An Ode to the Winchester Model 1886

posted on October 16, 2020

We had been stalking the herd for the better part of the morning, when we finally saw the bull come wide to the left side of the herd. My father brought his rifle to shoulder, and sent a 400-grain Swift A-Frame into the base of the bull’s neck, precisely where the guide instructed, dropping the beast where it stood. His smile was equally inspired by the bison he stood over—we were hunting the quarter-million-acre Triple U Ranch in South Dakota, where “Dances with Wolves” was filmed—and by one of his favorite rifles: a Browning Model 1886 in .45-70 Government.

Winchester Model 1886 Take Down Lever-Action Rifle

That rifle Dad carried was released in 1986, as a centennial celebration of the release of one of John Browning’s finest designs, and one of the strongest lever-action rifles ever developed. The Model 1886 was much stronger than the Model 1873 or Model 1876, using two vertical steel bars to keep that action closed and the bolt firmly in place; the receiver was also different in that it was long enough to handle the popular and plentiful .45-70 Government cartridge, among other powerful blackpowder cartridges like the .50-110 WCF, .45-90 (albeit with shorter bullets) and .40-82 WCF. Browning’s beefy lever gun would also prove to be strong enough to survive the transition to smokeless powder when fitted with a nickel-steel barrel, being chambered for the .33 Winchester in 1903. It was even chambered for the 32-gauge shotshell, available as a custom order.

Winchester Model 1886 Rifle 1886 with 400-grain Swift A-Frame Bullets

In production from 1886 until 1935, the Winchester Model 1886 has that inimitable feel to its action; just working the lever gives the user an idea of its strength. The ’86 action locks up like a bank vault, and that strong action allowed me to handload those 400-grain A-Framesseated over a healthy charge of Hodgdon’s BL-C(2)—to a muzzle velocity of just over 1800 fps from his 26-inch octagon barrel. Mind you, that is from a modern rifle, but it is indicative of the strength of the 1886. A buckhorn rear sight, with a serrated elevator for vertical adjustments, could be drifted in its slot for windage adjustments, and the rifle was produced with a variety of front sights over the years of production. A tubular magazine—both full-length and half-length magazines were available—sits underneath the barrel, and is fed through a loading port on the right side of receiver.

Winchester Model 1886 Rifle Chambered in .45-70 Government

The 1886 was available with a single trigger, though a double-set trigger was available. A two-piece walnut stock—predominately straight-gripped though also made with a curved pistol grip—rounded out the furniture, and was generally plain, except for the Sporting Deluxe variant, which was checkered front and rear. Some models had a straight shotgun butt, and others a curved steel buttplate. Like so many of John M. Browning’s other designs, the simplicity is a part of the elegance. There are some neat takedown models in both half- and full-magazines.

The 1886 was discontinued in 1935, when it was replaced by the Model 71 Winchester—itself based strongly on the 1886 action—chambered in the powerful .348 Winchester. While there is no denying the success of the Model 71, which was designed to be the premier lever-action rifle, like its bolt-action counterpart the Model 70, there is also no denying the importance of the 1886 in the progression of repeating rifles.

Browning released a pair of commemorative rifles in 1986; Dad bought the standard grade with blued metalwork and plain stock, and there was a High Grade version as well with a nickel-plated engraved receiver and checkered stock. Both were chambered in .45-70 Government.

Winchester Model 1886 Deluxe Case Hardened Lever-Action Rifle

Thankfully, Winchester has re-introduced the 1886 to its lineup, in several variations. There is the Model 1886 Deluxe Case Hardened comes with a curved pistol grip, checkered stock and case-hardened appointments and a 24-inch octagonal stock, chambered in .45-70 Government. The Model 1886 Deluxe has a similar conformation to the Case Hardened variant, except that it is available in .45-70 and .45-90, a new option for 2020. They share that classic crescent steel buttplate, which digs into your shoulder, but hey, that just comes with the territory. The new Winchesters aren’t true replicas or reissues; they do have the tang safety common to the newer model Winchesters. But, they offer the 1886 experience to a whole new generation of shooters and hunters, with modern metallurgy, in a rifle capable of handling the modern, stout .45-70 loads like the Hornady 325-grain LeveRevolution at 2050 fps and the Buffalo Bore 400-grain load at 2000 fps.

There are so many excellent lever-action rifles to choose from, including the classic Model 1894 Winchester, the  Model 1893 Marlin and Model 1892 Winchester, up through the more modern designs like the Marlin 336 and Winchester Model 88, to the Browning BLR, but to me, the 1886 Winchester remains at the top of the heap. It is heavier than some of the other designs, but I like the heft and balance of the 1886. It settles down well for the shot, and even the heavier .45-70 loads are tolerable, though the points of that crescent buttplate can and will bruise your shoulder when shooting from the bench.

Winchester Model 1886 Color Case Hardened Receiver

Whether new or vintage, having a Model 1886 in your safe is never a bad idea, and it makes a great choice for nearly any big game at ranges suitable for the big rimmed cartridges. I still enjoy shooting Dad’s Browning—now almost 35 years old—and enjoy his smile when he shoots it. I’m still on the hunt for an ’86 of my own, probably a vintage takedown, but who knows; there are so many cool variations one never knows what can be found in an old gun shop.

Want to read more from Philip Massaro? Check out the following articles:
An Ode to the Winchester Model 70
6 Ways to Fine-Tune Your Hunting Rifle
Review: Heym Model 26B Double Rifle .45-70
5 Reasons the .300 Win. Mag. Rules the Roost
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• Scope Magnification: How Much is Too Much?
A Hunter's Guide to Staying Sane During the Coronavirus Outbreak
Is Walnut Dead? Synthetic vs. Wood Stocks
Rifles for the Traveling Hunter
Top 5 Lever-Action Rifle Cartridges
 African Game Meat: What Happens After the Shot?
 Top 5 Underrated Deer Cartridges
 Top 5 Double Rifle Cartridges
 Deer Hunting: Were the Good Old Days Really That Good?
 Essential Gear for the Traveling Hunter
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• 4 Ways to Fine-Tune Your Rifle During the Off Season
 Review: Savage Model 110 AccuFit System
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 Top Bear Rifles and Loads
 3 Rifle Cartridges to Hunt the World
 Why My Cartridge is Better Than Yours
 Top 5 Handgun Hunting Cartridges
 An Ode to the Ruger Model 77
 Top 5 Hunting Cartridges of the 21st Century
 Top 5 Deer Bullets for 2018
 An Ode to the .30-30 Winchester
 5 Reasons to Book a Spring Bear Hunt
• An Ode to the Ruger Mini Thirty
• Boattail vs. Flat-Base Bullets
• How to Build a Custom Rifle
• Choosing a Cartridge for North America's Big Game
• Top 5 American-Made Hunting Rifles
• How to Choose a Buffalo Rifle
• An Ode to the .223 Remington
• Top 5 Coyote Cartridges
• The Ultimate Long-Range Hunting Cartridge
• The Greatest Whitetail Cartridge Ever Designed
• An Ode to the Browning BAR
• Top 5 Bear Bullets
• Do You Really Need a Magnum Cartridge?
• Why the Ruger No. 1 is Not No. 2
• Top 10 Mythical Game Species
• Top 5 Monometal Soft-Point Bullets
• Top 5 Subsonic .22 Long Rifle Loads
• The Most American Rifle Cartridge
• Tips for the Traveling Hunter
• How to Choose a Gun Safe
• Best Gun Cases for the Traveling Hunter
• An Ode to the .30-06 Springfield
• Top 5 Boutique Bullet Companies
• Top 5 .22 Long Rifle Loads
• 5 Reasons Round-Nose Bullets Are Still Cool
• Top 5 Dangerous Game Loads
• Top 5 Turkey Loads
• 5 Rifle Cartridges That Need to Make a Comeback
• Top 5 Safari Calibers
• 5 New Year's Resolutions for Hunters
• What Your Favorite Rifle Cartridge Says About You
• America's Most Wanted Cartridges
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• What Your Favorite Rifle Cartridge Says About You, Part II
• Top 5 Overrated Rifle Cartridges
• Top 5 Underrated Rifle Cartridges
• 5 Cartridges You Might Not Know About
• Top 5 Wildcat Cartridges
• An Ode to the Ruger Mini-14
• Top 5 Hog Loads
• Why .30-30 Winchester Will Never Die


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