I’m not sure who first coined the phrase the “Rifleman’s Rifle”, but he was a marketing genius!
Few rifles in American history have achieved legendary status. What comes to mind, perhaps is the Winchester Model 1873; (“the Gun That Won the West”). Digging back into the shady recesses of my mind, I can think of the Colt Model P; (the Single Action Army, the Frontier Six Shooter, the Smoke Wagon, Col. Colt and His Jury of Six, the Thumb Buster…I could go on). Thinking of modern marketing slogans brings to mind the Remington Model 700 with its “three rings of steel” slogan used to describe its strength and breeching system. But the one rifle that emerges as the all time winner, at least to me, is the Winchester Model 70…the Rifleman’s Rifle!! I’m not sure just who came up with that phrase, but he was a marketing genius!
Now before we get too far along, I must reveal a few facts. I grew up reading Jack O’Connor, who for years was the arms and ammunition editor for Outdoor Life Magazine. Mr. O’Connor also authored several books on guns and shooting. To me, reading Jack O’Connor was like opening a fine bottle of brandy and smoking a Cuban cigar…it just didn’t get any better! To this day, I’m a sucker for any book that he authored and is not already in my library.
The two things that I had in common with Jack O’Connor was that we both taught young people (although in different curriculums) and we both loved a good Model 70 Winchester.
The Model 70 can trace its ancestry back to returning Doughboys from World War I. Up until the time of the “Great War”, the lever action rifle ruled the roost in America. After all, it was an American invention, and was and still is, an American icon. However, due to their exposure to the US Model 1903 Springfield, and Model 1917 “Enfield”, returning service men began to appreciate the strength, reliability and accuracy of a bolt-action rifle. Having its finger on the pulse of consumer demand, Winchester entered the scene in 1925 with its Model 54, chambered in the perennial favorite, the .30/06 (US Army; .30 caliber; Model of1906) and a new barnburner which they dubbed the “.270 Winchester”.
The Model 54 borrowed the “coned breech” design from the 1903 US Springfield, which greatly enhanced feeding of cartridges from the magazine into the chamber. Its “lock time”(the length of time required for the firing pin to strike the primer of the cartridge, measured in milliseconds) was much faster than the Springfield. The fit and finish of the rifle was as good as it got, and still be made available to the average sportsman.
For the years between 1925 and 1934, sales of the Model 54 were “steady”, considering that a Great Depression put the skids on a lot of “unnecessary” purchases. By 1934, however, there was at least some light at the end of the tunnel, and the research and development teams at Winchester began to take a close look at some of the “flaws” in the Model 54 design. By 1936, some of the “kinks” in the Model 54 had been addressed: the safety was reconfigured, the floor plate (called a magazine cover for us Model 70 purists) was hinged to allow quick release of cartridges from the magazine, the lock time was increased, and the bolt was lowered to allow the use of a new fad: telescopic sights. What emerged from this process was the legendary Model 70.
When first introduced, the Model 70 was chambered in nine calibers, ranging from the diminutive .22 Hornet to the mighty .375 H&H Magnum. What was interesting was the ability of the factory to utilize only one action length and modify it to accommodate various cartridge lengths. Later, in its production life, an additional nine calibers were added. Today, for the collector of “Pre-’64 Model 70’s”the rarity of the caliber plays a vital part in the value of the rifle!!
Throughout its many years of production, Model 70’s have undergone significant changes in the methods of manufacturing. Those produced between 1937 (when it first appeared on the shelves of dealers) and 1964 are referred to as“Pre-’64” Model 70’s. This production run consisted of no less that three distinct modifications: pre-War (World War II, when production was suspended to allow for the war effort); second transition (from 1946 to about 1949) and finally third transition (from about 1950 to 1964). During these phases, the rifles required scores of machining operations and were hand fitted to the final product. The barrels were lapped to ensure smoothness, and were usually stamped with the year and caliber on the underside Stock designs changed with the more prevalent use of scopes. It was during this period of time when Jack O’Connor was the arms editor for Outdoor Life, and his tales of hunting in exotic places with his Model 70’s gave us youthful readers the stuff of which dreams were made!
For those of us who worshiped at the alter of the Pre-’64 Model 70, the year 1964 was an Armageddon!! Production and labor costs steadily rose in the years following WWII, and by1964 the efforts at machining and fitting the beloved Model 70 were no longer economically feasible; the company was loosing money on each and every one produced. In order to reduce these costs a newer and more “economical” Model 70 arrived on the scene.
No longer was the stock checkered gracefully by hand. The barrel channel looked as if someone took a roto-tiller to it, the barrel was left floating in space! Parts that were once machined were now stamped. The reliable claw system was abandoned to a “push feed system”. This brought howls of anguish to the legions of aficionados and instead of being profitable to Winchester, sales plummeted. By 1968, it was obvious that something had to be done! The end result of this became known as the “Post ‘68” version. While it still used the more economical push feed system, parts were better-fitted and finished, and more machining was used rather than stampings.
A Return to Yesteryear
The Post ‘68 Model 70 enjoyed a somewhat “reserved” acceptance from the “purists”. It was accurate, the stock design had much improved, and the “push feed” system wasn’t all that bad. Except, it just wasn’t like the original. By about 1980, the parent company of Winchester, Olin-Mathieson, decided to divest itself of the firearms manufacturing division and concentrate on producing ammunition. Rather than see the 120 year factory close, the employees, stockholders and other interested parties formed “USRAC” (United States Repeating Arms Corporation) and continued production of the Winchester product line, including the Model 70. The rifles produced during this period still enjoyed the reputation earned by the predecessors. By about 1992,however a new and exciting production method began to be applied: CNC!
Computer Numeric Control manufacturing allows a computer to do the intricate machining operations once performed by skilled (expensive) craftsmen. Because of this tolerances could held to tighter levels than ever before, which meant that the old controlled round system of feeding cartridges could again be offered to the shooting public. Once again, a “newer” version of the pre’64 Model 70 could be offered.
Good Times and Bad
By 2005, the old factory at New Haven, Connecticut needed improvements, and employee costs were rising at an alarming rate! It became apparent that the firm (now owned by the Belgium firm FN who also owns Browning Firearms) could no longer afford to keep the New Haven plant open. After a 145 year span, the Winchester Firearms firm came to an end, shocking everyone in the firearms world. But not quite…
By 2008, Winchester again returned to the American scene. But instead of returning to New Haven operations and manufacturing located in South Carolina, where FNH (the parent company operates a facility not only devoted to the production of US Defense small arms, but the production of what can be argued as the most advanced line of Winchester products yet offered, including the Model 70!
With new manufacturing techniques, and a state of the art factory the future of the Model 70 again appears to be bright. Thanks to this a variety of calibers and actions lengths to accommodate them can be offered to the public. Exactly what lies ahead no one knows, but it’s nice to know that with Mom, Apple Pie and Chevys, we can also have our Winchesters!!!