Classic Rifles

Winchester model 1894 on red and blue blanket with a knife and leg trap

Today we have the most powerful, accurate and reliable rifles ever built, but the great rifles of the past served the great men of the time well. I’ve been privileged to own and fire versions of most of these rifles. They are rugged, durable and still well suited to hunting and recreational use. Some, such as the Winchester 1892, would be well suited to guarding the homestead.

Winchester 92 lever action rifle
The Winchester 92 rifle is the classic lever action.

Winchester 1892

Following the success of the Winchester 1873 rifle, Winchester introduced a much stronger rifle based on the locking mechanism of the larger Winchester 1886 rather than the older 1873. The new John Moses Browning-designed rifle featured strong locking lugs and an action with even greater leverage than the 1873. The Model 1892 was very successful. By 1932, 1 million has been manufactured. The Winchester 1892 rifle came at a time of great activity in the West, with many of the worst gangs operating. The last stages of the Indian Wars were still occurring, with many dangerous areas. Bank guards, Wells Fargo riders and railroad police adopted the powerful Winchester ’92. Wherever rapidity of fire and reliability were appreciated, you would find the Winchester rifle.

It’s interesting that while short-range technology, the Colt Single Action Army revolver, was a constant for many years, lawmen adopted the best rifle possible as soon as it was introduced. My research reaches the conclusion that while few, if any, lawmen adopted the .30-40 Krag rifle or the later 1903 Springfield, many looked for a rifle that combined the fast handling, flat profile and reliability of the Winchester lever-action rifle with more powerful cartridges. The Winchester 1892 was chambered in .32-20 WCF, .38-40 WCF and .44-40 WCF. My example is chambered in .32-20 caliber. Using the Ultramax 115-grain load, this rifle easily breaks 2 inches at 50 yards. This is a clean-burning, accurate loading. Modern Cowboy loads break about 1,200 fps in my octagon-barrel rifle. I’ve handloaded the Hornady 100-grain XTP to well over 1,600 fps in this rifle with excellent results. As a varmint and pest rifle, it is more than viable.

Winchester model 1894 on red and blue blanket with a knife and leg trap
This Winchester 1894 is chambered in .32 Winchester Special.

Winchester 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. It 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 who was 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 killing of a peace officer. 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.

None of us is 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 materials in the day, but today the Winchester 1894 harks back to a time when blue steel and walnut ruled. 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 in a .44-40 rifle 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 7 million rifles had been manufactured. My example is pretty accurate with the Hornady .32 Special loading. The .32 Winchester Special is a grand old cartridge.

Winchester Model 1895 Take Down rifle
This is a modern Winchester takedown rifle, the 1895 Model.

Winchester 1895

Winchester and John Browning saw the new age of powerful long-range smokeless-powder cartridges. Browning’s newest rifle had to chamber a bottleneck cartridge with a pointed bullet. The receiver had to be strong enough for the increased pressure. The goal was to design an American rifle, the lever action, for the European-style cartridge. Browning designed a reliable single-column magazine placed under the receiver, giving the 1895 a unique look. At the time, most military high-power cartridges such as the .30-40 Krag used a rim for headspace. (The .303 British and 7.62×54 Russian, also chambered in the 1895, are similar designs.) It’s important for function that the magazine be properly loaded. The cartridge is pressed into the magazine with the cartridge case head depressing the follower, and the head is placed to the rear and under the magazine feed lips to properly seat the cartridge.

The Winchester 1895 features a bolt that locks at the rear with the Browning-design crossbolt locking lugs. The result is a rifle unlike any earlier Winchester. The majority of Winchester 1895 rifles encountered are chambered for the .30-40 Krag. The .303 was the big seller in Canada, and the famous .405, while an exciting number, wasn’t produced in the quantity the .30 rifle was. The Russians received some 250,000 or more in 7.62×54 caliber. After the adoption of the Springfield rifle, the 1895 was chambered in .30-’06 Springfield. There is period literature referring to the Model 1895 not handling the Springfield cartridge well due to the high pressure. I have no personal experience with this version of the 1895 rifle. Just the same, the similar 7.62×54 Russian gave no problems I am aware of.

Since period reports allude to headspace difficulty and set back of the bolt with the rimless .30-’06 caliber, the rimmed Russian round may be superior in that regard. Modern Winchester and Browning rifles in .30-»06 and .405 have proven durable and reliable. There are modern reproductions, and they are great rifles. The rifle illustrated is a 24-inch-barrel version chambering the .30-40 Krag cartridge. Using Hornady’s #546344 .30-40 Krag loading dies, the 168-grain A-MAX bullet and Varget powder, I have put together a load that will group three shots into 2 inches at 50 yards. This is a rifle prized by the Arizona Rangers and one that will serve well today.

Savage 99 rifle with scope
This classic Savage 99 features a tip-off scope mount.

Savage 99

In 1899, Arthur Savage introduced a lever-action rifle that he hoped would sweep the world in sales. It did not win the coveted military contracts he hoped for, although it saw some use with Canadian military and police. The rifle was a hammerless design and also featured a rotating magazine. The Savage rifle could use pointed bullets with a high ballistic coefficient. The Savage 99 featured a long but smooth lever throw. There is a brass counter on the side of the receiver that shows the remaining magazine capacity as the rifle is fired.

The rifle had many good attributes and stayed in production for 98 years. The rifle is sleek, unique and accurate. Its weight is centered on the rotary magazine. The rifle is much more accurate than most lever-action rifles and fires more powerful cartridges such as the .300 Savage. My personal rifle is fitted with the classic Marble tang sight. This sight allows a trained marksman to make hits well into optical sight range. As an example, loaded with the Hornady 150-grain SST, this rifle will easily group three shots into 2 inches at 100 yards.

The later-model scoped rifle features and old-model Tasco scope I left on the rifle, as it works well. With the same Hornady load, it will group three shots into 1½ inches at 100 yards. The rifle was chambered for the .22 Savage High Power and the .300 Savage as well as the original .303 Savage. The fast-stepping .250-3000 was among the first commercial rifle cartridges to reach 3,000 fps.

Beginning soon after the introduction of the .308 Winchester, the Savage was chambered for this popular cartridge.

Savage Model 20
The Savage Model 20 is an overlooked classic.

Savage 1920

This rifle is based on work Savage did on a military rifle during World War I. Savage released the rifle on the civilian market. Savage elected to produce the Model 20 as a lightweight hunting rifle. The Model 20 featured what we would call today a sporter-profile barrel. The rear sight was adjustable for elevation, not dissimilar to the lever-action rifle sights in vogue at the time. The stock featured a pistol grip and Schnabel forend. The overall level of fit and finish seems high, as best I can judge workmanship 95 years after the date a Yankee craftsman turned out the rifle. The Savage Model 20 weighs but 5¾ pounds. It isn’t willowy, it handles well, but just the same rifle had a different feel that many rifles of the day.

The rifle was available in the hot .250-3000 Savage caliber and also the new .300 Savage chambering. It was designed as a modern hunting rifle with power and strength but did not weigh down the hunter. In a day of takedown rifles, the Savage was a more powerful and accurate alternative. The bolt design offers excellent primary extraction force. The action is controlled feed. The cartridge is fed from the magazine, the extractor catches the rim of the cartridge, and the extractor has control of the cartridge during the feed and firing cycle. In addition to the locking lugs, the base of the bolt handle also locks into the rear of the receiver. While most of the pressure of firing rode on the forward locking lugs that were buried in the receiver ring on firing, the rear locking feature is a desirable addition.

Arthur Savage introduced the .300 Savage cartridge in 1920. The cartridge featured a 150-grain bullet at 2,630 fps. Astute readers will note that the .300 Savage is basically a .308 Winchester as far as ballistics go. The cartridge was popular in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. The lever-action rifle’s flat profile and easy handling probably were the reasons the Savage 99 was more popular than the bolt-action Model 20.

Firing the Savage Model 20 offhand is a pleasure. The rifle handles quickly, comes to the shoulder quickly and features a natural point. Firing off the benchrest with concentration on accuracy delivered a solid 2½-inch group for three shots at 100 yards. I used the Hornady 150-grain SST Superformance loading. The powder burn was clean and accuracy comparable to my own handloads.

If you are lucky enough to own one of these rifles, you are a fortunate rifleman indeed.

Do you own one of these classics? How about a classic of your own? Share your classic in the comment section.


About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (17)

  1. You guys left out the Marlin 336! I have one in Thuty-Thuty and one in .35 Remington Special. The .35 is a real whomper! And the 30-30 is extremely accurate contrary to hearsay. Both are early 70’s guns with no cross bolt safety and the wood and blueing and fit/finish are superb.
    Shoot straight and tell the truth!

  2. I have both the 94 in 30-30 and a 92 in 25-20, I will never let either one of them go. I don’t like shooting the 94 because it kicks like a drunk mule, I know I could put a rubber recoil pad over the steel butt plate, but to me that would take away the authenticity of it. The 92 on the the other hand is a great, accurate shooter. I have several boxes of loads for it as well as a box of new brass. It belonged to my mother, who then passed it on to me.

  3. When I turned 15 after a season haying, I went to the general store in Spencer Idaho,
    I ordered a brand new Savage 99 .Most of my buddies shot 30.06 or 270s. Ballistics were the talk of the off season . Being a lefty I wanted a lever action. After some research I was one lucky owner of a Savage 99 chambered in 284 Winchester. It smoked and still does. That was 50 years ago. Been hunting with it ever since. They didn’t make them too long and I don’t know todays value but it been a good old friend.

  4. Great article. I personally prefer the 1886 in .45-70 and the 1895 in .30-400. i had an 1892 in .25-20, and kick myself for selling it. Ive had a 99 Savage in ,250-300,and a couple of 1894 rifles in.30-30. I would love to have a late production 1920 Savage in ,300, but there’s nothing wrong with the .250. or the m99 and 1894.

  5. These old war horses still hold a special place in my heart.

    My 1903 is fairly bubba’d but I still use it every year as my deer gun. Never fails me.

  6. My first gun was a Model 94 in 30/30. My father bought it for me when I was 13. We had many deer hunts with it. He used a Savage 99E in 300 Savage he bought from a hardware store in 1964. It had the Monte Carlo stock, but he didn’t like it, so he had a gunsmith shave it off. He also bought my mother a Winchester 64A rifle in 30/30 as we are all avid hunters. I lost them both back in 2008. But am proud to say I still have all 3 in my collection. And, still use the savage for deer hunting in Missouri.

  7. My dad when I was 16, almost 50 years ago, gave me his savage 99 in 250-3000. The gun never held zero and after taking it to two gunsmiths and changing the scope nothing seemed to help. I read some articles which reinforced the problem with this rifle. I loved the rifle but the problem was to much for me. I sold it and went back to me ’94.

  8. Really great article Bob, I have a model ’92 with a half round-half octagon barrel and a half magazine in 32-20 that I inherited from my granddad. The 32-20 is pretty anemic, but the lines of the rifle are a thing of beauty.
    Also, I went to Northeast Wisconsin in the mid eighties to hunt black bear with a friend. At the time I did not have a high power rifle so my buddy offered to loan me a well worn Savage model 99 in thutty-thutty with an old, and I mean old, weaver 4x scope. I had sold him a beautiful grade 2 browning 300 mag with a 3×9 Leopold scope which he was going to use. Needless to say, I asked him if the old Savage was up to the job, to which he replied……Hell yes, I’ve killed a pickup load of blackies with it. I sighted it in for 100 yards and when a bear came in it shot right where I put the crosshairs. That old Savage was a sweet shooter. I lost touch with my friend years ago, but I’ll bet he still has that old Savage and it is still up to the job of putting meat in the freezer.

  9. I thoroughly enjoyed your article on these great rifles. Thank you very much.
    I own a Model 94. It was my first rifle and I will always cherish it. I bought it some 42 years ago from an old time gunsmith that i used to know. I have a vague memory of him telling me that it was made before 1964. I can’t remember why he pointed that out to me. Is there any significance to the rifles made before 1964? Thanks again for a great article.

  10. I’ve had two of the above. The Win 94 in .32 Win was easily one of the nicest rifles I’ve ever owned — I say “owned”, but basically I lent money to a friend who gave me the Win 94 as collateral; and then when he recovered from his financial setback, he had the temerity to repay the loan and demand his rifle back! I miss it still… What a beautiful rifle, and cartridge.

    I also owned a Savage 99 chambered in .308 Win, and honestly, I didn’t enjoy it. The action was exquisite, but I think the rifle is too light to make shooting the larger cartridges fun. If I could do it all over again, I’d get one in .250 Savage (.250-3000) instead — and never let it go.

  11. I own a marlin 336 chambered in 35 remington. Traded a 100.00 dollar 22 rifle for it. When I got it, the gun misfired every three or four rounds. Replaced the firing pin and spring and 30 years later we are still taking deer.
    It will be handed down for generations

  12. Great article, Bob!

    I am proud to own a very nice old Marlin 30-30 lever gun. It is a thing of beauty to me. In my younger days I hunted many deer in Utah with a 30-30 lever gun, and I will not be without one. It resides in my SHTF stash with plenty of ammo. Lever guns are excellent for both hunting and self defense.

    They have a fast rate of fire, and you can reload them between shots. They are accurate and easy to shoot and very reliable. The 30-30 round may not be a 30-06 or .308, but it is an adequate round that has taken a lot of deer and both four and two-footed predators over the years.

    I own a wide range of rifles . . M4s, AKs, Garand, Moisin, etc., but anyone who disses an 1894 style lever gun has simply never shot one or used it on a daily basis. Probably one of the greatest rifle designs of all time.

  13. I got a “94” in 30-30 from an old timer neighbor. The gun was his father’s and possibly his fathers fathers. They had carved moons and stars in the stock. and it is inlaid with deer jumping over a log. I love the gun and I have shot many deer with it also. I use 170 grain bullets in it with no problem it holds 7 rounds which make it illegal in most states. Mr Browning sure did make some fine guns, thanks Mr Browning.

  14. I am pleased to own a Winchester ’92 chambered in .38 WCF (aka .38-40) It still shoots very well.Up until the mid 1950’s the major ammo makers sold “Rifle-Only” loadings of the .44-40 and .38-40 that took advantage of the ;92’s high strength. In spite of the warnings on every box of this “High-Speed” ammunition a lot of folks managed to load it up in Colt revolvers and Winchester ’73s and destroyed some fine old guns as well as injuring themselves. Today you have to handload to get that level of performance out of a ’92.a 175 gr. bullet at 2375 fps is possible — but that’s just about a MAX limit for post WWII rifles in GOOD condition and even then I wouldn’t shoot a load like that very often.

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