Winchester: All Time Greatest Guns

Winchester is one of the great American arm’s design firms. Winchester Repeating Arms can trace its development to Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson of S&W fame. Those two men purchased the rights to produce a repeating lever action rifle and caseless ammo concept best known as the Volcanic rifles and ammo. Oliver Winchester was an early investor, and when the company went belly up, he purchased the rights and equipment to the rifles.

Oliver employed Benjamin Tyler Henry, who became famed for the Henry rifle, the first successful lever-action rifle design. From then on, Winchester would become famous for its lever-action rifles; however, they would not become their sole identity.

Sam Elliott in "The Quick and The Dead" with Winchester 1873 rifle
Sam Elliott can be seen using a Winchester 1873 lever-action rifle in Louis L’Amour’s “The Quick and The Dead” movie. The 1873 rifle is a Western staple. [Photo: HBO]
As a company, they had various identities that shifted as their designs and technology improved. They started life as a lever-action company and became a shotgun company around the turn of the 20th century. They finished their run as a maker of fine bolt-action rifles.

Speaking of, the company exists only in name these days. Officially, the Winchester plant closed in 2006. Olin owns the brand name and produces ammo under that name. Olin licenses the name to the Herstal Group, which keeps Winchester rolling. They supposedly still make some of their classic rifles, but currently, they produce few guns.

Winchester produced several iconic firearms in its day, and today, we are celebrating the top five icons produced by Winchester throughout its century and a half or so of production.

Model 1873

You could put any number of Winchester lever-action rifles in this slot. You could pick the 1866 Yellow Boy or the 1894 designed by Browning. However, the 1873 deserves this spot on the list. Winchester’s lever-action 1873 is the “Gun that Won the West”, after all. The 1873 came in the powerful .44-40 cartridge, the first centerfire cartridge designed by Winchester.

Winchester produced the Model 1873 in several configurations, including a 24-inch rifle, a 20-inch carbine, and a 30-inch musket.

winchester model 1873
The Winchester Model 1873 is known as the “Gun That Won the West”. [Photo: Winchester]
It bears mentioning that the term musket was often used to refer to a full-length military stock rather than a smoothbore. These rifles went on to chamber numerous cartridges, but it’s worth noting they never chambered the .45 Colt.

The model 1873 rifles proved to be extremely robust and well-made. They armed limited numbers of hunters, lawmen, pioneers, and even soldiers. The classic 1873 provided shooters with a fast-firing weapon with a relatively high capacity. It was the AR-15 of its day and is still one of the more common layouts for a lever-action rifle.

Model 1903

At the turn of the century, there was an arms race toward semi-auto self-loading weapons. The race to create the first usable semi-auto rifle was won by Winchester with the Model 1903. It wasn’t the first semi-auto rifle designed, but it was the first successful semi-auto rifle and the first semi-auto rimfire rifle.

Underrated gun designer T.C. Johnson designed the Model 1903. The rifle fired the .22 Winchester automatic rimfire cartridge.

Model 1903 rifle
The Model 1903 was the first rimfire semi-auto rifle. [Photo: Public Domain]
This proprietary cartridge was only ever used in the Model 1903. In 1919, Winchester rebranded the gun as the Model 63 and chambered it for the more popular .22LR. It was a simple blowback design that used a tubular magazine in the stock.

The magazine held ten rounds and was loaded through the butt of the rifle. These rifles had a takedown design that could be easily split for storage and transportation. The rifle was quite a success for Winchester. Winchester’s 1903 ushered in a new genre of rifles that we still use today. Guns like the Ruger 10/22 owe the 1903 for its existence.

Model 12

At the turn of the century, Winchester entered its shotgun era. The M1897 was the first successful pump-action design based on the earlier Winchester 1893. While 1897 gets a lot of credit, it had many issues owing to its early design. The Model 12 shotgun would influence the entire pump action shotgun genre that followed.

The Model 12 was designed by T.C. Johnson, who admittedly used some ideas from Browning’s 1897 patent. The Model 12 enclosed the hammer and removed the guts from the bottom design of the 1897.

winchester model 12 top down
The Model 12 revolutionized pump action shotguns. [Photo: Gunmag Warehouse]
The design was rigid and less likely to break. The Model 12 would become one of Winchester’s most popular guns. It earned the name “Perfect Repeater.”

Winchester produced the Model 12 from 1912 until 1964, with the occasional special run. These guns are rock solid, with parts made from machined steel and built by craftsmen. What killed them were guns like the 870, which certainly borrowed the Model 12’s layout but was made for cheaper mass production.

M1 Carbine

This one always surprises people. It’s not called the Winchester M1 Carbine, and it wasn’t solely produced by Winchester. However, a team of Winchester engineers designed the majority of the M1 Carbine. A lot of the credit gets laid on David ‘Carbine’ Williams, but the design was a team effort. Winchester developed the gun and the .30 Carbine cartridge.

The development of the M1 Carbine was guided by the Armed Force’s desire for a lightweight, semi-auto rifle for non-combat troops.

Because of its lightweight, the M1 Carbine is very easy to carry in the field. [Photo: Jim Davis]
The design worked, and when World War II came around, the need for the weapon increased dramatically. While Winchester produced the most M1 Carbines, several other manufacturers were contracted to produce the weapon.

The M1 Carbine became a legendary military weapon. The light rifle later encouraged the design of modern carbines. The short-stroke gas piston system has been used in dozens of guns since. The M1 Carbine became popular outside the military and is still produced today.

Model 70

Finally, the Winchester Model 70 saw Winchester’s transition into a bolt-action rifle company. Winchester produced plenty of bolt guns before the Model 70, like the Model 54, which the Model 70 is largely based on. The Model 70 design is undoubtedly one of the most famous bolt-action rifles ever produced. It would be used by generations of hunters, target shooters, and military and police snipers.

Model 70
The Model 70 – The Rifleman’s Rifle. [Photo: Public Domain]
The Model 70 has been called the Riflmen’s Rifle for its accuracy and reliability. Some of that reliability comes from using the controlled round-feed design and the Mauser heritage. Even after the post-64 guns ditched the controlled round feed, the gun was known for its reliability.

The rifle’s success ensured its production in nearly every modern rifle cartridge, including everything from the .22 Hornet to the massive .470 Capstick. To this day, rifles like the FN SPR and PBR are based on the Model 70. It’s still in production with what’s left of Winchester.

Going Winchester

It’s sad to see Winchester’s current state. Their most common firearm is the Turkish SXP, based on the older Model 1200/1300 series of shotguns. Their lever guns and bolt-action rifles are nominally still in production, but good luck finding one for sale. Still, there are, without a doubt, a ton of great Winchester firearms out on the used market that can scratch your itch for American-made awesomeness.

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine Gunner and a lifelong firearms enthusiast. Now that his days of working a 240B like Charlie Parker on the sax are over he's a regular guy who likes to shoot, write, and find ways to combine the two. He holds an NRA certification as a Basic Pistol Instructor and is probably most likely the world's Okayest firearm instructor. He is a simplicisist when it comes to talking about himself in the 3rd person and a self-professed tactical hipster. Hit him up on Instagram, @travis.l.pike, with story ideas.

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