Over the last few years, Browning has periodically offered limited numbers of classic lever-action rifles the mechanisms of which were designed by John Browning. Japanâ€™s Miroku plant, which now produces most of the companyâ€™s long guns, has been credited with excellent work on these reproductions. Fit and finish matchesâ€”or exceedsâ€”standards set by the originals. Reports indicate that the accuracy is superior. I was eager to get a close look at the latest, the Winchester 1886 Extra Light.
As rifle aficionados recall, the rifle that brought John Moses Browning to Winchesterâ€™s attention was not a lever gun at all, but a single-shot, which would appear as Winchesterâ€™s Model 1885.
But prior to that, John Browning had explored several repeating mechanisms. The Volitional Repeater developed by Walter Hunt in 1849 and refined by Jennings, Smith, Wesson and, famously, Henry had inherent flaws. Neither it nor the subsequent Model 1866 would handle big cartridges or high pressures. The 1876 added size, but not strength. Aware of the 1876â€™s limitations and impressed by Browningâ€™s genius, Bennett urged John to come up with a lever gun for powerful cartridges such as the .45-70 (then in service with the U.S. Army) and the even bigger rounds favored by buffalo hunters. In May 1884, the young inventor filed a patent for just such a rifle.
The Model 1886 was the first rifle to successfully employ sliding vertical locking lugs. It appeared in many configurations. Carbines had a 22-inch round barrel, rifles a 26-inch round, octagon or half octagon. WCF chamberings included .38-56, .40-65, .40-70, .40-82, .45-70 and .45-90. The .33 Winchester arrived later. The rifle also came in .50-100-450 and .50-110. Early on, special orders were welcomed. In 1894 a takedown version appeared. In 1936 the 1886 was replaced by the similar Model 71 in .348 Winchester. Model 1886 production totaled 159,994 units.
The new Winchester 1886 Extra Light is true to the original in most respects. The straight-grip stock and capped fore-end are of straight-grained American walnut, well fitted to highly polished and deeply blued metal. Wood and steel are properly detailed, with flat, even surfaces and no finishing marks. Stock pores on the test rifle were not filled, but the understated oiled look is quite appropriate on this rifle.
The mechanism cycles smoothly and feeds even square-nose bullets with monotonous reliability. The only visible deviation in design is the rebounding hammer (the original 1886 had a half-cock notch instead) and a safety inletted into the tang. The safety, while in my view unnecessary, is neat, properly small and gives you the feel of a precisely machined switch. My eyes donâ€™t like open sights, but the simple semi-buckhorn rear and gold bead front (no ramp) look good on the rifle. Iâ€™d install a receiver sight.
That said, I was impressed by the rifleâ€™s willingness to punch egg-size five-shot groups at 50 yards. Remington 300-grain hollowpoints and Black Hills 405-grain lead loads delivered the tightest clusters. Neither the stock comb nor the steel shotgun buttplate savaged me with factory loads. Both seemed to align the rifle naturally. Balance, with the magazine full, put me on target fast offhand. At six pounds, the trigger breaks reluctantly, but thereâ€™s almost no creep and the pull is consistent. The rifleâ€™s heft, and its trigger and grip dimensions, makes the pull seem lighter than it is. Thumbing the hammer from rebound to full-cock positions is easy. Itâ€™s a long, but smooth and easy sweep.
A sturdy mechanism made even stronger by the use of modern steels, the Winchester 1886 Extra Light is as elegant as its forbears and better able to handle potent handloads. It shows uncommon care in fit and finish. Itâ€™s a rifle Iâ€™d be delighted to carry or slide in a scabbard.