For the new generation of gun owners.

The Winchester Model 94 in .30-30 – an American Icon

A Pair of Winchester 94s

A pair of Winchester 94s

This is the rifle I’ve always wanted to write about. It’s the first centerfire rifle I ever shot, and from the first trip of the trigger I have had a strong emotional connection to the Winchester Model 94. For me to write about the 94, I’m treading on hallowed ground; not only is it my first “love” in the world of guns, but chances are it’s a beloved rifle to riflemen all over America, since it is the most significant sporting arm in the history of arms in America. The Winchester 94 is more than just a rifle, it’s a feeling, and emotion, a relationship, an icon, and a symbol of the quintessential American sporting rifle.

All over the world, each continent has made its own mark where guns are concerned. The side-by-side doubles, while not invented in England, were certainly perfected there and represent one of the greatest things the British Empire ever brought to a gentleman going afield. Continental Europe brought us the bolt action rifle, from the primitive needle gun of Johann Von Dreyes to the definitive military and sporting bolt rifle invented by Peter Paul Mauser in his legendary model of 1898.

But America is forever linked to the lever action rifle; and thank God for that! Few items serve as a more definitive American icon than a lever action rifle, the “Gun that Won the West”. For non-firearms-enthusiasts, that’s any rifle bearing a lever and an exposed hammer. For those who are purists, they know the real “Gun that Won the West” to be the Winchester 1873 – but for a huge chunk of Americans, when they think of the “Gun that Won the West” they’re actually conjuring up a mental image of a Winchester Model 92 or 94, because that’s what Hollywood always used, as large supplies of Winchester ’73s weren’t readily available during the heyday of the American Western Film – and Hollywood has never been known as a stickler for getting the details right.

The Birth of the Model 94

After John Moses Browning had finished the model of 1892 rifle which was to serve as a technologically up-to-date replacement of the Winchester 1873,  T.G. Bennett, CEO of Winchester, conveyed a vision he had to Mr. Browning. Winchester had been working on an all-new smokeless sporting cartridge, but they didn’t have a rifle to pair it with. Bennett knew that Mr. Browning was exactly the man for the job.

Browning was Winchester’s secret weapon, and the man who almost single-handedly propelled Winchester to the top of the heap of sporting arms manufacturers in America. When speaking of Browning, the word genius even seems to fall short. The man was simply operating on a different level than his contemporaries. In a time where a new gun design took several years (typically around five) from initial concept to a product ready for the market, Browning accomplished his designs at an astounding rate. The aforementioned model of 1892 went from thought to prototype in just under a month – and nearly half of that time was spent in travel from Winchester’s New Haven, Connecticut offices to Browning’s home in Ogden, Utah and back again. In essence, the model of 1892 went from thought to perfectly working prototype in about 10 days. Manufacturers today can hardly pull off such a feat with modern computer systems, CAD/CAM software, CNC machinery and large staffs of workers to cover any and all needs. For Browning, it was he and his brother, who was mostly a stock maker.

Winchester’s Bennett knew that if their dynamic new .30 WCF (Winchester Center-Fire) cartridge were paired with the right rifle, they would have an instant success and an instant classic – history would prove that Bennett was oh-so-right.

When Browning handed the prototype to T.G. Bennett, I’m betting his ability to keep a poker face was strained unlike anything he’d ever tried in the past. After all – at some point, they needed to talk money. I always conjure up this image my head of Bennett looking like James W. Marshall out in front of Sutter’s Mill, standing knee deep in the chilly running water of the American River clutching that solid gold nugget… “We’re going to be rich, filthy rich!”

The 94’s Introduction

Changing buttplates throughout the years

Changing buttplates throughout the years

The Winchester 94 was slated for the .30-30 cartridge from the get go, but the rifle was ready for production before the .30-30 cartridge was ready. Unwilling to wait, Winchester paired the 94 up with tw0 cartridges that are today relatively obscure, the .32-40 & .38-55 Winchester. Both were small bore black powder cartridges initially intended mostly for target shooting in single shot rifles. So in 1894, the soon to be famous, high-tech, gee-whiz, ready-for-the-20th-century rifle was chambered in two very 19th century black powder cartridge; both of which were ballistically competent, but a little uninspiring.

Cartridge Bullet Weight Velocity SAAMI Pressure
.32-40 Winchester 165 grains 1,440 FPS 30,000 CUP
.38-55 Winchester 255 grains 1,321 FPS 30,000 CUP

Still, regardless of the black powder ballistics being not too far apart from the handgun ready .44-40 WCF (200 grain bullet at around 1,200fps), the public saw value because the model 94 rifle was such a neat platform.

The model 94 was an all around rifle intended for use on game on up to deer and black bear, and with that in mind, the .32-40 and .38-55 were both quite capable of producing quick, clean kills out to around 100 yards. The smaller diameter and better sectional density offered some advantage over the handgun sized .44-40 when ranges extended, but with either, the black powder era ballistics made shots beyond 100 yards rather challenging.

The Winchester 94 and its .30 WCF cartridge together was exactly the right rifle at the right time. She’s a magnificent sporting arm. In the last decade of the 19th century, the 94 just plain had it all. The rifle was feather light at just a tad over 6 lbs. She’s thin, flat, light and superbly balanced. The little 94 comes to the shoulder with a natural movement that borders on the paranormal, with the sights aligning like an astronomer gazing upon the stars on a clear night in perfect alignment; it just all comes together.

The rifle is designed to be used with open sights, and it seems a near blasphemy to put a scope on it as the smallest change could upset its delicate balance. When outfitted with the sights that God and John Moses Browning intended, the 94 becomes the easiest and most naturally carried rifle ever to journey into the woods. The flat receiver just seems to fit any man’s hand, with the rifle balancing just slightly forward of the receiver, making it such an ease to carry  you almost forget you’re packing it until you need it.

Since the world was powered by horse flesh at the time of its introduction, the 1894 just begs to be slipped into a horse scabbard with a string of rawhide or braided suede tied around the saddle ring to hold her in place on a rough ride. And at the completion of said rough ride, the model 94 was ready for service. No banged up, mis-aligned scope or delicate target sights brutalized off their zero; her iron sights were made of the highest quality hardened steel held into place by the vice tight friction of a one way dovetail. Still, for those who really know how to use that most original sighting arrangement (an art that is rapidly dying in this nation), precision most certainly can be had. The open sight was the preferred sighting arrangement for the Model 94 and most every gun before her going back to the invention of aiming devices for firearms.

Some were outfitted with flip up tang aperture sights from Lyman or Marbles. There were receiver aperture sights from Lyman and eventually Redfield. These days, American shooters just loathe the standard open sights that came with the model 94. For this, I shoulder the blame squarely on the gun press in America for shoveling the manure that says “open sights are no good” – that’s a lie. The American gun press has been peddling that lie for as long as I can remember, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Winchester 94 Sights

A small sample of rear sight treatments for the Winchester 94. The rightmost rifle wears receiver sights.

Before the advent of the telescopic sight, average people made extraordinary shots with this sighting arrangement. These days our so-called gun-writers would have you believe that all sporting rifles should shoot 1″ or less at 100 yards, wear optical sighting equipment, and be capable of holding dead on from 0-300 yards. Back in the days when people hunted to live, such rifles were non-existent; yet the human species managed to live on. This is because people were hunters, opting to get closer and be sure, rather than chance a long shot. A shot beyond 100 yards was rare, with most shots being well under 100 yards. Ammunition was expensive, and a chance at a good dear wasn’t something you took lightly. In the back woods, or during the depression era, you stalked within “sure-fire” range, because if you missed, you and your family didn’t eat.

WWI is perhaps the greatest case story of soldiers using the classic open sight – sights that were often inferior to the ones found on the model 94 – making just incredible shots. At over 300 yards it wasn’t uncommon for a good rifleman to take off the top of the head of a careless enemy soldier who wasn’t mindful of his head sticking up over the parapet. The sighting arrangement has always been straight up perfect for the job, but how to use said sighting arrangement has become a lost art in the day of aperture or optical sights only.

So sights and all, the little Winchester carbine had the goods. What’s more, the model 94 was at a price point where most Americans could afford one. So here we possess an arm that comes along about as often as the stars really do align. Affordable, powerful, light weight, accurate, visually alluring, with outstanding ergonomics and balance; they even had decent triggers. Then you pair it up with a new state of the art cartridge that offers flatter trajectory, reasonable power, nearly half the recoil of the old black powder guns; and no smoke screen when you fire it. There’s no way this rifle was going to be anything but a classic.

The Cartridge

The original loading for what we now refer to as the .30-30 was a “metal patched” or jacketed 160 grain bullet moving at a published velocity of 1970 feet per second. In 1894 this was a very fast bullet, and shooters quickly learned this was a very capable cartridge despite its pip-squeak size. Like the rifle, the cartridge took off like a wildfire in a windstorm. Soon after its debut different bullet weights became available from around 100 grains all the way up to 180 grains, but the absolute favorite of the shooting public was the 170 grain flat point, which came about a year or two after the .30 WCF was released. That 170 grain flat point became the “standard” or assumed bullet when people began using the moniker of .30-30. Following the tradition of cartridge designation that was popular in American black powder cartridges, it was known as .30 caliber, with 30 grains of smokeless powder; the bullet weight of 170 grains was so common that when you said “thirty-thirty” a 170 grain flat point was assumed.

A sample of Winchester 94 rollmarks

A sample of Winchester 94 rollmarks

The practice of describing the cartridge by caliber and powder charge made a whole lot of sense in the black powder days. There wasn’t the huge slate of powders like we have today, it was just gunpowder. So when you told someone your new .50-90 was more powerful than their .45-70, they would just look at you and say, duh! The cartridge designation just laid it out there. Not too long after the invention of smokeless powder, manufacturers began experimenting with the formulas, coatings, granule size,
shape, etc. to the point to where smokeless powder wasn’t just smokeless powder anymore. Stating the smokeless powder charge became more and more meaningless for modern smokeless powders. Regardless, just about the time the rest of the industry was no longer using the bullet diameter-powder charge designation; Winchester just gave up on their designation of Winchester Center-fire, and began labeling their rifles as .30-30 Winchester.

While moderate by today’s standards, the velocity of just over 2,000 feet per second is perfectly balanced for the traditional cup and core bullets of the era(and still very much in use today). The result was bullet performance that was near perfect. With more modern high velocity rifle cartridges and magnums, often the design capabilities of a traditional cup and core bullet are exceeded. Close range shots with a rifle that has a muzzle velocity much over 2,800-2,900fps will destroy a cup and core bullet,
with the bullet essentially “blowing up” on impact with something solid. To use a cup and core bullet in a magnum rifle, you’d better make sure your game is at least 100 yards away and 150 is better.

To contend with this, bullet makers have resorted to ever increasingly complex and exotic bullets with varying jacket thickness, partitions, steel inserts, or monolithic material design. If all that sounds expensive, you’re right. A box of factory ammunition with a premium bullet can easily exceed $50.00. Just this week, I purchased a box of .30-30 for $14.95 and I’m here to tell you, from 0-250 yards that low tech, simple cup and core bullet with a touch of exposed lead at the tip will not only kill every bit as well as those uber-cool magnum rifles, but the recovered bullet will typically have that Holy Grail-esque mushroom shape, with the jacket intact and the vast majority of the bullet weight retained. The round was created to kill deer and it does a truly fantastic job in that capacity.

With the .30-30 cartridge being over a century old now and remaining very popular, we shooters have some additional benefits that we probably take for granted. .30-30 ammunition has been developed to a state of near perfection. With over 7 million Winchester 94s, several million of the Marlin 336s, and countless other guns in the .30-30 scattered across the globe for the past century or more, it’s no secret how to make world class ammunition for the mild mannered .30-30. Exact metallurgy of core and jacket for perfect performance is known by all manufacturers. Then the case material, original design, and proper propellants add to the dose of perfection by making the .30-30 perhaps the most consistent factory ammunition I’ve ever encountered in any cartridge. Just a few weeks ago, I grabbed up a good selection of 170 grain loads from several manufactures such as Remingtion, Winchester, Federal, Sellier & Bellot, and Wolf Gold (made by Prvi Partisan) and ran a good selection across my chronograph just to see what the average standard deviation was for velocity (the delta between fastest and slowest), and
all were amazingly small, either in the small double digits, and a couple remarkably in the single digits. This is just uncanny and not something that’s real common with any cartridge, but it’s just plain ordinary for the .30-30.

Winchester 94 accuracy

Many of the “experts” will have you believe that the Winchester 94 is an inaccurate rifle, capable of minute-of-deer sized groups at 100 yards and nothing more. I have done far better than that using my traditionally open sighted circa 1927 model 94 placing 3 shots into 2.90″ at a measured 175 yards; and there was a witness to that (although I won’t be in a hurry to try to duplicate that one – I’m betting luck played a part). Still, rare is the model 94 that shoots too much over 2 MOA (or roughly 2″ at 100 yards), and often comfortably under that. And that’s more than enough accuracy to kill game at distances that are obscene for the little .30-30 cartridge.

Modern, scoped Winchester 94s

Modern, scoped Winchester 94s

The model 94 does have a very light weight barrel, and when you fire fast strings of more than about 3 or 4 rounds, vertical stringing is not uncommon, opening groups up. Even with a scorching hot barrel, I’ve rarely seen a model 94 shoot larger than a 5″ group toward the end of a rapid fire string as you finish up a full box of ammo. Pay no attention to those benchrest only shooters who say all rifles must be 1 MOA or better, the Winchester 94 will produce precise kills at any reasonable distance, provided the shooter is up to the task.

I have noticed a tendency for the model 94 to favor the heavier bullets of 150 grains or more. Back when I shot coyotes with accelerators, the accuracy wasn’t very good beyond 3 shots as the barrel heated up, with groups opening up beyond 6″ at 100 yards. But first round accuracy was always spot on, and for me, that was the only one that really counted; generally if I blew the first shot, I really didn’t get a second or third shot.

Because of the case capacity, the .30-30 generally doesn’t really perform it’s best with bullets under 125-130 grains. Still accuracy is still good enough to get most any reasonable job done. The appeal of the Winchester 94 in .30-30 is that it’s a hunter’s rifle. You have to do your part and stalk close enough to ensure a precision shot.

What’s it Good for – Matching the Game to the Load

When we talking about hunting with a Winchester 94 in .30-30, we’re talking about hunting! The iron sighted .30-30 put the hunt right back into the pursuit of the game. You’ll find yourself scouting more, and stalking closer…and what could be more rewarding than stalking close to your game?

Important Note: When discussing different loads for the .30-30 please know that one should never load pointed or full metal jacket cartridges into a tubular magazine as they may be set off by a bullet against a primer in the magazine with horrible consequences to the shooter.

Big game

A ported barrel on a Winchester 94 in .444 Marlin

A ported barrel on a Winchester 94 in .444 Marlin

It’s a no brainer that the .30-30 has been used to put down most every critter that walks planet earth, but that doesn’t mean it’s always the right tool for the job. At over 7 million of the things out there, chances are it was called into extraordinary duty because it was the only thing available. I don’t know anyone who’s standing in line to hunt Grizzlies with a .30-30, but many a griz has been killed with the .30-30.

In the past you could find bullets all the way up to 190 grains on the off chance you might run into a grizzly, or if you thought you might be hunting moose, elk, or caribou at close range. Those 190 grain loads have been gone for years, but Buffalo Bore quite recently brought them back on the off chance someone wants the challenge of getting very close to something truly huge. I would never risk a shot at such a large animal beyond about 70 yards, but there may be some that are more adventurous than I, or perhaps a better shot. Keep in mind, when I talk of hunting with a Winchester 94, I’m talking about iron sights; that’s my preference with the saddle rifle. A hunter with a 94 and scope could probably extend the range, but even with glass on top of my 94, I wouldn’t shoot beyond 100 yards on truly large North American game; and I’d never (on purpose) go after a grizzly with a .30-30.

Still, even today, due to the handiness of its size, the fact that it will tuck into most anywhere for travel, and utter reliability, it is often the first choice of Inuits for Caribou hunts; and I’m here to tell you, that’s one substantial animal.

Deer

In today’s world, the .30-30 seems to be a purpose built deer rifle, or “woods” rifle. Conventional wisdom would make the model 94 an “Eastern Wood’s rifle” since the forests of the east tend to be thickly wooded with shots often at very close range. And tradition would hold that in the west, you need a scope sighted turn bolt rifle capable of long range shots more appropriate the sparsely wooded forests and open fields of the west. Well, conventional wisdom be damned, you’ll find just as many model 94s in the West as you’ll find in the East. When I was a kid, a .30-30 was synonymous with deer rifle. In fact, when I was a teenager I was invited to join a good friend of mine and his father on a California deer hunting trip and his exact words were “do you have a .30-30?”. Not, do you have a deer rifle, or do you have a bolt action rifle for long range deer hunting, but “do you have a .30-30″. This goes to show that as late as the very early 1980s the .30-30 was still synonymous with deer hunting, even in the West.

As a kid growing up in Northern California, my Winchester 94 actually spent precious little time in the woods bumming for deer. My grandfather and his hunting bud were bear hunters and occasionally hog hunters. Regrettably, to this day, I have never killed a deer with grand dad’s model 94; but I have made dents into the California black bear and wild hog population.

As the all around, go anywhere, do anything load for big game in most of North America, the 170 grain bullet as loaded by the major manufacturers is the way to go. In many places deer and black bear season can overlap, and the 170 is perfect for either one.

If deer is your only pursuit, the 150 grain is an excellent choice with a touch less recoil on the shoulder, yet I’ve never seen a deer that new the difference between a 150 and a 170 grain bullet out of a .30-30. Hornady has their new LeverEvolution loads in 140 and 160 grain which uses a soft spongy rubber tip with a spire point profile for better long range performance, making the .30-30 an honest to goodness 250 yard cartridge provided shooter is up to the task. Goodness knows the rifle is up to task.

Wild Boar

When you move down to hogs, there are many who will tell you how tough they are and how you need heavily constructed bullets to get through all that muscle and bone. That may be true for the truly huge hogs over 500 lbs, shooting at some distance. But most hog hunting I’ve been involved in has been hogs well under 400 lbs, and since more often than not dogs were used, shots were at close, sometimes uncomfortably close range. Now I’ve had great luck killing hogs with everything from a 9mm pistol on up to a .30-06 rifle. At close range, most any .30-30 load will do the job just fine because those close ranges allow you to place your shots with precision; head shots just behind the ear.

If distances are going to be beyond 25 yards then often you’re going to be presented with more of a body shot, and here’s where that 170 grain flat point will do the job just fine. If you’re a handloader or a bullet caster, don’t rule out the cast 170s for hogs. At moderate velocities of around 1700 fps using a No. 2 alloy and a gas checked cast bullet in the 160-190 grain range, those big tubular hunks of lead will do a great job on wild boar.

Varmints & Predators

For varmints and predators, a little more care is needed to match the load to your need. If you just keep your Model 94 in the truck or on the tractor for trespassing coyotes or deer of opportunity during the right seasons, the 150 grain flat point is your go-to load. Recoil is light, and terminal performance is top notch. Neither deer or “yote” will get up and say “Thank you sir, can I have another” when hit squarely.

Three lengths of Winchester 94 magazines

Three lengths of Winchester 94 magazines

If your varmint or predator hunting is for pelts, well things get a bit more complicated because now we’re at a place where the .30-30 is a little much for such game, and a hunter can find himself with a bunch of ruined pelts.

One childhood summer long ago, I made a good chunk of change hunting coyote’s for bounty using my grandfathers model 94 and the very expensive Remington Accelerators, which was a .30-30 case with a 55 grain .22 bullet wrapped by a plastic discarding sabot, pushing that 55 grain bullet out to warp speed, killing coyotes like a bolt of lightning. I got $30.00 for killing the “yote” and then I got another $30.00 for the hide. Oh was I rolling in it that summer. That coyote money bought me a set of drums, a new bike and all the .22 ammo I could carry.

I attribute much of my success to my bullet placement. I learned that even the little 55 grain Accelerator could find its way out the other side of a coyote, messing up a premium hide. So whenever possible, I’d give my call one quick little yelp to turn the coyote directly toward me before the shot. This almost always made a dog standing nose toward me allowing me to place my shot at the base of the throat so the bullet had to travel stem to stern before exiting; it never made it all the way out, yet the coyote always dropped like a stone.

For smaller game such as foxes or other fur-bearers I found out that a good solid was the best approach and typically did less damage to those valuable pelts. A full metal jacket bullet or a hard cast solid lead bullet will zip right through a small fur bearing critter, killing it handily but not destroying the fur; but matching the bullet to the game when collecting fur is the trick. If you try a full metal jacket or a hard cast lead flat point on something the size of a coyote you may end up with exit wounds the size of a traditional expanding 170 flat point. Non expanding bullets have a tendency to de-stabilize and swap ends as soon as the bullet meets something more dense than the atmosphere. The rifling in your barrel is to stabilize your bullet in flight, and is not capable of stabilizing a bullet in living tissue; that’s up to the bullet design. Expanding bullets track true because they deform, leaving the heaviest part at the front so the bullet doesn’t yaw when it penetrates.

Important Note: Never load pointed or full metal jacket cartridges into a tubular magazine

In the case of a hard cast solid that’s too hard to deform, or a full metal jacket bullet, if they travel far enough, you can bet they’re going to yaw and swap ends during their penetration path. Now you can “tune” your non-expanding bullet to the game you’re hunting, but it takes some experience to do that; experience best not tried on living game as you’re bound to run pelts finding the sweet spot.

When the bullet yaws is the thing to know. Shorter, lighter FMJs like the 110 grain FMJ intended for the little .30 Carbine will yaw inside of 2 inches. By around 4 inches, it’s traveling pretty much base first. But if you shoot a squirrel with that bullet, chances are, it’s coming out the other side sideways, tearing a big exit hole in the process.

Heavier FMJs or non-expanding lead bullets loaded single shot directly into the chamber, when fired will travel much deeper before yawing and swapping ends. 150 grain spire point FMJs intended for military .30-06 or .308 typically penetrate 4-5 inches before yawing. If velocity is high enough, often due to the heavy canneluer the bullet will break in half, leaving two projectiles that may exit the other side really tearing up a pelt. However, if you have about 10-12 inches of flesh to travel, often those military 150 grain bullets will not exit, or if they turn base forward, they exit with much less damage to the off side.

Using very heavy hard cast bullets in the 160-190 grain range at moderate velocities can be really good for varmints as very few varmints have enough substance to really disrupt a bullet as big as a 190 grain .30 caliber. And keep in mind that flat points with very wide meplats are the straightest penetrating of all bullets. If the meplat is wide enough, your non-expanding bullet may never yaw or swap ends.

The Model 94 Today

Sadly, the model 94 came to an end in 2006 and stayed that way for some time. Production of limited edition rifles resumed in 2010, with limited edition rifles made by Miroku in Japan – but one should know, these are no longer priced to attract the entry level hunter/shooter. The new model 94s are more of a premium nostalgia piece offering many of the features found on the factory custom ordered 94s of yesteryear. Think of them as a semi-custom production gun offering a whole lot of cool for a slightly more than production price.

The Winchester 94 was; and in this writers mind, remains; the preeminent American sporting rifle. Every rifleman should have at least one in his collection.

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