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1890 Winchester - a boy's first 'real rifle.'

* Do you remember your first .22 rifle? Of course you do--who could forget something as important as that, right?

Mine was a single-shot bolt action that my dad bought from a neighbor for about $5. It was very accurate, and being a single shot, it taught me one of the most important shooting lessons I was ever to learn--make that first shot count. Although I grew to like that little rifle, it wasn't what I really wanted.

Long before Dad said it was time I had my own gun, I had my eye on a Model 1890 Winchester. It came into the local hardware store as a trade-in on something a bit more modern, as I recall. For me it was love at first sight.

Each day after school I'd run to the hardware store hoping it was still on the used gun rack, waiting for me.

Its $15 price tag was a bit too much for me to hope to scrape together, and Dad thought it was a bit too much for such an old gun. I was very optimistic about the whole thing, though, and just knew it would all work out. So I continued to faithfully visit the "old '90," until one day it was gone. I think that was the first time, as a boy, that I felt the grief of the loss of a friend.

Though my dad did provide me with a .22, it just wasn't the same and took quite a while before I came to appreciate the single shot that I had settled for.

When first introduced in 1890, 90s were chambered for .22 Short, .22 Long and the far more powerful .22 Winchester Rim Fire (WRF), or .22 Special, as the folks at Remington called their copy. Then, in 1919, Winchester finally offered the Model 1890 in .22 Long Rifle.

I don't know that anyone is quite sure why Winchester didn't immediately chamber the then-new .22 Long Rifle round in their first small-frame .22 repeater.

Maybe Winchester didn't want to chamber someone else's cartridge in their rifle (the round supposedly was first loaded by Peters Cartridge Co. for J. Stevens Arms & Tool Co.). Or maybe they weren't convinced that this new development would really fly and thought they would wait 'n' see. Whatever the reason, it sure limited the .22 LR population in this model.

Unlike Winchester's first .22 repeaters (several thousand full-size 1873 lever actions), the 1890s are small-framed, sleek, lightweight and loaded with nostalgic appeal, lent in part by the crescent buttplate and octagonal barrel. Interestingly, a parallel development of the gay '90s refashioned the design of Winchester's new .22 repeater, as well as many other gun designs springing from the 90s and the early 20th century.

Rubber-tired bicycles were the up and coming thing and gaining popularity very quickly. It seems the early urbanites took to the country on cycle to picnic and shoot, as shooting was in vogue as a leisurely pastime. Gunmakers quickly introduced small caliber takedown rifles that could be easily stowed on a bicycle. They became known as--you guessed it--bicycle rifles. So popular was this notion, that one famous arms maker started business as both a bicycle and arms manufacturer, and the company carries the name of both products on its letterhead to this day.

In 1893, after three years of production as a solid-frame rifle, Winchester decided to alter the design to appeal to the burgeoning bicycle crowd. The new design would have to capable of being taken down quickly and easily, while retaining all of the innards securely so they wouldn't be lost when the rifle was transported in its "taken down" form.

The resulting slab-sided little pump-action rifle was rugged and reliable all out of proportion to its size, and it quickly became very popular with outdoorsmen as a working gun. On the other end of the spectrum, it was a favorite of Winchester engravers, who used its ample surface area to produce some of the most beautiful .22 rifles ever made.

By and large, however, it was a boy's best friend, and it was billed by Winchester as a boy's first real rifle. Interestingly, those of us who recall the '90 with fondness trace that feeling back to boyhood involvement with this mechanical marvel.

Model 90s are very strong rifles in comparison to the cartridges for which they were chambered.

A single slide bar on the left side of the barrel connects the forearm with the breechblock. Pulling the forearm to the rear cams the breechblock up and out of its locking mortise and back to eject an empty case and cock the hammer. Reloading is accomplished on the forward stroke of the forearm. All this takes place provided the hammer is resting on the firing pin, as it would be after the rifle is fired. With the hammer in either the full or half-cock position, a unique locking system prevents opening the action.

Taking down this little rifle is a cinch! Simply unscrew the large takedown screw on the left side of the receiver, and pull the butt to the rear. Attached to the receiver are the bolt and slide-rail assembly. Attached to the rifle's buttstock are the trigger, hammer, cartridge lifter mechanism and the takedown screw.

When the reassembling, be sure that the small protrusion, or key, at the front of the rear assembly engages the correct slot in the forward receiver. Then, simply tighten the takedown screw.

Because of the design of the cartridge carrier, the '90 is capable of shooting only that cartridge designated on the barrel. Loading .22 Shorts in a '90 chambered for Longs or Long Rifles won't work, as proper feeding is dependent upon correct overall cartridge length.

A tube magazine is utilized and is stowed neatly beneath the barrel. Magazine capacities varied, depending upon caliber and variations in the magazine over the years. Our sample holds eleven rounds of .22 LR, which are loaded in typical tubular magazine fashion.

Firing this little pumper is a blast, quite literally. Because of the design of the trigger mechanism, holding the trigger back and working the action will fire the gun. As a result, the rifle will empty the magazine as fast as you can shuck the action. This can also be a dangerous feature if you're not paying careful attention to what you're doing.

As the sights on your test model consisted of a simple bead-front and "U" notch-rear, testing was limited to 25 yards, though occasional shots were taken at cans out to 100 yards.

Our first groups were ten shots each, and they were fired with Federal's Hi-Power .22 Maximum Velocity Long Rifles and Winchester-Western Mark III Super Match .22 Long Rifles. After about five shots, mirage became a problem as the barrel began to heat up. This, combined with that shiny round bead, made sight placement very difficult, as evidenced by the pronounced vertical stringing of the ten-shot groups.

After the barrel cooled, only five shots were fired for each group. The Federal ammo rendered consistent 2-inch plus groups, while the Winchester Match ammo printed groups of just over an inch.

This rifle obviously likes standard velocity fodder--a thought to keep in mind if you purchase an old .22 rifle.

Functioning was flawless throughout the testing. Empties were ejected straight up out of the action and had a tendency to collect on the brim of my hat--a feature I would change if I had my druthers. Other than that personal objection, I really like the little '90.

I never did find another Model '90 that was a nice as the one I hadn't gotten as a kid--at least not one that I could afford when it was available. So I never did have the pleasure of owning one.

Our test specimen was loaned to us from the collection of the Riverside Municipal Museum of Riverside, California. Curator of History Vince Moses chose this one for its fine bore and mechanical condition, plus the fact that it's chambered for the Long Rifle round.

If you decide to go hunting for a Model '90, don't be discouraged by the condition of the bores of those specimens in the "affordable" category. And don't pass one up because it's not .22 LR. Any competent gunsmith can reline the original barrel, replacing even a sewer pipe bore with better-than-new rifling. Then it can be chambered for .22 Long Rifle. Sharon Gun Specialties, 14587 Peaceful Valley Rd., Dept. GA, Sonora, CA 93370 specializes in this type of barrel work.

The cartridge carrier of the .22 Short or Long can be relieved to feed the .22 LR; but those rifles chambered for the .22 WRF will need a new .22 LR cartridge carrier, which is available from Numrich Arms, Dept. GA, West Hurley, NY 12491, as are any other parts you may need to get your '90 into top condition.

After working with this loaner, the flame I had for the Model 1890 as a kid is being fanned back to life. Now that I realize how easy it is to get a distressed specimen into top shooting condition, I think it's time I hunt one up and fulfill that boyhood dream.
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Renner, Roger
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Aug 1, 1985
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