Winchester-Hotchkiss Rifles (Video)

The US military experimented almost continuously with new repeating rifles between the end of the US Civil War and the beginning of the 20th century, and the rifles submitted for testing are a fascinating spectrum of ideas. Many were purchased in relatively small quantities for military field testing, and many also saw at least some commercial production (as the manufacturers and inventors sought to recoup development costs when full-scale military contracts proved elusive).

One of these designs was the Winchester-Hotchkiss, which was made in three major iterations. Designed by Benjamin Hotchkiss and manufactured by the Winchester company, it was a bolt action design with a 5-round tube magazine located in the buttstock. As with most military rifles of its era, it was equipped with a magazine cutoff to allow the rifle to be fed single rounds while holding the 5 rounds in the magazine as an emergency reserve. This was a popular mechanism with Army brass in many countries, as it was thought to be a good way to conserve ammunition (and it persisted up through early WWI rifles, including the British SMLE). This cutoff was in fact a major reason the Winchester-Hotchkiss went through several design iterations.

The first (1879) model used a one-piece stock, with the cutoff being a rotating lever above the trigger guard:

Winchester-Hotchkiss, early pattern
Winchester-Hotchkiss, early pattern carbine (photo courtesy RIA)

That placement of the cutoff resulted in a lot of broken stocks, because so much of the wood was removed. The second model (which was purchased by the Navy but not the Army) moved the cutoff up to be a vertical lever alongside the receiver. It maintained the one-piece stock, though, and apparently still suffered from stock breakage or cracking. The final third model solved this problem by using a two-piece stock with a solid exposed receiver in the center.

Winchester-Hotchkiss, 1883 pattern
Winchester-Hotchkiss, 1883 pattern military rifle (“musket” – photo courtesy RIA)

In total, 22,521 Winchester-Hotchkiss rifles were made (of all patterns combined). Most of these were commercial sales, although they had a hard time competing against the much more popular lever-action designs of the period. As the period Chief of Ordnance – Brigadier General Stephen Benet – explained:

The principle of the Hotchkiss is a good one, but there seems to be some prejudice existing in our service against the bolt system and its awkward handle that time and custom may overcome.

Prescient words indeed!