Winchester Toggle Link 101

As seen in the March 2008 Cowboy Chronicle, reproduced here with bigger and color photos! Please see The Open Range homepage.

By Larsen E. Pettifogger, SASS #32933L 

“Why are Winchester 73’s so OAL (overall length) sensitive.” “Why won’t my 66 in .44  Special feed .44 Russians?” You see these kinds of questions on the SASS wire and  newcomers ask these questions at matches all the time. There have been numerous  articles written on the evolution of the Hunt, Jennings, and Volcanic rifles into the  Winchester toggle link rifles–the Henry, Model 66, Model 73 and the Model 76. They  are the oldest practical repeating rifles yet the elegance and utter simplicity of their  design, and their almost 100% reliability, has made them the hands down favorite of  cowboy action shooters. However, few articles have been written about the internal  workings of these mechanical works of art. So, sit back, grab a beverage, and welcome  to Toggle Link 101, your introductory course on the Winchester toggle link rifles. 

The key to the functioning of the toggle link rifles is their ammunition. Photo 1 (above)  shows the original rounds for the toggle link rifles. (This article is focused on the pistol  caliber rifles. The Model 76 functions the same as the other toggle links. However, since  it is not a main match rifle its rounds are not shown.) Starting on the left is the .44 Henry  Flat, next is the .32-20, the .38-40 and the .44-40. The Civil War vintage Henry rounds  used round nose bullets. However, the OAL was the same. All of the original  Winchester center fire toggle link rounds have the same overall length. Reproduction  toggle links have been chambered in the original center fire calibers as well as the .38  Special, .357 Magnum, .44 Special and the .45 Colt.

Photo 2 (above) shows the range of cartridges available in the toggle links and their  OAL’s. Starting in the middle is the ubiquitous .44-40. On the left are the .357 Magnum,  .38 Special with the 158 grain Snakebite bullet, a milspec .38 Special, and a .38 Special  with a 125 grain bullet. To the right of the .44-40 is a .45 Cowboy Special (which is  about the same OAL as a .44 Russian), a Schofield loaded with a 160 grain bullet, a  Schofield with a 200 grain bullet (which is about the same OAL as the .44 Special) and a  .45 Colt with a 250 grain bullet. Looking at Photo 1 and Photo 2 it is apparent that the  .357 Magnum and the .45 Colt are the same OAL as the original chamberings. That  being the case, it is no surprise that they function fine in the toggle links. However, how  is it that the toggle links also function with rounds much shorter than the original  chamberings? 

The primary way Winchester dealt with the issue of cartridge length was to change the  carrier lengths to match the OAL of the cartridges. Uberti also took this approach when  it introduced its first Model 66s in the 1970s. 

Photo 3 (above) shows the .44 Henry Flat and a Henry/66 carrier on the left. Next is a  1970s vintage Uberti Model 66 carrier for the .38 Special and to the extreme right is a  current production Uberti carrier that is used for all calibers in the Henry, 66 and 73 

models. (Original Winchester 73 carriers are the same nominal length as the current  Uberti carriers.) Even with ammunition and carrier lengths optimized, normal variations  in OAL and machining tolerances would lead to jamming as the edge of the carrier tried  to rise and hit on a casing rim. How the factories dealt with this issue is the key to the  toggle links’ ability to smoothly feed a variety of different OAL ammo. 

Photo 4 (above) shows an original carrier from a Winchester 73 manufactured in 1876 on  the right and a current production Uberti carrier on the left. On the front of the original  carrier Winchester put a very slight bevel. This bevel is about .050” deep at the top end.  In other words, the bevel is roughly the thickness of a casing rim. The nominal length of  a 73 carrier is 1.600”. All of the original calibers for the 73 have a maximum OAL of  1.592”. Since all of the ammunition was made to the same OAL the small bevel on the  front of the carrier was more than enough to compensate for minor variations in OAL and  carrier length. The early Uberti carriers (i.e., the originals from the 1970s like the one  shown in Photo 3) were built just like an original Winchester. They had a very slight  bevel on the front of the carrier that was about the thickness of a casing rim. 

I don’t know if this is an urban myth, but the stories I have read indicate that when Uberti  starting thinking about making a rifle for the American market they knew the .38 Special  was a popular cartridge, but that round is virtually unknown in Europe. The only  ammunition they had was milspec ammunition so they designed their carrier around that  ammunition. Milspec ammo tends to be at the maximum for OAL for the .38 Special.  When I acquired an old Uberti 66 a few years ago, I took it out for a test run and it would  not feed any of the .38 Special ammo I had with me, even factory loaded 158 grain round  nose flat points. As the carrier was rising it was jamming on the rim of the cartridge  coming out of the magazine tube. I went home and got some military hard ball .38  Special and it functioned flawlessly. When Uberti decided to expand its market and build  reproduction 73s and Henrys, it standardized all its carriers at 1.600”, the same as an  original Winchester 73. Thus, the carriers in new Model 66’s that were chambered for .38 Special would be to long to reliably feed .38 Special ammunition if it was designed  like the carriers used in the early Uberti Model 66s. Uberti dealt with this issue by  deepening the bevel on the front of the carriers and forming a steep ramp as shown on the  front of the carrier on the left in Photo 4. Now that we have an idea of the types of  ammunition a toggle length will digest and how variations in OAL are addressed on the  current guns, let’s see how all this actually works. 

Photo 5 Above) shows all the parts involved in feeding ammunition in a toggle link.  Starting on the upper left and going counter clockwise is the barrel, the magazine tube,  the carrier, the carrier lift arm, and the loading gate. (The bolt is left out of our model  gun for clarity.) That’s it, that’s all there is inside a toggle link. The toggle links have no  cartridge stop or mechanism for regulating ammunition coming out of the magazine tube.  The ammunition is, in fact, the cartridge stop and is part of the feeding mechanism. The  tab on the loading gate does not regulate ammunition coming out of the magazine. Its  function is to keep rounds from going back into the receiver. (Those with sharp eyes will  notice that the loading gate in Photo 5 is from a 66 and that the tab is actually broken off.  This is a common problem with 66 gates.) Notice on the front of the lower part of the  sectioned carrier is the ramp shown in Photo 4. OK, let’s load up our rifle and see how it  functions.

Photo 6 (above) shows the gun loaded with .44-40s. Notice that the rim of the round  coming out of the magazine tube is about even with the front of the carrier and the rear of  the round in the carrier is resting on the loading gate tab. As we lower the lever the  carrier begins to rise and the rim of the cartridge coming out of the magazine hits the  ramp. See Photo 7 (below).

Photo 8 (above) shows the carrier at the top of its travel. The top round is ready to be  pushed into the chamber by the bolt, and the bottom round has been fully pushed back  into the magazine tube by the bottom of the carrier. Everything is working perfectly and  rounds near the original max OAL of the Winchester design (i.e., 1.592”) will feed  flawlessly. Now let’s see what happens when we use rounds of a shorter OAL. 

Photo 9 (above) shows our rifle loaded with .45 Schofields loaded with 200 grain bullets.  As can be seen in the photo, the cartridge coming out of the magazine is sticking far into  the carrier. Although the rim of the incoming round is striking the carrier near the top of  the ramp, as the carrier raises it will still push the incoming round back into the magazine  tube and our rifle should function fine.

Photo 10 (above) shows our rifle loaded with .45 Schofields loaded with 160 grain  bullets. The rim of the incoming round is now beyond the top of the ramp. As the carrier  raises it is going to catch on the incoming round and our rifle is going to jam. 

Photo 11 (above) shows our rifle loaded with .45 Cowboy Specials. Over half of the  incoming round is in the carrier and well beyond the top of the ramp. Our rifle will  absolutely not function with these rounds. With the stock carrier the limiting factor is the  steepness of the ramp. It cannot be pushed back much further than the ramp on the  factory carrier for two reasons. First, as the ramp gets steeper and rounds extend further  into the carrier instead of pushing rounds back into the magazine tube you will get a  lifting or chopping action and the gun will jam. Also, as can be seen from the cut-away  carrier in the photos, if the ramp is cut much deeper it will penetrate the lifter arm cavity  and the ramp will have a hole in it which, again, will cause jams. 

As the old saying goes, where there is a will there is a way.

Photo 12 (above) shows a carrier modified with what is functionally a miniature-loading  gate milled into the side of the carrier. As rounds push past the gate they sit on a tab that  holds them toward the front of the carrier. With rounds held at the front of the carrier, 

see Photo 13 (above), the round coming out of the magazine tube will strike the feed  ramp so that the gun functions normally. Even this mod creates some issues and for most  shooters it is probably best to stick with ammunition that fits within the parameters of the  original toggle link design. By doing so, the toggle link will function at the high degree  of reliability that has made it a CAS favorite. Maintaining proper ammunition is easy,  especially now that everyone attending Toggle Link 101 knows how the toggle link  feeding mechanism works. Every toggle link has a maximum case length gauge built  right in. All you have to do is lower the lever and sit a loaded round in the carrier  mortise. See Photo 14 (below). 

If a round won’t go in or drags, it’s to long. (Remember, max OAL for toggle link  ammunition should be 1.592”.) The minimum OAL will vary from rifle to rifle  depending on the steepness of the ramp. With a dummy round in the carrier and the  muzzle pointed up slightly (to make sure the round is sitting on the loading gate tab) if  you can see the top of the ramp in front of the nose of your bullets, the rounds are definitely too short. With a second round inserted into the magazine you can see how far  the rim of the cartridge is sticking out of the magazine tube. The closer the rim of the  cartridge coming out of the magazine tube is to the top of the ramp, the more likely your rifle will jam.


How Accurate was the Winchester Rifle?

The Winchester rifle was highly accurate for its time. Its refined mechanics and quality construction enabled shooters to achieve superior precision, making it a preferred choice in various applications, including hunting and combat.

Is the Winchester 1873 a Good Rifle?

The Winchester 1873 is considered an excellent rifle, praised for its reliability, durability, and accuracy. As “The Gun that Won the West,” it played a significant role in American history, testament to its performance and quality.

What Made the Winchester 73 So Special?

The Winchester 73 was special due to its innovative lever-action mechanism, allowing rapid firing and reloading. Its reliability and accuracy in diverse conditions contributed to its iconic status in American frontier history.

How Many Rounds did the 1873 Winchester Hold?

The 1873 Winchester typically held between 10 to 14 rounds depending on the model and caliber. This capacity, combined with its rapid reload capability, made it a formidable firearm during its era.

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