Turnbull Winchester 1886 Buffalo Rifle Deluxe – Review

The muffled beat of our horse’s hooves on frozen sand sounded steadily into the crisp desert air; air still frosty with dawn’s coming. Buffalo tracks lay on the ground before us, fresh in leftover snow where the afternoon sun doesn’t reach its fingers. We were hunting the buffalo, following their trail in a once-in-a-lifetime effort to put bison meat in the freezer and a buffalo robe on the floor. My buddy Dan had drawn a cow bison tag for Utah’s legendary Henry Mountains. It was mid-December, we’d found buff after three days of hunting, and our lust to close with the herd was palpable on the air. We followed the tracks, Dan riding loose in the saddle with his buffalo rifle in hand.

Two American icons: a Bison and a Winchester 1886 rifle.

BUFFALO RIFLE

Dan opted to hunt his buffalo with a lever-action Winchester 1886 chambered in 45-70; one of the most influential repeating rifles in early American history. It was the first lever-action repeater strong enough to be chambered for the big bore “buffalo” cartridges of the day. Designed by John Moses Browning and produced by Winchester from 1886 to 1935, the rifles were originally chambered in .45-70 Springfield and .45-90 WCF, among others. Black Powder was the standard propellant of the day, but the ’86 action was so strong that it made the transition to smokeless powder with ease, being chambered for the smokeless powder .33 WCF cartridge just after the turn of the century. The largest round it was originally chambered in was, to my knowledge, the massive .50-110 Winchester. Rifles were produced in a variety of configurations and with barrel lengths ranging from twenty to twenty-eight inches.

My good friend Spencer Wyatt of Texas with his heirloom Winchester 1886, passed down from many great grandfathers ago. The rifle is in good shape and still shoots true, and Spencer still hunts with it.

Today, original Winchester ’86 rifles are hard to find and very expensive, especially if they are in even reasonably good condition. If you’re fortunate enough to find an original, the old rifle may be aged or worn to the point that it’s not functional, but taking it to a regular gunsmith for renovation will significantly decrease its value. But if you’re anything like me you love shooting and using vintage firearms, and owning one that is non-functional is, well, just not much fun. Enter Doug Turnbull.

Most serious aficionados of lever-action rifles and vintage restoration are familiar with the synonymous-with-quality Turnbull name.

Doug grew up and worked in the Creek Side Gun Shop; the largest firearm shop in upstate New York at the time. In 1983 Turnbull started a firearms restoration business, focusing on matching and restoring original finishes on vintage firearms – particularly color-casehardening. Today he is known as one of the finest restoration artists in North America, and perhaps the only one who can actually make your vintage lever-gun more valuable. Typically, when a vintage firearm is refinished it looses much of its value. Not so when worked on by Turnbull Restoration.

As you can see on Dan’s buffalo rifle, the bone charcoal color casehardening done at Turnbull Restoration is spectacular.

For those of us not fortunate enough to own a vintage Winchester rifle, Turnbull also offers contemporary lever-action rifles that have been “Turnbull Finished”. Essentially, they take recent production rifles, polish the metal to match the work of the late 1800s, and then refinish everything with Turnbull’s legendary bone charcoal color casehardening, bluing, and vintage-type wood finish. Dan’s buffalo gun was one of these. It sports simple but nicely grained walnut, a 26-inch blued barrel, shotgun butt plate, and spectacular color casehardening over most of the metalwork.

Three .45-70 loads of modern design. From left: 325-grain Black Hills HoneyBadger, 325-grain Hornady FTX, and 250-grain Hornady Monoflex.

Dan ordered his rifle chambered in .45-70 Springfield, mainly because a wide variety of ammunition is readily available in that caliber. Buffalo hunting on the Henry Mountains is notoriously tough, so we opted to forego traditional ammunition in favor of a load that would offer a bit more velocity and reach when used with the rifle’s simple iron barrel sights. I ordered some of Hornady’s excellent LEVERevolution ammo in 250-grain MonoFlex and 325-grain FTX iterations, and also some Black Hills ammo stoked with their 325-grain solid copper fluted-point HoneyBadger projectiles. I didn’t keep records of accuracy averages and velocities during testing, so you’ll have to take my word for it; each of these loads shot consistently and grouped well.

Dan’s Turnbull buffalo rifle sports a nicely-finished iron bead front sight with an ivory-colored insert.

All three loads grouped high though, in fact, the 250-grain MonoFlex load (the fastest of the three) grouped almost eleven inches high at 100 yards. I didn’t want to remove the front sight and replace it with a taller one (who wants to mess with a Turnbull rifle!) to bring the point of impact down. Black Hills’ 325-grain HoneyBadger ammo impacted about four inches high at 100 yards, which would work perfectly. The solid copper bullet should maintain all of its weight upon impact, which combined with the design’s chisel-like frontal “X”, should enable the bullet to drive deep. The flutes create a surprisingly devastating temporary wound cavity when shot into ballistic gelatin, and should be equally devastating on game. I was on pins and needles to see how the projectile would perform on a bison.

The Winchester’s rear barrel sight is graceful and strong, and adjustable for elevation via a sliding step ramp.

I hung a bison vital-sized steel target against a little mesa, and Dan exercised the Winchester at 50-yard intervals. The traditional rear sight sports an adjustable ramp, and Dan was able to use it to make consistently good groups out to 350 yards. The rifle bellows with authority and kicks with enthusiasm when loaded with high-performance loads, but the shotgun-style buttplate rendered recoil tolerable, if not entirely comfortable.

Eight rounds of .45-70 is a lot of muscle. Back in the late 1880s, these rifles possessed the greatest firepower available in a handheld firearm.

Capacity on the Turnbull Winchester 1886 is eight plus one. The action is very strong and fast but must be worked with authority. In the hands of a good lever-gun man, the rifle is capable of sending a massive amount of lead downrange in very short order. The trigger in Dan’s rifle is quite fair by lever-action standards, breaking at an average of 5 pounds 2.5 ounces. The overall weight of the rifle comes in right at 9 pounds 5.5 ounces.

Lever Action rifles are not known for having awesome triggers. This one is above average, breaking at just over 5 pounds.

CONCLUSION

The Turnbull Winchester 1886 rifle we tested is a spectacular firearm. The color casehardening, in particular, is extraordinary. We had zero malfunctions, the rifle shot well, and carried nicely in the hand and in a saddle scabbard. Accuracy was good.

Daniel, with his Turnbull Winchester 1886 and his hard-earned, once-in-a-lifetime Henry Mountain bison.

We stepped off our horses and tied them when the bison tracks grew hot. Following carefully, Dan spotted a horn flashing in the sun amongst a hilltop copse of Junipers. A circuitous stalk put us within range, but the buffalo were still out of sight in the thick desert timber. Then the breeze stroked us across the back of our necks, and the herd erupted in a wave of pounding hooves. When they paused 175 yards distant Dan placed a HoneyBadger bullet through a big cow. She had started to move just as his trigger broke, and she departed in the shadow of the herd’s dust. Following, we jumped the cow and Daniel finished her. The Black Hills bullets performed admirably, each one passing completely through the bison.

Headed out of the backcountry with buffalo meat, skin, and skull loaded on the packhorses.

We processed the buffalo, loaded the meat onto our horses, and slid the long Turnbull rifle into its saddle scabbard. Swinging into our saddles, we pointed our horses toward the trailhead, eight miles distant. It had been a great hunt, with a great rifle, for one of America’s most iconic animals.

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{ 16 comments… add one }
  • CGA December 31, 2020, 2:37 pm

    I have a Winchester Model 1886 in 40-65 that I got handed down from my Grandfather. I love the gun and have fun shooting it when I can find ammunition for it. A friend of mine used to load ammo for me until he moved away. Maybe some day I will be able to afford the equipment to reload for myself.

  • Nancy Vaughn December 26, 2020, 9:16 am

    Send info

  • Jon December 3, 2020, 12:52 am

    Turnbull did the case hardening on my 50 Alaskan build on a Marlin 1895. It is a beauty to see.

  • bjg December 2, 2020, 10:51 am

    In the past I’ve owned three 86 Winchesters s 40-65, 45-90 and 50.110 Like a dummy I sold them

    The 50-100 was a built up gun made on a 33 Win. action and re-barreled to 50-100 The others were original. Bought them back in the 1980 when they didn’t cost an unreasonable amount.

    As far as shooting a Buffalo I would have used a more traditional 500 gr. cast bullet. (Just my idea of a Buffalo bullet.)

  • Walter Franklin Brogdon III December 2, 2020, 5:01 am

    looks like the rifle every man wants but can I afford it

  • Craig December 1, 2020, 3:34 pm

    Love Lever rifles ,
    Had my Win. 73, 44-40, and Win. 1876 45-60 restored, bought a reproduction of the 45-60 imported by Cimarron and have three original 94’s all are Octagon barrels, one in a 32 special. A friend reloads for me, or I could not afford to shoot them, or even find Ammo, we use cut down 45-70 cases to load for the 45-60’s. Gathered over a ton of tire weights and some occasional sheet lead and plumbers bar lead to mix in. Use them for just target shooting, they are good conversation pieces as well, I know the history of all of them.

  • William L Ramsburg December 1, 2020, 2:31 pm

    HENRY MAKE’S SOME FINE FUN LEVER GUN’S ALSO!! I OWN ONE!!

  • Clint Hebert December 1, 2020, 11:46 am

    Very cool article! A bison hunt in the Henry Mountains with a levergun is definitely on my bucket list!! I think I would try to install a Skinner ladder sight on this rifle to help with the elevation adjustment. They will fit in the existing rear dovetail and this is what the Marlin 150th Anniversary rifle wears.

  • Jon Murphy December 1, 2020, 11:08 am

    I have my great grandfather’s 1886 Winchester 50-110 or known as 50 express. I am very interested in getting it restored. It is not currently in shootable condition. Needs new stock. Barrel relined and a few minor parts replaced. What are my options?

  • Matt December 1, 2020, 10:09 am

    I have an original 1886 that is in shooting condition. I paid $700.00 for it back in 1995. Do you think it would be worth restoring to your high standards?

  • Paul Furtaw December 1, 2020, 9:13 am

    Sorry, but the first lever action repeating rifle strong enough to handle the 45-70 cartridge was actually the Marlin 1881, not the Winchester 1886.

  • Mark Herbst December 1, 2020, 8:41 am

    I would like to find a 50 x 140 have you seen one of them. Thanks
    Mark

  • Ron Page December 1, 2020, 7:54 am

    A 45-70 lever gun is next on my list. Will never be able to afford an original, but the Henry’s with the side gates are looking like the ticket.

  • Jim December 1, 2020, 6:50 am

    I would think a company that does restoration work on a par you’re talking would make sure you had a working set of sights.

  • Maynard Sorensen December 1, 2020, 4:59 am

    Nice article Aram, wish we had jou along on our unproductive cow hunt last December! Those cows were hidden deep on the off-road country, smart, wily animals indeed. How is life in the Arizona mountains?

  • Philip Viavattine December 1, 2020, 4:10 am

    Bought my first pistol & shotgun from Creek Side Gun Shop in 1967 a S&W (I think a Model 37) 5 shot air weight chiefs special square butt for off duty carry as a rookie on the Rochester, NY Police Department. I also bought a used JC Higgins 12 gauge pump for Deer hunting, being fresh out of the US Marine Corps 12/66. Oddly enough I ran into a childhood friend I went to grade school with who was working at Creek Side. Years later and several guns more I had them glass bed my Thompson Center Renegade in .54 caliber and install a Lyman tang mounted peep sight. Deadly at 100 yards. Thanks for the article brought back many memories for this old ass in the grass Marine and gun enthusiast, my Son has the Renegade up in Minnesota.

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