Today, were taking a look at a Winchester prototype developed in the mid-1860s, a period when Winchester was seeking to build on the success of the 1860 Henry Rifle and place the company on a firm financial footing. Oliver Winchester had taken control of the New Haven Arms company before the Civil War and while for a time it had been known as the Henry Repeating Arms Company he eventually sought to put his stamp on the company, renaming it Winchester Arms Company in 1866. At the same time he decided to focus the company’s energies on winning military contracts around the world.
This developmental prototype is in the ‘musket’ configuration: with a longer barrel, a bayonet lug and a wooden forend. The prototype represents one of the many developmental steps towards what would become the Model 1866. It has a number of interesting features – a steel, rather than brass, receiver and a hinged loading port developed by Nelson King, Winchester’s superintendent between 1866 and 1875.
The rifle itself was built by Luke Wheelock, Winchester’s model room mechanic and a designer in his own right who would go onto develop his own rifle designs for Winchester.
The rifle is 54.5 inches long, with a 33.75 inch barrel. Believed to have been built in 1866, it is chambered for a .45 calibre rimfire round. King patented his loading port in May 1866. He described how the port worked:
“Through one of the plates S (preferring that one upon the right-hand side) I form an opening, 0, as denoted by broken lines, Fig. 1, and also seen in section, Fig. 7. This opening is formed so as to communicate through the frame directly to the chamber E in the carrier block, as seen in Fig. 3. Through this opening, and while the carrier-block is down and all parts of the arm in a state of rest, insert the cartridges, point first, through the said opening in the plate S into the chamber E the second cartridge pressing the first into the magazine, and so on with each successive cartridge until the magazine is filled, or until the requisite number has been inserted therein, the follower G being pressed up before the entering cartridges. In the rear of the chamber E2 the frame forms a shoulder to prevent the cartridges from being forced out through the opening in the plate S3 is a cover for closing the opening in the plate S3 and is hinged thereto, as seen in Figs. 1 and 7, the hinge being provided with a spring,a1, the tendency of which is to open the cover C. A spring-catch, d, (see Fig. 1,) secures the cover when closed, so that by pressing upon the said catch the cover will fly open. After the requisite number of cartridges have been placed within the magazine, close the cover, as seen in Figs. 1 and 2.”
To paraphrase: ammunition can be loaded through the opening in one of the receiver side plate when the carrier block is down, insert the cartridges through the opening, pressing the first into the magazine and so on until the magazine is filled… a cover for closing the opening is hinged to the receiver side plate. A spring catch secures the cover when closed.
According to Herbert Houze, King developed the covered loading port design in early January 1866, with a design drawing dating to the 14th January, confirming this.
King altered the design of the rifle’s cartridge carrier so that a cartridge could pass through its lower section straight into the magazine when the action was closed. In theory the aperture could be placed on either side of the receiver, in practice is was placed on the right. Prior to this Winchester had experimented with systems where the tube could slide forward (G.W. Briggs US #58937), a port in the base of the receiver (J.D. Smith US #52934) or a sliding forearm covering a loading port at the rear of the magazine tube (O.F. Winchester UK #3284 [19/12/1865]).
King’s system had the benefit of allowing the rifle to be quickly loaded or topped off without rendering the rifle unusable while loading. Positioning the port in the receiver allowed the magazine tube to be enclosed by a wooden forend.
A cartridge guide was fitted inside the receiver which guided rounds through the cartridge carrier and into the tube magazine. The rounds were prevented from popping out of the magazine, when the carrier was aligned and the cover open, by a shallow shoulder which projected in line with the carrier’s channel to hold cartridges in the tube by their rim.
The hinged cover is held shut by a spring catch mounted on the rear of the cover. When the knurled section on its front is pressed rearwards the cover pops open. The spring catch is actuated when it tensions against the cover’s hinge as it is closed. On the back of the cover there is also a cartridge stop for when the cover is closed.
Another small but interesting feature of the prototype is the catch at the rear of the lever loop, this differs from the manually turned catch seen on the Henry and production 1866. This design appears to be a much better safety feature, simply requiring the user’s hand to depress the catch to unlock it from the stock. It also appears to be a much simpler mechanism than that seen in later models like the Model 1895. The trigger also had an extension protruding from its rear which appears to prevent the trigger from being pulled when the lever isn’t full closed. Neither of these features appear in King’s May 1866 patent.
It appears that the idea of the port with a hinged cover was superseded by what we now recognise as the classic Winchester loading gate in the summer of 1866. King’s new system replaced the hinged cover with a piece of stamped spring steel attached to the inside of the receiver side plate by a screw. The spring steel gate could be pushed in, with the nose of a cartridge, to allow rapid loading. The front face of the gate formed a cartridge guide removing the need for the separate machined guide used in King’s earlier iteration of the system.
King’s revised loading port system required just five, rather than twelve, components: King’s altered cartridge carrier, receiver side plate, spring metal loading gate plate and retaining screws. This simple but elegant design continued to be used for decades on various models of rifle. The company were so pleased with the refinement of the rifle that, according to R.L. Wilson, King was awarded a payment of a $5,000 reward by the company’s board of directors.
Winchester introduced the rifle in 1866, with the first deliveries being made early in 1867, the new rifle was offered in various barrel lengths and patterns including carbine, rifle and ‘musket’. Winchester found some success selling 1866 rifles to the militaries of France and the Ottoman Empire, while many other countries purchased rifles for testing including Britain and Switzerland (whom came close to adopting the Winchester.) The rifles also found success on the civilian market with around 4,500 sold in the first five months.
The Scientific American described the new rifles as “elegant in appearance, compact, strong, and of excellent workmanship. On examination we find its working parts very simple, and not apparently liable to derangement.”
King incrementally developed his loading system before radically simplifying it and this prototype rifle represents an important developmental step in the design of what would become the Model 1866 – one of Winchester’s most important rifles.
Special thanks to the Cody Firearms Museum for allowing us to take a look at this fascinating prototype rifle.
Winchester Repeating Arms Company, H. Houze (1994)
Winchester: An American Legend, R. L. Wilson (1991)