A Short Affair
The .22 Short 1890 Winchester
“Gallery Gun” Is Still A Blast.
My first introduction to firearms was at the Shooting Gallery at Frontierland in Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. One of my fondest memories is the excitement approaching Frontierland as the smell of powder smoke wafted in the air. From then on anytime I saw a shooting gallery anywhere, I wanted to shoot.
One of the most recognizable shapes even today is the profile of the John Browning-designed Winchester Model 1890, often called the “Gallery Gun,” and prices reflect its ongoing popularity—and long, hard use in many cases.
While not the first pump-action rifle design (Colt had been selling pump rifles for several years already), the Model 1890 proved one of the most reliable, accurate and dependable of rifles. It came about in a time when the frontier was settling down and recreational shooting was on the rise.
Previously, John M. Browning would turn in a model gun to Winchester for evaluation. Instead of sending a model gun this time, Browning submitted detailed drawings. Winchester’s engineers informed Browning he should discontinue the project because the gun couldn’t possibly work. Browning then made a model gun and upon submission said, “You said it wouldn’t work, but it seems to shoot pretty fair to me.”
The 1890 was chambered for one of the original rimfires, the .22 Short, which was very popular for target and small game shooting. The little round was topped with a 30-grain solid or 27-grain hollowpoint bullet over 3 grains of black powder.
As well, the 1890 was chambered for the .22 Long and a hot new cartridge called the .22 Winchester Rim Fire. The .22 Long, topped with a 35-grain bullet over 5 grains of powder was supposed to give hunters a more powerful cartridge. The Long never proved as accurate or popular as the Short.
The .22 WRF was unique among rimfires in having the bullet’s grease grooves within the case as is common with centerfire ammunition. The outside-lubricated Shorts and Longs were a lot messier to load, especially afield. The .22 WRF, topped with a 45-grain bullet over 7 grains of powder at 1,300 fps was powerful and a good small-game round. A more expensive round, the WRF cost $9 per 1,000 rounds compared to $5 per 1,000 for Shorts in Winchester’s 1899 catalog. More 1890’s were sold in .22 Short than the other two cartridges combined.
Jeff does his Holt Bodinson impersonation guest writing the column this
month. The Model 1890 Winchester is truly one of the best “fun guns” the
world has seen. The Model 1890 is light, sleek, reliable and accurate.
Many of the guns on the market have seen hard use, and this one
is no exception. During its life starting in 1914, it has been
rebarreled and many parts replaced.
Some 775,000 Model 1890’s were made from 1890 until its discontinuance at the beginning of WWII. Strangely enough, the .22 Long Rifle wasn’t chambered in the 1890 until after WWI, and never in large numbers. Only about 10 percent of the 1890’s were chambered in .22 LR. The inexpensive Model 1906, which shared parts with the 1890, had a round barrel and gumwood stock, and a carrier designed to handle .22 Short, Long and Long Rifle, but this carrier was never used in the 1890. The carrier and lifter of the 1890 remained caliber-specific until the end of production.
I’ve had an 1890 in .22 WRF for about 20 years and have enough ammo to enjoy shooting and hunting if I don’t get wild and careless. CCI still catalogs the WRF with a 45-grain hollowpoint, but likely it will be low on the list for production until demand for more popular rimfire ammo is satisfied.
Shooting the WRF is more like shooting a serious gun so I decided I “needed” a .22 Short for plinking fun. So I casually began to peruse gunbroker.com, the gun shows and local stores. The ones in my price range were heavily used and some showed great abuse. For a gun made in such great numbers, it is surprising how many were used half to death, and how expensive the ones in good condition have become.
Surprisingly, CCI .22 Short ammo began showing up—and wasn’t instantly snapped up—so I acquired 500 rounds, and my quest became a little more serious. Now I had no shortage of Shorts, and really got bitten by the 1890 bug. Again.
I found one reasonably priced with little finish at a pawnbroker’s on gunbroker.com. It was about $200 less than others in similar or much worse condition. The bore was declared “shootable” (which means nothing or a lot!) and the stock appeared to have a crack. When I contacted the seller he told me it functioned perfectly. He and his employees had taken it along with other guns to shoot on a range day and it was the hit of the day (no surprise).
This was going to be a leap of faith, since it was being sold “as is” and I would be buying based on photos and my talk with the seller. There were no bids, but plenty of watchers, and I tossed a coin, put in a bid at the starting price and won.
As the breechblock (above) rises up out of the receiver, a cartridge slips into the lifter and in this position is ready to be fed directly into the barrel. Because the round might not be readily visible, safe shooters very carefully inspect these guns to ensure they are unloaded.
The Model 1890 breaks down easily into two parts. The takedown
screw is supposed to stay captured in the lower. Another thing to fix.
It turned out to be a strange hybrid of “Wow” and “Oh! The horror!” The serial number dated the receiver to 1914, and it had been rebarreled at a much later date outside the factory (according to the “mail order” proof and style of the barrel markings). Winchester sold 1890 barrels through the mail and marked them so the company could determine if it had been fitted outside the factory. The barrel’s external finish was horribly strange. It appeared to have been roughly and coarsely filed on each flat. Over the chamber between the barrel/receiver were five deep punch marks, leaving me to wonder if the new barrel ever fit correctly. The carrier in the 1890 was dedicated to the .22 Short, Long or WRF. Taking the gun apart, it had a carrier from a Winchester Model 1906 allowing the use of Shorts, Longs or Long Rifles interchangeably. The .22 Short barrel had been rechambered to accept the Long Rifle.
On the other hand, a nice feature is the gun now has a period Marble’s front and rear sight. The rear sight is set into a dovetail, unlike the factory sight, which just sits atop the barrel and is held in by a screw. Loosening a screw in the base of the Marble’s rear sight allows you to pivot the sight slightly in the dovetail for windage adjustment. A stepped elevator allows for elevation. The front is a bead.
Another “Wow” part is the action screws have never been buggered, the receiver and buttplate show little “hard wear” (although the proof mark on the receiver and serial numbers show the receiver has been polished since it left Winchester). If I desired to refinish, it would not be terribly time consuming to polish, and I don’t mind refinishing a gun already refinished once. The stock was cracked, repaired and cracked again. It’s fixable, but if I refinish the gun, I’ll certainly restock it in nice wood. While the barrel is perfect on the inside, if I go this route, I’ll want a barrel and carrier chambered in .22 Short only. Besides, the external finish on the barrel is beyond ugly.
Pulling a Bore Snake through revealed the rifling clean and like new. The 1:20-inch twist is meant for the 30-grain .22 Short and isn’t supposed to stabilize the average 40-grain .22 Long Rifle very well. A long time ago I got a good deal on Federal Spitfire Hyper Velocity .22 Long Rifle, and still have a lot of it left because none of my .22 Long Rifles shot it well. Spitfire is loaded with a 31-grain truncated cone bullet (today a hollowpoint called Game Shok), so my hopes were up for having some fun with Spitfire ammo after all these years. To test the theory about stabilization, I added Winchester .22 LR Power Points and Remington .22 LR Subsonics to the mix just to see if the accuracy would suffer.
All loads shot very well. The “shootable” bore delivered 2-inch 10-shot groups at 25 yards with CCI .22 Short, Federal Spitfire and Winchester Power Points. Remington Subsonic delivered a group of 1-7/8 inches.
The “uh-oh” thing raised its head again when I discovered the action partially unlocking upon firing with the Shorts and Spitfires. It didn’t with the Winchester or Remington. After shooting about 50 Shorts, I should have cleaned the chamber. The first Long Rifle Power Point stuck in the chamber. I was able to pull it out with my fingernail and it had gunk on the case. The second round stuck, too, but after that no problems extracting occurred again.
This 1890 was mostly reliable and decently accurate. I was looking for a fun plinker and the .22 Short is just the ticket. There is almost no noise (none with hearing protection), no recoil and the smell of the CCI powder brought me back to my first shots—or maybe I was just dreaming. If so, I don’t want to wake up just yet.
By Jeff John
7900 Fuller Road
Eden Prairie, MN 55344
2299 Snake River Avenue
Lewiston, ID 83501
Winchester Slide Action Rifles Vol. 1
by Ned Schwing, ©1992,
700 East State Street
Iola, WI 54990
The Winchester Book, George Madis,
©1985, 640 pages, 1,800 photos, ISBN: 0-910156-03-4, $67.95,
Madis Books, P.O. Box 545
Brownsboro, TX 75756
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