Hunting with the Uberti 1873 Short RifleBy James Passmore
- 11th Apr, 2020 Apr 11, 2020, 10:14 AM
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They called it the gun that won the west. A town was named after it. It’s famous from a thousand movies. It was carried by hunters, cowboys, soldiers and lawmen for decades. It was in the hands of Amazon explorers, Mexican revolutionaries, Australian prospectors and Kiwi bushmen. The rifle was the Winchester 1873 lever-action, most often chambered in .44/40.
The Winchester Model 1873 was born as a working rifle on the frontier, and manufactured up until 1923. But although it is legendary as a ‘cowboy’ gun, it wasn’t just carried on the American frontier. It was used throughout Australia and South America, and many filtered through to New Zealand.
It was an international hit in the 19th century, a truly remarkable step forward in repeating firearms design, so much so that 150 years later there are still three companies making them - Winchester themselves, Pedersoli, and Aldo Uberti, of Italy.
So successful has the Uberti version been that it dominates CAS shooting circles today, alongside other Winchester designed replicas, like the Henry and the Model 1866. This success evidently encouraged Winchester to revive their own version of the ’73 rifle, but this time made by Miroku in Japan.
I am a levergun aficionado, and the ’73 rifle has always called to me. With a safe full of scoped high-powered bolt actions, I decided it was time I tried something new. I would get a Winchester ’73 chambered in .44/40, and load it with black powder, just like the original rifles. I had never loaded black powder cartridges before this, much less hunted with them.
“So successful has the Uberti version been that it dominates CAS shooting circles today, alongside other Winchester designed replicas, like the Henry and the Model 1866.”
I ordered a Uberti 1873 ‘Short Rifle’ in .44/40 from Neil at Hayes & Associates in Carterton. Neil has been importing Ubertis and Pedersolis for years and always provides excellent service.
Ubertis offer three different versions of the ’73, a carbine with a round 20” barrel and shorter butt stock, a full-sized 24-inch octagonal barrelled rifle, and the Short Rifle, which has a 20” octagonal barrel and the longer rear stock with a curved butt-plate.
I decided on this because the full size rifles are heavier, and the Short Rifle would be more practical for bush hunting and back packing, while still having the feel and hopefully the accuracy of the rifle.
The Uberti turned out to be exceedingly handsome. The Winchester-red stain of the walnut stock offset the colours of the case-hardened receiver. The entire rifle oozed quality. There were no shortcuts in manufacturing, the entire rifle was steel and walnut, perfectly finished with no gaps or high points.
Working the lever, the distinctive “click–clack” of the toggle-link action with its rising brass elevator brought a smile to my face. The interior parts were as well finished as the rest of the rifle, and it fed and extracted beautifully.
To take off the side plate of a ’73 is to look straight into the heart of the repeating rifle revolution of the mid-19th century. The rate of fire of the lever action repeater was sensational in a world dominated by single-shot muzzle-loading rifles.
“The Short Rifle holds ten cartridges in the magazine and one in the chamber, so there is plenty of firepower.”
The ’73 action works smoother and faster than the later Browning-designed leverguns, the 1886, 1892 and 1894 models. It may not be as strong - it only had to withstand the pressure of the black powder .44/40, .38/40, .32/20 and .25/20 cartridges - but the steel in the modern rifles is stronger than the old originals and the Italian rifles are proofed for the .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum as well as the .45 Colt and .44/40.
The Short Rifle holds ten cartridges in the magazine and one in the chamber, so there is plenty of firepower. Empty, the rifle weighs 3.6 kilos. She handles and comes up to the shoulder like she was made for me. The lever action runs like a Rolls Royce, cycling effortlessly with much less resistance than a Winchester 92 or 94.
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While many will find the colour case hardening attractive, I personally am not a fan. I would have preferred a blued rifle but they are not imported. Instead I have since refinished the receiver with a blueing gel, giving it an antiqued patina that resembles worn blueing.
I developed two loads: a smokeless load with a jacketed bullet that matched the early smokeless factory offerings, and a recreation of the original black powder cast bullet load.
I chose the Hornady 200 grain XTP hollow-point bullet over 26 grains of AR2207 (H4198). This replicated the early smokeless load. The amount of powder fills the entire case, much like black powder, and the bullet sits on top of it, so there is no danger of the bullet telescoping into the case under magazine spring pressure.
A hard crimp on the bullet is only to ensure a good powder burn. This load gives me 1300fps from my 20” barrel, which is what a .44/40 should be doing, and is still low enough in pressure to be safe in the ’73.
For a mild and economical load I also make up cartridges with a cast bullet and eight grains of AP70N (Universal) which is a similar powder to Unique. These give excellent accuracy, and would put a deer down if you hit him right.
My big game load with black powder took a lot of experimentation, but eventually I settled on 36 grains of FFF Scheutzen black powder trickled into an unsized case over a smokeless priming of six grains of AR2205. This duplex load (ie; two types of powder) is compressed.
My lead bullets are cast from an Accurate mold (# 431 215C) that drops an alloy of 1:16 parts pure lead/tin, weighing 217 grains. Velocity averages 1260 fps. All cases were Starline primed with Federal large pistol primers.
AT THE RANGE
Range results were pleasing - the rifle shot three-inch groups at 100 metres with my smokeless loads and pure lead cast bullets. But jacketed XTPs put five rounds into a two inch group easily, and the black powder loads with 1:16 tin alloy cast bullets did the same. The old-time buffalo hunters used 1:16 alloy as well, so I reckoned I was on the right track.
The trigger on the Uberti ’73 is excellent, a credit to both Uberti’s manufacturing and Winchester’s 19th century design. I saw no reason to change it. The target results with the factory open sights spoke for themselves.
The front sight is a blade and the rear is an open buckhorn, with a notched elevator. Both front and rear sights are dovetailed and adjustable for windage with a punch.
I suspect I may be the only hunter in this country at least who is still seriously using the .44/40 for deer, or even taking one of these Uberti ‘73’s out hunting. Most people get them for cowboy action shooting. But I wanted to use the rifle for what it was designed for; I bought the rifle for deer hunting and now that I had a good load, I was going bush.
IN THE FIELD
Far down a river in South Westland I caught two hinds out in the open in the late afternoon. The first offered a straight forward off-hand shot at 70 metres and I took it. The black powder smoke from the muzzle obscured the deer at the critical moment of impact, something I’ve had to learn to live with.
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At first I misplaced my dead deer. Worried that she had made the tree line while I was blinded by my own smoke, I scouted for a couple of minutes in the direction I imagined she had run before discovering the carcass only six paces from where I’d shot her.
The soft lead bullet hit where I had aimed and passed through completely. The bullet punched an exit hole the same size as the entrance, although I could see plenty of bloodshot damage inside the wound. For a bullet made in my garage with old roofing lead and tin solder, I was very pleased with this result. My first black powder animal, and on the first day out!
I hunted for a week after that, calling in stags and trying to find a trophy animal. I found many deer, and called in three young stags and let them go. Sometimes in the bush you can’t tell what size deer you’re looking at until the animal is very close.
At the end of the trip I took another mature hind for meat to go home with. The Uberti ’73 performed its part well once more - a good broadside shot at 50 metres dropped this second hind on the spot.
Once again the bullet passed through completely, and I began to have more confidence in my 19th century lever-action rifle and its black powder cartridges.
HUNTING WITH THE UBERTI ‘73
Weighing in at 3.6kg the ’73 Short Rifle is about as heavy as a modern rifle with a scope. That is mostly because of the octagonal barrel. Being muzzle-heavy she hangs well for off-hand shooting which is important to me. The lack of a scope does make handling the rifle easier, but she is still a larger and heavier rifle than a Winchester .30/30.
The sights - in open country when shooting at animals clearly visible in good light, the blade front sight, and the large notch in the buckhorn rear sight, work just fine. But in thick bush, and with the darker coloured animals in shadow, I was not comfortable with judging the elevation of the blade within the rear notch.
My eyes are no longer twenty years old and the rear sight is close to the eye. I was not quite certain of what was going on in poorer light. I have since fitted a white bead combined with a three leaf open rear sight. A folding aperture tang sight would do the trick I am thinking, and be a nice addition to the rifle. Uberti also make tang sights for the ’73 rifle.
To take Uberti’s modern version of the Winchester ’73 hunting, and to shoot deer with it, is an accomplishment I have spent years looking forward to. A recent trip to Manapouri in the pouring winter rain produced another animal, so I have now shot three deer with the rifle since I bought it.
Hunting with black powder cartridges in a 19th century lever-action, a true classic, is to enjoy a unique firearms experience.
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