A Big Thumper of a Gun

Ron Spomer |



The M1866 Yellow Boy and M1873 cycled plenty of mid-power .44 rounds, but were too short for longer, more energetic big game rounds like the .45-70 Govt. cartridge introduced in 1873. Even bigger black powder rounds like the various 50-caliber Sharps were preferred by buffalo hunters. They were shot through big, single-shot rifles. Winchester set out to build a lever-action repeater to handle them. And succeeded with the M86.

_mg_1057Winchester first entered this “big bore” market with its M1876. This was essentially an enlarged, beefier version of the M73, the Gun That Won the West. The M76 was initially chambered for the .45-70 Winchester Center Fire, a slightly shorter cartridge than the .45-70 Govt., but fatter and bottle-necked so it could generate the same velocities or slighter better with the same weight bullets. The M76 was eventually chambered for the .50-95 Express throwing a 300-grain bullet 1,550 fps. But bigger, more powerful rounds were on the horizon, and Winchester was gearing up to accommodate them.

The big change came when Winchester teamed up with gun designer John Browning. This mechanical genius engineered a new locking system for lever actions that secured two big, steel bars into the bolt body. These locked in and safely contained significantly more pressures than the original, toggle-lever Winchesters could.

The all new Model 1886 was long and strong enough to more than handle the .45-70 Govt. Soon Winchester was chambering it for the .45-90 and eventually the monstrous .50-110 Winchester. When smokeless powder came along a few years later, the M86 proved more than strong enough to handle it. Within short order Winchester engineers had the 50-caliber M86 shooting 300 grain bullets to 2,225 fps, fast enough to churn out 3,298 foot pounds of energy.

In 1903 the M86 was reamed to accept the new .33 WCF, a bottlenecked cartridge more suitable for deer and elk. It tossed 200-grain bullets 2,200 fps.

Today Winchester Repeating Arms still builds its M86 in .45-70. Winchester Ammunition sells four different loads featuring four different bullets for it. Muzzle velocities are considerably faster than the old originals with a couple of 300-grain bullets departing the muzzle at 1,880 fps to crank up 2,354 foot-pounds of punch.

If you’re looking for a genuine, all-American, historic hunting rifle with a pedigree and the performance to match, look no further than the Winchester M1886 stuffed to the gills with Winchester .45-70 cartridges. You’ll be loaded for bear. And anything else the wilds can throw at you.