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!

24 Comments

  1. I’d say the “trigger pull to load” feature would not pass nowadays. That anyone thought that acceptable for military use is astonishing.

    • Not that astonishing, I would say. The notion that the trigger should be used only for firing a gun didn’t really exist in the 19th century. Besides, it’s all a matter of proper drill. If the soldiers had been properly trained to use this “musket”, it wouldn’t necessarily have been much more inherently unsafe as any other contemporary design.

      • Used with the right doctrine, it’s actually safer. Consider that you can load the magazine, but racking the bolt (without pulling the trigger) doesn’t actually chamber a round. So someone forgetting if their gun is loaded and opening doesn’t automatically then load it when he closes the bolt. When firing is supposed to commence, each trooper pulls a cartridge from their belt, drops it in the action, and closes the bolt. Firing that cartridge will then release one from the magazine.

  2. I suspect that Custer, had the Hotchkiss been available at the time, would seriously have preferred it to the trapdoor. Interesting rifle. Tanks.

  3. I will never understand the transition between silly “black powder” that any teenager can make, and “SMOKELESS POWDER” that only adults can make and sell from cars they pay me to START!

    • What brand of cigarettes have you been smoking?! Smokeless powder is a heck of a lot less sooty than black powder when burned and usually much less corrosive and more stable as a mixture of volatile compounds. The transition was really an issue of the “greenhorns who’ve never shot a gun in their lives” chemists trying to get the stuffy quartermasters and bearded conservative generals to buy their story of how their new propellant mixture worked a lot better than good old-fashioned charcoal/sulfur/salt-peter-from-dead-bodies-and-outhouses mix… The former gave lots more energy but was more expensive to get right and the latter, while less energetic as propellant, was more easily obtained on a tight budget.

      Am I wrong on anything here? SAY SOMETHING!!!!!

  4. I simply LOVE the ’83! It’s the archetypal 19th century, large bore repeating military rifle. It’s too bad that it didn’t have as much success as the Mauser 71/84.

    I’d buy a replica.

  5. Black Powder is more stable than smokeless. 100 year old black powder is still usable, 100 year old smokeless is likely decomposed and may cause anything from dangerously high pressures to no ignition at all. Conversely, primers from 100 years ago likely are dead, current lead styphnate priming will probably still work in 100 years.

    Black powder in and of itself is not overly corrosive, the primers of the BP era were. Early smokeless powders were corrosive.

  6. Great rifle! I’ve got an 1883 carbine I shoot regularly with off the shelf Winchester 405 grns and it’s very pleasant to shoot. It’s amazing how reliably it functions considering how weak the magazine spring feels. How do you find it on yours?

  7. This may already have been pointed out, but:

    In all three models, engaging the safety will lock both the trigger and the bolt. In all three models, the safety cannot be engaged unless the weapon is cocked. The controls, are different for each.

    First Model (1879): Four position rotating knob pointing UP (SAFE), Right (Magazine Fed), Down (Single Shot), Left (Magazine Fed again). The control cannot be rotated counter-clockwise, and it cannot be moved into the up position unless the piece is cocked.

    Second “New” Model (1881): The Magazine cut-off is a slider on top of the stock alongside the right rear of the receiver. Slid forward the cut-off is engaged for single-shot operation. Slid to the rear it is disengaged allowing magazine fed operation. The Safety is opposite on the left side. It cannot be slid forward unless the piece is cocked. Slid forward the safety is engaged, locking the trigger and bolt. Slid rearward, the safety is disengaged, and the weapon may be operated and fired.

    Third Model(1883): Already described in the article

    • And, oops. The third model may be described incorrectly above. It is not entirely clear, and my source could be wrong, though I don’t think so. US Military Bolt Action Rifles by Bruce Canfield puts the magazine cut-off on the right side and the safety is on the left. I don’t recall the positions for certain as it has been a long time (and Canfield doesn’t say) but I believe the author is correct that the UP position engages both features and the REAR position disengages them.

    • Thank you very much for the added info, Terry. From the info you provided, I was able to determine that mine is an 1879, not the 1883 I thought it was when I bought it. I don’t know if that’s better or worse, but I appreciate the info.

  8. Does anyone know how to remove the bolt from an 1879 First Model? The method described in the article for the 1883 model does not seem to work. With the bolt back, I can pull the cocking knob back another inch or so, using a fair amount of force, but it does not rotate. Someone on another forum said the bolt is removed by putting the rifle in fire mode (selector pointing forward), pulling the bolt back, depressing the trigger, and the bolt will come right out. This is how many bolt guns do it. That doesn’t do anything, either.

  9. Hi Ian and other commenters,

    I recently acquired a us accepted 1883 at auction and am very much looking forward to shooting it on the range. Of course black powder is traditional, but I would prefer to use smokeless “trapdoor” loads like I use in my other antique guns like my verrerli or Springfield. I haven’t found too much information on this, is the action suitable for smokeless trapdoor loads do you think?

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