Gun Review: Cimarron Firearms 1866 Yellowboy Pawnee Carbine
While the 1860 Henry may be the rifle that started it all, it was the next version, the 1866 Winchester that takes the credit for the first true lever action saddle gun. The “Improved Henry” as it was originally called, was durable enough for use around the world and all over the western plains by friend and enemies of the US alike.
Cimarron Firearms has teamed up with Uberti to produce a special version of the iconic 1866 Winchester, celebrating the carbine’s use by the plains tribes; the Winchester 1866 Yellowboy “Pawnee”. It’s a true-to-life reproduction of a legendary piece of America.
Certainly anyone looking at the 1866 Winchester, or the “Yellow Boy” as the plains Indians had named it, would have immediately recognized the rifle as a Henry. The 1860 Henry rifle was groundbreaking. There were previous lever action rifles, but the Civil War use of the Henry is what launched the demand for the lever action repeating rifle.
The 1860 Henry’s weak link was the ammunition loading mechanism. Not only was it time-consuming, but the exposed magazine and follower were prone to breakage. Beyond that, that exposed follower made shooting off a rest challenging, as well as the need to move the shooter’s support hand out of the way as the follower came toward the receiver when rounds were expended. The result was the “Henry hop” handling method.
Fortunately for all of America — and specifically for Benjamin Tyler Henry — a shirtmaker and entrepreneur named Oliver Winchester saw the value of the Henry when other investors did not. Winchester bought the majority position of the Henry company and took control of the patents.
I can’t find when Nelson King began work for Henry or for Winchester, but in early 1866, Winchester made him superintendent of the factory. Later that same year, King would create the “Improved Henry” which would become known as the 1866 Winchester.
Looking at the design, King simply reversed the loading process. He created a hinged loading gate set into the receiver, and then instead of loading from the muzzle backward, he loading from the breech side forward. This allowed him to fully enclose the magazine, as well as adding a wooden forestock over the magazine. The result was faster and simpler loading, improved durability, and dramatically better handling. Unsurprisingly, the rifle was a hit.
The early 1866 Winchester’s were marked, “Henry’s Patent – Oct 16, 1860/King’s Patent -March 29, 1866.” Later versions would be marked “Winchester Repeating Arms New Haven CT. King’s Improvement Patented March 29, 1866. October 161860-“.
It was a huge commercial success. At a time when the American population was less than 10% of what it is today, over 170,000 Winchester 1866 rifles and carbines were sold. Demand for the rifle extended long after more powerful lever action rifles existed, and it was made all the way up until 1898.
There were two original versions, a 24″ rifle and a 20″ carbine. The smaller carbine, made for carry and use on horseback, outsold the rifle version by a margin of seven to one. It’s this more popular carbine version the Cimarron Pawnee is based on.
The toggle-linkage action of the 1866 looked much like the action of the previous 1860. The only thing that really changed was the ammunition loading mechanism, not how the rounds entered and exited the chamber.
Metallurgy improved, allowing for more powerful chamberings in the Winchester 1873 models, but the action didn’t change from the 1860 or 1866 models. It wasn’t until 1884, when Grey Bennet, then president of Winchester, asked one John Moses Browning to look at improving the design of the 1860/66 action.
Of course, that ultimately led to what would become the most lasting lever action designs, which were the combinations of the work Browning began in 1884 and the previous work he did for a falling block Winchester in 1979. The result would be the iconic Winchester 1886, and all the models that followed it.
The Pawnee is a beautiful gun. With that gorgeous brass receiver, it’s hard for it not to be. If this gun looks at all shiny, don’t be fooled. These photos represent nothing close to the gleam this gun can obtain.
All of these guns are shipped with a plastic covering over the receiver. I get why, but still, the plastic sheets leave marks that need to be polished off in order to get the full effect of the beauty of the receiver. As I found out with the 1860 Henry, it’s worth 30 minutes of your time to take a rag with some metal polish to the brass receiver. You’ll be left with a mirror shine, to the astonishment of every person who sees it.
The wood on the Pawnee is a straight-grained walnut. I’ve complained before that Italian-made replica firearms frequently have better quality wood than most of their American made counterparts, especially for the price level. There is no fancy burl on this particular model, but I can’t find any historic photos with fancy wood grain in the 1866s either.
In the case of the Cimarron Pawnee, the stocks have been decorated with large brass tacks. For those of you who may think this is just kitchy nonsense, it’s very much a replica of how Indian tribes decorated their rifles. I had absolutely no difficulty finding multiple examples of 1860 Henry and 1866 Winchester rifles so adorned by natives plains tribesmen.
The name, “Pawnee” is an interesting choice for this model by Cimarron. The Pawnee were a southern plains tribe that often served as scouts for the United States Army, especially in the army’s war against the Pawnee’s traditional enemy, the Sioux.
It’s great to honor them with a fine weapon they certainly would have used and recognized. But the most famous brass-tacked rifle was actually used against the Pawnee by the legendary Oglala Sioux and appropriately named “Pawnee Killer.” Pawnee Killer placed a single brass tack into his rifle every time he killed a Pawnee. When he entered the Red Cloud reservation in Nebraska, he had over 100 tacks in his rifle.
The hammer and action lever are case hardened and beautifully finished. It appears the originals were as well, just not this well colored or polished. You’ll find the hammer is deeply textured. I didn’t have any problem thumbing it back, or more importantly, getting a solid grip to lower it with bare hands or gloves.
Just behind the action lever you’ll find a small tab, just as on the original 1860 Henry rifle. This tab turns to lock down the action lever. This is not a safety. The intended design has simply to keep the lever locked down so that a round wouldn’t be inadvertently ejected or miss-fed while the gun was being jostled on horseback. It simply serves to keep the action closed.
The 1866 also has a slight half cocked position, just enough to create space between the hammer and the firing pin. The only point of the half cock position is to keep the hammer off the firing pin in the case that the firearm is dropped or the hammer is hit.
I find it highly unlikely that the firearm could be dropped, even from horseback, in such a way that would have enough momentum behind the firing pin to cause a round to go off, but I could definitely see it being dropped on the hammer, or something striking the hammer hard enough to do so.
Like the other Uberti lever action rifles I’ve reviewed, the screws are nicely colored, and mostly are “timed” to a north-south axis. That’s a much appreciated touch, and one sadly forgotten on most modern firearms and completely ignored on all but the most expensive American-made guns. I was disappointed to see that not 100% of the screws on the left side of the receiver were so timed.
The smoothness of the action is just ok. If you’re used to the feeling of a Winchester 1886 or the ’94, this doesn’t feel like that at all. And it shouldn’t as there’s not “block” to fall. The action doesn’t spring open, but it moves smoothly through the process. There are no places to hang up, and with the fairly short round, I had no problem getting multiple shells in the air while shooting steel. It’s an easy, fun gun to shoot.
The trigger has a little bit of pre-travel and then breaks cleanly at just over 5 lbs. I have no idea what the original trigger weight was, but I’m betting it was something similar. For those of you wanting something lighter, there are smiths out there who can take it all the way down to one pound of pull.
The 1866 Winchester Pawnee comes in only one caliber, .45Colt, AKA .45LC. Although the .45Colt certainly existed during the same years the 1866 Winchester was produced, the rifle was never chambered in that particular caliber. As far as I can tell, although the factory would offer several models and would happily modify rifles for the customer, the only caliber ever offered was the same as the original 1860 Henry, which was the rimfire .44 Henry.
Out of a rifle-length barrel, this would have delivered about 560ft/lbs of energy at the muzzle. The .45Colt cartridge has incredible potential and can be loaded to deliver energy levels well beyond that of the .44 Magnum, but only in firearms built to handle that kind of pressure.
The original 1866 Winchester was not so built, and I don’t know if the modern reproductions are either. Most commercial .45Colt loads sold today are less powerful than the .44 Henry rimfire, but can be loaded to reasonably duplicate the external ballistics of the original cartridge. Still, like many of the other versions of the 1866 Winchester, I wish the Pawnee had also come in .44WCF/.44-40, since you can still find commercial loads that duplicate the original Henry cartridge.
At just over 7lbs, the Pawnee has very little recoil. I used a variety of different rounds and loadings, from recoil-reduced Winchester Cowboy Action loads, to rounds far more suitable for hunting and home defense. You can certainly feel the difference between the 200gr HPs and the 255gr SWC hunting loads, but none of them produce enough recoil to even move the muzzle clear of the target while shooting from the kneel.
The original 1866 “Improved Henry” had a reputation for reliability. Cimarron’s Pawnee lives up to every bit of that reputation.
I put 250 rounds through this gun in about a week’s time. I shot a box of the 225gr Winchester Super-X HP, a ton of the filthy 250gr Cowboy Action load, and 100 rounds of Blazer 200gr HP. Because I could, I also loaded up a few of my own 255gr SWC hard cast rounds that are going right at 1,000fps out of a 7 1/2″ Single Action Army and put those through the Pawnee.
Even with such a wide variety of overall lengths and projectile weights, I had no issues with reliability whatsoever. It also didn’t matter if I cycled the gun fast or slowly, and some lever guns have issues with a slow cycle. There were no problems loading, firing, or cycling at any time with any load.
Like the original action, the Improved Henry is beautiful in its simplicity. There’s just not much to go wrong with it. No matter how dirty the receiver gets, it would be hard-pressed to actually stop the a round from ejecting or loading.
The Cowboy Action loads from Winchester are notoriously dirty, and still, when the receiver was completely fouled, it never missed a beat. I lubed the gun prior to shooting it, and never performed any maintenance on the gun at all, not even wiping it down until the review was over and I needed take some photos.
I have to stop being surprised by the level of precision I’m getting from these Uberti guns, but they got me again. I averaged 3″ five-round groups at 100 yards for four strings while shooting off a Caldwell Stinger shooting rest with the Winchester Cowboy Action 250gr flat-nosed lead round. There was a fairly wide distribution, with my smallest group being 2 1/4″. The Blazer 200gr JHP scored more consistently, but slightly wider, with a 3 1/2″ average using the same criteria.
The gun itself is probably capable of more precision that that with better eyes behind it, but that’s still well outside of the range I would shoot any game other than a pig or coyote at with the standard .45 Colt round.
Part of that precision is sight set up. The front sight is a long triangular post, ending in a narrow, sharp point. That front sight is fixed via a barrel band around the barrel and magazine tube. The rear sight is drift adjustable, and has what is in essence three different apertures. For short range work, you’ll find a simple low notch. Flip that back and down and you’ll find a two part aperture.
One is wide circle with a slightly higher notch than the first one at the base. That notch is very small, and the tip of the front sight fits tightly within it. It is worthless for low light shooting, but perfect for precision. The big circle above it is the exact opposite. A silhouette targets fills the circle at 50 yards, and is centered inside of it at 100 yards, as in the photo below. On top of that sight is another tight notch.
With the Winchester Cowboy Action Load, I found the first position of the sights great for between zero and 50 yards, with the bottom of the raised aperture good for the 100 yard mark. I have no idea what the tallest mark is at, but I’d guess around 200 yards. That round drops pretty fast, and you’re really arcing it in at that point.
Although effective, I can’t tell whether or not these sights were typical of the originals. The front sight seems to be the same as the most common models available, but most of the original rifles and carbines I can find have full elevator style rear sight. That said, I can find examples of many different sight set-ups in photos of historical rifles. Maybe this is one of those, but I can’t find another one just like it.
I love that Cimarron made an “Indian” gun and a good one. After all, if anyone depended on a quality rifle, no matter what side of the conflict they were on, it was the horseback Native American. The fact is that these men immediately recognized the value of the 1866 and did everything in their power to obtain and keep them, exactly like US soldiers and civilians did. The 1866 Winchester Yellowboy Pawnee pays tribute to an amazing time in our nation’s history, when the land was still wild, and danger was everywhere, for everyone.
If you’re interested in purchasing an original 1866 Winchester, since so many were made, serviceable originals are fairly easy to find. There were also many different models of the 1866 made available, with quite a few different options available from the factory. All of those variables make the cost of the originals vary widely. Still, you can find a shootable original today for around $5,0000, with prices ranging all the way from $4,000 to well over $20,000 for rarer models.
Specifications: Cimarron Firearms Winchester 1866 Yellowboy Carbine “Pawnee”
Caliber: .45 Colt
Barrel: 19″ round, 6 groove 1:16RH twist
Receiver : Brass
Stock: straight grained walnut with brass tack adornment
Lever: case hardened
Magazine Capacity: 10+1
Ratings (out of five stars):
Style and Appearance * * * * *
Cimarron was going for a particular aesthetic with this model, and they nailed it. The brass receiver, quality wood, and the case hardened lever and hammer look great. The wood-to-metal fit is quality, and the colored and the (mostly) correctly timed screws are a nice touch.
Historic Accuracy * * * *
I had to take a star off for the rifle not being offered in the original caliber or in a caliber close to the original, like the .44-40. There are several other 1866 models by Cimarron that offer that caliber. This one, oddly enough, does not. The rest of the gun is dead-on, and matches the style and details of multiple examples I can find in books and up for auction.
Reliability * * * * *
It shot anything I could load in it, and I ran a wide range of in-spec rounds.
Accuracy * * * * *
With 3″ groups at 100 yards from a carbine-length pistol caliber rifle, I’d say that’s as good as my eyes can possibly shoot. A great sight set-up certainly helps.
Overall * * * * 1/2
The only thing I can really count against this rifle is it not being offered in a caliber closer to the original, like the .44-40. I was going to take another half a star off for less-than-gorgeous wood, but this is a reproduction gun after a specific niche in history. I can’t find any examples of those original guns with fancier wood than this one, so it gains points there. Obviously the accuracy and reliability are outstanding. I can’t find this exact sight set-up, but I can find so many others that I’m not sure it wasn’t offered, and it works great. All in all, Cimarron has made an excellent gun that’s beautiful, full of history, and a ball to shoot. Plus, it’s just cool to have a “cowboy” gun that’s all set up for the Indians.