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1866 vs 1873 lever action, and what caliber, for plinking + home defence?

2987 Views 60 Replies 22 Participants Last post by  veeman
Hello everyone,

I'm new here. A curious amateur, with questions. I would be grateful for some help.

I am interested in purchasing either an 1866 or 1873 lever action rifle, by Uberti or Winchester. I like that they are copies of two historical rifles, hence also the interest.

I do not intend to hunt with it, but the purpose is primarily shooting for fun, plinking with the family and secondarily as a home defense gun.

I would like to ask you, for your opinions and help, to choose which rifle and in which caliber.

There are pros and cons I guess.

First the rifle I am most keen on is without a doubt the 1866 Yellowboy, because it is probably the most beautiful rifle I have ever seen! So plus for the beautiful looks over the 1873, which is also a a beautiful rifle, but nowhere near as beautiful as the 1866 is, in my opinion.

Plus with the 1873, it can shoot both 357 magnum and 38 special, the 1866 can't. And when it comes to choosing which caliber and ammo, when I'm looking at what's cheapest, but also what's effective for home defense.

38 special is cheapest, 357 also quite cheap. 38 special may not be the best option for defense, but the cheapest. The advantage of the 1873, is that I can shoot cheap with 38 special, and use 357 magnum in case of of home defense. On the other hand, surely the risk of over-penetration is high with 1873? So 357 magnum might not be optimal after all? Is maybe 45 Colt or 40-40 better?

If I buy 1866 in 38 special, then it is not possible to shoot 357 magnum.

There are also colt 45 and 40-40 etc, but they are unfortunately so very expensive, even though they might be best for home defense? But if I shoot 38 special, then I can afford more shooting with the family, but then maybe the 1873 is the best compromise?

But then I don't get the most beautiful rifle!

Another thought, what do you think of the 38 special when it comes to shooting from 1866 or 1873, purely for fun? Is it a nice feeling? Is the low recoil an advantage? Or does the low recoil, contribute to it feeling like a ”wimpy”caliber, i.e. does it feel better with a little more physical contact and a little more recoil? I guess this is subjective, but I'm interested in your opinions.

Also, it seems like a lot of fun to shoot black powder as well, but I guess it's more expensive, more risky, more work with reloading etc, but when I chase your footage on youtube,
I love the sound of black powder, it sounds nicer and looks more fun to shoot a regular shot.

What would you advise me to do? How would you go about it?

Grateful for advice and tips.

Thank you.
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With the limited info provided, I’d suggest you consider a rimfire caliber rifle. If you don’t reload it’s not going to be cheap for the family to shoot very much. However, I don’t know your finances either. I do know that rimfire ammo is much more abundant, has way less recoil and noise, and you and your family can develop shooting skills just as well, if not better, using a rimfire. It’s not noted as being a top self defense cartridge but most people coming into your home uninvited won’t want any part of being shot with any caliber gun. If you’re more interested in just owning a nice piece of “eye candy”, get the Winchester 1873. Just my two cents worth of advice. Good luck.
Thank you nsb.

But to my understanding, shooting 38 special through an 1866 or 1873 is comparable to shooting a 22 lr rifle, when it comes to recoil. I have heard many people say that the recoil of the 357 magnum is very small, and the recoil of the 38 special is like "nothing" ( here and here for example). So if it is "nothing" to shoot 38 special, and if it is like shooting 22 lr rifle, then why not choose a 1866 or 1873, for 38 special? Because 38 special is also better for defense purposes than 22lr, right?
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Howdy and Welcome, you sure do have some questions.

Do you reload or intend to?
The .38/.357 is likely your best bet as in "Sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the wants of the few", that's a terrible quote.
Perhaps, get the one that gives the most use and enjoyment and get the other rifle later?
I've owned two Rossi lever action rifles in .357 and it turns that cartridge into a super manstopper.
Sometimes difficult choices turn into a coin flip. Best of Luck in your choice.
Howdy Pudfark, and thank you for your answer.

I do not reload, but maybe I should? Would you recommend it?
Both the 1866 and 1873 rifles were among the first repeating rifles that were successful. They were chambered for cartridges loaded with black powder, which developed very modest pressures. These pressures were easily handled by the toggle-link locking system. While, to my knowledge, the Winchester 1866 and 1873 were not originally chambered for .38 Special, this caliber also develops pressures easily handled by the action of either rifle.
If I owned either rifle chambered for .357 Magnum, I would probably confine most of my shooting to .38 Special ammo, and use the .357 Magnum only for defense or (should it be necessary) hunting. I do not believe the toggle-link locking system will withstand the continual stress from the .357 Magnum, a round developing 75 to 100% more pressure than most of the .38 Special rounds you will find.
While I enjoyed shooting the 1866 and 1873 rifles that I have shot, I found their operation to be "clunky", when operating the lever, especially if I did so with any speed. This is an inherent trait of the locking action, and I am in no place to criticize the designers. While I find the "clunkiness" tolerable, it is still a thing to be overcome, rather than enjoyed, when shooting
I know of the "mystique" associated with the early Winchester lever-action rifles, and I agree that they are difficult to resist, when they can be found for sale. I would not be giving you the full truth, however, if I did not suggest that you also look at the Winchester 1892 replicas, made by Rossi. This is a much stronger, inherently smoother action, which is capable of tolerating pressures well in excess of what the .357 Magnum cartridge develops. One of these will shoot well, after a lifetime of shooting nothing but .357 Magnum ammunition. You may also find it more pleasing to the eye, than the two rifles you contemplate.

The .38 Special, by modern standards, IS often considered a bit "wimpy" as defensive calibers go. I think this reputation grew largely from the round's poor performance when fired from 2" and 4" barrels. As barrel lengths increase, so does performance, generally. Thus, a properly loaded .38 Special round fired from a carbine-length barrel is not the "wimpy" round associated with what gets launched from 2" or 4" revolver barrels.

I try to avoid the use of black-powder in my firearms, because it is dirty, corrosive, and very difficult to completely remove from the internal workings of my firearms. I DO clean my firearms conscientiously and completely. I nonetheless always assume that I've missed SOME spot somewhere, which I will find and get clean the next time. With black power, a spot missed means immediate corrosion, right there, and will continue until I find and clean it. By that time, the damage is done.
i advise shooting black powder in the firearms of someone else, who is willing to tolerate the extra trouble of using it, and fully knows how to clean it away. Use modern stuff in yours.

I think I am correct in assuming that your country (Sweden?) allows its citizens to load/reload their own ammunition. If this is so, I suggest that you investigate this activity, as it will allow you to shoot for less expense, and will enable you to make ammunition which works particularly well in your firearm.

If questions remain that I have not answered, please feel free to remind me. I will make every effort to answer them.
Also, your command of English is excellent. You are to be commended!

Hello Kosh75287,

Thanks for you answer and information.

Yes 1892 also seems very nice. But it's not originally made for the 357 magnum either, is it?

"You may also find it more pleasing to the eye, than the two rifles you contemplate."

Interesting, how is the 1892 more pleasing to the eye?

"The .38 Special, by modern standards, IS often considered a bit "wimpy" as defensive calibers go. I think this reputation grew largely from the round's poor performance when fired from 2" and 4" barrels. As barrel lengths increase, so does performance, generally. Thus, a properly loaded .38 Special round fired from a carbine-length barrel is not the "wimpy" round associated with what gets launched from 2" or 4" revolver barrels."

I have read quite a few arguments that 38 special was and still is good for revolvers in defense. The police had them for 80 years or so, and shot dead thousands of criminals. I read something that it was the weak so called wadcutter 38 special ammo that gave it a bad name, but other types of 38 special ammo should have worked very well, and especially with +p ammuition some say. I've read some who argue like you that 38 special through a longer barrel, makes the ammo better, while others say it's probably worse, hmm a bit confusing for me :)
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Either cartridge can be reloaded very cheaply and in a rifle either cartridge will be a "stopper" of bad'uns.

A Lee Loader (if they are available in Sweden) is a very inexpensive way to get started reloading. Plus reloading is a great way to spend a cold winter's day or evening. 357 brass can be reloaded to 38 Special velocities which is why I only use 357 brass, this saves the readjustment of the dies from one cartridge to another. To save from having to adjust your dies between 38's and 357's I'd stay with 357 brass as it can be loaded to 38 Special velocities and loaded as such the brass can literally last forever. 👍

Modern steel is much improved over that of 150 years ago so while the toggle action may be less robust than other lever actions I'd be less concerned with wear in a reproduction rifle than an original.

Thanks for you answer recoil junky, good points.
Thanks for your answers guys.

Something I think about, and want to ask you about. Some argue that the 357 is preferable to the 38 special when it comes to home defense, even through a longer barrel like a lever action rifle or other carbine.

But if the 38 special, depending on the type of ammo, through an 1866 for example, can equal the power and effect of a 9 millimeter through a pistol or 357 magnum through a revolver, and it's still too bad for home defense, then it should also mean that a pistol in 9mm or a revolver in 357 magnum is too bad and not enough power for home defense and should also be avoided, for something more powerful?

But if a pistol in 9 mm or a revolver in 357 magnum, is good or at least sufficient for home defense with enough power, then an 1866 in 38 special should also be sufficient, if it is true that through the barrel it can reach the same or similar strength and power to 9mm in a pistol or 357 magnum in a revolver?

Shouldn't that be really good? If an 1866 is as powerful as 9mm or 357 magnum through the longer barrel, it is equal in power But plus less recoil, more accuracy through a rifle than a pistol or revolver, quick follow up shots, less noise than the 357 magnum and less blinding muzzle flash than I guess?

I'm sure there are better options for home defence, but to me it doesn't sound like a bad firearm for home defense, but rather actually a good one, or did I get that wrong?

While also at the same time good for plinking and cheap ammo, and a beautifully rifle, it seems like a good option for me I guess. 357 magnum through an 1873 can also be good, but if 38 special has about the same effect as shooting 357 magnum through a revolver, then it should do just fine, and more power is probably not needed, maybe rather excessive overkill?
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Okay, lets talk about the .38 Special out of a rifle.

Factory .38 Special out of a rifle will barely make it to 9mm NATO performance, but it will be close. .38 Special is a low pressure cartridge and will be loaded with very fast burning powders. With such powders you’ll see a little bump in velocity, but it’s not going to be anywhere near .357 revolver velocities. A handloader can do something about that with slower powders, but I’m going to go on the assumption you’re not a handloader at this point.

Over-penetration. Again, this is an issue with ANY cartridge with modern house construction. Most ANY projectile you use is going to punch through several walls if you miss. Keep in mind, anything that will no longer penetrate wall board, will also have vastly insufficient penetration on a human target in a self defense situation. A 125gr JHP out of a .38 Special would net somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000-1,150fps, which is solid 9mm performance.

Thanks for the information.

38 special close to 9mm Nato that sounds good to me, I think it will get the job done, in case of the "usual" home defence situation, right? I do not think I will need extra power of 357 magnum etc.

I see your point about overpenetration, I will have to practice shooting to aim correctly and not miss.
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About over penetration. Long ago in a far away land (Louisiana) I worked w/a citizen of France. He totally could not understand our USA home building methods. He said he lived in a 300+ year old house that had been in his family that long. Stone & brick. I that house, penetration of the walls would not be an issue unless you managed to hit a window.

Moral of the story: do not equate construction practices in Europe to modern practices in the USA (paper thin walls). Our original poster doesn't tell us his particular situation. Perhaps he can elucidate?
Thank you, good point.

I live in Europe, thicker walls here generally and very isolated, compared to the US as I understand it.
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Yes, you are both right. Brain fart there. Still, I would prefer the '73 over the '66, and the 1892 over either of the earlier Winchesters. And the versatility of a 357 magnum vs. a .38 special only firearm. Why limit yourself to one cartridge only when you can also fire 38 special in a firearm chambered for 357 magnum?
Thanks for the reply 94win32spec.

Good point.

Here are some arguments that I have read some people use. First, the 1866 is much more beautiful, which I agree with, and it can be aesthetically significant, contributing to heightened shooting experiences. Then if for various reasons it is considered best to shoot the 38 special over the 357, say for home defense in an apartment area. Less risk of overpenetration, less noise, less muzzle flash, faster follow-up shots, slightly less recoil, etc. Now you can shoot 38 special through 1873, 357 magnum, but I've read that some say it's not certain that it feeds 38 special well and safely, and that it risks causing problems, and that it is then safer to shoot 38 special through a rifle that is only for 38 special and not 357 magnum.

What do you think of these arguments? The only thing I can confirm myself is the aesthetic argument.
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Aesthetics isn't an argument, it's a personal opinion. In context, aesthetics refers to the perceived beauty or finish of the wood; perhaps the metal coloration, stock drop, etc.
Whether or not a rifle and shooter are capable of a given level of accuracy, is independent of the finish. 😉🙂

I believe that there is objective beauty regardless of personal opinion, and that aesthetics matters, which is why I believe that beauty even in a rifle is an argument for why one would want to own such a rifle :) But I agree with your last sentence.

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That is a good point. I had a Rossi M1892 in 357 mag that would choke ( not feed well ) with .38 special wadcutter load's. I have a Marlin 1894cs in .357 Mag, but haven't tried 38 specials in it yet.

Your best option, if possible would be to inspect both rifles under consideration, in person at the Gun store. I'm thinking where you live, that's not possible. If you get a carbine chambered in .38 special only, ask if it is rated for +P ammo. If it's not, I would not buy it.
Thanks, good to know. You are right, that is not possible.

I will try to find out if it is rated for +p. But many say +p is not necessary for home defense, regular 38 special ammo, the kind previously used for nearly 100 years by police and military, still works well, so guess it still works well today for that purpose.
I'll agree the 1866 is probably better looking than the also beautiful 1873 but...if I'm going to use a traditional style lever gun for home defense (which I did for years with a Winchester 94 .44 magnum) then it's performance as an HD gun is THE most important aspect. That said, a Winchester 92 is a better choice. If home defense wasn't a part of the equation I'd get a 1966 but not otherwise. The 92 is still a beautiful gun but it's significantly stronger and the short throw action is far better designed for defensive use.

As far as over penetration goes, any caliber is going through your walls. Unless they are brick, concrete or rock, those bullets are going through regardless of being thicker than US standards so you might as well load up with .357 magnum. That's just my opinion. If you really want the 1866, get it and then start saving for a good home defense gun because it's not really going to be both.
Thanks for your reply Brandi.

I'm sure you're right that the 1892 is a better gun for home defense, but now feel free to correct me if you think I'm wrong, but just because one is better, doesn't mean the other is bad.

The action on 1866 seems to work just fine and fast, and can shoot quickly, check here
and here
for example.

And if the uberti 1866 can stop a 250- pound bear in a home defence situation (please read this: An Official Journal Of The NRA | Armed Man Uses Uberti 1866 Rifle to Stop Black Bear), surely it will stop a human in a home defence situation, right?

So just because there are better firearm options for home defense, doesn't necessarily mean an 1866 is a bad option or that it can't work well for home defense. It seems to work well, right?
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Looks like the man's mind is made up.1866 or bust!!
:) No, I'm actually still unsure and hard to decide.
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