The Winchester Model 94

By Chuck Hawks

Winchester Model 94
Win. 94. Illustration courtesy of U.S. Repeating Arms Co., Inc.

1964 was a big year for Olin/Winchester. That was the year that their revised (for cheaper manufacture) line of firearms was introduced. Unfortunately, the revisions included the Model 94 lever action rifle. You have to understand that the Model 94 was an icon amongst lever action rifles and the standard of comparison at the time.

The reaction from gun writers and the shooting public to the changes was swift and terrible, and Winchester has never regained their former position of dominance. Ultimately, in 1981, Olin Corporation struck a licensing agreement with United States Repeating Arms to manufacture Winchester firearms, which were no longer a profitable line for Olin. In a few years Olin was out of the gun business. Olin still manufactures Winchester ammunition, however.

From 1894 to 1963 the Model 94 lever action rifle had been manufactured using high quality forged steel parts and stocked in genuine American black walnut. The metal finish was a highly polished blue and in the later part of that era the stock had a gloss finish. It was a very solid and handsome rifle, a legend in its own time, and an American icon. It was also the world's most popular sporting rifle, and still is with over 5,000,000 sold by 2001.

The changes to the Model 94 were relatively minor, but never the less devastating to the 94's reputation. Stamped sheet steel parts were substituted in non-critical areas for formerly forged steel parts. The most visible of these was the shell carrier, which raised cartridges from the magazine to the breech, and stood out like a sore thumb every time the action was operated. The loading gate became a stamped and riveted part, which was also obvious. And hollow steel roll pins, which just plain looked cheap, replaced the solid steel action pins. These were not the only changes, but they were the most obvious changes and, as I recall, the ones which drew the most criticism. As a lingering result of these changes, pre-1964 Model 94's are worth about 50% more than equivalent post 1964 models in similar condition on the used market.

Regardless of vintage, the Model 94 has always been a reliable rifle, the kind you can depend on. A Model 94 is easy to carry and feels good in the hand. It is also a nearly perfect rifle for the mounted rifleman, and is still found in saddle scabbards all over the West.

I have owned both pre and post 1964 Model 94's, and I can testify that none of the manufacturing shortcuts affected the rifle's function or accuracy. In fact, the most accurate Model 94 I have ever owned was a beautifully finished 1966 Centennial commemorative model, complete with stamped parts and roll pins. This rifle came with a heavy 26 inch octagon barrel and wore a long eye relief Leupold M8 2x scope custom mounted forward of the receiver (as on a modern "scout rifle"). It would average about 1.5 inch groups if I did my part, and occasionally shoot a 1 inch group at 100 yards. But while the cost cutting changes did not affect the Model 94's performance, they definitely damaged the Model 94's image.

As previously mentioned, the pre-1964 Model 94 carbine was a handsome, high quality, traditionally built rifle. Most of those rifles were shot with iron sights (including mine), so it is hard to compare their accuracy with later scoped rifles. But they had a good reputation for accuracy at the time. I didn't log my groups in those days (I do now), but from memory I would guess that they averaged about 2.5 inches at 100 yards when I did my part.

I know for sure that my 1963 vintage .32 Special was more accurate than the fully sporterized .303 bolt action rifle it replaced, which also wore iron sights. Those were my first two big game rifles. Later I acquired a used 1961 vintage Model 94 in .30-30, which I still own. It wears a Williams receiver sight and with it I can still shoot 2.5" groups at 100 yards. With a scope I am sure that it would outshoot a lot of bolt action rifles.

The Model 94 is the best and fastest handling centerfire rifle I have ever used. Anyone who wonders why these rifles have remained so popular for so long probably hasn't used one much. The millions of shooters who have know this simple truth: the Model 94 remains the best handling big game rifle on the market.

The 94 carbine, with its full length tubular magazine mounted under its 20" barrel, carries so easily and mounts so quickly that it is a revelation to shooters raised on bolt action or autoloading rifles. The slender receiver, without the interruption of an operating handle sticking awkwardly out of the side or the width and depth required for a box magazine and a one-piece stock, can be grasped easily and naturally for one handed carry. The tubular magazine adds weight out front, improving the balance of the rifle. Despite its short overall length the Model 94 is not muzzle light, as are so many modern lightweight rifles. It swings smoothly and is deadly on running game, even from an offhand shooting position. Bolt action "mountain" rifles can be made as light as a Model 94 carbine, but even the best of them fall short of Winchester's classic lever gun in the carrying and handling departments.

The basic specifications for the standard pre-1964 Model 94 carbine follow: exposed hammer lever action with top ejection; solid frame, forged steel parts; 20 inch round barrel rifled 1 turn in 12 inches (.30-30) or 1 turn in 16 inches (.32 Special); full length 6 shot tubular magazine; walnut straight grip stock and forearm with barrel band; length of pull 13 inches, drop at comb 1.75 inches, drop at heel 2.5 inches; hooded ramp front bead sight, open rear; drilled and tapped for receiver sights; overall length 37.75 inches; weight 6.5 pounds. Available calibers were .30-30 Winchester and .32 Winchester Special. The list price in 1960 was $81.95.

The traditional design of the Model 94 did have some drawbacks. Paramount among these was its top ejection, which made low and overbore scope mounting impossible. The alternatives were an off-set side mount on the receiver, or an extended eye relief scope (I believe the Leupold M8 2x was the first of these) mounted on the barrel forward of the receiver. Both of these solutions were less than perfect. The offset side mount introduced horizontal parallax in addition to the usual vertical drop that had to be accounted for, and the forward mount resulted in a greatly decreased field of view (which is one of the major fallacies of the modern "scout rifle" concept).

A few years after the 1964 changes and the continuing adverse reaction by customers, Winchester modified some of the cheap parts. The shell carrier and loading gate were revised to eliminate the cheesy look, and the roll pins disappeared, replaced by solid steel pins.

Time has forced other changes on the Model 94. One of these was the proliferation of telescopic sights. The top ejection, which threw the empty cases basically straight up and over the shooter's shoulder, had to be modified to permit conventional scope mounting. And so it was, with the introduction of angled ejection, which became standard in 1982. A bit of the top right side of the receiver was milled away and the internals slightly modified to throw spent cases out at enough of an angle to the right to clear a centrally mounted scope. All angle ejection Model 94's are drilled and tapped for scope mounts.

In 1992 an unsightly and completely superfluous crossbolt safety that blocks the hammer was introduced for lawyers and other people too ignorant to use the hammer's safety notch, which by 1992 had been the standard safety procedure with lever action rifles for well over 100 years. To this day post 1964 Model 94's without the crossbolt safety are worth about 20% more on the used market than those with the ugly and unnecessary addition. In 2003 Winchester dealt with this problem by moving the safety to the top tang, where is is less intrusive.

For a number of years variations of the Model 94 have been offered with barrels even shorter than the standard carbine length of 20 inches. I would recommend avoiding these ultra-short barrels. They spoil the rifle's balance, increase muzzle blast, and degrade the ballistics.

Model 94's have been chambered for a number of revolver cartridges, starting with the .44 Magnum in the late 1960's, so it is perhaps worth mentioning that the Model 94 was designed for .30-30 length cartridges. Calibers such as the .30-30 and .444 Marlin are a better fit for the action than revolver cartridges. The Model 92 is the Winchester action designed for short, handgun length cartridges. If you want a rifle chambered for a pistol cartridge, make it a Model 92 or a Marlin Model 1894.

The nearest thing to a pre-1964 Model 94 available today is the Traditional model. The finish and overall appearance of the Model 94 Traditional are good. Its walnut stock is available with or without checkering. The action is a little rough compared to pre-1964 Model 94's, but it will smooth with use, as will the unnecessarily heavy trigger pull, obviously adjusted by lawyers rather than shooters. It is, in any case, an simple trigger for a qualified gunsmith to smooth and lighten.

The basic specifications for the current Model 94 Traditional rifle are as follows: solid frame, exposed hammer lever action with angled ejection and top tang safety; drilled and tapped for scope mounts; 20 inch round barrel with hooded blade front sight and semi-buckhorn rear sight, rifled 1 turn in 12 inches; full length 6 shot tubular magazine; straight grip, satin finished American walnut stock and forearm with barrel band; length of pull 13 1/2 inches, drop at comb 1 1/8 inches, drop at heel 1 7/8 inches; overall length 38 1/8 inches; weight 6.25 pounds; caliber .30-30 Winchester. The list price in 2004 was $435. For $469 the same rifle could be had as the Traditional CW with wrap-around cut checkering in caliber .30-30, or for $23 more in .44 Magnum.

There have been a myriad of Winchester 94 variations in recent years, some equal in quality and finish to the Model 94 Traditional walnut rifle, others that are inferior economy models. The line changes frequently, but the models described below were available in 2004. Limited edition models are not included.

If you insist on a Model 94 with a walnut stock these are the options: Traditional and Traditional CW rifles (as described above), Timber (beefed-up action formerly called the "Big Bore" with an 18" ported barrel; now available in .450 Marlin only), Legacy (24 inch barrel, checkered semi-pistol grip stock; caliber .30-30, .357 Mag., .44 Mag., .45 Colt), Trails End (cowboy models with octagon or round barrels, straight grip stocks; calibers .357 Mag., .44 Mag., .45 Colt), and Trapper carbine (ultra-short 16 inch barrel; calibers .30-30, .357 Mag., .44 Mag., .45 Colt).

The Ranger series are the current economy models; the synthetic stocked Black Shadow models having been discontinued in 2000. Ranger models are supplied with a "hardwood" (not walnut) stock and an inferior finish. The standard Ranger model comes with a 20 inch barrel in caliber .30-30 only, and is basically a cheap version of the un-checkered Traditional rifle.

The Ranger Compact is a Ranger with an ultra-short 16 inch barrel and is available in .30-30 or .357 Magnum. It is essentially a cheap version of the Trapper Carbine.

The list price of the Ranger was $379 in 2004; the Ranger Compact was $402. Frankly, while the savings to the manufacturer may be worth it, the savings to the consumer generally are not. Particularly when you consider the reduction in resale value.

I have always been a fan of lever action rifles, which I regard as much more natural to operate than a bolt action, and certainly they are faster for repeat shots. Winchester's Model 94 remains one of the best of the breed. The Model 94 Traditional has come a long way since the ill fated 1964 revision. It is a handsome rifle worthy of the name Winchester.

Unfortunately, the modern history of the Model 94 does not have a happy ending. In 1997 control of USRAC was sold to the Walloon region of Belgium (home of FN). And in March 2006 the new owners closed the Winchester/USRAC plant in in the U.S. This brought production of Model 94 rifles to an end, and the Belgian owners have stated that they have no intention of establishing Model 94 production elsewhere.

Note: A complete review of the Winchester Model 94 Trail's End Hunter Octagon can be found on the Product Reviews page.

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Copyright 2003, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.