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The word "classic" has been so abused of late that is has all but lost its meaning. By definition it describes something of the first or highest rank. However else the term might have been abused, without question, the Model 94 Winchester qualifies. This is not because it is a fancy rifle, although some specimens are certainly that. Nor is it because it is particularly accurate. Most M-94s deliver groups adequate to collecting game within the limits of the cartridge for which they are chambered, but no serious marksman would be inclined to consider one for the running boar event in international competition.
So, what is it that makes it classic? Only one hundred years of universal acceptance by ordinary shooters as their choice for whatever purpose a rifle may serve in their hands. More than three generations of hunters, stockmen, farmers, law enforcement officers, explorers and outdoorsmen of every stripe have relied upon it for their shooting needs.
In all reality, a cartridge does not have to launch its bullets at Mach V in order to be a good game harvester, and a rifle doesn’t have to deliver minute of angle accuracy to be good enough to drop a deer cleanly at a reasonable distance. This has not been lost upon those generations of practical bushmen and hunters. Virtually unchanged in all important features, the Model 94 has reached its centenary year a perennial best seller.
Over those hears its popularity in the gun press has varied from ecstatic endorsement to disdain. Some gunwriters have recognized the reasons for its widespread popularity, whilst others have looked down their collective noses at the old lever gun as merely the vehicle for a barely adequate cartridge (whichever of the many for which it might have been chambered), of little practical worth, in a firearm appropriate for Western movies but having no place in the battery of a real rifleman. Such assessments were almost universally ignored by the shooting public.
The Model 94 Winchester was patented by the Browning brothers, as its nomenclature suggests, in 1894. August, to be precise. By November of that year it was listed in Winchester’s catalogue, with two popular black powder cartridges as standard chamberings. These were the .32-40 and .38-55, very popular cartridges with an excellent reputation for accuracy in the single-shot rifles of the day. Impressive as its initial reception was, a year later it caused a sensation in the United States, which quickly extended elsewhere in the world, because it was being chambered for the first American-made smokeless powder sporting cartridge, the .30WCF (Winchester Centerfire), better known to this generation as the .30-30.
The new propellant type was, itself, creating and international sensation as a clean burning, non-corrosive powder capable of driving a relatively small diameter bullet at what was considered at the time to be extremely high velocity. By so doing, such a cartridge and others like it, though smaller, were capable of equaling of exceeding the energy levels of many of the most popular big game cartridges of the day. More important, the trajectory of this little round was so much flatter that, properly sighted, one could hold the rifle’s sights dead on at any range from 25 to 200 yards and still be reasonably sure of collecting the winter’s meat.
Over the years, the Model 94 and its variations have been chambered for many other cartridges, but none has been as popular as the .30-30. Usually loaded with either 150- or 170-grain flat pointed, soft nosed, jacketed bullets, it is now factory loaded with 125-grain bullets and 55-grain .22 caliber bullets in sabots, as well. But as originally made, its designers meant for used cases to be reloaded with black powder and cast lead bullets.
The name of the cartridge indicated a bullet of .30 caliber propelled by 30 grains of black powder. Complete nomenclature for 19th Century American cartridges normally included the caliber, powder charge and bullet weight, as well. Thus, a purchaser particular about the rounds to be used might ask the store’s salesman for a box of .30-30-150s or .30-30-170s. By the same token, the shooter asking for a cartridge suitable for his Model 86 Winchester might purchase .45-70-405s or .45-70-500s.
By today’s standards the .30-30’s velocities and energy levels are by no means spectacular, but to the shootists who first encountered them they were nothing short of wondrous. Consider that a .30-30 using the 170-grain bullet fired from the 20-inch barrel of a carbine delivers only 200 foot pounds less energy at the muzzle than the, then, mighty .45-70. This, in a firearm weighing more than two pounds less and having a barrel four inches shorter.
With both sighted to hit point of aim at a hundred yards, the Model 94’s .30 caliber bullet drops only about nine inches at 200 yards. The .45-70 loses almost twenty-five inches whilst retained energy is only a few foot-pounds more than that of the smaller round. That much difference in hold-over is very significant. The difference in energy is not. For this and many other reasons, soon after its introduction, the .30-30 Winchester in the slab-sided lever action Model 94 became synonymous with the word "rifle".
That combination of rifle and cartridge has enjoyed such wide-spread popularity that of the approximately seven million 94s that have come out of the Winchester plant, the vast majority have been in .30 caliber. More than three million more rifles for that round have been made by Marlin. The cartridge has also been seen in guns bearing the Savage logo in both lever action Model 99s and slide action Model 170s, not to mention a number of bolt action rifles from that company and from several other American makers, including Winchester, as well as a generous sampling of single-short and multi-barrel firearms from the US and Europe. No doubt the .30-30 can be at home in virtually any kind or type of rifle, but it is most often associated with its original vehicle.
Popular as the .30-30 has been over the years, many early admirers of the Model 94 were less than pleased with it. Many a rural user at the turn of the century reloaded his ammunition as a matter of economy and convenience. As long as this was done with smokeless powder there was little cause for complaint, but doing so with black powder was the norm well into the 20th Century. The .30-30, with its 1:12 rate of twist, fouled quickly when used with black powder. The .32 Special, which virtually duplicated the ballistics of the .30 caliber cartridge, had a twist of 1:16, which was less inclined to clog the rifling of the barrel, allowing many more rounds to be fired before cleaning became necessary.
By the same token, the .32-40 and .38-55 cartridges were popular as target rounds in single shot rifles. These, too, were designed for use wit black powder, and, although they did not deliver the energy or flat trajectory of the other two rounds, were highly thought of in terms of accuracy and reloadability in those early years. Then, as now, bullet placement was regarded as more important than energy levels. Many owners of Model 94 rifles and carbines believed that they were better served by these rounds than by the newfangled smokeless cartridges when it came to actually hitting the desired target. How correct they might have been is a matter for conjecture, but there is something to be said for confidence in one’s equipment in that assessment.
All but forgotten amongst the Model 94’s many chamberings is the little .25-35 Winchester cartridge. Although one can still obtain ammunition, it is about as obsolescent a round as any that remain in the market. It seems to have been meant to be flatter in trajectory and milder in recoil, thus suited for youngsters and women in the minds of the turn-of-the-century shootist. Loaded at about 2200 fps, its 117-graing round-nose bullet generates less than 1300 foot pounds of energy at the muzzle, or about one third less than that of the 170-grain ,30-30. That’s pretty mild, even by the standards of one hundred years ago, but it, too, had its advocates.
Today’s shootist tends to visualize a short, handy carbine of 20-inched barrel length, when the Model 94 is mentioned. To be sure, that has been its most popular configuration over the years. But it is by no means the sole profile to be found. Early production barrel lengths range form fourteen and fifteen inches in what are known as the Trapper Models have regained popularity, having been reintroduced with 16 ¼-inch barrels in order to conform to current US limitations on length.
Magazine tubes have varied from half, to three-quarter and to full length, whilst barrel styles have been made in round, octagon and a combination of the two, known as half-round.
Stocks, too are varied in shape and style. Most full-length rifles of the early type have a crescent-shaped steel butt plate. Early carbines are usually found with butts that have what might be described as an exaggerated "S" curve. The "Eastern Carbine", a style popularized in the New England area, was normally produced with shotgun-style butt plate, a 20-inch barrel and half or three quarter-length magazine tube.
Upon special request, Winchester was known to provide its customers with virtually any combination of the features listed above. In addition, high grade woods and custom chequering could be had and, on occasion, custom set triggers were installed.
The Model 94 evolved into the Model 55, made from 1924 to 1932 with the 24-inch round barrel and shotgun-style butt plate as standard. But the change in model designation seems to have hurt sales. Buyers expected a Model 94, in whatever guise, to be called a Model 94.
Winchester tried again with somewhat greater success by calling it the Model 64 and providing it with the option of barrel lengths of 20, 24 and 26 inches. This variation was listed from 1933 until 1957. Sales were probably stimulated in the pre-war years by the introduction of the relatively hot .219 Zipper cartridge. Although the cartridge was actually an excellent choice in terms of velocity for small pests and larger vermin, it could not perform to its accuracy potential in this sort of rifle. Nevertheless, it was a popular chambering for several years. In 1972 and 1973, the Model 64 has undergone numerous changes. For nearly a decade, attempts to produce it more economically were met by widespread customer disapproval. Stamped metal internal parts, bluing that seemed to rub off with little handling or wash off in the slightest drizzling rain caused sales to fall drastically. About 1972, the boys in the head-shed got the message and found a way to put the old quality back into it whilst maintaining price within reason.
Since then, new calibers, finishes and stock variations have served to keep it modern. It has ever been made for handgun rounds, such as .357 Magnum, .44-40, .44 Magnum and .45 Long Colt. But the 7-30 Waters cartridge, with its flatter trajectory and higher velocity, have made of it what many consider to be an ideal mountain rifle: lightweight, but capable of reaching out form the longer shots.
Heavier loadings in .307, .356 and .375 Winchester calibers have been done up in a somewhat heavier framed version known as the "Big Bore 94". These rounds improve upon the ballistic punch of which the standard 94 is capable.
For more than 30 years there has been a small, but strong, segment of the firearms market devoted to the collecting of commemoratives. These are guns made up to celebrate the anniversary or memory of some special event, person or organization. As this is written, more than 85 commemorative variations have been produced by Winchester, using the Model 94 as their basis. Its own place in history makes it ideal for such application.
For several decades, there has been an ever-growing trend amongst hunter to use telescopic sights on their rifles. An increase in the time afield as a result of the scope’s light gathering qualities coupled with the improved aiming technique, brought about by the concentrated focus of a single sighting methodology, as opposed to the alignment of rear sight, front sight and target, has made these devices all but indispensable to the outdoorsman. However, scooping the Model 94 used to require compromises that were generally unsatisfactory.
The original Browning design of the ejection system caused an expended cartridge case to be thrown high over the shooter’s right shoulder. Any scope mounted in the conventional fashion, over the action, could cause the case to ricochet back into the works, causing a jam. Scopes could be mounted on the left side of the action, but this changed the normal relationship of the cheek to the stock and was difficult for many users to get used to. It also required drilling holes in the left side of the action of the earlier variations, a practice that damaged the future collector value of guns subjected to it.
It is possible to mount a long eye relief scope on the barrel, but this radically changed the balance of the piece. It also requires that the barrel be drilled and tapped. Few seem to find it a satisfactory arrangement.
In 1982, all this changed. The rifle’s action was modified to provide an "angle eject" feature. This change causes the expended case to be thrown out to the right at a low angle. Allowing a scope to be mounted directly over the action in the conventional manner, without the risk of its causing a jam.
There are those purists who found such a modification of the 94’s profile little short of sacrilegious. But most modern buyers, like their fathers and grandfathers before them, are more interested in performance than looks, and find the minor cosmetic change well worth the increased improvement in efficiency whilst doing nothing to change the handling qualities for which the 94 is so universally admired.
The year 1981 is significant in Winchester’s history. It was then that Olin, the parent company, divested itself of its firearms division in the US. In doing so it retained all rights to the use of the Winchester name for the production of ammunition whilst licensing the use of that legendary name to the succeeding firearms manufacture, US Repeating Arms Company.
Recessionary market trends in that decade, resulting in fewer firearms sales, caused USRAC to run onto financial hard times. Rumours of the firm’s imminent demise surfaced several times, only to fade with the infusion of new financing. In most cases, a firm in such trouble would simply be allowed to die, closing its doors forever. However, it was well recognized throughout the world that the name Winchester was so important in the industry that it could not be allowed to fade into history. Amidst much controversy surrounding the concept that an American legend was falling into the hands of a foreign owner, France’s Giat Corporation acquired USRAC in 1992.
Coincidentally, in the same year, Giat also acquired Browning Firearms in the form of the Belgian firm, Fabrique Nationale. Given the historical ties of the Browning designs and patents with both firms, this seemed a natural commingling. Especially so, because for more than a decade and a half Browning has been re-issuing special editions of rifles and shotguns originally designed and patented by John Moses Browning and his brothers that once bore the Winchester label. In spite of initial misgivings in some quarters of the industry, this unusual corporate arrangement seems to be working well.
In its centennial year, the Model 94 offers more choices in style and caliber than ever before and continues to be Winchester/USRAC’s hottest seller. Yet, one thing has remained unchanged. In the minds of most new buyers, the .30-30 cartridge is still synonymous with it and continues to be the most popular chambering. No sporting firearm has ever equaled its numbers and that round has exceeded all others in its production history. Small wonder, it is as near perfect a mating of cartridge to rifle as has ever been devised. It would not be surprising if this combination were to continue on to a bicentennial celebration of its introduction.
In preparation for this article, I contacted USRAC’s Advertising and Communications Manager, Rebecca Costello, to find out what plans were in the works for the Model 94’s 100th birthday. She seemed a bit surprised by my query, because it was made quite some time before matters regarding the celebration were confirmed. She asked me to check back in a few months, which, of course, I did.
Meanwhile, my curiosity led me to some confidential contacts in the industry and I learnt something of those plans as they were forming. Amongst them were that a special rifle would be built to mark the occasion and that engraver Martin Rabeno, of Ellenville, New York, was to do the decorative metal work. The Winchester Custom Shop had prepared an exhibition grade walnut fore-end and pistol grip stock for the piece that had been made from a blank originally intended for use in the making of a Model 21 shotgun. The 24-inch, half round and half octagonal barrel would be made to chamber the .30-30 cartridge with which this model is so closely associated. The magazine tube would also be half-length. All of which has a certain logic, in that three halves make 1 ½ and it truly is "a rifle and a half". I also learnt that it would be offered as the SHOT Show auction gun to benefit the National Sports Foundation, one of the leading shooting organizations in the US.
Late last summer it was finally revealed that the rifle would be engraved in high relief, with Marty’s distinctive English-style scrollwork, with occasional vines and leaves, reminiscent of some respects of both Ulrich and Nimschke. Gold inlays of a pair of fighting bucks grace the left side of the receiver, whilst Winchester’s familiar horse and rider trademark logo appear on the right side of the action. The borders of the frame are outlined in gold, as well.
The receiver of the rifle is very unusual. It is one of the old-style top ejectors, but is equipped with the relatively recent cross-bolt button safety. At the top of its forward end, where the barrel meets it, is gold inlaid with the legend, "One of One", an obvious reference to the "One of One Thousand" Model 1873 rifles of the 19th Century that were reputedly extraordinarily accurate and, by virtue of that, deserving of special recognition.
In order to accent the lines and curves of the engraving, the frame was finished by the French grey method. This is an acid etching procedure that lightly treats the metal to provide a rust preventive surface similar to bluing, but without coloring the metal.
The luster of the highly figured walnut stock and fore-end coupled with its exquisite artwork in metal, makes the rifle a fitting tribute to the more than seven million rifles of this fundamental design that have gone before it.
Only one lucky individual will get to own it, but USRAC has not forgotten the rest of us. There will be three grades of the Centennial Limited Edition, designated the "Custom", the "High Grade" and "Grade 1". Even those of us who have to settle for an ordinary version will have something special. All the rifles made during this year will be marked, "1894-1994". These are certainly destined to command a premium amongst future collectors.
There are other rifles of many kinds, types and calibers available to the sportsman, hunter and stockman. But none has had such influence in the world of shooting sports and practical cartridge. It is, in the true sense, a classic.
Table of Model 1894
Winchester Production Through 1964
The serial numbers listed are those recorded by the factory at the end of each calendar year. With the exception of the commemoratives and a few other limited editions since then, those made after that year are not, generally, considered collectors’ items
Milestones in the Numbering of the Winchester Model 94
In 1927, US President Calvin Coolidge was presented with Model 94 serial number 1,000,000.
In 1948 President Harry S. Truman was presented with Model 94 serial number 1,500,000. This rifle also marked the beginning of postwar production for the civilian market.
In 1961 and 1966, respectively, serial numbers 2,500,000 and 3,000,000 were presented to The Winchester Museum, Cody, Wyoming, USA.
Serial number 3,300,000 should have been made in 1970, but that frame was held back and the rifle finished in 1979. It was sold at auction at a Las Vegas, Nevada, gun show that year.
No one knows the fate of the rifle that bears serial number 4,000,000.
Serial number 4,500,000 went to Italy in 1978. It, too, has gone missing.