The 1876 Winchester “Centennial” Repeating Rifle

Oliver Winchester bought the remains of the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company, started the New Haven Arms Company, reorganized it as the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in 1866, and manufactured some of the most famous firearms ever created. Today we’re going to look at one of their most revered rifles: The 1876 Winchester Centennial Repeating Rifle.

Introduced at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 and named to commemorate our nation’s one hundredth anniversary of independence, Winchester’s lever-action rifle was the largest and among the most powerful repeaters on the frontier. 

The Centennial was one of the first lever-action weapons to use larger caliber, center-fire ammunition. In the same way that “rim-fire” meant the hammer struck the rim of the projectile, center-fire means the hammer strikes the center of the bullet when the trigger is pulled. In this case, larger means .45-75 to .50-90 caliber bullets.

The Centennial Repeater was 48½” long with a 28” barrel, and weighed in at 9 to 9½ pounds! And loading it with shells adds at least another pound. A gallon of milk weighs only 8.6 pounds–try holding that out in front of you and keeping it steady enough to hit what you’re aiming at!

The bullets go into the magazine through a spring-loaded feeder on the right side of the rifle. Fully loaded, the 1876 Repeater held 12 total cartridges–11 in the magazine and one in the chamber. All you had to do was stuff the bullets into the feeder, rack the lever and pull the trigger.

Confederate soldiers who faced a Repeater in battle referred to it as that “rifle you load on Sunday and fire all week.”

This sturdy, reliable rifle was favored by good guys and bad guys alike. There were many of them at the Battle of Little Big Horn (most in the hands of the Native Americans), and they were common among those who traveled and settled out west. The Model 1876 was carried by ranchers and cowboys, Texas Rangers and the Canadian North West Mounted Police. President Theodore Roosevelt (right) owned and used one; even notorious outlaws such as Johnny Ringo (left) and Tom Horn relied on this rifle during the late 1800s.

Hollywood loved the 1876 Centennial Repeater, too. Tom Selleck carried one as Rafe Covington in Crossfire Trail (TNT, 2001) and as Monte Walsh in Monte Walsh (2002). Virginia Madsen used the 1876 Centennial when she saved the day–and her man– also in Crossfire Trail. It made an appearance Steve McQueen’s hands when he played Tom Horn in the 1980 movie of the same name. And characters Johnny Ringo and Sherm McMasters used it in Tombstone (1993).

Just for comparison, the pic at the right, from the final gunbattle in TNT’s Crossfire Trail, shows an 1876 Centennial in the back, an 1866 “Yellow Boy” or “Golden Boy” (because of the polished brass receiver) in the middle and a Winchester 1873 in the front.

The 1876 Centennial Rifle was the king of its day. Manufacturing was discontinued in 1898 after Winchester produced nearly 64,000 of this amazing lever-action rifle.

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History, Texas, cowboys, horses—these are a few of Tracy’s favorite things. Check out her westerns at www.TracyGarrett.com.

10 thoughts on “The 1876 Winchester “Centennial” Repeating Rifle”

  1. Hi Tracy! Thanks for another informative post. the picture from TNT’S “Crossfire Trail,” the picture of the two rifles together, made me think of watching movies with my husband. He’s always saying things like, “He’s using an XYZ rifle.” If Hollywood doesn’t get it right, he knows it.

  2. I’ve been using a Winchester 73 in my books quite a bit. I think I’ll switch. 🙂

    I love that…load it on Sunday and shoot it all week….line.

    Really unless you were hunting, how much shooting did your average frontier man usually do. I suspect their lives were more long hours, hard work and boredom than anything else.

  3. Tracy, very interesting. Do you know what type of rifle Tom Selleck used in Quigley Down Under? Just wondering if it was a Winchester repeating rifle. The Winchester Company was sure innovative with this design. They also say this was the gun that won the west. I’ve had Winchester repeasters in several of my books.

  4. Mary, I suspect you’re right. Lots more boredom than real need for a gun that could shoot 12-15 times before you had to reload. It was like everything else: convenience. If the gun is fully loaded, you don’t have to carry lots of loose cartridges in your pockets, bags, whatever.

  5. Linda, the 1873 repeater is really the one they call “the gun that won the west.” This rifle took the basis of that gun, made it sturdier and able to handle much more powerful cartridges. More gunpowder meant more range and more stopping power.

    BTW, Quigley carried a Shiloh Sharps 1874 Long Range Rifle. Check out imfdb.org (Internet Movie Firearms Database). You can search by movie and it will give you more detail than you could possibly want. 🙂
    http://www.imfdb.org/index.php/Quigley_Down_Under

  6. Thanks again, Tracy, for another terrific post on historic guns. I did mention a Winchester in my Christmas novella but didn’t know too much about it LOL. Now I do , and now I know where to turn for more research. oxox

  7. Thanks for another informative post. Always enjoy your gun lessons. Afraid I can’t tell one gun from another (like cars) except for a few models.

  8. Hi Tracy,
    Loved this post–your gun posts are some of my very favorites, though I sometimes get to them a day later. LOL I used these Winchester repeaters in a lot of my stories, too. Thanks for another great post.
    Cheryl P.

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