50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
WINCHESTER MODEL 1892 CARBINE
Friendly firearms conversation often drifts to someone eventually commenting that Winchester lever-actions were the first rapid-fire assault rifles. But that honor should really go to the forerunner of the Winchester, the 1860 Henry Rifle. After all, a period broadside for the Henry boasted it could fire “Sixty Shots Per Minute”—obviously not taking into account reloading time for the 16-shot repeater. Nonetheless, it was a formidable weapon for its time.
Teddy Roosevelt’s Model 92 carbine sports a number of special order features, including John Ulrich engraving, fancy checkered walnut stocks, and nickel- and gold-plating, much of which is worn off.
That was only the beginning, for afterwards came the bronze-framed Model 1866, then the Model 1873 and its reloadable .44-40 chambering, and the ’73’s bulkier offshoot, the Model 1876 “Centennial” that put Winchester lever-actions in the hands of big-game hunters. Then Winchester hit an impasse, for the action of the Model ’76 wasn’t long enough to chamber one of the most popular cartridges of the day, the .45-70 Government. Plus, all of Winchester’s lever-actions still used the basic 1860’s toggle-link innards of the Henry rifle. The Winchester Repeating Arms Company needed a stronger, smoother action capable of handling some of the more powerful big-game cartridges. For the solution, Oliver Winchester’s son-in-law and company president Thomas G. Bennett turned to John Browning, from whom Bennett had already purchased the single-shot rifle that would become the Winchester 1885 High Wall. Browning responded by creating the smoothest action of any lever gun in existence at the time, the Model 1886 Winchester.
Although it was equal in scale and approximate weight to the Model ’76, the Model ’86 was a completely different rifle. It employed twin elongated locking lugs that slid up on either side of the bolt and anchored it shut when the lever was closed. After firing, the lever was pivoted open, which ejected the shell and dropped the twin lugs away from the bolt as it slid back in the receiver with a minimum amount of friction. The result was a lightning-fast action that was smooth as warm butter.
The Model 1886 became tremendously popular, the only drawback being its 91⁄2-pound weight. Bennett soon realized a natural progression of the Model ’86 would be a scaled-down version for the same three “holy trinity” of frontier rifle/revolver cartridges chambered in the 1873, the .44-40, .38-40, and .32-20. Thus emerged the Winchester Model 1892, which was eventually also chambered for .25-20 WCF and later still, the .218 Bee.
The “secret” behind Chuck Connors’ rapid firing of his Model 92 carbine lies in a specially installed trigger-tripping screw, which can be backed out for conventional usage.
Like its big brother the Winchester 1886, the sleeker Model 1892 featured the identical slick action, just slimmed down a bit. Yet, considering the low-recoiling cartridges it was chambered for, it was still over-engineered. Nonetheless, it was less expensive to produce than the Model ’73 and priced at $18, soon began outselling “The Gun that Won the West.” Although the ’92 was introduced as both a rifle and saddle ring carbine, it was the six-pound carbine that proved more popular. Like most Winchesters, it could be ordered with any number of options, including special finishes, barrel lengths, and engraving. Interestingly, for an extra charge, the saddle ring could be eliminated. Another variation of the Model 92 isn’t a Model 92 at all, but a fairly accurate copy that was made by the firm of Garate y Anitua Cia, in Eibar, Spain, during the early twentieth century and called El Tigre.
One of the most ardent users of the Model 1892 was Theodore Roosevelt, and I had the privilege of personally examining his .44-40 carbine, serial No. 53614, which is on display at the Frazier History Museum in Louisville, Kentucky (www.fraziermuseum.org). This particular carbine was shipped in 1894, after TR had left the ranching business and was living at Sagamore Hill. But he still traveled west to hunt, and it is evident this gun went with him on more than one occasion. Like many of TR’s guns, this Model 92 was special ordered. It features John Ulrich engraving and checkered, fancy grade walnut stocks. In addition, the receiver, buttplate, barrel bands, and special order sling studs are gold-plated, while the rest of the gun is nickeled. But this gun’s nicked stock and worn plating told me that not only did the man who would eventually become our twenty-sixth president carry his Model 92 extensively in the field, he did so in a saddle scabbard.
Two rare Winchester 92 Baby Carbines (called Trappers by today’s collectors), with a 15-inch barrel (top) and a 14-inch barrel (bottom).
Rear Admiral Robert Peary took his Model 92 carbine on numerous expeditions. In a 1909 promotional pamphlet entitled “The Rifle That Helped Peary Reach The North Pole,” he wrote “On my last expedition I had a Model 1892 .44 caliber Carbine and Winchester cartridges, which I carried with me right to the North Pole. After I left the ship I depended on it to bring down the fresh meat we needed ... . Each of my Artic expeditions since 1891 has been fitted with these arms.”
Because they were fast shooting and accurate, Model 92 carbines became indispensable tools for ranchers and cowboys throughout the West and served double duty for self-defense. They were favorites of lawmen such as the Texas Rangers, as well as those in municipal police agencies, prison guards, and even the Western Australian Police Force.
Because the Model ’92 had a stronger action than the Model ’73, in the early part of the twentieth century both Winchester and Remington offered a more powerful, smokeless powder, high-velocity .44-40 factory loading in addition to duplicating the original blackpowder ballistics still used today. Unfortunately, some folks failed to read the HV labels, and blown Model ’73 bolts and mangled hands eventually caused the more potent .44-40 round to be discontinued.
The author demonstrates the rapid-firing capability of one of the 92 carbines used by Chuck Connors in The Rifleman television series. Notice the shells in the air and the fact that Hacker’s finger never touches the trigger as the gun is fired.
This original .44-40 Model 92 Trapper sports a rare 14-inch barrel. Note the shortened length of the forearm, one way to tell if a Trapper is original.
In spite of its fancy embellishments, Teddy Roosevelt’s Model 92 carbine has seen a lot of hard use.
One of the most collectable and romanticized variations of the Model ’92 was the Trapper, or Baby Carbine, as it was officially cataloged by the factory. These special order guns were produced with 12-, 14-, 15-, 16-, and 18-inch barrels. Describing the Model 1892 Trapper in his classic book Winchester, The Gun That Won The West, the late Harold Williamson wrote, “One interesting use of this gun was among the trappers in the northern United States and in Canada. In running a line of traps for smaller animals these men would not infrequently catch a wolf or a bear, and a Model 92 with a fourteen-inch barrel was effective in dealing with these animals. The short-barreled 92 also proved to be popular in the jungles of Brazil for use on the rubber plantations.” (It should be noted that, to be legal, any Trapper with a barrel length less than 16 inches must have an authenticating letter from the BATFE certifying it as a curio and relic. Often, this involves sending the gun to the BATFE for inspection.)
The one millionth Model 92 was presented to Secretary of War Patrick Hurley on December 13, 1932 and the carbine remained in production until 1941, finally being unsaddled by World War II after 1,004,675 guns had been produced. But in spite of its discontinuation, the ’92 carbine has always been in the spotlight—quite literally—thanks to its continued appearance in movie Westerns and on television. It has been most dramatically seen as a loop-levered Trapper spun by John Wayne in the 1939 film, Stagecoach, as Steve McQueen’s chopped-down Mare’s Leg in Wanted Dead or Alive, and in Chuck Connors’ hands as ABC’s The Rifleman from 1958 until 1963, where its fast-firing capability was dramatically demonstrated at the beginning of each show as Connors slammed off 10 shots in 10 seconds, thus equaling the “one shot a second” claim originally made for the Henry Rifle. This feat was accomplished by means of a trip-screw in the carbine’s trigger guard that touched off the trigger each time the lever was slammed home. Today, firms such as Cimarron Fire Arms, Chiappa, and Dixie Gun Works import well-made Italian copies of the Model ’92, including a loop-lever replica of the carbine carried by John Wayne in the motion picture Rio Bravo. Thus, aside from being smooth shooting and lightweight, the Model 92 carbine has become a part of our American western lore and as such, deserves a place on everyone’s bucket list.