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In his latest piece for American Rifleman, Dave Campbell goes over the 120 year history of the Winchester 1894
A Look Back at the Winchester 1894
With more than 7 million produced, the Winchester ’94 is the most popular sporting rifle ever made.
Let’s go back 120 years to 1894, when John Moses Browning was at the pinnacle of his fertile developmental mind. He had improved the lever-action rifle to be easier to manufacture, while at the same time capable of handling some of the most powerful cartridges of the time with the Model 1886. Then he turned around and scaled the rifle down in 1892 to handle popular pistol cartridges. A year later he introduced a pump-action shotgun. Winchester recognized that if Browning invented a firearm it would sell—and sell well.
The ammunition division of Winchester began loading cartridges with a new-fangled smokeless powder in 1893 as well. This powder wasn’t as corrosive as the old blackpowder and contained more energy than an equal mass of the charcoal-sulfur and saltpeter concoction. It made it possible to launch smaller bullets at heretofore unheard of velocities, flattening trajectories and enabling hunters and shooters to take big-game animals or hit targets at much longer ranges.
Browning was then tasked with developing a rifle capable of being chambered for mid-sized cartridges of higher breech pressure. The new rifle needed to be simpler to manufacture as well. Browning came up with a way of having a single locking lug positioned transversally, as opposed to the pair of locking lugs in the ’86 and ’92 models. On August 21, 1894 Browning obtained patent number 524702 for the rifle, and by November the first Model 1894 Winchester rifles were made available to the public.
Winchester began working on making nickel-steel barrels for the new ’94 that could handle the equally new smokeless powders but it wasn’t a simple task. For this reason the initial cartridges chambered in the ’94 were blackpowder .32-40 and .38-55 rounds. By mid-1895 the nickel-steel barrel issues had successfully been addressed and Winchester introduced its first smokeless powder sporting cartridge—the .25-35 Winchester Center Fire (WCF)—in the ’94. A few months later they expanded the neck of the .25-35 to .30 caliber, and the .30-30 Winchester was born.
To say the ’94 was an instant success would be an understatement. The West may have largely been settled, but there was still plenty of wild country out there, and farmers and settlers still needed to feed and protect their families. The ’94 was relatively light; it handled well, either in the hands of a hunter or in the saddle scabbard of a cowboy.
The 1 millionth Model ’94 was made in 1927 and presented to President Calvin Coolidge. By 1948, another 500,000 ’94s had been made and the 1 1/2 millionth rifle went to President Harry Truman; President Dwight Eisenhower was presented with the 2 millionth ’94 in 1953. Sales continued to soar throughout the 1950s.
Read the rest of Dave's look at the Winchester 1894 rifle on American Rifleman's website.