In a modern world where “new” is the gotta-have, velocity draws the headlines, “cool” overrides practical and “tactical” rules the market, way too often the golden oldies that established cast-iron reputations for absolute dependability in the past are overlooked, and that shouldn’t happen. Obviously, the job at hand should dictate the tool used to get it done, but the latest and greatest doesn’t always automatically equate to the best or the only, and for certain roles some of the classics are still just as viable as they were a hundred years ago. One clear example is the “ancient” .45-70 caliber, now actually in its 142nd year of production.
Originally adopted in 1873 for the main battle rifle of the U.S. Army, the legendary Trapdoor Springfield, the caliber was also considered an acceptable mid-bore on the Kansas and Nebraska plains through the 1870s, fitting neatly between the .40s and the .50s in the heavy single-shot buffalo guns of the day. In military service, it lasted until the Army adopted the bolt-action .30-caliber Krag-Jorgensen in 1893. The Marine Corps carried on with the .45-70 till about 1897, along with various state militia units, and the caliber saw service as late as the brief Spanish-American War of 1898, with some Trapdoors attributed to Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.
Besides the iconic single-shot Sharps and Springfield rifles, the caliber achieved a dedicated following in the West when a then-obscure Utah gunshop owner named John Browning sold his design for a strong and reliable repeater to the Winchester company, eventually introduced as the Winchester Model 1886. Browning, arguably as much as Oliver Winchester himself, was responsible for the success of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in the late 1800s, and his 1886 design was immediately accepted by tough outdoorsmen who needed a reliable and powerful repeater in dealing with daily life on the frontier.
Although the great bison herds were long decimated by then, the strength of the 1886 design combined with the existing .45-70 Government round made it the hardest-hitting lever-action repeater available until the advent of the Winchester Model 1895 in that year. The Model ’86 was very much respected by lawmen, pioneers and hunters in mountainous country where previous lever guns just didn’t have the horsepower and heavy single-shots didn’t have the rapid firing capacity to carry the day.
Living much of its life in uniform as a blackpowder round with a 405-grain lead bullet, the .45-70 managed to outlast literally dozens of its contemporaries, easily making the transition to smokeless propellants. While it did have its dormant periods over the years, it never entirely faded away. Development has perked up considerably in the past couple decades, and today there are commercial loads available that can run the gamut from “That was fun!” to “Whoa, mama! That hurts!” for punching holes in either lightweight paper or heavyweight critters, as needed. Components for handloaders are easy to find, and there are several good choices for bullet launchers to shoot them in.
This all takes us right back to the 1886 Browning design, in updated form here from Chiappa. And this is definitely not your great-grandpa’s heavy, shoulder-bustin’, long-barreled Model ’86.
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In its original form, the typical Model 1886 was long, heavy and fitted with a crescent steel buttplate, and it wore iron sights that tended to disappear in dimming light. Those were the counterpoint downsides of the gun, and those are all areas that Chiappa has addressed in its newest version of the company’s Model 1886 repros. While they still offer more traditional full-length octagonal barrels out to 26 inches and up to 9 pounds in weight, the Model 1886 part of this package has been trimmed out front to a much more compact, round, 16-inch barrel with a correspondingly abbreviated four-round tube magazine under it. The furniture is lightly varnished walnut, smooth and un-checkered, and there’s a very welcome 0.625- inch, solid rubber recoil pad at the rear that shoulders will find infinitely easier to deal with while using modern high-energy ammo than any steel crescent plate ever was or could be, especially with the rifle’s much lighter and trimmer 7-pound Trapper configuration. The lever’s been upsized to fit a gloved hand, and before you say it’s too Chuck Connors or John Wayne, I’ll point out that this one’s truly contoured for cold weather utility, not Hollywood spinnery. A further concession to lever gun modernity is the two drilled and tapped screwholes about 10 inches back from the muzzle for optional forward Scout scope mounting.
The Skinner part refers to the sights, a fixed, non-adjustable, tall, orange fiber-optic blade up front and an aperture adjustable for windage and elevation at the rear. The Skinner rear sight is all steel, with a 2.25-inch, precisely-machined, two-piece base that provides repeatable side-to-side windage adjustments via milled graduations on the larger bottom section and a reference hashmark on the upper section that sits inside the base’s dovetail and carries the aperture. Elevation is adjusted by loosening a set screw to rotate the threaded aperture shank up or down as needed. Today, when many sights have gone to either aluminum or a cast process with rounded edges and porous flats, the Skinner rear combines a thoroughly modern design with old-time attention to hand-fitted detail and quality. It also features a removable 0.125-inch aperture insert inside a larger 0.2- inch threaded aperture, for a choice of either short-range speed or longer-range precision. Remove the insert for a quick-acquisition ghost-ring effect, or let it ride for a tighter sight picture at distance. Either way, the orange front “dot” shows up very visibly through lighting conditions that stretch out the average hunting day beyond what standard black-on-black iron sights can usually handle, and they’re a distinct improvement over what the original Model 1886 design was usually fitted with.
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On The Range
The Model 1886’s twin vertical locking bars are the key to its strength, and in a hunting gun that might see use anywhere from a brush country elk hunt through dense hog terrain to an Alaskan float plane, I didn’t see much point in testing it with mild, low-pressured loads intended to be safe in antique Trapdoor specimens. This one isn’t built for either nostalgia or Cowboy Action Shooting—it’s a true field gun. Three relatively light (for the caliber) commercial hunting rounds travelled to the 100-yard range with the Chiappa on a 58-degree spring day. I tested the rifle by shooting off a rest under a shaded canopy.
Out of the box, the action was tight, stiff and fairly dry. Thorough applications of Break-Free CLP with a cotton swab in key areas, including the bolt and locking bar surfaces and the frame’s half-mortise recesses, followed by energetically cycling the action a couple hundred times, smoothed it up noticeably, especially the last quarter-inch or so of bolt travel on closing, which is the point where the lugs engage the bottom of the bolt and begin to travel upward between it and the frame to lock the two together. Given enough time, a well-broken-in Model ’86 can develop into quite a smooth-cycling pile driver, and I’d expect the same on the Chiappas.
The single-stage trigger pull was clean at 4.75 pounds with very slight overtravel, and this would be a good time to bring up the safety system on the gun. Essentially, it’s you. Unlike other current producers of Winchester-based lever gun models, Chiappa doesn’t re-engineer its guns to include parts that most levergunners don’t want in places where most levergunners don’t want them. True to the original Browning patents, the Chiappa Skinner Trapper has no side-bolt safety button, no internal firing-pin safety, no rebounding hammer and no sliding tang safety. If the chamber’s loaded, the hammer’s cocked, and you pull the trigger, you can expect a loud noise and it’ll be entirely your fault, not the rifle’s. You do, however, have the traditional half-cock hammer notch to work with.
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Generations of levergunners have safely carried these on horseback, on foot, in trucks and through terrain of all types by making one of two choices: Carry with the hammer down on an empty chamber and noisily cycle the action when it’s time to shoot, or carry with the hammer partially down on half-cock behind a loaded chamber, ready to be quietly thumbed back to full-cock when needed. Either way works. The thing to avoid is carry with the hammer fully down on a loaded round, since that leaves the firing pin resting directly against the primer and vulnerable to an accidental discharge if dropped just wrong.
To carry fully loaded, chamber your round with the muzzle pointed in a safe direction and carefully control the hammer down to half-cock with your thumb while releasing it with the trigger. Practicing first with a thoroughly empty gun would not hurt at all, and it’s not hard to learn.
Accuracy-wise, the range session shows why we don’t just try one box of whatever’s on sale and call it good. We try three or four different loads and hit the dirt with a quality hunting projectile that’ll perform on impact and work well enough in the gun to reliably put that impact where it needs to be. Here, shooting three modern bullets, the short barrel did its best with Winchester’s Super-X 300-grain jacketed hollow points, while Hornady’s specialized 325-grain jack- eted polymer-tipped LeveRevolution came in second. The model I tested, with either of these loads, is easily capable of 150-yard hunting accuracy, and as a medium-range brush-buster, it does what it’s built to do.
Workmanship on the 1886 Skinner Trapper was well done, with good wood-to-metal fit, clean inletting, a uniform finish and tight machining. Comfortable in hand, cold-weather compatible, quick to shoulder, compact to maneuver and light to carry, this is a well-made rendition that brings a classic big bore up to date. For more information, visit chiappafirearms.com.
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This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN ™ 2015 issue #174. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.