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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.