Winchester celebrates 125 years of the Model 1894 with a pair of fancy anniversary versions, and Boddington recalls some of his adventures with the classic lever gun.
The NRA estimates there are about 80 million law-abiding American gunowners. Only 7.5 million Model 94 Winchesters have been produced, so there aren’t quite enough to go around, but almost all shooters will instantly recognize a 94 — and most of us have one somewhere in the family. The 94 is the all-time best-selling hunting rifle ever made.
The Model 94 was the third lever-action rifle designed for Winchester by John Moses Browning following the 1886 and 1892 models. Browning obviously improved on his previous designs; His 94 was intended to handle longer cartridges than the ’92, but with a trimmer, shorter and lighter action than the big 1886.
Smokeless powder was the real enabler for the 94, not only increasing velocity, but for harnessing greater power in a much smaller case. However, it came at a cost in increased pressure, necessitating stronger actions.
Starting with the French Lebel in 1886, the world’s militaries quickly shifted to smokeless powder, as did we with the .30-40 Krag in 1892. Winchester’s 94 was the first sporting rifle designed for smokeless powder. The rifle was in production in 1894, but the new smokeless cartridges were not. The original chamberings were blackpowder .32-40 and .38-55; The smokeless .25-35 and .30-30 were introduced in 1895. For 125 years, the .30-30 has remained the most popular chambering, but the 94 has also been chambered to 18 rifle and handgun cartridges and the .410 shotshell.
The Model 94 is a rear-locking exposed-hammer action, locked into battery by a bar that rises into position behind the bolt as the lever is raised. Unlike Browning’s previous lever-actions, the 94 has a safety block with a lever-actuated plunger that physically prevents the trigger from moving rearward unless the lever is fully raised, and the plunger raises the safety block.
For 98 years, the 94 was “made safe” by the safety block and “half-cock” or safety position on the hammer. After 1992 (and 6 million rifles!) a manual safety was added, initially a crossbolt. In 2003 the manual safety was moved to the tang where it remains today. The 94’s greatest hallmark has always been that it is short, light and handy. The original 94 rifle with the 24- or 26-inch barrel, either round or octagon, was not especially heavy, but is not short. A 94 with 26-inch octagon barrel weighs about 7.5 pounds.
From the beginning, and until today, the most popular 94 has been the Carbine with 20-inch round barrel, weighing 6.5 pounds. It is short, light and handy. The Model 94 just plain feels good as 7.5 million original owners can attest, as will the millions who inherited a 94.
Arms ceased operations, the only break in 94 production. Production resumed in 2011. Current Model 94s, which are excellent and faithful, are produced by Miroku, imported by Browning and marketed by Winchester Repeating Arms.
The one millionth Model 94 was presented to President Coolidge in 1927; The two millionth to President Eisenhower in 1953; The three millionth 94 was made in 1967; The four millionth in 1980. Since then another 3.5 million 94s have been produced. So who says the lever-action is dead?
Me and My 94s
My Dad wasn’t a rifle guy, but he was a serious horseman and he always wanted a 94 “saddle gun.” So, when I was 12 and my sister 15, we saved our pennies and bought dad a 20-inch 94 Carbine for Christmas 1964. Dad’s 94 is thus an early post-’64 rifle.
The 1964 changes to the Model 94 were minor and almost invisible; The receiver was made from sintered steel, the machined cartridge lifter was replaced with a stamping, and hollow vice-solid roll pins were used to assemble the action. We didn’t know any different. Dad loved his 94, and it shot well.
The 94 I’ve had the longest came to Guns & Ammo as a test gun, an early reissue of the short-barreled Trapper in .30-30 with a 16-inch tube. Angle-eject 94s started in 1982. Mine is top-eject, purchased in 1981. I put a Lyman receiver sight on it. (Which it still wears.)
I learned early on that I couldn’t afford to buy all the test guns, but I bought that 94 Trapper. Here’s why: With the receiver sight it’s a solid one-MOA rifle, I can no longer see iron sights well enough to shoot groups like that, but when I could, that 94 was a phenomenon. (I won quite a few bets with it.) When I run into my old friend Payton Miller, longtime stalwart at G&A, he always asks me, “You still got that 94 Trapper? Man, that rifle shot good!” Yep, still got it, Payton. That one’s not for sale!
I am not a firearms collector, but when Hornady brought back the .23-35 in their LeveRevolution line, I had to have one. I dug around, shocked by how pricey vintage 94s had become.
My .25-35 is a 1906 Saddle Ring Carbine with receiver sight. It was the best .25-35 94 I could afford, which meant that the finish was, well, finished. Vance Cain at SEK Firearms in Independence, Kansas gave it period re-bluing, spruced up the stock and replaced the missing saddle ring. Now it looks great and shoots better than I can shoot with iron sights these days.
Honest, I haven’t hunted a great deal with my 94s but after all, gun writers don’t get to hunt a lot with their own firearms. Dad’s 94, with original buckhorn rear and bead-on-ramp front, accounted for some wild hogs, but I don’t think it ever took a deer.
My Trapper has taken some deer and quite a few hogs. Since it lives in lead-free California, there were some years when I couldn’t use it for lack of unleaded bullets, but now that Hornady has the 140-grain Monoflex load, it’s sighted in and ready to go.
The new-to-me .25-35 has taken several whitetails. So far I’m impressed at how effective this little cartridge is, but a lot of old-timers swore by it. The .25-35 lives in Kansas, and every season I take it to a couple of deer stands. I have other choices, but now and again I like to hunt with 94s, and I spend a lot of time on the range with them. The 94 is fun to shoot, feels good, handles well, doesn’t kick much, and it’s such an honest rifle — wood and steel, still the way Browning designed it 125 years ago, and it’s still the piece of Americana that it became.
America’s Deer Rifle
In these days of big scopes and flat-shooting rifles, the old 94 may seem archaic, but that depends a lot on what, where and how you hunt. I probably wouldn’t take one on a sheep hunt, although many folks have. The 94 is not a long-range platform, but it’s ideal for a lot of North American hunting. It’s a perfect choice for hog hunting. In the right chambering, it’s superb for black bear, and because a 94 Carbine is so light and handy, across the country it remains the houndsman’s best friend. And it’s still ideal for a whole lot of whitetail hunting.
Between Kansas neighbor Chuck Herbel and me, we have a couple dozen deer stands on our properties. Only a handful offer shots as far as 200 yards. The majority are in the woods, where seeing deer past 100 yards is unlikely. In other words, our whitetail hunting is 94 country, where shots are quick and close. This still describes a whole lot of whitetail hunting in the East, Midwest and South.
Stand hunters pretty much know how far their shots are likely to be. Our chunk of Kansas is thick timber, like most whitetail hunting for a thousand miles in several directions. Still, hunters in thick cover know their shots will be close; A fast-handling rifle is essential, and a rapid second shot can save the day. No one knows exactly how many Model 94s are in the deer woods every autumn or how many deer fall annually to this proven design. My guess is both numbers run into the seven digits.
Overall, the bolt-action has probably been America’s most prevalent hunting rifle for a generation. In recent years the MSR has garnered an increasing following, especially among younger hunters. Both are good choices and, in so many situations, so is the tried-and-true-all-American lever-action. How many of you, like me, have a 94 in your gun safe that in recent seasons you’ve overlooked in favor of a rifle that’s faster, flashier and more modern?
Only you know your typical hunting situation and the shots you’re likely to draw. As deer season rolls around, remember that old 94. Maybe it’s time to take it afield again. Whether you or I reach for our 94s this fall, don’t worry. There will be plenty of rifles just like it in use across America.
Sights and Spitzers
In 1893, as John Moses Browning was putting the finishing touches on his greatest lever-action, he knew that smokeless powder was changing the game. His new lever-action needed to be stronger than his previous designs, and it was. Although a mechanical genius, Browning was not clairvoyant. He could not foresee that in just a decade, the world’s militaries would shift to sharp-pointed (spitzer) bullets with better aerodynamics. Or that after World War II, telescopic sights would dominate.
Browning’s 94 thus had two limitations that would plague it increasingly as decades passed. First, safety dictated that blunt-nosed bullets be used in its tubular magazine. Second, top-ejection precluded mounting a scope low over the receiver.
Honestly, the first limitation wasn’t all that big a deal. Neither the 94 nor any of its cartridges have been considered long-range performers. The .307 Winchester comes close to .308 Winchester performance, so was probably hampered the most by its obligatory blunt-nosed bullets. Even so, we have long thought of the 94 as a short to very medium-range platform. This limitation remained in effect clear until 2005, when Hornady solved the problem with the flexible polymer tip on the Flex Tip Expanding (FTX) bullet, for the first time allowing an aerodynamic bullet to be used in a tubular magazine.
Hornady’s LeveRevolution line, using new propellant technology, also offers somewhat increased velocity, so the two together have flattened the trajectories and practical hunting ranges of the 94 and its cartridges.
Despite poor aerodynamics, traditional blunt-nosed bullets transfer energy quickly and deal a heavy (and often noticeable) initial blow. So, for short-range work there’s still nothing wrong with traditional flat-nosed and round-nosed bullets. However, as scopes came into increasingly common — and now almost universally used — the top-ejecting 94 was left ever farther behind. Scopes could be receiver-mounted offset, or long-eye-relief scopes could be barrel-mounted. Neither solution was ideal, so most of us continued to use our 94s with iron sights. This basically validated the long-held premise that the 94 was a short-range platform, and changed in 1982 with the “Angle Eject” feature. Today, all 94s eject to the right at an angle, allowing conventional scope mounting. Most recent 94 variants (not all) are drilled and tapped for scope mounts.
To this day I have never mounted a scope on a 94. I’ve stubbornly clung to traditional open sights or apertures, thus pigeonholing my 94s into situations where scopes weren’t necessary. As my aging eyes rebel against iron sights, it’s probably time to put a scope on a 94.
A Special 94
For A Special Birthday Separation between the Browning and Winchester brands is complete. The traditional Winchester lever-actions (models 1866, 1873, 1886, 1892, 94, and 1895) and 1885 single shot are now marketed by Winchester Repeating Arms (winchesterguns.com). In 2019, Winchester has offered seven Model 94s, including Carbine, Short Rifle and Takedown versions. Most are .30-30, but the Sporter and Short Rifle 94s are chambered to .32 Winchester Special.
Two 94s, for 2019 only, commemorate this 125th milestone: 125th Anniversary High Grade and 125th Anniversary Custom Grade. I had a chance to examine both at the recent NRA convention and both are gorgeous — fine wood, good checkering and very special embellishment. Both are rifle versions with 24-inch full octagon barrels, full magazine, crescent buttplate, blued-steel fore-end cap, and barrel-magazine ferrule.
For this article (and after much cajoling), we were able to borrow a High Grade to do some shooting and photography. The receiver is nickel-finished with hand-chased engraving; The rest of the metal is superbly blued.
Sights are a Marble’s front sight with a traditional buckhorn rear, drilled and tapped for scope mounting. As the photos show, Winchester did an awesome job on this rifle. For those who love the 94, it’s a fitting tribute and a whole lot of rifle for the money at $2,399.
The Custom Grade is, well, just a bit more. To be precise, $1,100 more, but also more in all ways. The receiver is coin-finished with deep-relief hand-engraving with gold accents and even better wood.
As I said, I’m not a collector, but 125 years and 7.5 million rifles deserve recognition. Both versions offer a fitting tribute to John Browning’s greatest lever-action. If I were a collector, I wouldn’t be taking either of these gorgeous rifles into a deer stand in the rain or resting them across my saddle horn. Instead, I’ll do my own tribute to the 94 and take my own (much plainer 94s) hunting this fall.
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– November 22, 2019