Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Winchester Model 1894 - My Cowboy Action Hero

I grew up watching old Westerns. Most weren't original, having been out for years, and seen in reruns, though I always remember Gunsmoke from when I was little. I loved Rifleman, Wanted Dead or Alive, Palladin, anything with John Wayne. The good guys were known, the bad guys obvious. The heroes rode a landscape of the lever action, the name of their firearm more than a forgotten name, their duty and honor more than a shout of defiance but an honor scratched into every weapon they held. The weapons would show the marks of their courage, etched into the very wood and steel of what they carried, not casually, but with the hurt and pride and grief with which men long since unremembered had died for.

Even as a kid playing cowboy and Indian (I was never anything but a cowboy, let the little sissy girl next door play the schoolmarm). I envisioned myself on a horse, lever action in one hand, reins in the other.

Needless to say, the first time I shot one, the thought that ran through my head was, "gee,  cowboys like John Wayne never yelled "*#($%!" and rubbed his shoulder after (though the Duke usually carried a model '92)

That first one I shot had some kick to it, with a butt plate that was pretty thin. But it was love at first shot. Sure, one could put a nice recoil pad on it, but did John Wayne have a recoil pad?

All I knew was I wanted one. It's hard to go wrong when designed by John Moses Browning.

The Winchester Model 1894 (also known as Winchester .30-30 rifle, Winchester 94, Win 94, .30-30 Winchester, or simply .30-30) is one of the most famous and most popular hunting rifles made, selling over 7 MILLION rifles. 1894 marks the year of its design the name from the manufacturer , the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. In 1980 it was picked up by U.S. Repeating Arms under the Winchester brand.

The original Model 1894 was produced in .32-40 Winchester, .38-55 Winchester, .25-35 Winchester, .3o-.30 Winchester and the .32 Winchester Special. It was the first hunting rifle chambered for the then-new smokeless powder cartridge. The .30-.30 Winchester, for me anyway, is the cartridge that is synonymous with the Model 1894 Rifle.

Variants of the Model 94, over its long history, also included the Winchester Model 55, produced from 1924 through 1932 in a 24-inch barrel, and the Winchester Model 64, produced from 1933 through 1957 in 20, 24, and 26-inch barrel lengths. A little bit of history from Wilkipedia - the model number 55 was used twice by Winchester, first as a Model 94 variant introduced in 1924, and, later, as a short-lived single-shot/semi-automatic hybrid .22-caliber rifle that self-cocked the hammer each time it was fired.)

So what's the difference between the 1892 and the 1894?
The Winchester 1894 was designed to permit the cycling of longer cartridges than the Winchester 1892 carbines could permit. When the lever is pulled down, it brings the bottom of the receiver with it. That opens up more space and allows a longer cartridge to feed without making the receiver longer, keeping the firearm tidy and size. The mechanism is complex but very reliable. Stripping the action is something that requites multiple stages, a slight bit of swearing and some practice, but it's not impossible for a beginner. Fortunately, from what I have read, it is rare that you have to completely strip the action.

Minuses: If you compare it to its competitors such as the Marlin Model 226.7 and the Marline Model 1894, a "minus" for some would be that Pre '64 Model 94s eject fired cases up and over the shooter's shoulder when the lever is operated rapidly. This precludes a scope mounted to the top of the receiver and comprises the greatest negative of the Model 94 design compared to the solid top Marlin 336, which ejects to the side and which has solid top receivers.

You could do a side mount or scout type, but most simply go for no scope. I have a scope on my Marlin and it was used on last years deer hunt with Og, Mycroft Holmes and Rangebuddy, to great success. But I am undecided as to actually calling this a "minus". Leaving the scope off reduces the weight of the gun as far as hauling it around in the field and it can allow the shooter to sight in more quickly, close or with moving game. Some folks don't want to mount a scope on anything that is going to ideally shoot within 200 yards anyway. Open sights work nicely if you have your sights adjusted and you know your point of impact.

After the early 80's, Winchester modified the firearm so that it would eject the empty shells out at an angle between the original Winchester design and the Marlin design. This made it possible to put scopes in a more normal position, on the top of the receiver. I'm not sure about the change. It was sort of the way I felt when McDonalds changed the Filet o Fish briefly back in the 80's, adding a big designer artisan bun. Better perhaps, but I missed my old, slightly squashed, non yuppified fish sandwich and was happy when they changed it back.

The mid 1990s brought a change from the long-used half-cock notch safety to a cross-bolt safety like the aforementioned Marlins. Yes, they lawyered it up. I'm glad the one I can shoot is an older one. Somethings just don't need "improving.The last ones leaving the factory in New Haven in 2006 before production ceased had tang mounted safeties. In what I'm familiar with, a half-cocked hammer notch serves as a safety. But owning a number of striker fired weapons, I'll say it again. The best safety is between the shooters ears.Pluses -You can talk about looks and feed and usability and all of that, but call me a romantic, sometimes you just look at something touch something and you know you love it. You don't need to add up "selling points" You are already smitten.

The 1894 is much this way.

It's easy to pack, tote and will hold its own wet, sandy or dusty. It's pretty darn hard to get a failure to feed with a lever action even in the worst of conditions. The ejection is position, the feel, nimble and quick.

This gun is like that date you bring home that all of your brothers and even your Dad will actually like. It's a gun that makes friends easily. It's a powerful gun that fire's a nicely sized 30 caliber bullet. It can take down a deer with range and power limitations of it's cartridge. It can, if you are as quick as it is, and stealthy, take down bigger game.

For it IS fast. A bit more so than the Marlin 336 and even more so than the Henry and Uberti. Very nice, fast handling rifles themselves, but not as fast as the Winchester 94. The reason is simple, they weigh a lot more and are balanced further forward, which although steadying the swing, slows it.

The range was tested out to about 200 yards. The .30 - .30 cartridge is a good all around cartridge capable of getting that bigger game as well as game at a longer range when fed high performance ammunition like the Hornady LeverEvolution, Cor-Bon DPX Hunter, and Winchester Supreme loads.
Some online reviews have complained about its accuracy. Will you shoot a 1" group with open sights? No, not for this shooter anyway. But it's as accurate as I need it to be for what I intend to do with it, as reliable as any good hunting rifle, IF you treat it properly. Lever action rifles in general need to be stroked like you've done it before. No simpering virginal handling of the thing. Fire the darn thing and enjoy it.

For this "no strong bear paws" shooter, it was a bear to load, but oh boy is it is a pleasure to handle. Clean lines, slender receiver, blued steel and lustrous walnut, perfection of line and balance that you'd expect from JMB. If you can get a hold of a pre-64 94 Carbine, don't let it go. They're more expensive but worth it. But even with the later models, there is a reason it's the best selling sport rifle in history. It earned it.

If you get a chance to fire one, do. If you get a chance to buy one, definitely. There are a LOT of good rifles out there, but this will always be what I picture in my hand when I still have those dreams of riding the range in the wee hours of the night with John Wayne, gun by my side, the feel of justice where strove and sounded the law of the land, for which freedom and safety were the end, and the firearm, the tool.

Though just maybe in my dreams I'll have a recoil pad on it.

It's a bear to load, it hurts to shoot and oh boy is it FUN!!!!!

Other Specs:

Magazine capacity - 6 cartridges
Barrel length - 20" (round)
Twist - 1 in 12"
Sights - Post front, adjustable semi-buckhorn rear; drilled and tapped for receiver sights
Length of pull - 13 3/16"
Length overall - 37 7/8"
Weight - 6 1/2 pounds (7.5 pounds if you add a scope and mount)


  1. If you want to play cowboy, pick up a 92 and shoot handgun cartridges. I collect lever actions, but I have focused on 22s. All the lever fun, but cheaper to shoot and burning a box of 50 doesn't leave my shoulder sore.

  2. I love the Marlin 1894 in .357Mag. It pairs so nicely with a Ruger GP100.

  3. I have my grandfather's pre-64 Model 94. I wouldn't trade it for all the new "better" guns in the world.

  4. I also have a pre-64 1894; and it may be sacrilege but I'm considering buying a mount from Turnbull Restorations that attaches to the 2 tapped receiver sight holes enabling one to mount the small Burris Fastfire red dot sight. My old eyes need help. However John Moses Browning (God's holy prophet) really knew how to design a firearm. I often wonder what he would have accomplished with CNC machinery and CAD.

  5. I have a model 1892 that my father picked up in 1919 as part of a package deal at a pawn shop. It, and a S&W revolver both being 32-20 caliber. Thanks to shooting what is essentially a pistol cartridge, it is not legal for deer and is best regarded as "A Brush Gun" - my usual target being a Coyote. Nice looking rifle (carbine?) but essentially useless as it is too expensive for target shooting.

  6. I've never shot the Winchester, so this is kind of like saying 'I wouldn't want that Porsche anyway!', but I'm going to agree with Monkeywrangler. I also own the Marlin in .357, and mine has the handy little 16" barrel. What a sweet little gun. At anything under 100 yards, I'd rather have it than my AR. It's also 'non-threatening'...

  7. My father bought at Model 94 .30-.30 in 1950. That rifle put a lot of venison and elk in our freezer. It became mine until lost in a fire. If you carry with one in the chamber, it is critical to use the half cock safety. Drop one butt down with the hammer down and it can go off. A man who borrowed mine found out the hard way and was fortunate to only suffer powder burns and and a ruined hat brim.

  8. My first centerfire rifle was a model 94 in 32 Special that I got in 1961; I still have it.

    PS: it's pretty hard to imagine you ever being a "sissy girl" !!


  9. That one rifle has arguably killed more deer than any other single rifle ever made... And I lurve my 62 model... It's not pretty, but it works like a champ!

  10. I also have a Marlin 1894 Cowboy rifle in .357, plus a 336 in .30-.30. Love 'em both, especially the former.

    That receiver sight (pictured) is a nice compromise that gives better accuracy than the open sights, but is more practical to mount than a scope Another nice option for the Winchester is a tang sight. Marbles has a nice one; I've installed it on both my Marlins.

  11. Been to Mickey D's lately for a fish sandwich? I won't be going back anymore. The fish is two thirds the size it was a couple of years ago, and you get a WHOLE 1/4 slice of cheese. What a gyp for $5 with small fries!

  12. I wish I still had the Winchester 94 I sold back in the early 90s. It was a beautiful little rifle. Hopefully its new owner, a friend's son, harvested many a buck with it.

  13. In this day and age of AR this and AK that your article was very refreshing. The Winchester 94 is light to carry, fast to cycle and a natural that just asks for you to shoulder it. Like the Winchester in the photos mine has a Williams peep sight. I'm just not a fan of scopes and I think that on a rifle like this the expense is not needed. I have had a 94 Trapper in .357 for over 25 years now. One thing that I have learned is that if you respect the limits of the cartridge this rifle will never let you down.

  14. MH - welcome! And Thanks for the comment. It's a keeper, something easily overlooked by the younger generation


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