Enter your email address to receive notifications of new posts by email.

The Vault

Winchester-Hotchkiss 1883: History and Initial Impressions

Winchester-Hotchkiss Model 1883

Winchester-Hotchkiss Model 1883

History

The Winchester-Hotchkiss rifle was first conceived by Benjamin Hotchkiss in 1875, and by 1877 he had four US patents on the design (numbers 99898, 169641, 184285, and 186566) which he sold to the Winchester company in early 1877. Winchester was able to have three sample rifles constructed in time to submit to the 1878 Ordnance Board trials for the US Army, which were tasked with investigating the possibility of adopting a magazine rifle. The Hotchkiss did remarkably well in the trials, proving itself to be one of the fastest rifles tested (in close competition with the Lee turnbolt design), and also passing the sand, rust, and defective cartridge tests. If suffered a broken bolt in the final test (overcharged cartridges), due largely to a manufacturing defect. Winchester remedied the problem, and at the end of the trials the Board recommended adoption of the rifle. The US Secretary of War appropriated $20,000 for manufacture of rifles for more extensive field testing.

Winchester was not satisfied with just preliminary interest from the US military, however, Immediately after the US trials concluded, Winchester also made a series of sample Hotchkiss rifles chambered for the .577-450 Martini Henry cartridge for testing by the Turkish military (this effort would fail when Turkey chose the Peabody-Martini rifle instead). They also exhibited the rifle at the International Exhibition in Sydney Australia in early 1879. This would prove to be a fruitful marketing event, as made Asian nations had delegations and Winchester received orders for 500 Hotchkiss rifles for Japan, 100 for Siam (for the King’s bodyguard), and 1,000 rifles for China.

The US Army order consisted of 500 rifle and 500 carbines, and the last of these were delivered in July of 1879. A sample rifle sent to the US Navy resulted in an order for 1,500  rifles for that service (the US Army and Navy at that time purchased arms and equipment independently of each other). Winchester also marketed the gun as a sporting and target rifle, and while it did make some sales in this vein, they were less than anticipated.

It was not long after the US Army order was delivered that some weaknesses of the design became clear – primarily that the stock was weakened by the magazine cutoff lever and prone to cracking there. By January of 1880, company engineers (William Wetmore and Thomas Bennett) had redesigned the magazine cutoff and wrist of the gun to strengthen it. This became known as the “New Model” or “New System” Hotchkiss, and it went into full scale production in June of 1880. In addition, 506 existing guns were converted to the improved pattern for the Army – but another 2,449 were made to the original design after production began of the new model (these were guns for a Chinese contract already underway). In total, 6,396 of the first pattern of Hotchkiss rifle were made by Winchester – 5,199 military pattern muskets, 812 carbines, and 563 sporting rifles.

With the introduction of the New Model, civilian interest increased slightly, and military marketing efforts continued. Several samples were made in .43 Spanish caliber for sales efforts in Central and South America (areas dominated by the Remington Rolling Block in most military forces at the time). The sporting orders received a bit of boost when George Albee (a veteran of Berdan’s Sharpshooters) used a New Model Hotchkiss to win the Lorillard Gold Medal for rapid fire accuracy at Creedmore in 1882. However, the vast majority of New Model rifles (11,000+ of the 13,332 muskets made) were purchased by China in 1882 and 1883. Another 1,000 went to various buyers in  Central and South America, and 981 to the US Navy. In total, Winchester built 16,117 New Model Hotchkiss guns.

The final iteration of the Hotchkiss was the Model 1883, which was developed in an effort to alleviate continued complaints of stock breakage. The redesign this time  involved a significantly reshaped receiver, and the use of a two-part stock (a buttstock and a separate foreend) in place of the one-piece stocks used on previous models. The safety and magazine cutoff levers were moved back to the sides of the receiver similar to the cutoff placement on the original 1879 design, where they were now supported by the steel receiver instead of a wooden stock. Samples were ready in time to submit to the US Army’s 1882 magazine rifle trials, where they once again performed well enough to merit a contract for field trials. The design had been finished in the summer of 1882, but Winchester delayed putting it into production until Congress approved the Army contract, using the time to build New Model rifles from the existing stockpile of parts already in inventory. Only on January 1t, 1884 did Winchester announce the new rifle to the public.

Unfortunately for Winchester, the results of Army field trials were not in their favor (nor in favor of any other magazine rifle) – the commanders of the companies in the trials overwhelmingly preferred their Trapdoor Springfield rifles to any of the new repeaters. This was often for reasons more associated with parade than actual combat – one common complaint of the repeaters was that a commander could not easily ascertain their cocked or uncocked status in troopers’ hands at a glance, which the large hammer of the Trapdoor did allow.

At any rate, US military rejection did not hamper sales of the Hotchkiss elsewhere. Winchester ultimately sold 59,446 of the Model 1883. Of these, 56,504 were military muskets (going to countries including Bolivia, Mexico, Morocco, and most of all China). A further 1,669 were carbines and 1,273 were sporting rifles. The numbers of Hotchkiss rifles sold (about 84,500 of all models combined, with the last rifle made in 1904) were not particularly significant compared to other Winchester products like the Models 1892 and 1894 lever action rifles and the 1897 shotgun, they did establish Winchester as a significant player in the bolt action rifle market.

Mechanics and Disassembly

The basic mechanism of the Winchester-Hotchkiss remained basically the same through all three models. The magazine tube extends from the rear of the receiver down into the stock, and it is loaded by placing cartridges in the action and pushing them down backwards into the magazine. A catch grabs the rim of the forward-most cartridge and holds it in place until the trigger is pulled, at which time one cartridge is release to push up into the receiver under pressure form the magazine spring. When the bolt is opened and the empty case kicked out, the bolt’s forward movement catches the rim f this released cartridge, allowing it to be chambered. A magazine cutoff allows the shooter to disable this trigger catch, keeping the rounds locked in the magazine until the cutoff is disengaged. When this is done (or when the magazine is empty), the rifle can be single-loaded by opening the bolt and dropping individual rounds into the receiver.

On the 1879 pattern guns, the magazine cutoff is a rotary switch inletted into the right side of the stock (which also functioned as a safety). On the New Model, the cutoff was replaced by a lever riding alongside the left top of the receiver, which could be pushed forward and back. On the 1883 pattern, the cutoff was moved down to the left side of the receiver, in the form of a lever which could be pushed up to engage the cutoff and down to release it. The New Model and 1883 pattern guns has safeties separate from the magazine cutoffs, located on the right side of the receiver opposite the cutoff levers. I don’t have a New Model to confirm this with, but on the 1883 the safety (which is engaged when up and disengaged when down, in a proper ergonomic configuration) locks both the bolt and the trigger.

It was surprisingly difficult to find instructions for disassembly of the Hotchkiss online, and it turns out the procedure is both very simple and difficult to figure out through experimentation. To remove the bolt assembly, lift the bolt handle and retract the bolt until the handle is just at the end of the receiver. Then grasp the cocking piece and rotate it 90 degrees clockwise. This will disengage the bolt head from the bolt body. The bolt body may be removed out the back of the receiver, and the bold head lifted out of the action. This is all that is necessary for cleaning.

The Hotchkiss was designed only for black powder cartridges, and uses a single locking lug (which is also the mounting point for the bolt handle). There are a pair of vent holes in the rear of the chamber to relieve pressure in case of a ruptured cartridge (an important safety feature).

References

The best resource I have found on the Winchester-Hotchkiss (and the source of most of the data in this writeup) is Herbert Houze’s Winchester Bolt Action Military and Sporting Rifles, 1877 to 1937. If you would like to learn more about the details of Hotchkiss development and production, I would highly recommend getting a copy. It has a total of 62 pages covering the Hotchkiss in its various forms, largely sourced from the collection of developmental rifles and records at the Cody Museum.

You can also find a transcription of both the 1878 and 1882 US Ordnance trials reports at Milpas.cc, which has details on the performance of the Hotchkiss and other rifles that were entered.

Initial Shooting Impressions

I recently acquired an example of an 1883 Winchester-Hotckiss (from a Rock Island auction, actually). Mine is in the 84,000 serial number range, and was one of the very last examples made. It is covered with a rather ugly black paint, which suggests that it may have been used as a Hollywood movie prop for a while (one of the last orders of these rifles went to the California state militia, and many of those ended up with movie studios after they were retired from service). At any rate, is it mechanically intact and in good working order, with the exception of a crack on the left side of the wrist. I soaked some Superglue into that crack, and it seems to be stable enough.

I have thus far only fired about ten rounds through the rifle, all of them being handloaded duplicates of the US cavalry carbine cartridge: a 405 grain cast lead bullet over 55 grains of black powder. The proper load for this rifle should be 70 grains of powder (hence .45-70), but I wanted to start with something a bit lighter until  knew everything was working properly. Using these carbine loads, the recoil was very mild, and I had no problems with feeding, firing, extraction, or ejection.

One quirk of the rifle to be aware of is that once a round is in the magazine, the bolt must be closed and the trigger pulled in order to release the round for feeding. The ideal technique is to load 5 rounds into the magazine and then drop a sixth round into the action and chamber it manually. When that single-loaded round is fired, the first round in the magazine is released. Otherwise after loading the magazine you must close the bolt and dry fire the gun in order to release the first round for feeding (which you will see me do in the video below).

My opinion of the rifle is that it is comfortable, fast, and easy to use. The single locking lug and relatively low pressure ammunition makes the bolt very easy and smooth to operate, and while my experience is very limited so far, I can shoot the Hotchkiss as quickly as a Lee Enfield. I am looking forward to loading a lot more ammunition and getting more trigger time on the gun to gain a better understanding of its nuances. I believe the June 2-Gun Action match is going to be a Greasy Grass (aka, Custer’s Last Stand) commemorative match, with all stages based on Old West events. I plan to shoot the Hotchkiss in that match, and will be able to compare its performance to that of a Trapdoor Springfield and a reproduction Spencer carbine shot by friends.

On my one range trip to date with the Hotchkiss, I did get a short bit of video, which will help demonstrate it’s rapidity of fire. More will be coming (including photos) as I have the chance to work with this rifle more extensively!

Backlog of Video!

While I have been posting daily videos from the recent series of Rock Island Auction material, I have also been publishing the occasional video on InRange TV – and some of those would probably be of interest to folks here. So now that we have a hiatus from auction content, here are a few things you may not have seen:

1) Jim Sullivan on Bill Ruger and the Mini-14. I had a chance to interview Jim Sullivan (co-designer of the AR-15, and designer of the Mini-14, Ultimax, and other guns) a while back, and have this segment of the interview is about the design of the Mini-14 and a couple humorous episodes with Bill Ruger Sr.

2) A close look at the Soviet PU optic, which was used on the 91/30 and SVT-40 sniper rifles. At first glance it looks like a very plain reticle, but it actually has a remarkable amount of rangefinding capability built into the very deliberate choice of line and space sizing.

3) My friend Karl and I took a trip up to St George, Utah for a big steel match a couple weeks ago. It was 18 stages of shooting over two days, a combination of several different disciplines of action pistol shooting. In order to make it interesting, we both opted to shoot in “pistol caliber carbine” division, with Karl shooting his full-auto Lage/M11A1 submachine gun and me shooting an Inglis-made High Power with shoulder stock. Unfortunately the High Power was having serious extraction issues (which did not show themselves when I tested out the pistol prior to leaving for the match) which really clobbered my showing. However, I was surprised at how practical and effective the stocked-pistol concept did seem to be. It was far more convenient to carry than a carbine when not actively shooting, and the stock gave it excellent practical accuracy. Unfortunately, experimentation with this concept has been pretty much squashed by the NFA in the US. I will have a more in depth video on the gun later, but I did put together a highlight reel from the match of my malfunction issues and Karl looking impressive with his subgun:

4) On a slightly more goofy note, we also decided to try recreating an event recorded in several Old West gunfights, in which point-blank fire actually lit a combatant’s clothing on fire. Smokeless powder doesn’t really have the capacity to do this, but black powder firing creates a huge amount of burning particulate matter. So we rounded up a cut down 1860 Army revolver (a reproduction of a Mormon Danite “avenging angel”) and some period-correct clothing material (linen, muslin, and pure cotton) and gave it a whirl:

5) Lastly, just for viewing entertainment, I have a slightly artsy short video I put together of my Vickers machine gun and a rifle-rated steel target:

Japanese Type 97 Sniper Rifle (Video)

The most common Japanese sniper rifle of World War II was the Type 97, essentially a Type 38 Arisaka rifle with a 2.5x telescopic sight mounted to the side of the receiver. About 22,000 of them were made in total (a smaller number of Type 99 sniper rifles were also made). The scope on the Type 97 was zeroed at the factory, and had no external adjustments for windage or elevation. They were chambered for the 6.5x50SR Japanese cartridge, which produced virtually no smoke or flash from the long barrel of the Type or Type 97, making is a difficult rifle to spot (it also had a quite mild report relative to other contemporary weapons). Virtually all of these rifles in the US today have mismatched scopes, which generally means that they will not shoot to point of aim (this one’s windage is way off).

Vintage Saturday: Antitank Rifle

German soldier with a captured Polish Maroszek wz.35 anti-tank rifle

Conquering France with Polish guns

German soldier in France with a captured Polish Maroszek wz.35 anti-tank rifle.

Format and Feedback

Well, today is the first day of RIA’s April Premiere auction – if you are bidding on anything, good luck! Of course, this also means we are finished with the current series of videos and I would be interested in hearing feedback from you folks. My audience has expanded into areas like Reddit and YouTube and Facebook, but the people like you who come here to read the daily blog are the core group that I would like to cater to. My stockholders or employers, if you will.

The opportunity to work extensively with both Rock Island and James Julia this year has provided me with access to a huge pool of fantastic guns to bring you video coverage of, and I would like to make the most of it. Do you like the balance of new versus old, military versus civilian, and practical versus slightly goofy guns? Is the significant increase in video (as opposed to written text) a net improvement for the site or a detraction? Are there any particular changes you would like to see? Do you prefer short-form videos on individual guns, or longer pieces discussing groups or families of related guns?

There are a couple things I am planning and considering for the coming months…

For one thing, I would like to take some of the guns I have in my own personal collection and spend more time shooting them in a variety of conditions with the goal of producing text or video analyses that give a more in-depth assessment of them. Disassembly and a handful of rounds downrange can only tell you so much about a design. Sometimes that is all that is possible (like with the Schwarzlose 1898 that will be coming soon), but when I own something myself I can spend a lot more time getting to know its quirks. Two of the guns that I specifically have in mind for this sort of treatment are the Gewehr 41(W) and the Winchester-Hotchkiss. I anticipate that I will be posting incremental material on these two guns (and other that get this sort of treatment) as I work my way towards being able to write something more comprehensive.

Something I am considering doing is adding a section on forgotten conflicts. There are a lot of small wars that are barely known at all today, but which comprise a significant amount of actual combat use of some of the guns we look at here. Some of the American Indian wars, for example, or the African bush wars of the past 60 years, or conflicts like the Gran Chaco War. Would this be of interest, or would you rather see me stick to just guns themselves?

Ultimately, the material here will continue to be based on what I find myself passionately interested in – that is what has made it successful from the beginning. But within that umbrella, there are of lots of different options for how material can be presented and I would appreciate getting your input. Thanks!

Shooting a G41(W) with ZF-41 scope

 

 

Mystery “Rocking Block” Pistol at RIA

There isn’t much I can say about this very unusual pistol, as I have no idea who made it or when. What I can tell is that it is a blowback action with a rather unique “rocking block” type of bolt and what appears to be a clock style coiled flat spring for the hammer. Definitely unlike anything else I’ve seen before!

Gustloff Prototype Pistol at RIA

Gustloff was a large industrial concern in Germany which made many different weapons for the military. In addition to these, its attempted to market a small-caliber pistol for police or SS use. This pistol used an alloy frame (with steel inserts for durability in crucial areas) and steel slide, with a simple blowback mechanism and a fixed barrel similar to the Walther PPK. It has a shrouded hammer, and double-action trigger mechanism. One particularly unusual element to the gun was its safety lever, which functioned to actually remove tension from the hammer spring when engaged. Ultimately, it appears that 200-300 were made for evaluation by various groups, but no contracts resulted. The pistols that were made saw little or no combat use, and were often brought back as souvenirs by occupying American soldiers. This example is a very early one, serial number 13.

Blake Bolt Action Rifle at RIA

The Blake was one of many rifle designs submitted to the US Army trials that would ultimately result in the adoption of the Krag-Jorgensen as the US Army’s standard rifle. The main innovation of Blake’s design was a unique ammunition “packet” system which held 7 cartridges. The rifle would be loaded from the bottom with pre-loaded packets, which would be carried like clips or magazines by troopers. However, the loading was not as quick or simple as with more typical clips, and the trials board felt the packets were both too fragile and too bulky. Blake went on to submit his rifle for Navy testing a few years later, where it lost out to the Lee Navy straight pull. His last effort was commercial production of the rifles, which got him a few sales, but not enough to sustain manufacture. This example is one of the commercial rifles.

Pinfire LeMat Grapeshot Revolver at RIA

Colonel Jean Alexandre LeMat was a native Frenchman who emigrated to the United States and in 1856 secured a patent for a “grapeshot revolver”, which had both a 9-shot .42 caliber cylinder and a 20-gauge smoothbore barrel acting as the cylinder axis. A moveable striking surface on the hammer allowed the user to alternate between firing the rounds in the cylinder and the center shotgun barrel. Unable to find a manufacturer in the US, LeMat had them manufactured in Belgium. These revolvers achieved most of their current notoriety as a result of several thousand being used by the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War – and those guns were percussion ones. However, LeMat also made a smaller number of pinfire variants for sale in Europe (where pinfire cartridges were much more common than in the Americas). This LeMat revolver is one of the pinfire examples, which still has a 9-shot cylinder and retains the percussion mechanism for the center smoothbore barrel. It comes in its original case, with several tools including a mold to make an interested 3-part segmented slug.

A Semiauto FG-42 up on Gunbroker

Rick from SMG Guns dropped me a line to let me know that he has put one of his 8mm semiauto FG-42 rifles up for sale on Gunbroker. In fact, it’s actually the exact demo gun that he had sent me back in 2013, which I did a review video about. A few things to know about this rifle – it is definitely a used gun, but has a new chrome-lined barrel installed, and Rick is selling it with a warranty just like a new gun. So basically, you get a nice and slick action with a brand new barrel and a guarantee. To me, that’s better than brand new. The starting price is $2500 (half that of a new gun), and the winner gets it right now, instead of having to wait for a new production piece (the wait time is a couple months right now, I believe). Why sell this one? Rick has made a couple tweaks to the receivers to make them look a bit more original, and so this is no longer useful as a demo and review gun.

Semiauto SMG FG-42 rifle

If you didn’t see my original review, I’ve embedded it below – but in a nutshell, these rifles are soft shooting, hard hitting, and oozing with awesome historical quality. Rick has done a great job building them, and they are great shooters. I think the 8mm version is preferable to the .308 for historical authenticity, and because they use available and high-quality ZB26 magazines.  I don’t know what the final sale price will be on this, but someone is going to get either a great deal, a free ticket past the waiting line, or both. If I had the money, I would be buying it myself instead of telling you guys about it. :)