Iconic rifles won’t soon be forgotten.
The year 2006 saw the last of a Western icon. The venerable Winchester Model 94 lever-action rifle was discontinued, along with the Model 70 boltaction rifle and the Model 1300 pump-action shotgun. U.S. Repeating Arms and its Belgian parent company, Fabrique National, determined that production in the New Haven, Connecticut, plant was no longer feasible. U.S. Repeating Arms had produced the guns there under license from Winchester Repeating Arms Co.’s successor, the Olin Corporation, since 1981.
The end had been looming for years. In fact, labor disputes, high municipal taxes on company property, and the historic but aging plant itself had prompted Olin to sell the factory and license production in the first place. U.S. Repeating Arms made a valiant effort to keep the famous line afloat, but continued high labor costs, unrealistic union contracts, deteriorating facilities and environmental concerns in New Haven proved too much.
While Model 70 has its share of enthusiasts, the demise of the Model 94 is the end of a national institution. Winchester produced earlier lever-gun models, including the Model 73—famous as the “Gun That Won the West” and the “star” of a 1950 Western (Winchester ’73) that also featured Jimmy Stewart. But the Model 94, known as the “Rifle America Loves,” was Winchester’s most successful centerfire rifle. With more than 6.5 million manufactured since its introduction in 1894, it is also the most popular lever-action rifle in history.
Volcanic Repeating Arms Company introduced a practical lever action in the 1850s. By 1857, Oliver F. Winchester had acquired control of Volcanic, whose product evolved into the Henry rifle and ultimately the famous Winchester Model 1866. These rifles used a toggle-link lever action that continued through the Model 1876. The Model 1886, while outwardly similar to its predecessors, had a stronger, more direct action, developed by John M. Browning to take advantage of the more powerful ammunition becoming available. Both types found favor with the nation’s premier cowboy and big game hunter, Theodore Roosevelt, who said the real test of a modern rifle was “the man behind the gun.”
Browning’s design for the Model 1894 was a continuation of the 1886 and its successors, but modified for smokeless powder, which has a higher velocity than black powder. Although the earliest run of the new rifle was chambered for .32-40 and .38-55 black powder, 1895 saw the introduction of the smokeless .25-30 Winchester and .30-30 Winchester calibers. The .30-30 Winchester became legendary anywhere a reliable arm was needed. The phrase calibre treinte-treinte (caliber thirty-thirty) was a byword of the Mexican Revolutionary period of 1910-17.
Besides being popular for revolutions, and in the closing days of the Old West, the .30- 30 became the classic deer rifle. In 1954 Dr. Frederick H. Weston, noted San Antonio sportsman and writer, commented that the .30-30 “has killed more deer in Texas than any other gun.” He qualified that by adding: “In the hands of a skilled hunter who is a good shot and who shoots at moderate ranges, it is a deadly weapon, but for a hunter who is likely to hit a deer any place, if at all, it is entirely inadequate.” The problem, Weston pointed out, is its lack of stopping power at longer ranges. Nevertheless, in the South Texas brush country, where the short ranges and heavy cover require a big bore and slow muzzle velocity, the Model 94 .30-30 carbine remains venerated, even if it is not used as much as it was in the past.
While the .30-30 carbine is undoubtedly the most famous of the 94s, it is not the only one. The guns were manufactured in the previously mentioned calibers, as well as the .32 Winchester Special. The standard carbine had a 20-inch barrel, but there also was a trapper’s carbine with barrel lengths of 18, 16 and 14 inches. Carbines manufactured before 1925 have a saddle ring on the left side of the receiver. The sporting rifle, and the fancy sporting rifle, available with round, octagon or half-octagon 26- inch barrels, came in standard and takedown versions. The fancy sporting rifle had checkered straight or pistol grip walnut stocks, and checkered forearms. Factory engraving was available at the customer’s request.
The 94 proved so symbolic and photogenic that it became a regular cast member of Western movies, some of which were set in time periods well before the rifle actually was introduced. Its classic design, virtually unchanged since inception, made it ideal for the commemorative market. Olin started making commemoratives with the Wyoming Diamond Jubilee Rifle in 1964, and U.S. Repeating Arms got a jump-start in 1981 with the John Wayne Commemorative Model 94 Carbine. The John Wayne proved a very popular rifle that brought a large profit, and commemoratives became a class unto themselves. Not all were Model 94s, but it held a lion’s share.
Now, the Model 94 is history. Perhaps it will be reintroduced, but Winchester enthusiasts tend to agree that it will be an import. The era of the American-made Winchester is over.
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.