Your position is under attack. You need to fire copious amounts of bullets. You need to overwhelm the opposing force. Firepower is the essence and it must come from a small group of soldiers. At the very least, you need to double your enemy’s rate of fire. You need a short fast rifle that is quick into action. You need a carbine platform that is easy to carry. You need an assault rifle. The AK-47 is solid, the AR-15 runs like a sports car. Your problem is that it is the 1870s. What do you do now? Well, you’ll get nothing in the automatic range, but if you are quick with the wrist, you have a few choices you can load on Sunday and shoot all week.
What do you need in an AR of the 1870s? It must be compact and portable—not like carrying a fence post around. It must be capable of rapid fire, no ramrod, trapdoor, or even bolt actions are welcome here. Sorry SMLE fans, you’re not yet invented. It must be able to make a single soldier have the firepower of a small group. Furthermore, this soldier may or may not be a professional. The rifle must help make them such. What we do get for our money are great rifles for the time and icons for the present.
First up to the plate is the Spencer carbine. It provides multiple shots in a light and short platform. A rifle easily carried in a troop transport of the time, a saddle. Furthermore, it is the only rifle on our list with a removable magazine. There is no bullet button; sorry California. The tube magazine awkwardly came out of the rear of the stock. You pushed cartridges down in the spring-loaded tube magazine, and then the magazine went back into the stock. The cartridge for this rifle was mainly the .50-70 and .45-70 Government, the chosen rounds of the U.S. Military. This cartridge had more kinetic energy and effective range than today’s varmint rounds used by the military.
However, rate of fire makes this little rifle come up way short of a solid 1870s AR weapon. To shoot it took two steps. First, you had to load it as a lever action rifle. The block would fall and a round then pushed itself forward from the magazine. It then lifted into the chamber on the reverse stroke of the lever. Unfortunately, the rifle did not cock the hammer during this stroke. You needed to cock the hog-leg hammer separately. Eight to ten shot per minute was great at that time but still slower than the rest of our weapons.
The next rifle up to the plate is the Henry Lever Action Rifle. Firepower goes way up this time from 8-10 rounds per minute with the Spencer to almost 30. As fast as you could work the lever, the next shot was ready to launch. This was the AK of the 1870s. It was strong, solid and dependable. A brass frame made it distinctive on the battlefield. When the average muzzleloader was three good rounds per minute and the single shot trapdoors were not much better, sixteen rapid fire shots was as close to auto as you could get. Furthermore, the rifle could stay at the shoulder unlike the previous mentioned types, making follow up shots more effective.
However, with that amount of firepower, came weight. This thing was a boat anchor to carry. Furthermore, it was like swinging a telephone pole into action. It was not a compact platform and it needed a wide area to perform due to its length. This is far from a carbine. On the back of a horse, it is a long draw to bring from saddle to first shot. Nevertheless, you were indeed the belle of the ball if you were carrying the Henry or the Spencer during the war in the previous decade.
Was there a better option? That answer is quite simply yes, and its name was Winchester. Fast, rugged, reliable and unlike the other two, it kept getting better. By the 1870s the Henry and Sharpes were basically the same weapon. Winchester was on its third model by 1876 and the 1873 may have been the best for at least 20 more years.
The first rifle was the Winchester Model of 1866. Known as the Winchester Repeating Rifle, that name would stick for many decades. It borrowed a look from the Henry; it had a bronze alloy receiver. Many times this rifle is mistaken for the Henry because of this distinct pattern. This Winchester, called the Yellow Boy, began a great legacy in firearms.
The next in succession was the famous Winchester of 1873. I would have reached for this 1870s AR. It came in a carbine version. Thus, it was short, light and fast. It was quick from the saddle to action with a very short draw. When chambered in the .44-40, it became a real tactical weapon. Colt began manufacturing a new Single Army Action pistol in this caliber. You could carry just one cartridge type in the field—one for the handgun and one for the rifle. We still struggle with that tactical advantage in this day and age. With almost three-quarters of a million produced, this was the most popular rifle of its time. It was the gun that won the west. Historians tagged it with this grand title due to its domination of other firearms of the era. Very few other rifles can claim such an overwhelming advantage.
However, any one of these rifles would have been an excellent tactical rifle. In June of 1876, the troopers on the hillside of the Little Big Horn ran headlong into an opponent bearing these ARs of their time. The troopers armed with single shot trapdoor rifles would not live to tell what a highly mobile force armed with such firepower could do in just a few minutes.