Winchester 1894 Rifle and the .32 Winchester Special Cartridge

Barrel stamp on the Winchester Model 1894

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.


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 decicions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (33)

  1. You need to update the picture of the calibers. The “308 Win” is a “30-06” for sure. The 308 is typically about as tall as the 30-30, Look it up if you don’t nelief me.

  2. Firing a 30-30 in a 32 Winchester is probably not going to harm you or the gun. And there are people on the net who say they have done so. As a practical matter the cases are exactly the same until you get to the neck. Then the 32 is bigger at .321 inches that the 30-30 at .308. When fired the case will expand to the sides and rear of the chamber and open up the neck of the case, as there is nothing to hold it in that area. The pressure should keep all the powder going down the barrel. However, the bullet is just too small and will not properly engage the rifling and should not be accurate. However, there are people on the net who claim they work just fine. The safer bet is to buy those $1 each Hornady rounds. They are great in 357, 45 Colt and 45-70. .

    1. It is ill-advised, and potentially downright dangerous, to use ammo in any firearm that it was not designed to use. Just because a round will fit, or others have done it, doesn’t mean it’s the smart thing to do. A little common sense can avoid a terrible outcome. Better to only use the correct ammo and live to shoot another day.

    2. Sam
      You are so right!
      I cannot believe we are even discussing this.
      To each rifle its own cartridge. The longevity of the gun and the shooter demand it!

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