- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - The Winchester Model 1873 is known as the gun that won the West. The lever-action rifle bounced around countless dusty trails and rocky mountainsides at the side of lawmen and outlaws alike. When the Buffalo Bill Center of the West decided to build a limited-edition firearm to commemorate the museum’s 100th anniversary in 2017, the 1873 was an obvious choice.

The Winchester 1873 Centennial Model rifles are chambered in .44-40 Winchester and are the result of a collaboration among the museum, gun manufacturer Navy Arms, Winchester and the Cody, Wyoming-based custom firearms outfit Wyoming Armory.

Only 200 “Exhibition Quality” Centennial rifles are planned for production and serial numbers 1 and 100 will remain on display at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. The rifles will be hand engraved and the stock and foregrip, also known as the furniture, are made from the highest-quality American walnut available.

“I’d like to do more of the museum grades,” said Bruce Sauers, the center’s director of revenue and enterprise. “The reason we’re only doing 200 is there wasn’t any more wood. It doesn’t exist.”

Sauers said it took years to collect enough walnut blanks for the 200 exhibition-quality rifles. But for those who balk at the $7,995 price tag carried by the more limited version of the Centennial, there is another option.

The rifle is also available in a less exclusive “Presentation Model” with 1,000 examples planned. The $3,500 option has machine engraving and the more common-grade American walnut furniture but still has the hand-carved stock and Wyoming Armory case hardening.

“There’s only one or two places you can have this done in this country. We’re lucky one of them is in our backyard,” Sauers said.

Winchester produces the reproduction 1873 actions and 24-inch octagon barrels in Japan. When the parts arrive at Wyoming Armory they’re a blank canvas without engraving, color or wood furniture.

“These rifles are literally built one at a time, by hand,” said George Dillman, who co-owns Wyoming Armory with George Joest.

The firearms boutique finishes the metal pieces with their signature swirling colors on the surface of the steel. The veneer is the product of color case hardening, an antiquated process favored by 18th century gunsmiths to harden iron gun parts.

Wyoming Armory is one of very few shops in the United States that still creates the desirable aesthetic produced by color case hardening. Most commercial manufacturers use chemicals to replicate the appearance.

“There’s no way to predict the variation that will show up in the steel, or for that matter the grain in the wood. Each rifle is unique,” Dillman said.

Veteran gunsmith Keith Kilby is in charge of the color case hardening for Wyoming Armory. Kilby doesn’t stray from the traditional method.

He places the gun parts in steel cylinders with bone char and charcoal before throwing the “crucibles” in a kiln and baking them at high temperatures. The gas in the cylinder has a high concentration of carbon and there’s a lower concentration in the steel. During the heating process, carbon molecules find their way into the steel, creating a harder surface.

When Kilby drops the steel parts in water, the characteristic colored patterns take shape. Kilby said before the Civil War, when color case hardening was still a necessary process, a firearm wasn’t considered finished until the colors were polished off the metal. Now the colors are the main objective.

“Renewed interest in case coloring coincides with the resurgence of interest in antique firearms. I think that’s a post-World War II phenomenon,” Kilby said.

After the steel parts are case-hardened, the rifle is fitted with a wooden stock and foregrip. The rifle’s American walnut furniture arrives in the Wyoming Armory’s shop as solid blocks of wood and is shaped by Tony Hamilton, a sculptor when he’s not working on firearms.

Hamilton carves the select pieces of walnut, fits the newly shaped stock to the action and files checkering into the stock’s wrist. He spends more than 10 hours on each stock, not including the staining process.

Currently the only finished rifle is a prototype chambered in .357 magnum. One of the handmade Centennials can be reserved now, but collectors will have to wait until 2017 to get their hands on the finished product.

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Information from: The Billings Gazette, http://www.billingsgazette.com

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