The Winchester Model 1866 Yellowboy

Yellowboy Short Rifle

Copyright © 2011 A. Uberti Firearms
Click on the image above for a larger version.

Quick History Lesson
In 1848, an inventor named Walter Hunt patented his “Volition Repeating Rifle” which used a tubular magazine to hold multiple rounds and was operated by two levers and some very complex linkages. Hunt’s invention had numerous shortcomings and in 1849 Lewis Jennings purchased the patent rights and developed a functioning “repeating rifle” which was produced in small numbers.

Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson acquired the Jennings patent as well as shop foreman Benjamin Henry. Smith made improvements to the Jennings design and in 1855 Smith, Wesson and Oliver Winchester formed a new company, the “Volcanic Repeating Arms Company” to manufacture the Volcanic lever-action rifle.

This became the famous 1860 Henry Rifle which was used in considerable numbers by certain Union army units during he Civil War. Confederates called the Henry “that damned Yankee rifle that they load on Sunday and shoot all week!”. After the Civil War, Winchester renamed the company, the “Winchester Repeating Arms Company” and improved the design of the Henry rifle to create the first Winchester rifle: The Model 1866.

Yellowboy Loading GateThe Winchester Model 1866 was famous for its rugged construction and lever-action mechanism that allowed the rifleman to fire a number of shots before having to reload: hence the term, “repeating rifle”. The Model 1866 was nicknamed the “Yellow Boy” because of its “brass” receiver.

The 1866 Yellowboy lever-action rifle was a marked improvement over the Henry rifle. It was the first true cowboy lever-action rifle, and the first rifle widely carried in a cowboy-style saddle scabbard. The Yellowboy had a convenient new type of loading gate, devised by Winchester plant superintendent Nelson King. The gate passed cartridges through the side of the receiver. This improvement made the lever action more functional and allowed for the installation of a wooden fore-end.

The handy carbine version of the 1866 Yellowboy was a hit worldwide. Chief Sitting Bull had one; the forces of Benito Juarez used the rifles in Mexico; and the Turkish Army used the new Winchester Yellowboy against the Russians.

View the video above for more information.

Modern Day Replicas
The three most common lever-action rifles used in cowboy shooting today are the Winchester Model 1866, Model 1873 and Model 1892. However, most shooters would never dream of running an actual Winchester since these rifles have incredible historic and collector value.

Luckily, A. Uberti S.R.L. of Italy is very well known in the trade as a producer of fine replica rifles and pistols including the Model 1866 “Yellowboy”. Three of the most popular models have been recreated as Uberti rifles: The Yellowboy Carbine with 19″ barrel and carbine-style brass buttplate; the Yellowboy Rifle with 24-1/4″ barrel; and the Yellowboy Short Rifle with 20″ barrel.


Copyright © 2011 A. Uberti Firearms
Click on the image above for a larger version.

Cowboy Action Shooting
I’d been looking for a second cowboy rifle for several months now and spied several gorgeous models last weekend in Rawhide’s gun cart at the Thunder River Renegades match. An old friend from up north traded me his for my Winchester Model 94 hunting rifle and I walked away with a beautiful 1866 “Yellowboy” Short Rifle assembled by Cimarron Firearms in Fredericksburg, Texas. Cimarron imports Uberti firearms and then adds their own special cowboy shooting features including removing unneeded safeties, smoothing the action and generally improving the fit and finish of the rifle. Normally, a Cimarron firearm is fully functional out of the box but in the case of the Model 1866, a few “tweaks” were needed to make this rifle “competition ready”.

I love working on firearms, especially during the winter months when I have to put my landscape photography on hold. There’s something very satisfying about taking apart a historic weapon like the 1911 pistol or 1866 rifle and learning to put it back together correctly. Unfortunately, my knowledge of historic weapons is limited to the venerable Colt 1911 pistol. Luckily, there are several great sources of information on the Internet including Marauder’s Old Irons Page which includes detailed instructions and parts diagrams for working on your Model 1866 rifle.

Clean, Deburr & Polish
Most factory firearms need a little tender loving care before they become reliable enough for competition or personal defense so the first thing I do to every new firearm is “clean, deburr and polish” the key components. This is generally all that is ever needed to make a firearm fully functional and it’s a step that I never skip BEFORE taking the firearm to the range. You’d be surprised at the number of folks that skip this step and find themselves with a jammed firearm after the first few rounds have gone down range.

Carrier Upgrade
Aluminum CarrierThe “carrier” on the Model 1866 is the most important part in the entire rifle and with the exception of the barrel, it’s also the heaviest. It’s machined from a solid block of “gunmetal”, a high copper content bronze alloy and moves up and down to “carry” the cartridge in and out of the barrel. Considering how old the design is, this wonder of engineering does its job with amazing reliability.

The problem is, the “carrier” on the Model 1866 is darn heavy and this makes smooth lever operation a real pain in the butt. Luckily, there are aluminum replacement carriers available from companies like Pioneer Gun Works that weigh less than 1/4th of the original.

Lever Drag
Improving the action on some firearms is beyond my skill level but the Model 1866 is not one of them. Like many other lever action rifles, the “friction” between mating parts on the Model 1866 along with springs that are much too stiff, tends to create significant “drag” on the lever. It’s the one thing that most folks really hate about lever-action versus bolt-action rifles. The lever “drag” on my old Winchester Model 94 was so bad that I could barely operate it at shoulder level. Luckily, the lever mechanism in the Model 1866 is much simpler and with proper lubrication and some polishing, it smoothed up in no time flat.

Short Stroke KitFor even smoother lever action you could install a short stroke kit like this one from Pioneer Gun Works. The unique design of the links in a short stroke kit smooth the lever action considerably while also shortening the lever travel (stroke) by as much as 1-1/2″. For cowboy action shooters this benefit shaves precious seconds off their overall time.

At the Range
I’ll tell you this, the Cimarron Model 1866 “Yellowboy” is a pleasure to shoot. I ran fifty rounds of Sellier & Bellot 158gr LRN ammunition through the Model 1866 without a single failure-to-feed. The magazine tube held ten rounds almost perfectly although the final round was darn tough to insert.

Talk about accuracy! I was able to land all fifty rounds in an 8″ circle from 25 yards with this “short rifle” (20″ barrel) and that was from a standing position. The .38 Special rounds ran through this sweet little rifle with almost no perceptible recoil. The factory semi-buckhorn rear sight and all black front sight are not my preferred combination but they sure did get the job done!

My only complaint about the Model 1866 is the weight. This beautiful old rifle weighs in at a little over 8 lbs versus just over 5 lbs for my Rossi Model 92. Those old cowboys must have worked out a lot more than us old photographers do!

All in all, the Model 1866 “Yellowboy” is a fine cowboy action rifle for shooters of any skill level. It’s reasonable smooth & fast and very (VERY) accurate from 50 yards in. The Model 1866 looks great too with its distinct brass receiver, oiled walnut stocks and charcoal blue barrel. The best thing about using this rifle for cowboy shooting is that you’re holding a piece of history, “The Rifle that Won the West”.