It’s amazing how gun technology took off when folks got away from the rocklock.
The flintlock had reigned for more than 100 years when the caplock hit the scene. The caplock was around for about 50 years when the cartridge idea came to the drawing board. First came the single-shot, and then the revolver, the Henry, and the Winchester 1866 and 1873 lever-guns — the list goes on. By the time the lever-gun was the hot new item, technology was moving so fast that new ideas were appearing before old ones were perfected.
I think that’s what happened with the 1873 Winchester lever-gun. With the increased popularity of cowboy action shooting nowadays and the 1873 Winchester’s already-smooth action, it didn’t take long for shooters to figure out how to reduce the rifle’s long lever throw.
No matter your thoughts about altering a cowboy gun for competition, the result is a defensive carbine that’s a bit quicker to operate.
The 1866 and 1873 have always been known for smoothness, mostly because the cartridge elevator lifts the round straight up while it rests level in the action. There is no angled ramp to force the cartridge through. That, coupled with a simplistic action, made the gun reliable and smooth. The lever throw made you pass 90 degrees when levering a new round. Shooters soon realized that by altering the physics of the internal components, you could make the lever rotate less, and the rifle would be faster.
One of these shooters was Joe Alves, owner of Pioneer Gun Works. His Short Stroke Kit reduces the stroke by at least the width of the lever, bringing it on the butt side of 90 degrees. That gives the 1873 the advantages of later lever-guns, such as the Marlin 1894, without the angled feeding ramp. Alves found that by changing the toggles and lifter arm using a computer program, he could reduce the rotation needed to function the 1873 and ’66. The rifles have similar internal parts. After the parts are designed on the computer, a program is loaded into the CNC machine, and the part is cut to exact specifications. Alves then inspects each part, and they can be dropped into your gun with minor fitting of the lifter arm. He said if you can take apart your gun, you can install the short-stroke kit.
One reason I like the 1873 — besides romance — is the simple design of the action. When shooting black-powder cartridge matches, I like to clean the guns after every shoot. It’s even necessary sometimes before the shoot is finished. Black powder is extremely corrosive, and the fouling is thick and can jam the action. Yet the 1873 also seems to resist the jamming effects of black-powder fouling longer than other actions. The simple action is much easier to take down and hose out after each shooting.
The more I shot the ’73, the more I wanted to slick up the action, so I figured I should install the short-stroke kit.
When the short-stroke kit arrived, I noticed the machining was very professional. The parts came with complete instructions, and the only tool needed — other than for disassembly — was a small file to mill the contact surface of the lifter arm where it meets the lever. I also used a stone to polish the surface after it was timed. The toggle links dropped right in, and I used a dummy round to time the lifter to the rest of the action. The elevator will only rise when the bolt is closed or open all the way. If the lifter arm isn’t timed with the bolt, it will jam.
I had one problem. The factory springs that came with the rifle were so massive and hardened they would wear on the bumps that made them operate on the lifter arm. I talked to Alves, and he recommended lighter springs. The springs are like leaf springs on a car, and they aren’t needed to cause the lift and return to operate the gun. However, my Uberti is a replica of the original 1873, and manufacturers made everything stronger then. Solutions include reducing the tension of the original spring by grinding it thinner or replacing the springs with a Whisper Spring Kit from the Smith Shop (www.thesmithshop.com) in Rhode Island. These springs are wire versions of the originals. I would consider getting Whisper Springs when ordering a kit from Alves. They are cheap enough that it isn’t worth grinding the original springs.
Alves also offers an aluminum version of the elevator. It’s anodized to a brass color, so it looks like the original and is unbelievably lighter than the brass elevator that comes with the gun. The idea behind the lighter elevator is simple: A lighter part is easier to lift.
I also used some molybdenum disulfide from Brownell’s on the friction areas of the action when reassembling it. That prevented any galling until the parts broke in.
I was amazed how easily I could lever a round after installing the kit. It was like the rifle was transformed into a semiauto. The 1873 felt a little like my Marlin because the stroke was shorter.
The kit — or any other part that must be fitted in a gun — rarely works after the first fitting. Be patient, file a little at a time, and then reassemble the gun and try it. It might take many tries to get a perfect fit and timing.
The Defensive Carbine
Most folks think of AR-15s or other semiautos as tactical or defensive weapons. However, the lever-gun is still a great defensive rifle. With a pistol-caliber rifle, overpenetration is lessened from that of, say, a .223. Further, lever-guns are short and maneuverable in close quarters. The .45 Colt, .44-40, .44 Mag. or .357 Mag. have plenty of stopping power. The speed with which cowboy action shooters can operate a lever-gun is phenomenal.
As with any defensive tool, routine practice sessions will make the operation of a lever-gun second nature. And after modifying any defensive firearm, don’t shoot it until you’re satisfied it’s safe and have confidence in it.
Whether you want to get an edge at the next cowboy match or have an 1873 standing sentry at home, the Short Stroke Kit from Pioneer Gun Works will make your action smoother and faster to operate. Give Alves a call at (541) 521-9684, or check out www.pioneergunworks.com.
— Dave Morelli is a retired policeman, having served as a patrolman, trainer, SWAT operator and a SAR tracker/trainer. He now writes about guns, hunting, tactical gear and training.