The Winchester Model 70 is a legendary rifle. Tough as nails, extremely accurate, and just plain sexy, it kicked off a monumental shift in American hunting culture. As the Model 70 garnered accolades from similarly legendary gunwriters of the day like Jack O’Connor and Elmer Keith, many hunters started leaving their lever guns in the cabinet and hitting the woods with their new bolt guns.
In 1922, Winchester, a company built on lever-actions, realized the time had come to produce a centerfire bolt-action rifle or be left behind. The gunmaker had flirted with centerfire bolt guns in the late 1800s with the Hotchkiss bolt-action rifle chambered in .45-70; it had a tubular magazine in its stock. Winchester also made the Lee Straight-Pull bolt gun for the US Navy chambered in a special .236 caliber round, along with a civilian version.
Both proved unpopular and were discontinued by 1900. That same year, Winchester produced its first .22 caliber, single-shot, bolt gun: the Model 1900. More rimfire models followed. The company didn’t make another centerfire bolt-action until it began producing Pattern 14 Lee Enfield Rifles for the British in 1914 during WWI.
Winchester knew bolt guns were about to boom in the civilian market, evidenced by how many battlefield rifles were sporterized after the war, and the gunmaker wasn’t about to be left behind.
The Winchester Model 54
The Model 54 hit the market in 1925, borrowing heavily from the Mauser 98 and Springfield 1903 that American Doughboys became so familiar with in the First World War, and not the British Enfield. With the new rifle design came the classic .270 Winchester cartridge. This became one of the first successful bolt-action rifles built and marketed to civilian hunters.
The Model 54 wasn’t a failure, but it wasn’t an overwhelming success either. A combination of outdated design features and the Great Depression caused a period of slow sales. It did, however, become the testbed for the Winchester Model 70. Innovations and new stock designs intended for the Model 70 were introduced for the 54 first to gauge consumer interest and gather feedback before they were incorporated into the new Model 70 design.
The Model 70 Changed Production Rifle Expectations
The Model 70 was an instant success when it was released in 1936. Although it was very much built around a redesigned Model 54 action, Winchester listened to its customers and made key adjustments accordingly.
One of the most outstanding features of this new rifle was its trigger. It was safe, light, and short, and it had a crisp let-off. But most important, it was adjustable. The Winchester design team had a goal of creating a production match-level rifle, and they succeeded. The company redefined the accuracy people could expect from a relatively affordable hunting rifle.
Many of the big names in the outdoor industry of the day praised the Model 70, like the previously mentioned Jack O’Connor, who claimed it was the best production rifle ever made. Elmer Keith, who was instrumental in developing the rifle, was impressed with its accuracy.
In his famous book Hell, I Was There, Keith writes of the M70: “I put sixteen consecutive shots at 200 measured yards in 1 9/16 inches, center-to-center, for the widest bullet holes.” That’s an impressive grouping, even today.
Advantages of the Winchester Model 70 Over Hunting Lever Guns in the 1930s
For proper context, we have to consider what the average hunter was shooting when the Model 70 was introduced to fully understand how much the rifle impacted the American hunting rifle scene.
Most hunters carried lever-actions afield, like the Marlin 1893, Savage 99, and Winchester 1894. They did the job and did it well, but they had their limitations. For many hunters, those limitations were eclipsed by the affordability of lever guns. In 1941, a Winchester 94 cost about $35 compared with the Model 70, which retailed at just over $60. (That’s $664 versus $1,138 in 2022 dollars.) This, no doubt, played into the continued popularity of the lever-action rifle among hunters for some time.
The greatest limitation classic lever-actions had was the narrow range of chamberings in which they were offered. Their design restricted them to the lower pressure cartridges like the .32-20, .30-30, and .45-70. It is no secret that these calibers are deadly in the right scenarios, but there was a lot of room for improvement, and their range and velocity are limited.
Another problem with lever guns: They were limited to flat- or round-nosed bullets. Most lever-action designs have tubular magazines, even today.
In such a design, when the gun is loaded, the ammunition is held end to end under spring tension in a metal tube with the tip of one cartridge touching the primer of the cartridge in front of it while the gun is being carried and fired. If the ballistically efficient pointed bullets used by bolt guns were used, just the force of recoil could set off all the ammo in the mag tube in what’s called a chain fire, destroying the gun and possibly parts of the user. This is still a concern today with modern tube-mag lever guns.
The first lever gun to get around this limitation was the John Browning-designed Winchester Model 1895, which utilized an internal box magazine instead of a tube magazine. The action was strong enough for modern ammunition, and the gun could run pointed bullets. It was offered in .30-06 and .30-40 Krag, as well as other calibers, but it was a fairly complex firearm that was expensive to produce.
The rifle was sold in significant quantities to Russia as a battle rifle, but it didn’t really catch on with the US military once the Springfield 1903 bolt gun came along, and it didn’t do much better on the civilian market as a sporting rifle either.
The M1895’s descendant, the Savage Model 99, was released in 1899 and was the first popular lever gun that solved most of the platform’s chambering limitations by using a rotary magazine that accommodated bullets with any shape. Later iterations of the rifle used a detachable box magazine. It remained hugely favored by hunters and was in production until 1998.
Lastly, when the Model 70 was introduced, there were few options for mounting an optic on a lever gun; many of the most popular models were top ejecting. This, in my opinion, is the biggest reason the bolt-action became the most popular hunting rifle platform in America.
Due to these factors, the Model 70 soon became the bolt-action hunting rifle that everyone wanted, including Remington. Before World War II, Remington had two failed attempts at a commercial bolt-action: the Model 30 (a sporting rifle based on the Enfield action) and the Model 720. It wasn’t until 1948, with the introduction of the Model 721 in 1948, that Remington became a serious competitor in the bolt-action rifle market. There is a lot of speculation that Remington saw the success of the Model 70 and decided to use the “7” in its bolt-action model numbers as a way to compete.
What the Hell Happened in 1964?
If you spend any amount of time looking at Winchester rifles, you will find a definitive line between pre-’64 and post-’64 production models. Both the Winchester M94 and M70 rifles are delineated this way, and the difference for collectors is night and day. So what the hell happened in 1964?
Rising costs of both labor and materials caused Winchester’s management to look for ways to save money in the early 1960s. The company began taking production shortcuts, and a lot of the features that made the Model 70 famous were removed. More than 50 changes were made to the gun’s metalwork alone, making it a completely different rifle but marketed under the same Model 70 label.
Gunwriters who originally made the gun so famous immediately attacked the redesign, and sales plummeted.
The post-’64 Model 70 gets a bad rap from some, but all in all, it’s not a bad rifle. In fact, a lot of parallels can be drawn between it and the Remington Model 700. In my opinion, it would have been much better received if it had been given a new model designation. Many consumers saw this as Winchester trying to keep sales up by riding on the reputation of the old model.
It is not all bad news, though. FN purchased Winchester in 1992 and brought back the pre-’64 style Model 70. The new Winchester Model 70s are every bit as good as the old ones and are widely available.
But the bolt gun didn’t kill the lever gun. Saying the lever-action is obsolete is by no means accurate, as companies like Rossi, Henry, the revived Marlin, and other gunmakers sell a whole lot of them every year. As for its role in modern hunting, it is still a viable and popular option for North American hunters. It is an icon of the American West and a classic in the Eastern deer woods. But there’s simply no arguing that a bolt-action is more versatile in most hunting scenarios.