There are some rifles that stand the test of time, and one of those is the .44-40 Winchester (or .44 WCF for Winchester Center Fire). This is one of the oldest centerfire cartridges still in production today, having been originally designed and introduced by Winchester all the way back in 1873. This cartridge made two guns especially famous, the Colt single action army handgun and the Winchester Model 1873 lever action rifle. Many people cite the Model 1973 firearm as “the gun that won the west.” In fact, it’s arguable that this round has killed more deer than any other cartridge out there.
By modern standards the .44-40 is a bit slow, and it doesn’t have the energy of modern centerfire rounds. In fact, some people might consider this round to be a tad underpowered for deer these days. However, with proper shot placement, it is still highly effective as a hunting round. It’s a great option for anyone who wants a historic and classic styled cowboy gun. Many manufacturers are still building great replicas of the old lever action guns that allow newer shooters to experience this legendary cartridge today. Let’s have a brief look at the history of this round and see what rifles are currently on the market for it.
A Brief History of the .44-40 WCF
There simply aren’t a lot of rifle chamberings from the 1870s that are currently still in production. According to Terminal Ballistics Research, Oliver Winchester was inspired by the success of the first Henry Repeating rifle introduced in 1860. The success of that gun led Winchester to create the iconic 1873. They beefed up the frame slightly to be stronger and then developed the .44-40 alongside two other calibers, the .32-20 and .38-40, that same year. Of these three, the .44-40 is the one that found its name etched the most in history. While it was originally developed for soldiers, the U.S. Military (in one of their more notable blunders) thought the Model 1873 was too expensive and impractical. Still, accessibility to the gun in the West was easy and many found their way into the hands of Native Americans who used them quite effectively on soldiers, to the point that many soldiers started carrying them anyway, regardless of orders.
However, the .44-40 also found a place among the many people exploring the West as an effective hunting round. The gun helped feed countless trappers, pioneers, explorers, and other settlers during the taming of the West after the Civil War. With that, the .44-40’s reputation was etched into the pages of history.
Specs of the .44-40
As we’ve already mentioned, the .44-40’s ballistics may seem quite tame by modern standards. Modern high velocity loads are only pushing about 1,200 to 1,400 feet per second. Obviously, when this cartridge was first developed, they were using black powder loads. The new, modern cartridges use smokeless powder. However, that’s the only major change in the ammo. Most factory ammunition uses simple, flat point bullets. There are some round nose varieties out there, but either way, the simple, blocky design of the bullets is what keeps this round from being considered a speed demon.
While there are 205- and 225-grain bullet options, most manufacturers stick with about 200 grains these days. Winchester’s Super-X 200-grain bullets have a muzzle velocity of about 1,190 fps and hit with about 629-foot pounds of energy. The speed drops to just over 1,000 fps at 100 yards and hits with only about 449-foot pounds of energy. If you plan to use this for hunting, you’ll want to keep your shots extremely close.
Buffalo Bore makes a 185-grain hollow point bullet that they say can do approximately 1,470-fps from rifles with a 20-inch barrel length. It’s a softer bullet which is probably going to expand better if you’re serious about using this rifle for hunting. Many modern .44-40 rounds are designed with cowboy action shooting on a target range rather than hunting in mind. For instance, Hornady sometimes makes a 205-grain, flat nose lead round that only does about 729-fps from the muzzle and only hits with about 240 pounds of energy. That’s fine for competition or a shooting display, but not something you’d want to use for hunting. Read the box carefully before taking this into the field.
One final thing we need to mention is accessibility and price of the ammo. Sometimes, .44-40 is nearly impossible to find. Some areas are going to be better than others. Then, when you do find it, don’t be surprised at the price tag. It can sometimes go for nearly $3.50 a round, as is the case with the Winchester Super X. This old round is a bit niche these days, so manufacturers don’t run it nearly as often as they used to. Most .44-40 enthusiasts do their own reloading these days. Now, we’ll mention a few of the rifles that are currently made for this round.
Winchester 1873 Carbine
At a little under $1,300, this is one of the more affordable .44-40s currently on the market. It’s hard to go wrong with a classic, and the 1873 was the rifle this round was originally chambered for. This is a brush gun that’s perfect for close shots at deer in thick cover. This rifle has a 20-inch barrel with a gorgeous blued and brushed polished finish. The black walnut furniture features a satin finish that harkens back to the cowboy days of old. This rifle comes in at seven pounds, four ounces, which is not bad at all for such an old design. The full-length tube magazine holds up to ten rounds for quick follow-ups. This is a solid option for anyone who has a classic cowboy rifle on their wish list but doesn’t want to break the bank buying one.
Henry Original Iron Frame
This rifle is essentially the modern version of the original 1860 Henry rifle. Don’t let the name “Iron Frame” fool you; this rifle is made with case-hardened steel. It has a classic, 24.5-inch octagon barrel with a blued finish and a 1:36 rate of twist. There’s nothing fancy about the sights here. Just a folding ladder on the rear and a blade on the front. The American walnut stock gives this rifle a great look. As you might expect, this one is a little long and heavy. It has a 43-inch overall length and tips the scales at 8.62 pounds. However, this rifle is more than capable of taking down deer for the hunter who wants a more traditional edge to his or her hunts. The only downside is the price. The MSRP is over $3,100. It’s usually available for around $2,700 new from most retailers. Expensive, but this is the gun for the guy or gal who wants something that will hold its value and has a truly timeless design.
Winchester 1873 Deluxe Sporting
This rifle is a good option for anyone who likes the 1873 carbine but wants a slightly longer barrel length for more accuracy. The Deluxe Sporting features a 24-inch blued steel octagon barrel, and it has an increased magazine capacity of 14 rounds in the full-length tube magazine. This rifle also features a slightly higher quality walnut wood on the stock and forend. Winchester also drilled and tapped the top for a peep sight for shooters who want just a bit more accuracy out of this new model. The weight is a manageable eight pounds. It’s not going to be super comfortable to carry into the backcountry, but it will be possible to do it. The one downside here is the price. The MSRP is $2,189.99, although it can usually be found for less than that from most retailers. It’s an investment, but one that should last a lifetime.
Winchester Model 1892 Carbine
While the 1892 isn’t nearly as iconic as the 1873, the modern iterations of this rifle are much more affordable. This one can usually be found for $1,000, sometimes less if you catch a sale at the right time. That makes the dream of owning a classic lever gun more achievable for average Joes. We also like the compact nature of this gun and its 20-inch barrel length. It weighs just six pounds, which makes it a joy to tote into the heavy brush for close shots at game. At the same time, it’s got great-looking black walnut furniture and a 10+1 round capacity. The only hard part is finding them in stock. These things tend to fly off retail store shelves whenever gun shops get a fresh batch.
New Original Henry Rare Carbine
In truth, this lever action rifle may almost be too pretty to hunt with, although it will certainly do the job if you’re brave enough to take it out of the gun safe and into the field. It’s not cheap though. The MSRP is $3,174, so this rifle isn’t for everyone. This rifle has a great look thanks to the polished bass receiver and butt plate. This rifle has a 20.5-inch octagon blued steel barrel which sets off nicely with the American walnut furniture. The overall length is just 39.5 inches, so if you really wanted to take it into the brush, you could. The capacity is 10+1 rounds in the tubular magazine. We like this rifle for the traditionalist who wants one of the best-looking rifles on the market today.
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