H&R's Wesson & Harrington 1871 Buffalo Classic .45-70.

The "poor man's buffalo rifle".
By: Tuolumne Lawman, SASS# 6127

This article was first published in the Cowboy Chronicle,
the publication of the Single Action Shooting Society®.

Copyright ©: Tuolomne Lawman & Cowboy Chronicle

When we say "Buffalo Rifle", it conjures up images of scruffy, buckskin clad, bearded men carrying their 1874 Sharps 45-90 or 50-110 "Poison Slinger" heavy barreled rifle across the trackless plains in search of the vanishing North American Bison. While this is not a totally inaccurate picture, the venerable Sharps certainly had no monopoly on decimating the big beasts. Remington rolling blocks, Maynards, Ballards, Springfields, and even the lesser known Wesson's took their fair share of the bloody harvest.
Due to their scarcity and high cost, very few original specimens of any of the aforementioned rifles are found on todays firing lines or SASS side matches. Replicas of the Sharps, the Springfield, and Remington, however, be found in fair quantities. For many shooters, however, even these replicas (ranging in cost from $800 to $3,000) are too expensive. This precluded many shooters like myself from participating in these side matches.

Until recently, the only low priced .45-70 available was the rare, and now out of production Harrington & Richardson "Shakari" with its collapsable cleaning rod, or the currently produced H&R "Handi-Rifle" (produced under the New England Firearms name) with its modern lines and hardwood semi-pistolgrip stock. The Handi-Rifle looks like a top break single shot .410 shotgun with modern rifle sights. As badly as I wanted to do long range single shot matches, it looked a little bit too "un-cowboy" to me, even though it is SASS legal.

In 1996, however, H&R resurrected the "Wesson & Harrington" trade mark, and introduced their "Wesson & Harrington 1871 Buffalo Classic". It is a single shot, top break rifle in 45-70 caliber. While there are two very scarce and expensive limited edition grades of engraved 125 year commemerative models, the standard grade is fairly plentiful, and VERY reasonably priced at around $300 retail! As you will see, the standard grade Buffalo Classic is A LOT of rifle for the money, and boy, can it shoot, too!
For those purists who think that a top break (tipping barrel) single shot is not authentic, think again! The Maynards, Stevens, and original Frank Wesson rifles of the period were all top break actions. This made them relatively strong, simple to manufacture, and relatively trouble free due to lack of complicated mechanisms. This Wesson & Harrington 1871 Buffalo Classic is actually a direct decendant of Frank Wesson's original top break rifles.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Frank Wesson designed and began manufacturing a line of very popular top break (or "hinged breech, as he called them) rifles. They usually featured two triggers in seperate trigger housings. The front trigger released the action for loading/unloading, much the same as the old three triggered Stevens shotguns. Early variations saw service during the Civil War as secondary arms. As the population spread west, so did the Wesson rifles. In 1871 his nephew, Gilbert Harrington, joined Frank, and the company was renamed Wesson and Harrington. Not only did they continue the top break Wesson rifles, but branched out into revolvers as well. In 1875 Wesson sold out his interest to Williuam Richardson. The company then changed its name to Harrington and Richardson, and has been producing firearms ever since.

The Buffalo Classic has a genuine black walnut, straight grip stock and schnable style fore arm, both with nice cut checkering. Like the Handi-Rifle, it has a single tipping barrel, but it is a heavier 32" with deep cut rifling for lead and Black Powder loads. The receiver is very nicely color case hardened, as is the crecent steel buttplate. The blueing is very deep and even. While it does not come with sights (long range sights being very subject to individual preferences), there is a 3/8" dove tail on the muzzle end of the barrel, and the receiver end is drilled and tapped for a Williams rear sight. The rifle looks very "cowboy" to me.

Well, you may ask, how does it shoot? Great! For sights, I got ahold of Williams Sight Company. I put a standard white front bead in the 3/8" dovetail. Since I don't shoot very well with tang sights, I used the WGRS-H&R rear reciever sight, replacing the peep with a "V" notch blade from the WGOS sight. This setup was installed without any gunsmithing. I would eventually like to have a 3/8" dovetail milled in the breech end and replace the Williams WGRS with a Marble full buckhorn rear sight.

As for loads, I came up with two that work very well. The smokeless load is 25 to 26 grains of Alliant 2400, a Winchester WLR primer, and a 405 grain, moly-lubed Bear Creek Supply (Waterford, California) bullet. In my initial sighting in at 50 yards, this load shot about 1 1/4" at this 50 yard range. The real star, however, was the Black Powder load. I used 65 grain (weight) of Goex FFFG with a WLR primer, and the same 405 grain bullet with Crisco in the grease grooves, with a .45 cal. lubed felt "Wonder Wad" over the powder. One group actually was one large ragged hole, less than 1", at the same 50 yard range. When you consider that I am a really lousey "bulls-eye shooter", that's pretty good!

For an inexpensive gun, it has a really smooth, crisp, trigger pull, breaking at about 5 lbs. As for ballance, it is really great. The long 32" barrel is heavy enough to give it good balance, but so heavy as to fatigue the arm in off-hand shooting. The action is opened by depressing a lever next to the hammer, under the left thumb. The ejection of the empties is, to say the least, very positive, making reloads really fast. These two features really help in off-hand shooting against the clock.

Shooting the Buffalo Classic at both our November and January long range rifle side matches, I got second place in both the smokeless and black powder categories. The November match had over 20 competitors in the smokeless category. To a man, they were using much more expensive 1885 Brownings, expensive Shiloh or C. Sharps, or custom Remington rolling blocks! The January match had about a dozen. The course was 9 rounds against the clock (6 rounds in January), freehand, at a 20"X15" steel buffalo at 235 yards. Prior to the November match, I had not fired the Buffalo Classic farther than 50 yards. Not bad performance for a "bargain" gun!

My hat is off to the folks at Harrington and Richardson. For over 125 years they have been producing very reasonably priced firearms for the shooting public. The Buffalo Classic is just the latest example of their responsiveness to the market. They are continuing to supply the demand with a very modest priced rifle. This strategy has served the company well, keeping them afloat through some troubled times, for almost a century and a half. In closing, I would have to give H&R's "Wesson and Harrington 1871 Buffalo Classic" this ol' Lawman's "BEST BUY FOR THE BUCK AWARD" in the long range, single shot rifle category!


Copyright 1996-2004
Kjell Heilevang aka Marshal Halloway, SASS #3411 Regulator
Email: Phone & Voicemail: 1-720- 258-1258