Winchester 1876 – Cimarron’s Tribute to Tom Horn

winchester model 1876
December 12, 2018  
Categories: Guns

Steve McQueen’s penultimate film (second to last for you non-literary-minded types) was Tom Horn in 1980, and in a rare twist for a Western, the focus was on the cowboy’s rifle as opposed to his six-gun. This was no pistol-caliber lever action carbine, nor was it a long-range Sharps rifle. It was somewhere smack in the middle, in the form of a Winchester 1876.

Winchester 1876

Cimarron Arms Tom Horn Rifle

An original Model 1876 in decent condition will set you back a few thousand. These were probably the world’s first repeater express rifles, for lack of a better term, yet Cimarron Firearms is offering up a replica made by Uberti that is a dead ringer for the Tom Horn movie rifle.

History of the Winnie

Winchester introduced the Model 1876 Centennial to celebrate the American Centennial Exposition. Unlike its previous lever action rifles, the Model 1876 was designed to be a powerful big bore hunting rifle as opposed to a lever action repeater which fired handgun-type rounds.

Model 1876 Centennial

Winchester’s Model 1876 Centennial.

Standard versions of the rifle had a blued finish, and deluxe models featured a case hardened receiver. Four versions were produced: a 22-inch barrel Carbine, a 26-inch barrel Express Rifle with a half-length magazine, a 28-inch barrel Sporting Rifle, and a 32-inch barrel Musket. There were three iterations of these models: The first model had no dust cover, the second had a dust cover attached by a screw, and the third incorporated an integral dust cover.

The receiver was too short to accommodate the popular 45-70 cartridge of the day, so Winchester chambered the rifles in shorter rounds intended to replicate the 45-70’s ballistics. The initial offering was in a round called the 45-75 Winchester Centennial and was followed by 40-60 Winchester, 45-60 Winchester and 50-95 Express (only the Express Model was offered in this caliber, and it was the only caliber available for the Express).

With more powerful smokeless powder cartridges on the rise, sales for the Model 1876 began to taper off toward the end of the 19th century. It was also bumped aside by the introduction of Winchester’s Model 1886 that was chambered in the more easily obtainable 45-70 Government round. Production of the Model 1876 ceased in 1897, with a total of 63,871 models built over its 21-year run.

Tom Horn

If you haven’t seen the movie or never cracked open a book about the Apache Wars, Tom Horn was a scout and interpreter for the US Army during the Geronimo campaign. He led a colorful life as a rodeo cowboy, detective, Rough Rider, and rancher.

Winchester's Model 1876 Centennial.

Living the colorful life.

He was infamously known for the murder of a 14-year-old boy named Willie Nickell, the son of a sheep rancher involved in a range war with Horn’s employer, Jim Miller. On July 18, 1901, Willie Nickell was found murdered near the gate to the family’s homestead. He was wearing his father’s hat and coat, and it was believed that whoever shot him mistook him for his father. Six months later Horn allegedly confessed to killing him with his rifle from 300 yards, which he boasted as the “best shot that [he] ever made and the dirtiest trick that [he] ever done.” Horn’s trial went to the jury on October 23, 1902, and they returned a guilty verdict the next day.

Horn was hanged on November 20, 1903, by a water-powered gallows known as the “Julian Gallows.” James P. Julian, a Cheyenne, Wyoming architect, designed the contraption in 1892. The trap door was connected to a lever which pulled the plug out of a barrel of water. This would cause a lever with a counterweight to rise, pulling on the support beam under the gallows. When enough pressure was applied, the beam broke free, opening the trap and hanging the condemned man.

Winchester's Model 1876 Centennial.

This is one of the last photos taken of Tom Horn before his death; some say that the rope he is braiding is the noose used to hang him.

Despite his confession and his very limited trial defense, many people did not believe he was guilty of the murder. He had numerous alibis and witnesses putting him far from the scene on that day.

But back to the rifle

Cimarron knocked this design out of the park. We’ve been fortunate enough to examine a few Model 1876 rifles over the years, and every last detail is there. Most notably, it’s got the iconic sight used in the Tom Horn movie. Mounted to the tang, it flips up when you need an extra precise shot at long range.

Winchester's Model 1876 Centennial.

The iconic sight used in the Tom Horn movie.

The workmanship on this rifle, from Horn’s signature engraved on the rifle’s side plate to the fire blued screws and safety catch on the butt of the lever, is impeccable.

The Cimarron Tom Horn rifle is chambered in 45-60 Winchester. While it’s not exactly a caliber you will find in the average gun shop or sporting goods store, ammunition actually is available.

We went to Buffalo Arms for some authentic black powder rifle ammunition. They offer a smokeless variant too, but we wanted an experience close to the real thing.

Buffalo Arms specializes in other types of black powder ammo as well as old, obsolete, and hard-to-find ammunition for cowboy action shooting, black powder rifle target shooting, silhouette shooting, and plinking. All their ammunition is manufactured in fully reloadable boxer primed cases.

The ammunition was loaded with 300-grain bullets and Swiss-made black powder. Shooting cartridges with real black powder as opposed to a substitute is one of life’s simpler pleasures with regard to sound, smoke, and the reduced recoil. While 45-60 Winchester is similar ballistically to 45-70 government, we found it much more pleasant to shoot.

At 300 yards we were hitting pie-plate sized targets and keeping everything within 4”. We got even more satisfaction ringing steel. Should you purchase one of these rifles, don’t feel it has to be a safe queen or wall hanger. Take it out and shoot the damn thing.

Mike the Mook and the Model 1876

As much as we’d have liked to have kept this one, it went back to Cimarron when our evaluation period was over. 




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Mike Searson

Mike Searson

About the Author

Mike “the Mook” Searson is a veteran writer who began his career in firearms at the Camp Pendleton School for Destructive Boys at age 17. He has worked in the firearms industry his entire life, writing about guns and knives for numerous publications and consulting with the film industry on weapons while at the same time working as gunsmith and ballistician. Though seemingly a surly curmudgeon shy a few chromosomes at first meeting, Searson is actually far less of a dick and at least a little smarter than most of the Mad Duo’s minions. He is rightfully considered to be not just good company, but actually fit for polite company as well (though he has never forgotten his roots as a rifleman trained to kill people and break things, and if you look closely you’ll see his knuckles are still quite scabbed over from dragging the ground). You can learn more about him on his website or follow him on Twitter, @MikeSearson.


  1. Gerry O.

    Tom Horn was one of those “grey area” old western personalities who acted on both the “good” side of the law and as a “bad guy” assassinating people for the local cattle barons. Interesting guy, but his guilt is still up for debate for some people. I, too, am a graduate of the Camp Pendleton School for Destructive Boys (1967) – 0351 Branch, and practiced that trade for seven years. After that, the Powers That Be decided that maybe I actually had a few brain cells and sent me to the Intel School at Ft. Huachuca AZ, where I caroused at the Crystal Palace Saloon in nearby Tombstone (where I undoubtedly killed a brain cell or two) on Saturday nights. While there, I became interested in the real (as opposed to the Hollywood) Old West and its weapons. In the fullness of time, I eventually acquired an Italian replica 1876 carbine in .45-75 WCF, which I am not getting rid of. It is a powerful rifle (equalling the .45-70) and I’d feel well equipped with it against any beast in North America. From what I read, it was Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite when he was a western ranch owner. Ammo can be hard to find. I got smokeless rounds – I think they cost me about three or four dollars per round – just to do some shooting and to get the brass, and I reload the caliber now, which is much cheaper.

  2. Mark H.

    Tom Horn is indeed one of, if not the most interesting and my favorite of the old west characters/personalities. Steve did a great acting job in the movie BUT the book “Tom Horn” is way better. The movie tracks ‘fairly’ closely but as with most any book, really goes in-depth. Matter of fact, I ought to re-read it soon (actually had this conversation with my Grandson 2 days ago!)

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