind. I was experiencing 15- to 20-mph gusts, which is not conducive to pinpoint shooting. In addition, while I like the idea of the traditional semi-buckhorn, I don’t deem it, combined with the brass bead front sight, to be a practical choice for precision shooting. I did my bench shooting just after midday, and there was some glare on the brass bead. My aging eyes sometimes have a tough time seeing the notch in the bottom of the rear buckhorn, too. As any bench shooter knows, a slight difference in sight picture within a five-shot group can make a big difference. Also, the trigger pull on my test gun measured 5.5 pounds on my RCBS scale. That’s not bad, but I think with considerable use or a little more professional polishing, the trigger could be a little smoother and more suitable for precision shooting, if the user desires. As is, the trigger pull is fine for plinking or short-range hunting.
This rifle is fulfilling in a number of ways. First, it’s a work of art, one of the finest modern lever actions—if not the finest—I’ve ever handled. The fit and finish, coupled with the functionality, are remarkable. It’s balanced and heavy enough to comfortably fire offhand with good accuracy. The .357 Magnum chambering makes it perfectly practical for a number of applications, including cowboy action shooting, short-range hunting, plinking, and home defense. Last but not least, it represents a fine piece of history, reminding us of our past and a time whose memories resonate with most of us.
At $2,499, the Navy Arms ’73 might seem pricey to some, but once you handle one, you’ll fully understand.
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