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).
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.
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!