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Stanley's Fighting Rifle

Henry Morton Stanley praised his Winchester as a life saver.

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Guns & Gunmakers|June 2019

There has always been a degree of cross-over from sporting to military rifles and vice versa. After major conflicts, we have frequently seen large numbers of surplus military weapons released to the civilian population and adapted by inventive firms or handy amateurs to make them more suited to sporting demands.

One immediately thinks of the Lee-Speed .303 models that were built as sporting versions of the military Lee-Enfield rifle, or the Martini actioned .303 rifles re-barrelled to .22 rimfire in the early 1900s. Other military actions that found widespread use in sporting gun guise include the Mannlicher-Schoenaur and the famous Mauser ’98 bolt-actions. However, one rifle that appealed to explorers and frontiersmen alike during the mid-to-late 19th century saw little formal battlefield use in the hands of regular soldiers. 

Army purchasing boards were notoriously wary of rifles which offered a high rate of fire, as they believed it encouraged soldiers to waste expensive ammunition. The folly of they rationale was proven in the 20th Century, when the ten-shot Lee Enfield with its fast-reload capability showed itself so capable in the hands of British infantrymen in France facing superior German forces with five-shot, long-pull Mausers. 

However, private purchasers preparing to enter dangerous territory were not constrained by constipated bureaucrats and their monetary concerns. They demanded reliability, durability and effective accuracy and stopping power. If you are going to be in a thick tropical forest, facing hoards of fierce, spear-chucking natives, you need a weapon to intimidate them and keep you safe in close-quarter fighting with multiple assailants. The same rifle would, doubtless, be required to tackle dangerous game and provide for the pot on a regular basis as well.

There is probably no greater explorer than Henry Morton Stanley in the history of 19th century derring-do. The one-time resident of a welsh workhouse, who went on to become a member of the House of Commons and was feted as the pre-eminent African expedition leader of the era, during his lifetime, was an extraordinary man in every respect. He rose from poverty to fame and fortune through his own guile, bravery and spirit. Time and again, Stanley left for Africa with a team of young officers, only to emerge from the jungle, months later, dressed in rags and half-dead. Nine tenths of his companions invariably perished along the way. Stanley would recuperate, dust himself down and prepare for the next adventure.

In 1879, Stanley purchased, from Watson Bros of 4 Pall Mall, London, a weapon that he was to use for the next ten years. It was an 1876 Model Winchester lever-action repeating rifle. He referred to his love of Winchesters in 1872 and teamed the American rifle with Eley ammunition from England. The calibre of his most famous Winchester was .45-75, firing a 350 grain bullet from a 28” barrel and Stanley claimed it was; ‘for a fighting weapon the best yet invented’. 

In 1886, Stanley was in the Congo, fighting his way towards modern Uganda to relieve the governor of Sudan’s Equatorial Province, Emin Bey. ‘Emin Pasha’ as he was known, was on the run from the Mahdi, who had over-run Khartoum and killed General Gordon. Stanley set out to relieve him from a besieged position on Lake Albert. To get there he had to travel up the unexplored Aruwimi River. Stanley’s account makes it appear to have been a fight with disease and terrain and local tribes, all equally hostile and dangerous. He recalls a shot with the Winchester, taken at 150 yards to fell the vocally-aggressive leader of a tribal war party, rallying his troops to attack Stanley’s weakened column. ‘The rifle did its work’, he wrote: and saved the day.

The Winchester lever-action Model 1876 extended Winchester’s range following the success of the famous .44-40 Model 1873, providing the desirable features of the older rifle with the benefits of a more powerful cartridge. It was launched at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in .45-75 WCF. Production lasted only a decade, during which time around 63,000 were made. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police bought most of them and used them to good effect in their Indian Wars.

Ammunition nomenclature at the time noted the calibre of bullet followed by charge of powder, So, the .45-75 was a .45 calibre bullet propelled by 75 grains of black powder. The brass case was lengthened to accommodate the extra powder necessary to provide the desired power. It is a bottle-neck round with a case length of 1.89” and it shoots a 350 grain bullet. Modern users of the calibre suggest a flat-nose conical bullet and up to 76 grains of GOI Powder FFG and report groups from 1 3/4” to 3” at fifty yards and an effective range of 200 yards, with sufficient power at 130 yards to punch a clean hole through a 2” pine board.

Original ammunition boxes show them to be loaded with 75 grains of powder and a bullet of one part tin to sixteen parts lead, lubricated with Japan Wax or tallow. Muzzle velocity was 1,383 fps and muzzle energy 1,485 ft/lbs. Another famous advocate of the .45-75 Winchester was Teddy Roosevelt, who used it for grizzly bear.

The Model 1876 was big rifle for its day, weighing around 11 lbs when loaded. It provided big game hunters with hard-hitting rounds in a repeating rifle and it was certainly a step up from the relatively low-powered .44-40 calibre Model 1873. Today the Model 1876 Winchester is rare and .45-75 not in much regular use as a hunting round, even amongst users of vintage firearms. 

It is sobering to consider how it must have appeared to central African tribesmen, most of whom had had little, or no, exposure to the wonders of the industrialised nations and their weapons. A device firing a soft lead bullet big enough to punch a hole the size of a fist through your chest at 150 yards and capable of putting twelve aimed shots down range in as many seconds must have seemed like a weapon of mass destruction. No wonder Stanley stuck with the big Winchester as a companion on so many of his adventures.

I had the thrill of holding Stanley’s very rifle in December, at Holt’s. It was being offered for sale for the first time since 2009 and made £36,000. ‘Celebrity rifles’ are hot property these days; American collector Bill Jones among the leaders of the trend to secure and display the arms of the famous, from Jim Corbett to Ernest Hemingway to James Sutherland. They form a chance to touch history. To hold in your hands the wood and metal that was, for so many years, the thread which kept great men alive in a perilous world, a world we can only now imagine, is an experience that nothing else can provide.

Published by Vintage Guns Ltd on (modified )

Guns & Gunmakers|June 2019

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