Rifles > Lever-Action

Burgess Rifle: Greatness Shortlived

Andrew Burgess’s lever-action rifle produced by Colt may have had too short a lifespan, but an Italian-made replica gives this grand rifle a new lease on life.

9/10/2010

One hundred twenty-seven years ago, Colt introduced a lever-action rifle that shook the foundation at the Winchester facility. The Colt model 1883 Burgess rifle featured several improvements to the Winchester 1873, and since the quality of Colt products rivaled that of Winchester, the threat to its bread-and-butter lever action was profound and very real. In previous years, Winchester simply bought out any patents or improvements to its line, but Colt was simply too big to takeover. Legend has it that representatives from Winchester paid a social visit to Colt and brought along a pair of prototype revolvers, informing the brass at Colt that the New Haven folks were looking at getting into the revolver market. However, if Colt discontinued its lever action, Winchester might reconsider such a costly investment. Colt relented, and Winchester discontinued the revolver project. I have looked high and low for provenance regarding this legend and have found none. On the other hand, at least two firearm historians of my acquaintance believe the story to be true.

The 1883 Burgess rifle is but one of 894 patents granted to a quiet and ever-curious inventor. Andrew Burgess was born Jan. 16, 1837 in Dresden, N.Y. The farm next door to the Burgesses belonged to Matthew Brady, and Burgess began an apprenticeship with Brady in 1855. Burgess was as much of a photographer of the War Between the States as Brady was and he went on to photograph throughout Mexico and Europe, as well as running the Brady gallery as a partner. It is speculated that during his stint as a photographer during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) Burgess developed an interest in firearm design. His first patent was granted Sept. 19, 1871, for an improvement on the Peabody rifle. Soon he opened a gun factory in Owego, N.Y. Eventually, the guns outweighed the photography, and he founded the Burgess Gun Co. of Buffalo, N.Y. in 1893, which he sold to Winchester in 1899. Burgess’ improvements and operating principles are found in guns made by Colt, Marlin, Whitneyville Armory and, of course, Winchester.

At first glance, the 1883 Burgess and 1873 Winchester are strikingly similar in appearance and profile. Both are lever actions with a tubular magazine under the barrel. Each has a steel cap on its slim fore-end and a crescent buttplate. But that’s pretty much the end of the similarities. The 1883 Burgess’ receiver is but two-thirds the length of the Winchester—5 1/4 inches, versus 8 inches—contributing to its 11-ounce difference in weight with identical barrel lengths. Cutouts in the receiver of the Burgess are smaller, leaving more metal for strength, and provide marginally less opportunity for debris to enter the action. Unlike the Winchester, there is no sliding dust cover atop the receiver on the Burgess. Instead of a tilting loading gate a la Winchester, the Burgess utilizes a sliding gate. The Burgess’ breech bolt is more massive than the Winchester; though both utilize a toggle lockup, the Burgess’ is shorter and therefore stronger. Both rifles extract from the top with hooked blades pinned to the breechbolt. The Winchester’s extractor is slightly wider giving more purchase, but it also stands proud from the bolt, making it somewhat more vulnerable to breakage. Ejection was accomplished via the elevator in the Winchester, but the Burgess employs a novel collar surrounding the firing pin under spring tension. This collar has about an 1/8-inch of movement from the breechbolt face, and as the breechbolt is retracted, the collar kicks spent cartridges clear of the receiver.

Because of the “gentleman’s agreement” with Winchester, the Colt 1883 Burgess rifle had a very short run—16 months—and only 6,403 examples were produced. When the Burgess debuted in 1883, carbines were priced at $25 and rifles were $27 to $29, depending upon barrel length. With so few rifles produced, relatively few have survived and most that have were treated poorly. Recently, I spotted an original Burgess in the Cabela’s Gun Room at the Billings, Mont., store. It carried a price tag of $6,000 and was pretty doggy. However, earlier this year I found that Uberti, the Italian gunmaker specializing in fine replicas, is producing a copy of the Burgess rifle, and I acquired a test sample from Taylors & Co.

As expected, my test gun arrived the day before my cowboy action group, the Colter’s Hell Justice Committee, was holding a match. Instead of a thorough breaking in period, all I had time to do was see where it shot. The first five rounds of Winchester .45 Colt cowboy loads made one ragged hole at 25 yards about the size of a quarter, dead on for elevation and perhaps 3/4 to 1 inch to the right. I figured I could get by with that. The match went well, and the new replica performed flawlessly. It attracted a lot of attention from the other shooters, so we had some informal shooting after the match. Everyone liked the Burgess replica, and almost everyone had the same question: Is it available in .44-40 WCF? (A lot of the guys in the CHJC are sticklers for authenticity, and .45 Colt was not originally chambered in this rifle.) The answer is yes, and I have my name on a backorder waiting list.

In the time between our monthly matches, I managed to steal a little time with the Burgess at my local range. Close-range, five-shot groups—25 to 50 yards—were approximately half dollar size, again with Winchester Cowboy Action loads, which was the most accurate ammo during my testing. Out at 100 yards, the groups swelled to 6 inches, due to two things: my aging eyesight and the relatively low velocity that allowed the wind to get in its dirty licks. The 20-inch barrel squeezed an average of 910 fps with this ammo. Part of the accuracy of this carbine is due to an excellent trigger pull. According to my Lyman Trigger Pull Gauge the trigger on this sample broke cleanly at 4 pounds, 4 ounces, pretty darn good for a factory trigger. I’ve seen many bolt actions with a heavier trigger pull. With an empty weight of 6 pounds, 12 ounces, the Burgess handles very well, and moving from target to target is noticeably faster than with my Uberti 1873, which weighs nearly 3/4 pound more than the Burgess. Most cowboy action targets are less than 50 yards so the quick-handling characteristics are welcome. For longer range shooting a bit more mass and a longer sight radius might be desirable, and for that a 25 1/2-inch barrel is available.

Fit and finish are what I have come to expect from Uberti—excellent. Metalwork is evenly polished to a high luster, whether blued or color casehardened. Walnut on my test gun is straight grained with a glossy finish, sans checkering. If I have to find something to complain about it world be the sharp edge of the loading port. After I have sliding some 30 rounds through this orifice, the sharp edge of the loading port dug into my thumb and made it sore—which, I guess, makes me something of a wuss.

Recently, I shot another cowboy match with this rifle just to verify my evaluation. On the plus side, the Burgess is noticeably lighter than my ’73 and has much better handling. Its accuracy for cowboy action shooting and trigger pull are every bit as good as the larger rifle. On the other hand, the Burgess isn’t quite as slick out of the box as the ’73. Part of this, I am sure, is its .45 Colt chambering. It takes just a smidgen of case taper, like the .44-40 WCF, to ease the operation of chambering and extraction—probably why there are no original lever guns chambered in .45 Colt. I cannot be absolutely sure of this, but I have put my order in for the original .44-40 chambering. The only other issue I had with the Burgess was a failure to extract in my most recent match. It may simply have been a case of the nut behind the trigger. In any event, it’s a fine rifle that will fulfill a needed niche among those of us who like to shoot 19th century-style guns but can’t—or won’t—tote the note for an original period firearm.

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6 Responses to Burgess Rifle: Greatness Shortlived

paul wrote:
January 22, 2014

I am an owner of an original passed down by my great grandfather. He also passed down a winchester of the same time. It is interesting the differance between them.

Hasone wrote:
February 19, 2012

I know a guy that has a Burgess Colt with serial # of 79 in great condition or pretty good condition. So if anyone knows someone that wants to make an offer give me a shout.

Brian B wrote:
January 31, 2011

Gene: There rumors that Burgess was a spy/secret service agent, working for Lincoln. He went everywhere talking photos for his friend Brady. It could be that all those patents may have been part of a "cover-story". We'll never know, but I like your math.

GeneB wrote:
November 15, 2010

I see mention of the 894 Burgess patents - I first saw this number in an old article - "Andrew Burgess, Gun Inventor" by Elmer Burgess and Lynn T. Wakeling ‘ Gun Collector's Digest, Volume II.’. I have in recent years began to doubt the accuracy of this number - in that old article there is a list of 87 patent numbers, I had independently compiled a list of 86 in searching patents and my list only had one patent not on the old list and was missing two = a combined total of 88. In the article it states that he got his first patent in 1871, he died 35 years later in 1906; for him to have 894 patents he would had to have filed, on average, for slightly more than one ever two weeks for the last 35 year of his life (more than 25 a year) – that is if all he filed for were granted. A patent application requires drawings and text (and there should probably be a prototype made) – he must have been quite a busy man for the last 35 years of his life…but I can’t prove he didn’t…I would just like to see the full list of 894.

Gunslinger wrote:
November 03, 2010

RWH, you're absolutely correct about why the .45 Colt was never chambered in a rifle. People don't realize (or often even believe) that these days because all they have ever seen is modern, solid-head brass with its extraction groove cut around the head of the case, but original .45 Colt brass had a very, very small rim. Some cases that I've seen have rims that barely as wide as my thumb nail is thick, just enough to establish headspace in a single action revolver and no more. In fact when the military fielded the .45 Colt in the Model 1909 double action revolver--a Colt New Service Revolver that was fielded as a stop-gap until the 1911 could be finished and put into mass production--they had to produce a special version of .45 Colt ammo because the commercial version did not have enough of a rim for the extractor star to reliably catch and extract the empty brass. The fact that the thin walled, bottle necked cases of the Winchester Center Fire cartridges sealed the rifle's chamber and prevented the blowback of blackpowder fowling into the action considerably better than any straight-walled case like the .45 Colt (they still do by the way!) may also have played a small part. It's too bad the Burgess Rifle didn't last longer than it did. On the other hand we may not have gotten the Lightning slide-action rifle if it had.

RWH wrote:
September 16, 2010

Nice review of a nice rifle. My understanding as to why the early repeating rifles were not chambered in 45 Colt is that the rims on the original cartridge were so narrow and thin that extraction was a very iffy matter.