Christmas Carbine: The Winchester 1892 Rifle
December 16, 2015
In the early 1950s, my father, Wayne, returned home to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan from a tour of duty with the U.S. Army. He picked up his life where he'd left it years before and began running our family's business with his brother.
At some point his first year back, Dad was rummaging through one of the counters in the store. He found a Winchester 1892 saddle-ring carbine. He hadn't seen the Winchester 1892 for many years, but he recognized it as his grandmother's.
The Winchester 1892 has four serial numbers and is a first-year production. His grandmother had passed away some years before, so the '92 became the store gun. Dad said that she periodically leased it to hunters during deer season for around $5 and gave the leasee five or six rounds of .44-40.
Dad looked over the old Winchester 1892 and noted that the barrel was pretty well shot out and pitted, and the Winchester had been under the counter for a very long time. Lake Superior is a scant block and a half from the store, so you can imagine the humidity the store is exposed to during the year. Dad loved his grandmother dearly and couldn't see reducing her carbine to parts.
Sometime later, Dad's old buddy Vern Carr came by the shop. They had a conversation about the Winchester 1892. Vern was a master machinist by profession and an experienced gunsmith. The two men decided to rebarrel the carbine. Dad ordered a replacement barrel from Numrich Gun Parts Corp., which came chambered in the then-new .44 Remington Magnum cartridge. There was no overnight mail or email in those days, so it took a month for the barrel to arrive at the shop.
Mr. Carr rebarreled the carbine, shortened the magazine tube and lengthened the stock to fit Dad's 6-foot, 2-inch frame. Finally, a Williams receiver sight was added to the receiver, and the Winchester 1892 was back.
It remained light, highly accurate and powerful. Dad matched up the Winchester 1892 with Ruger's first Blackhawk .44 Magnums during the late '50s. He shot some dandy whitetails and still talks about one particular 10-pointer.
When I turned 8 or 9 years old, Dad restarted a tradition my great-grandfather had begun: hunting for a Christmas tree. During the firearm deer season, Dad would keep an eye out for a tall balsam fir with a symmetrical top. He'd make a note of where he had seen the tree so it could be found again.
About two weeks before Christmas, Dad would pack up us kids and my grandfather in his Jeep, and off we'd go to hunting camp. Grandpa Otto would stay in camp and get it warmed up for our return. From there, the Christmas tree hunt began on foot. When Dad found the tree, we'd walk around and around it looking at the top. Dad would pick a spot about 8 feet down and find a place where he could see that spot through the receiver sight on the Winchester 1892. Then the fun started.
Back in those days — the late '60s — there was no late deer season, and frankly, there weren't many deer in the Lake Superior snow belt. Shooting at a tree top was safe because there wasn't anyone else in the woods. We'd stick our fingers in our ears because the Winchester 1892's report was god-awful loud. Dad stoked it with hot handloads. Sometimes it took him two shots, sometimes a few more. There was always snow on the treetop, so you could tell when Dad hit where he wanted to. He almost always did. He served in the Army Marksmanship Training Unit and was an NRA master shooter.
The top of a balsam fir is brittle and frozen that time of year, so it didn't take much to bring an 8-foot section toppling down into the snow. Taking the top off the tree doesn't kill it. The fir is dormant that time of year. In future growing seasons, the top regrows just as if it were struck by lightning or broken by wind. We'd all walk around the fallen section of balsam fir and watch Dad pick it up with one hand and shake the snow off vigorously. This was one of our favorite parts of the trip. Why? Because we got to hold and carry Dad's Winchester 1892 while he dragged the tree back to camp. Grandpa Otto would be standing at the front door waiting for us.
We helped saw the butt end off the Christmas tree before roping it to the top of the Jeep, and on the drive home, we took turns telling Grandpa about Dad's shooting prowess and how the treetop landed in the snow. We also took turns holding the Winchester in Dad's canvas case.
Once we arrived home, Dad and Grandpa would take the tree off the Jeep and give it one more good shake. Dad would check to make sure no hornets were camped in it, too. The tree would then be hauled down to the basement and thawed for about week before being decorated in our living room. The Winchester 1892 would get cleaned and put away till the next time Dad had a need for it.
As years went by, my siblings and I grew up and went on with our own lives. Dad's Winchester 1892 would stand in his gun cabinet for many years. Now and then he takes it out to wipe it down. I know he misses the days when we were kids. Christmastime is very special to him. One day, I asked Dad how the tradition of shooting a Christmas tree started. He said that my great-grandfather could never bring himself to kill a tree in celebration of the birth of Christ, but taking just the top of the tree allowed it to live on and grow a new top.
In the last couple years, Dad's Winchester 1892 got a new lease on life. In 2012, I related its story to my friend Doug Turnbull. About a week or two afterward, he called and said he wanted to know what I thought of restoring Dad's '92 to "period correct" condition. "Cool," I replied, but I advised him that Dad would have to buy into it. I made a phone call and broached the idea. Dad said he'd think about it for a while.
The following week, I had business in my home town and spent a few days with Dad. We pulled out the '92, and the stories started to unwind. He let me take an image of him with his Winchester 1892. He looked fondly at his grandmother's old lever gun and said, "So, Turnbull will make it look like the day my grandmother took delivery of it?" I said, "Yes." "Does he know the history of this old gun?" I said, "Yep; I've told him about the Christmas tree hunts." Dad looked some more at the '92 and then at me for a long time. "OK, Brett. You and your brother work out the details with Mr. Turnbull. Just remember what this old gun means to me."
My brother Scott shipped the Christmas Tree Carbine to Doug's shop that summer. Dad called me from time to time to check on the status, and Doug was kind enough to keep me advised. In the spring of 2013, the Christmas Tree Carbine was ready. Doug fitted an original Winchester 1892 carbine barrel to the receiver, restored the saddle ring to its proper location, fitted a stock and forend from a piece of Michigan walnut I had, installed a proper magazine tube and barrel bands, and completed period-correct metal finishing to all metal parts. It's a beautiful first-year-production 1892.
Did Dad hunt with his Winchester 1892 again? Yes, he did. On opening morning last November 15, Dad downed the biggest buck shot by our hunting party (a nice eight-pointer). The Christmas Tree Carbine was laying across the buck when I showed up to help him get it back to camp. I said, "That 120-year-old carbine of yours can still make it happen." Dad said, "So can this 81-year-old man."