Winchester-Hotchkiss Rifles (Video)

The US military experimented almost continuously with new repeating rifles between the end of the US Civil War and the beginning of the 20th century, and the rifles submitted for testing are a fascinating spectrum of ideas. Many were purchased in relatively small quantities for military field testing, and many also saw at least some commercial production (as the manufacturers and inventors sought to recoup development costs when full-scale military contracts proved elusive).

One of these designs was the Winchester-Hotchkiss, which was made in three major iterations. Designed by Benjamin Hotchkiss and manufactured by the Winchester company, it was a bolt action design with a 5-round tube magazine located in the buttstock. As with most military rifles of its era, it was equipped with a magazine cutoff to allow the rifle to be fed single rounds while holding the 5 rounds in the magazine as an emergency reserve. This was a popular mechanism with Army brass in many countries, as it was thought to be a good way to conserve ammunition (and it persisted up through early WWI rifles, including the British SMLE). This cutoff was in fact a major reason the Winchester-Hotchkiss went through several design iterations.

The first (1879) model used a one-piece stock, with the cutoff being a rotating lever above the trigger guard:

Winchester-Hotchkiss, early pattern
Winchester-Hotchkiss, early pattern carbine (photo courtesy RIA)

That placement of the cutoff resulted in a lot of broken stocks, because so much of the wood was removed. The second model (which was purchased by the Navy but not the Army) moved the cutoff up to be a vertical lever alongside the receiver. It maintained the one-piece stock, though, and apparently still suffered from stock breakage or cracking. The final third model solved this problem by using a two-piece stock with a solid exposed receiver in the center.

Winchester-Hotchkiss, 1883 pattern
Winchester-Hotchkiss, 1883 pattern military rifle (“musket” – photo courtesy RIA)

In total, 22,521 Winchester-Hotchkiss rifles were made (of all patterns combined). Most of these were commercial sales, although they had a hard time competing against the much more popular lever-action designs of the period. As the period Chief of Ordnance – Brigadier General Stephen Benet – explained:

The principle of the Hotchkiss is a good one, but there seems to be some prejudice existing in our service against the bolt system and its awkward handle that time and custom may overcome.

Prescient words indeed!


  1. Hi Ian,
    Thank you for the look at the later Hotchkiss. I have one of the M1879 rifles. When I bought it, I knew that it had a broken stock, so I managed to find a replacement. The gentleman that I bought the stock from advised me to call him before I started the swap as there were some tricky bits. I have not yet managed to screw up the courage to jump into it.
    I can send a photo, if you are interested.

  2. The tubular magazine in this rifle series looks more impractical than the one used in Kropatschek-styled actions. I guess the troops hated this rifle because it wasn’t easy to load in a hurry, unlike most lever-actions. I expect that loading the magazine in haste requires one to hold cartridges by the head, not a nice way to do it under fire.

    I’d prefer a Swiss Vetterli with its Winchester-styled loading gate. Fewer hand movements are required to load the magazine there and fewer chances of fumbling the gun are present.

  3. Why the tubular magazine was placed inside the butt? It was done due to technical reasons or it was simply done due to 1870s aesthetic? Almost all 20 century rifles (and shotguns) with tubular magazine have it under the barrel, however some .22 rimfire rifles which have tubular magazine in butt can be found (Remington Model 24, Winchester Model 1903, Winchester Model 63 – derivation of Model 1903). Theoretically if you have magazine inside butt you can have free-floating barrel, but wait… you have tubular magazine so you can’t use spitzer bullets. Moreover the under-barrel magazine would have higher capacity (if you use all barrel length).

    • The inside-the-butt magazine was preferred by U.S. military authorities because first of all, it required a less complicated lifter assembly to bring the “top” round up to be fed into the chamber by the breechpiece. The Spencer, for example, didn’t have any actual lifter, the topmost round just “dropped” in front of the rotating breechblock and was shoved into the chamber, with the upper spring finger keeping it from popping up and out or falling out if the rifle was inverted.

      Secondly, an underbarrel tube magazine required a full-length forestock of greater strength to protect it from damage; a dented or bent tube reduced the weapon to a single shot. The stock-mounted magazine was in an already very strong part of the rifle that wasn’t really “doing anything” anyway, mechanically speaking.

      Next, a tube magazine made mounting a bayonet lug difficult unless, as above, it was enclosed in a stronger-than-average full-length forestock. This added weight.

      Finally, a tube magazine in the forestock caused a shift in balance as it emptied. This was considered a handicap to accurate aimed rapid fire, which was the point of a repeating rifle to begin with.

      The one problem nobody worried about was leaving room for a cleaning rod in more-or-less the traditional ramrod pipe position. It could be offset to one side or the other with no problems.

      It’s interesting to note that none of these “problems” seem to have bothered the French (Lebel and Kropatschek), Germans (Mauser), Swiss (Vetterli), etc.

      Personally, I suspect the main problem with the underbarrel tube magazine was that most of its features were patented in the U.S. by Winchester. So, building rifles with such a magazine in U.S. arsenals would probably have required the payment of royalties to Winchester or at least a fee paid on each rifle built. This, too, didn’t seem to bother continental armies much; IIRC, the Swiss arsenals paid Winchester for the use of the magazine and loading gate setup of the Vetterli.

      The main problem the U.S. Army Ordnance Department may have had with the whole system might just have been the “NIH” (Not Invented Here) syndrome. Which afflicted the British Army’s ordnance department as well, witness the 1878 Enfield revolver with the Owen Jones extraction system. It was adopted to avoid using the Webley patent simultaneous extractor system.

      Such attempts to adopt “in-house” designs over commercial ones ignore one of the basic principles of practical engineering;

      If nobody else does it that way, there’s usually a very good reason.



      • an underbarrel tube magazine required a full-length forestock
        Actually I doubt in it. The tubular magazine is not made from paper and if you want to make it more durable you can simple make thicker walls. Bayonet can be mounted to barrel.

        a tube magazine in the forestock caused a shift in balance as it emptied
        I think this can be omitted because:
        1.The (for example) ten .45-70 Gov’t cartridge are ~10 times lighter than the (unloaded) rifle.
        And what is more significant
        2.Cycling the action will affect aiming stronger than the movement of center-of-mass point.

        Nowadays tubular magazine in full-power rifle (say with ballistic no inferior to .30-06) are extinct due to spitzer bullets. With the probably last being Remington Model 141. I sometime ago consider how to reconcile the spitzer bullets with tubular magazine (without the complicated mechanism of Rem Model 141) and I create very-long-neck concept with bullet hidden completely inside the cartridge (like in Nagant 1895 revolver) so only the case mouth will touch case base making bang inside the magazine impossible. However this only concept.

  4. Maybe the Army was used to the idea of a butt-stock magazine tube based on its experience with the Spencer during and after the Civil War? I may be wrong but I’m pretty sure Winchester got hold of Spencer’s patents when Spencer went out-of-business, so that wasn’t an issue. Plus, there was some criticism of Winchester’s under-the-barrel tubular magazine (M-1866 through M1894 et. al.)being “too fragile for military use” – the fear war the magazine could be dented, rendering it useless (something that never really happened, or could be prevented by surrounding the magazine tube with wood ala’ every other military’s tubular magazine repeater…).

  5. Very interesting, thank you Ian.
    I think the newer version is a beautiful piece and its bolt also reminds me of a Mosin Nagant’s bolt. Yes, I am interested in obtaining one. Do you have any idea on the market price?
    Thanks again.

  6. In addition to being better protected in the butt stock, the magazine has the advantage of simplicity. It can simply launch the next cartridge into the chamber without the use of some sort of cartridge lifter as is commonly used with under barrel tube magazines.

    • True, this follower system is simple, but try loading this rifle in the field. An inexperienced soldier might point the rifle straight up while stuffing cartridges down into the magazine. That might be an unintentional “I’m over here, shoot me” indicator. Here’s what I see as a way to load an empty Winchester-Hotchkiss:

      1. Open rifle bolt and rest it in front of you, muzzle upwards. You must be in a crouching position behind concealment or cover in order to avoid being shot while loading.
      2. Open cartridge pouch (likely to be located on the “right-hand side” of your uniform belt)
      3. Grab one cartridge by the rim
      4. Get better grip on cartridge as you bring it to rifle breech
      5. Place round in breech and shove it into magazine until follower stops pushing back
      6. Repeat steps 3-5 four times and chamber a sixth round. You may engage the magazine cut-off if you wish.
      7. Bring rifle to bear on the enemy, begin firing and reload as you please.

      If this is in any way unrealistic, please post a more effective procedure for loading under fire. Any ideas?

      • I think you have a misconception of how the rifle loads. Loosely speaking, from the standpoint of the position of the shooter, it’s like loading an M1. Lay a cartridge in the top of the action and push it into the magazine with a fore finger. Easily done prone.

        • Thanks, I totally forgot about that. If I load the Winchester-Hotchkiss prone with the muzzle down range, handling ammunition would be less stressful (but there is no quick way to load, as tubular magazines cannot be loaded by clips or chargers).

          Trying to use this rifle during an assault upon the enemy wouldn’t end well. If you have no rounds left in the magazine and there are still multiple unfriendly individuals too close for comfort (your having shot all five reserve cartridges), you’d best have a revolver handy.

          • Indeed. But, taken in the context of its era, after the magazine was empty the soldier would be no worse off than if he was armed with, say, a Trapdoor Springfield that was still the standard service rifle of the time. In fact, firing would probably be quicker since he wouldn’t have the added step of cocking the hammer. And possibly in some instances the quick application of the rounds in the magazine would turn the tide before needing to resort to single loading. Certainly not the ultimate solution but definitely an interesting evolutionary step. And purty too 😉

  7. I would add, the bolt of the MN reminds ME of the Hotchkiss since it pre-dates the MN. 😉
    Although unlike the MN, the Hotchkiss bolt head has no locking lugs.

  8. All .. (especially Earl)I have two Winchester-Hotchkiss 1883’s. One is the 1st model carbine and the 2nd one is a 3rd model rifle. I shoot both. I have offered them to Ian to come and do a couple shooting sessions for FW videos, and he has agreed. We just need to coordinate when he and I are both available. Of interest now perhaps is the fact that Winchester 1883’s were issued for field trials. Both Cavalry and Infantry units received them in the western and south western areas of the United States. They most certainly did see action at the close of the “Indian War’s” period. They were also issued to Apache scouts units. For a full account of the Winchester 1883 and pictures of cavalry, infantry and Apache scouts (pgs 38 to 82) see Bruce Canfields U.S. Military Bolt Action Rifles, it is on Amazon. As usual, the speculation as why certain design features in several type weapons; is and will be, a never ending saga to try and understand the sincere thinking of the designers of that time.

    • Thanks for remembering our previous conversation, Thomas — it was unexpected but, as always, greatly appreciated. Great information, and thank you very, very much for sharing, and for your kindness in doing so.

      • Hi there. I do enjoy learning the various weapons, and trying to visualize their use “back then” without the built in “well that is dumb” mentality coming from having not lived during the weapons lifetime and having not been regimented to the thinking of that time. Many weapons that are poo-hooed by people today .. We kinda forget no country is going to issue a weapon so their troops will lose the war! It may come out that way.. but not by intention. I’ve heard many “shooters” today decry the uselessness of the M80 Ball 7.62 round. When I ask them if they ever used it in combat they get all prune faced. I hope to have Ian out so he can demo both the Hotchkiss’s and my NEW BREN Mk1; yep it is resting quietly in my room I’m scrounging around now for some Mk7 .303 Ball.//

        • Thanks, Thomas — looking forward to that BREN Mk.I demo, as well as that of the Hotchkiss-Winchester rifles.

          You are right about the misconceptions concerning M80 ball ammunition. “Shooters” in the non-military market tend towards more specialized ammunition, partly because of their differing needs ( or perceived needs ), and partly because this is what is being marketed to them. In the process, people tend to forget that the standard military FMJ or ball round ( of any caliber or origin ) is overall the best and most versatile ammunition for all-around battlefield use. Outside of sheer reliability and cost-effectiveness, it might not be the absolute tops in any single performance category, but it performs well in almost all categories, whereas more specialized rounds are great in one or two aspects but give up all-around performance in exchange.

          As for those who think, for example, that the Russian 7.62mm x 39 FMJ or ball round has good penetration through materials but only makes relatively small wound channels, think again. There are many variations in bullet construction for this round, depending on country of origin and year of manufacture. Vympel’s Golden Tiger 124-gr FMJBT is virtually identical to standard new-production military ammunition, and is designed to provide good penetration through cover ( thanks to its copper-over-steel jacket ) while destabilizing sufficently in organic tissue ( due to the air space inside the bullet altering the center-of-gravity ) to cause massive wounding. There is a good illustration of the effects of this particular round in a ballistic gel test by Mrgunsngear Channel on You Tube at

          On a more sanguine note, the real-world wounding effects of 7.62mm x 39 FMJ on soldiers hit in battle are graphically illustrated below :



          These horrific wounds were positively identified as being inflicted by standard military-grade 7.62mm x 39 ball rounds fired from an AK-47.

          WARNING : For those readers who, like Thomas, are veterans who have seen their share of active combat, these photos will probably come as no surprise ( Thomas, I hope you will forgive me if they remind you of any bad experiences, I do not mean to offend you ) ; for those readers who have not, they could be an eye-opener that you might find sickening. But that is the harsh reality of what bullets really do to the human body, and but one of innumerable examples of how effective the disparaged standard ball round truly is.

  9. I have a 3rd model myself and I don’t find it any more difficult to load than a Krag or a Mk.II Ross with the Harris magazine. Although one idiosincracy no one has mentioned is that to feed from the mag you have to manually load the chamber first. The firing pin going forward is actually what trips the magazine.

  10. I believe the Infantry units at Forts Bowie and Huachuca, AZ, were issued the Winchester-Hotchkiss for field,trials. The Fort Huachuca Musuem has pictures of troops with the rifle, and at least one example in the showcase. Iirc, the W-H did okay but wasn’t seen as that big of an advantage over the trapdoor when chasing Apache.

    • Matt – regarding the Ft. Huachuca museum… do they have any photos/ exhibits of Buffalo Soldiers (9th and 10th Cav, 24th and 25th Infantry) during the Apache Wars? (The National Buffalo Soldier Museum is here in Houston, not far from the Med Center and VERY worth a visit.) I know some of the black units fought in the Apache Wars and some of my Nam-vet buds with the NBSM are always keeping an eye out for museums with relevant information.

      • Matt & Jim .. Matt you live around Sierra Vista??? I’m in Hereford. The 45-70 Carbine I have is from a family in Tombstone for generation after generation. If you like I’ll check it with the curator. It’s a nice little Museum. This entire area is full of archive materials, Tombstone, Douglas, Bisbee. Every once in a while I run into someone that has a “antique” to sell.

  11. I simply love the M1883 Hotchkiss. It’s the archetypal large bore American bolt action.

    I wish somebody would make replicas. If they’ll make replica Spencers and off the wall calibers, there’s certainly no reason not to make these in .45-70… although a .38-55 would be VERY interesting.

  12. Ian,

    If I wanted to learn more about US infantry rifles (esp. experimental ones) in the period between the Civil War and WWI, where would I begin looking?



  13. Hello, Still looking for either a complete magazine cutoff switch for my Hochkiss
    or a good photo or diagram of it.



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