Winchester 1894 Rifle and the .32 Winchester Special Cartridge

By Bob Campbell published on in Firearms, Reviews

A frequent stop and gathering place of kindred souls is the local gun shop. We gather together, those of us with a certain mental telepathy that connects us, and we take a break from work and enjoy rubbing elbows with normal people. Well at least those with similar interests. These interests include shooting, hunting, competition shooting and accumulating firearms.

Pre 1964 Winchester Model 1894 rifle

The author’s personal Winchester 1894 is a great woods rifle even at 67 years of age.

We are drawn to the display cases as aboriginals to a ceremonial fire. A man staring into that case may appear to be motionless and doing as close to nothing as possible, but nothing could be further from the truth. As my friends Darrell, John, and Clay watch this with daily attention their customers are deep in thought.

Finally, perhaps after a number of trips to the shop, they will ask to see something from the case. More often than not, in today’s economy, the piece is laid away for weeks or even months. After all, we all have more guns than we need and less than we want. Some windfall may result in an early acquisition or perhaps the inevitable harrowing of the shelves that occurs at tax time or during the general election will speed the process up. Finally, the lay away ticket is marked paid in full, the paperwork is complete, and the new addition taken home. This is as close to pregnancy and childbirth as a man may come.

Barrel stamp on the Winchester Model 1894

The barrel stamp indicates this isn’t the common 1894 rifle.

One of my rifles was recently brought home after just such as stay. The rifle is a Winchester Model 1894. The Winchester 1894 is the brainchild of John Moses Browning. He was an extraordinary individual and inventor.

The lever action rifle was nothing new, but the Model ’94 owes little to previous rifles. Certain rifles in the blue steel and walnut age still call to us. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police had a long association with the Winchester rifle. By a trick of fate, the Winchester was used by shore patrols in England in the dark days of World War II when any good firearm was worth its weight in gold.

The rifle was used by both the good and the bad. In my memory is a case in which a night clerk at a motel took out a bad actor attempting to rob the clerk. The night clerk owned one rifle, a Winchester 1894 .30-30 WCF, and he took it to work with him and kept it in a corner.

The man he shot and killed through a car door was the primary suspect in an ambush of a peace officer. However, the majority of my memories are of deer taken with the Winchester 1894 by more hunters than I could name. Like many of you, the Winchester 1894 was my first centerfire rifle.

Hornady LEVERevolution bullet

The Hornady LEVERevolution pointed bullet is the most ballistically efficient bullet ever offered for a lever-action rifle.

None of us are immortal, but John Moses Browning’s memory and his guns seem to be. There have always been and will continue to be more cheap guns than good guns. But a few well-made firearms have become firmly respected trappings, reaching legendary status. The Winchester 1894 combined the popular lever action with a high-powered smokeless powder cartridge.

Wood and steel were the common material in the day, but today the Winchester 1894 harkens back to a time when blue steel and walnut ruled. The Winchester 1866 and Winchester 1873 may have been in action earlier, but the ’94 enjoyed a long life in the West and elsewhere. The .30-30 WCF lever-action rifle was still in use in police work, particularly with highway patrol officers, well into the 1980s and perhaps beyond.

The LAPD issued Winchester 1894 rifles during the Watts riots. The Model ’94 gained wide acceptance shortly after its introduction. While the shorter Model ’92 action had greater leverage for its short fat pistol caliber cartridges, the Model ’94 fired a .30 caliber centerfire cartridge with much greater range and accuracy. If you have ever attempted to sight a .44-40 rifle in for 175 yards, you know exactly what I am speaking of. The 1894 rifle is still in production but it stalled for a while with a hitch in production in 2006 when the Winchester plant in New Haven Connecticut closed. At that point some seven million rifles had been produced.

.44-40, .45 70, .30-30 WCF, .32 WS, and .308 Winchester cartridges

The .44-40, .45 70, .30-30 WCF, .32 WS, and .308 Winchester in comparison.

Advantages of the Model 1894

The Model 1873’s toggle action worked well enough but was not particularly robust. One reason, the military never issued the rifle. Scouts used the rifle and appreciated its firepower. The new lever-action rifle by Browning used a single operating bar in contrast to the dual sliding rods of the Model 1892. The rifle also had a greater margin for safety due to a new firing pin design.

The rifle was smooth and capable but not as fast as the previous rifles. It was more for long range, deliberate fire than the earlier rifles. While many rifles were produced with longer barrels and special stocks the 20-inch barrel carbine was the most common 1894 rifle. The new .30-30 WCF cartridge pushed a 160-grain bullet to some 1,970 fps.

No more did the western hunter have to memorize hold over or hope for the best. The new cartridge shot amazingly flat. While the .44-40 was credited with killing more men—good and bad—than any other caliber in the old west, the .30-30 put more game on the table. The rifle was particularly praised in the far reaches of the continent such as Alaska for faultless reliability.

Old Winchester Silvertip ammunition box

The Winchester Silvertip is a fine deer load that has been a mainstay of hunters for many years.

My first centerfire rifle was a .30-30 and a Winchester. We just called the Winchester a .30-30, just as we called the Colt 1911 a .45. Very few other types were seen. The Winchester 1894 suffered indignity in 1964 with production changes that were not as severe as those of the Winchester Model 70, and these changes were meant to cheapen production.

Pre ’64 rifles, such as the one illustrated, are treasured for this reason. The modern Miroku produced rifles are at least as accurate and reliable, however. The new gun also features a washer to tighten the action. The original action was plenty tight. When firing the rifle off hand, remember, do not push the lever down but forward for fast and efficient operation.

My Favorite Winchester

While the .30-30 Winchester was popular and served for many years, some shooters asked for a more powerful cartridge. Yet, with the rear locking bolt of the lever action rifle, the Winchester ’94 could never equal the .30-40 Krag service cartridge. Winchester introduced a cartridge that was billed as an improvement over the .30-30 but which offered less recoil than the .30-40 Krag cartridge. The .32 Winchester Special features a .321-inch bullet and greater powder capacity. Introduced in 1901 the .32 Winchester Special was moderately popular but never achieved the popularity of the .30-30 WCF or the competing .35 Remington. Using IMR 3031 powder and the Hornady 170-grain #3210 bullet, my handloads have delivered good accuracy and consistently clocked 2,200 fps with maximum loads. This flat point bullet hits hard and offers reliable expansion.

Front post sight on the Winchester Model 1894

The front post is easily picked up and allows windage adjustment.

Hornady’s Interlock bond features a crimp that ensures the bullet holds together during expansion. This is important during short-range hunting when the bullet strikes the game at relatively high velocity. Hornady also designed the Secant ogive that provides the most efficient profile possible for velocity retention at longer range with a flat nose bullet. The .32 Winchester Special is more powerful than the .30-30 by about 10 to 15 percent. Most riflemen will find the .32 Winchester Special is more accurate than a similar .30-30 WCF rifle, although this may be difficult to prove without optics.

Accurate, powerful and with modest recoil, the .32 Winchester Special is a great all around woods gun. Modern ammunition technology has made the rifle even better. Hornady introduced the LeverRevolution line of cartridges some years ago. The lever-action rifle had previously not been compatible with pointed bullets. The nose of the Spitzer-type bullet, set on the primer of the cartridge ahead, could result in a detonation under the forces of recoil.

Flat nose bullets were used in lever-action rifles for safety purposes. (A few enterprising souls handloaded hot Spitzer loads for the .30-30 and loaded one in the chamber and a single round in the tubular magazine.) Hornady’s LEVERevolution bullet features a polymer tip on top of a pointed bullet. This ingenious design allows the use of ballistically superior loads.

modern Winchester 1894 Deluxe

This is a modern Winchester 1894 Deluxe. While pricey, this is a great rifle.

The .32 Winchester Special offering, in the LeverRevolution line, breaks a solid 2,410 fps with a 160-grain bullet. I cannot do this with a handload. With quality handloads, the Winchester will often print a two-inch 3-shot group at 100 yards and about 2.5 inches with most factory loads.

The Winchester 1894 illustrated was delivered in 1948. It is as light, handy, flat, and fast handling as any ’94 but chambers a harder hitting cartridge. Much of the appeal of such a classic rifle is the history and the looks—blue steel and walnut. However, the practical efficiency of this combination for many chores cannot be overlooked. Classics become classic because they work, and the Winchester 1894 .32 Special is no exception.

Do you own a Winchester Model 1894? What is your favorite lever-action caliber and cartridge? Share your answers in the comment section.

SLRule

Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

View all articles by Bob Campbell

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Comments (31)

  • Jim Wilcox

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    I have my Grandfather’s 32 special. Made in 1942 the rear buckhorn sight was replaced with a period correct Redfield peep sight. The front post is original with the cover in place. My dad and I would pour and make lead bullets and one day as a kid I put 100 rounds thru and never noticed recoil issues. I last shot the gun at the range about 6 months ago. It works like new. I understand the 32 was developed because black powder reloads of the time were fouling the 30-30. The 32 also had a slower twist rate to help prevent fouling.

    Reply

  • Ruger Axhandle

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    Luv my `94 in .30-30. Your pic of comparing cartridges has a flaw, the round on the right side is a ,30-06, not a .308. Also luv my Savage lever gun modell 99, in .300 Savage.

    Reply

  • Nimrod

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    Excellent article. My .32 special was originally my maternal grandfather’s and it’s an early 50’s carbine. When it was handed down to me, I put a peep sight on it and it would consistently give me 3″ 100 yard groups off the bench using Federal’s 170gr. soft points.

    I’ve taken two whitetales with that rifle. I couldn’t tell the performance difference on whitetails in similar situations when compared with .35 Remingtons and .308 / 7mm08s. It’s a fine whitetail cartridge.

    A few years back I switched out the peep for Burris Fastfire on a Turnbull mount that uses the receiver’s threaded holes. I also switched to the Leverevolutions. I’m consistently getting 100 yard, 1 1/2″ groups off the bench with that combination. I’ll never part with this rifle and I’m tempted to by a twin to it should the right deal come along.

    Reply

  • MacII

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    I am one of the obviously rare people who always wanted to like the Model ’94 and who owned 3 or 4 over the years. Never happy with them. I do not consider myself very recoil sensitive but always dislike the 94’s recoil. I routinely shoot a .300 Win Mag for my rifle and my pistol is a 10mm polymer lower. No recoil problems at all there. But, the ’94 always slapped me silly and was just not fun to shoot. I made the mistake of starting my oldest son on a ’94 and almost ruined him for hunting. He hated the recoil as much as I did. Love the looks, love the history, hate the rifle for anything other than a wall hanger.

    Reply

    • Bryant

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      I received my .32 Winchester Special as a Christmas gift several years ago.
      My father gave it to me with this story…
      It was a gift he received from his father who had received it as a gift from his Grandfather, who was a demonstration shooter for Winchester.
      This is where it gets uncertain on the history.
      It was either a gift from Winchester as a thank you for service, or purchased at his local store in Eastern Washington. It’s unknown for sure.
      But what I do know is, it kicks like a mule, and I will pass it on to my son with the story.
      Even it it just becomes a wall hanger…

      Reply

  • Elton P. Green

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    In 1972 my brother bought a Marlin 1894 in .44 Remington Magnum. We could shoot through 8 and 3/8ths diameter surface pipe for wells with it. The pipe was made of mild steel about 3/8″ thick. I’m sure it knocked a chunk out of the engine block on the car. A 240 grain bullet from the Marlin was going around 1700fps from that Marlin’s 20 inch barrel.

    Reply

  • vetman03

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    I have the 1894 in .32 Special. It was my father’s first deer rifle. When I was able to hunt, it became mine and I shot my first deer with it. Still fun to shoot and one of the most accurate rifles I have ever shot. At 100 yards we have done 3″ groups with open sights. It also was manufactured in 1954, the same year I was born.

    Reply

    • Brad Goertzen

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      My dad bought his first deer rifle at 17 years old from Sears. A Model 1894 Winchester in .32 Winchester Special. It became his “DeerSlayer!” He used the gun yearly on the deerhunt and brought home the venison. When he taught me to shoot, that was the gun we used, and when I turned 12 I was presented that gun as my own. I shot my first deer with it, and every other deer over the years I’ve taken have been with “The Deer Slayer” . It shoots as straight as any gun I’ve ever owned. I’m now 56 and I will give it to my son…it’s more than just a gun. It’s an heirloom , a tradition, and a wonderful legacy. Does it kick? Yep. Is it a bit loud? Yep. Does it do its job flawlessly ? Every single time. I love shooting and guns of all kinds, but to me, my Winchester 1894 is The gun!

      Reply

  • Elton P. Green

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    This is a good article. I think the best cartridge the ’94 rifle was chambered in is the .348. They called the rifle a different name, but it was a high-end 1894. You left out a couple of Winchesters, though. The 1886 Winchester was the first Browning design for a repeater, and would handle anything up to 50 caliber. It was scaled down to the ’92 by Browning. After the ’94, Winchester brought out the 1895 rifle, which used a box magazine. It was strong enough to be chambered in .30-40 Craig, 7.62×52 rimmed (Russian), 30-06 and 405 Winchester. This rifle was a favorite of Theodore Roosevelt.
    So you’ll know, though, one of my favorite rifles is my Dad’s 1894 carbine in 30 WCF (30-30). He bought it new in 1951 or so, and my younger brother still has it. It killed my first deer. I was 18. It killed a lot of coyotes and jackrabbits on the Texas Panhandle in the hands of myself or my three brothers when we were growing up, and I think it is one of the fastest handling rifles I’ve ever had.

    Reply

    • Elton P. Green

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      Minor correction to my just sent reply: The Russian cartridge was the military cartridge of Imperial Russia, the 7.62X54 Rimmed, and Winchester sold a number of 1895’s to the Russian Government just before and during WWI if I remember right. Interestingly, these rifles could be loaded with a stripper clip.

      Reply

    • Joe Foullke

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      The 348 was chambered for the Model 71 which was a high end Model 86

      Reply

  • Sam

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    The Winchester ’94 .30-30 was the first firearm I ever bought, at what seems like a million years ago (when I was 18) – with fond memories of use. The first pistol I bought was another Browning great design: the Browning Hi-Power, which eventually became my off-duty carry piece in a modified ankle holster (while my on-duty piece was yet another Browning design you may have heard of: the Colt .45 1911). Great guns from the genius of John Moses Browning.

    Reply

    • OldGringo

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      I was also in law enforcement about 100 years ago and never liked ankle carry. However, I did carry a model 36, J frame smith on the ankle occasionally. But that high power is a big gun. Ever get in any foot chases with it? Also, sometime around 1972 or so, I knew an officer that carried a Model 94 Win 44 mag in his car. They had a guy run a road block and he claims a couple shots to the radiator actually cracked the engine block and caused the car to stop not far away. It was common by the way for officers to use armor piercing ammo made by speer I think. You would not want them in a tube gun as they were very pointed, but maybe in the tube. In my jurisdiction, nobody would be shooting that low if a car was coming right at you. Corse, with pucker factor and all, he may not have been aiming at the radiator either. LOL. FWIW

      Reply

    • Sam

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      Never had a foot pursuit while off-duty, but plenty of them while on-duty. Only wore the HI-Power off-duty (in a .380 ankle holster that I modified – it was quite comfortable). But I did carry a model 36 Smith in my weak-side pocket as a back-up while on-duty, to augment my on-duty piece (a Colt .45 1911). Now retired, I still carry a Colt .45 as my main carry piece, and carry as a back-up either a Kimber K6s .357 or a Sig P938 9mm. And, I still love my .30-30 – a great little rifle.

      Reply

    • OldGringo

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      Sorry, I misunderstood. I have carried the little Walther PPK/S in an ankle rig and it is fine. Just thought you were carrying the highpower on the ankle as a backup. The ever 30-30 is still probably the best value for the money used gun you can buy. And they do not make other folks have panic attacks.

      Reply

  • OldGringo

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    Great article, but my prior ignorance forcse me to comment. Never had a use for a 32, my cousin had one of the little wimpy guns. So, I ran the ballistics on the new Hornady round and it shows +2 at 100 and dead on at 200. It shows over 1,300 lbs at 200 and over 1,000 ft pounds at 300. Then I ran the Hornady numbers for the famous 300 BLK, wow. The 32 shoots a 165 grain at 2,400, the 300 shoot a 110 at 2,400. At 200 yards the 32 has more energy than the 300 BLK has at the muzzle. The 300 drops below that magical 1,000 foot pounds about 100 yards. if you believe in the foot pounds on target theory, the 32 special has twice the effective range of the 300 BLK. Google it for yourself.

    Reply

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