A frequent stop and gathering place of kindred souls is the local gun shop. We gather together, those of us with a certain mental telepathy that connects us, and we take a break from work and enjoy rubbing elbows with normal people. Well at least those with similar interests. These interests include shooting, hunting, competition shooting and accumulating firearms.
We are drawn to the display cases as aboriginals to a ceremonial fire. A man staring into that case may appear to be motionless and doing as close to nothing as possible, but nothing could be further from the truth. As my friends Darrell, John, and Clay watch this with daily attention their customers are deep in thought.
Finally, perhaps after a number of trips to the shop, they will ask to see something from the case. More often than not, in today’s economy, the piece is laid away for weeks or even months. After all, we all have more guns than we need and less than we want. Some windfall may result in an early acquisition or perhaps the inevitable harrowing of the shelves that occurs at tax time or during the general election will speed the process up. Finally, the lay away ticket is marked paid in full, the paperwork is complete, and the new addition taken home. This is as close to pregnancy and childbirth as a man may come.
One of my rifles was recently brought home after just such as stay. The rifle is a Winchester Model 1894. The Winchester 1894 is the brainchild of John Moses Browning. He was an extraordinary individual and inventor.
The lever action rifle was nothing new but the Model ’94 owes little to previous rifles. Certain rifles in the blue steel and walnut age still call to us. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police had a long association with the Winchester rifle. By a trick of fate, the Winchester was used by shore patrols in England in the dark days of World War II when any good firearm was worth its weight in gold.
The rifle was used by both the good and the bad. In my memory is a case in which a night clerk at a motel took out a bad actor attempting to rob the clerk. The night clerk owned one rifle, a Winchester 1894 .30-30 WCF, and he took it to work with him and kept it in a corner.
The man he shot and killed through a car door was the primary suspect in an ambush of a peace officer. However, the majority of my memories are of deer taken with the Winchester 1894 by more hunters than I could name. Like many of you, the Winchester 1894 was my first centerfire rifle.
None of us are immortal, but John Moses Browning’s memory and his guns seem to be. There have always been and will continue to be more cheap guns than good guns. But a few well-made firearms have become firmly respected trappings, reaching legendary status. The Winchester 1894 combined the popular lever action with a high-powered smokeless powder cartridge.
Wood and steel were the common material in the day, but today the Winchester 1894 harkens back to a time when blue steel and walnut ruled. The Winchester 1866 and Winchester 1873 may have been in action earlier, but the ’94 enjoyed a long life in the West and elsewhere. The .30-30 WCF lever-action rifle was still in use in police work, particularly with highway patrol officers, well into the 1980s and perhaps beyond.
The LAPD issued Winchester 1894 rifles during the Watts riots. The Model ’94 gained wide acceptance shortly after its introduction. While the shorter Model ’92 action had greater leverage for its short fat pistol caliber cartridges, the Model ’94 fired a .30 caliber centerfire cartridge with much greater range and accuracy. If you have ever attempted to sight a .44-40 rifle in for 175 yards, you know exactly what I am speaking of. The 1894 rifle is still in production but it stalled for a while with a hitch in production in 2006 when the Winchester plant in New Haven Connecticut closed. At that point some seven million rifles had been produced.
Advantages of the Model 1894
The Model 1873’s toggle action worked well enough but was not particularly robust. One reason, the military never issued the rifle. Scouts used the rifle and appreciated its firepower. The new lever-action rifle by Browning used a single operating bar in contrast to the dual sliding rods of the Model 1892. The rifle also had a greater margin for safety due to a new firing pin design.
The rifle was smooth and capable but not as fast as the previous rifles. It was more for long range, deliberate fire than the earlier rifles. While many rifles were produced with longer barrels and special stocks the 20-inch barrel carbine was the most common 1894 rifle. The new .30-30 WCF cartridge pushed a 160-grain bullet to some 1,970 fps.
No more did the western hunter have to memorize hold over or hope for the best. The new cartridge shot amazingly flat. While the .44-40 was credited with killing more men—good and bad—than any other caliber in the old west, the .30-30 put more game on the table. The rifle was particularly praised in the far reaches of the continent such as Alaska for faultless reliability.
My first centerfire rifle was a .30-30 and a Winchester. We just called the Winchester a .30-30, just as we called the Colt 1911 a .45. Very few other types were seen. The Winchester 1894 suffered indignity in 1964 with production changes that were not as severe as those of the Winchester Model 70, and these changes were meant to cheapen production.
Pre ’64 rifles, such as the one illustrated, are treasured for this reason. The modern Miroku produced rifles are at least as accurate and reliable, however. The new gun also features a washer to tighten the action. The original action was plenty tight. When firing the rifle off hand, remember, do not push the lever down but forward for fast and efficient operation.
My Favorite Winchester
While the .30-30 Winchester was popular and served for many years, some shooters asked for a more powerful cartridge. Yet, with the rear locking bolt of the lever action rifle, the Winchester ’94 could never equal the .30-40 Krag service cartridge. Winchester introduced a cartridge that was billed as an improvement over the .30-30 but which offered less recoil than the .30-40 Krag cartridge. The .32 Winchester Special features a .321-inch bullet and greater powder capacity. Introduced in 1901 the .32 Winchester Special was moderately popular but never achieved the popularity of the .30-30 WCF or the competing .35 Remington. Using IMR 3031 powder and the Hornady 170-grain #3210 bullet, my handloads have delivered good accuracy and consistently clocked 2,200 fps with maximum loads. This flat point bullet hits hard and offers reliable expansion.
Hornady’s Interlock bond features a crimp that ensures the bullet holds together during expansion. This is important during short-range hunting when the bullet strikes the game at relatively high velocity. Hornady also designed the Secant ogive that provides the most efficient profile possible for velocity retention at longer range with a flat nose bullet. The .32 Winchester Special is more powerful than the .30-30 by about 10 to 15 percent. Most riflemen will find the .32 Winchester Special is more accurate than a similar .30-30 WCF rifle, although this may be difficult to prove without optics.
Accurate, powerful and with modest recoil, the .32 Winchester Special is a great all around woods gun. Modern ammunition technology has made the rifle even better. Hornady introduced the LeverRevolution line of cartridges some years ago. The lever-action rifle had previously not been compatible with pointed bullets. The nose of the Spitzer-type bullet, set on the primer of the cartridge ahead, could result in a detonation under the forces of recoil.
Flat nose bullets were used in lever-action rifles for safety purposes. (A few enterprising souls handloaded hot Spitzer loads for the .30-30 and loaded one in the chamber and a single round in the tubular magazine.) Hornady’s LEVERevolution bullet features a polymer tip on top of a pointed bullet. This ingenious design allows the use of ballistically superior loads.
The .32 Winchester Special offering, in the LeverRevolution line, breaks a solid 2,410 fps with a 160-grain bullet. I cannot do this with a handload. With quality handloads, the Winchester will often print a two-inch 3-shot group at 100 yards and about 2.5 inches with most factory loads.
The Winchester 1894 illustrated was delivered in 1948. It is as light, handy, flat, and fast handling as any ’94 but chambers a harder hitting cartridge. Much of the appeal of such a classic rifle is the history and the looks—blue steel and walnut. However, the practical efficiency of this combination for many chores cannot be overlooked. Classics become classic because they work, and the Winchester 1894 .32 Special is no exception.
Do you own a Winchester Model 1894? What is your favorite lever-action caliber and cartridge? Share your answers in the comment section.
Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooters Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.
View all articles by Bob Campbell
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