column By: Steve Garbe | May, 20
Quite often, in the course of collecting vintage rifles, I have come across single shots that have replacement barrels on them. Now, I suppose that one could refer to any single shot with a Pope barrel as having an “aftermarket” barrel, but I’m talking of firearms fit up with the product of large firearms manufacturing firms such as Winchester, Stevens or Remington.
In perusing the old shooting periodicals of the time, I’ve noticed that many riflemen would set up their pet single shot with a Winchester barrel. I’ve personally owned several Ballard rifles that were done this way. Winchester barrels enjoyed an exceptional reputation for accuracy and consistency of manufacture, to the point that some custom “barrel ’smiths” like Pope and Schoyen would order unrifled barrels from the company and then rifle them with their own particular type of rifling. I’ve especially noticed several barrels that were rerifled by George Schoyen, typically from .32 to .38 caliber. Harry Pope, as well as Horace Warner, were known to purchase smoothbore barrels from Winchester and rifle them. That’s a pretty good endorsement for the Winchester product from two master gunsmiths.
There was a small article in a vintage Winchester catalog that caught my eye entitled, “How Winchester Barrels Are Tested.” Given the reputation they had for accuracy, I thought it would be interesting to include it here in the Center Shot. One can immediately see that Winchester indeed went to great lengths to assure that their barrels shot as well as the best. In fact, I would bet that many barrel makers today, especially the large firearms companies, do not go through as an extensive procedure when manufacturing their rifle barrels.
Having dabbled in the business of making rifle barrels, I can tell you that there are no shortcuts to a good barrel. You either do it right, or you do it over. Winchester barrels enjoyed a good reputation because they were made by experts that knew their job, then subjected those barrels to a strict quality control process. Here is the procedure Winchester went through to make a superior product:
How Winchester Barrels Are Tested
Gun makers agree that the most difficult part of a gun to make is the barrel. To do so successfully, requires a thorough knowledge of the subject, skilled experts, delicate and exact machinery, and a comprehensive system of tests. The system by which Winchester barrels are made has made them famous all over the world for their unerring accuracy and strength. When a Winchester barrel has been “rough” bored, as the first boring is called, it is proved for strength, by the English Government proof system. The barrel is locked to a firing table, loaded with a charge of powder and lead twice as great as could be put into the shell the barrel is to be chambered for, and fired. It is then carefully inspected and if the barrel shows the slightest sign of strain, or imperfection, it is condemned. It is next straightened and then given the second or “finish” boring. It is then straightened again, after which it is subjected to what is known as the “Winchester” or “Lead” test. This test never fails to disclose any imperfection in the interior of the barrel. In making this test the barrel is held in a vise and a plug of lead the exact size of the bore is placed in it at the breech and expanded or “upset” until it binds lightly and evenly all around the bore. The plug is then pushed gradually through the barrel with a copper rod by the expert conducting the test. The slightest variation in the diameter of the bore is instantly disclosed by the different pressure required to push the plug through the barrel. This test is repeated after the barrel is rifled, for the purpose of detecting any possible disturbance of the bore during the latter process. Such a test as this is so exacting that no other gun makers attempt it. It is not necessary to submit shotgun barrels to the “Lead” test. They are tested by gauges which show a variation of a thousandth part of an inch.
Targeting Guns for Accuracy
If there is any one feature in which Winchester guns excel all others, more than in another, it is in their remarkable accuracy. This is due to the excellence of Winchester barrels and to the care taken in targeting them. At the plant of the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. there are ranges from 100 feet up to 200 yards. At these ranges every gun is shot to test its accuracy, the distance varying according to the caliber. A corps of experts devote their entire time to this work, and before a gun is passed by them it must be capable of shooting seven consecutive bull’s eyes on a standard sized target for the distance shot. All guns are shot to line up the sights, an expert changing them until they are properly aligned and given the proper elevation. A gun which does not make a good target is condemned.
Shotguns are targeted at 40 yards. Choke-bore barrels are not accepted unless they shoot at least 300 pellets of shot inside a 30-inch circle, the testing load being 3 drams of smokeless powder and 1 ¼ ounces of No. 7 chilled shot. Cylinder-bore barrels are targeted at 30 yards, the load given above being used.
Guns that pass these tests for manipulation and accuracy are given a final inspection for exterior finish, etc., and then they are ready for market.
All guns bearing our stamps and our factory numbers are guaranteed by us if used with ammunition of our manufacture.
We will replace all barrels burst owing to seamy stock or through any fault of ours, but a long and varied experience has taught us that Winchester barrels will not burst after having passed our thorough tests and inspections, unless, at the time of firing, they contain an obstruction of some kind, or from the improper use of smokeless powder.
In cases where barrels burst by being fired with obstructions in them, there will always be found at the bursting point a smooth round ring, running entirely around the barrel. The swelling may show a crack on one side, or the barrel may be torn off either above or below the swelled point. In cases where the barrels burst from the improper use of smokeless powder the cause is just as definable. The charge detonates and the barrel opens at the chamber just where the cartridge lies. For bursts, due to either of these causes we do not hold ourselves responsible. We are always ready to remedy any fault of stock or workmanship for which we are responsible, but, owing to the extremely rigid system of tests and inspections to which all Winchester guns are subjected, it is practically impossible for an imperfect gun to leave our armory.
So, there you have it; the Winchester Repeating Arms Company subjected their barrels and firearms to a pretty high standard of production and quality control. Regulating and testing rifles before they left the plant also went a long way towards establishing their reputation for superior firearms. It is no wonder that generally the vintage Winchester barrels that we use today in our shooting endeavors show excellent accuracy, even when compared to modern barrels. The slugging of barrels to determine tight and loose spots has been largely replaced by the “air-gauging,” used by today’s barrel makers, but it is still an excellent way to determine the consistency and quality of a new barrel. You might be quite surprised to push a slug down some of our highly-rated modern barrels and then compare that to a vintage Winchester barrel in excellent condition. In spite of our technological advancements, it still takes a measure of old-fashioned workmanship and attention to detail to produce a superior product.