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Levergun loads: a look at Winchester's ill-fated Big Bores, the .375 and .356.

I have a question. This question is only slightly more difficult than those found on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? However, if you are a real shooter you should be able to answer it. What is the most popular rifle cartridge, and also what is the number one selling reloading die set according to RCBS sales?

The answer is the same for both and it shouldn't take much gray matter to come up with it - the .30-'06 Springfield. Long, long ago, Col. Townsend Whelen said, "The 30-'06 is never a mistake." Our other Colonel, Jeff Cooper has sald basically the same thing except for its use on a few highly dangerous game animals.

Better Mousetrap Not Required

The .30-'06, or as it's often referred to, the "ought-six," is just about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. It began as the .30-'03 in 1903, and was slightly changed three years later to become our reining champion rifle cartridge. Now consider what this means. In this highly technological world with seemingly everything changing overnight, rifle shooters for the most part go along with what worked for their father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and even possibly great great-grandfather.

This is the reality firearms and ammunition manufacturers must face. Do we dare introduce a new rifle cartridge? Of course, there have been many successes such as the .270 Winchester, the 7mm Remington Magnum, and the .338 Winchester, however, the jury, that is to say the buying public, is still out on the new Short Magnum cartridges recently introduced. For now at least, the .30-'06 still reigns.

The .30-'06 has been offered in bolt actions, semi-automatics, pump actions, lever guns, and single-shots, including the relatively new Thompson/Center Encore handgun. However it's the bolt action .30-'06 that is first in the hearts of American hunters. Now there is that stubborn bunch that prefers leverguns, but the reality for this latter group is leverguns for hunting are normally chambered either for .30-30 or .45-70.

Supercharging The M94

The former is rarely talked about, it just keeps getting the job done, while .45-70 users always want to talk about their choice and how potent it is. Put all of this together, and what should have been welcomed as a great new cartridge for hunting leverguns should also have sold faster than they could be made. But it was not to be.

Someone at Winchester came up with the idea of modernizing the ancient Winchester Model 94 on the inside, while keeping the basic configuration on the outside. By beefing up the Model 94, the grand old design would be able to accommodate pressures in the range of 37,000 to 52,000 CUP (Copper Units of Pressure). That puts it in the same range as .308 and .30-'06 bolt actions. A Model 94 chambered in .308? Now that should be a winner!

Three new cartridges would be introduced. The rimmed version of the .308 Win. became the .307 Winchester, the .358 Winchester's rimmed counterpart was the .356 Winchester, while the 100 year-old .38-55 was modernized into the .375 Winchester.

The .375 Winchester came first in 1978 in the then new Model 94 Big Bore. Meanwhile Winchester became USRAC, and in 1983 the Model 94 Big Bore became the Model 94 XTR Angle Eject. This signaled an interior change that would cause the spent cartridge cases to be ejected at an angle to the right instead of straight up -- facilitating the use of a scope. The other two new chamberings, the .307 and .356 Winchester, would be introduced with the Angle Eject Model.

Marlin also jumped on the bandwagon, but not for long. The .375 Winchester would be produced from 1980 to 1983 with a total of 16,315 Model .375s being offered with 20- inch barrels. Marlin announced the .307, but it's generally Left believed they never let any out of the plant, while the .356 Winchester was found in the Marlin 336ER (Extra Range). The latter is relatively rare with only 2,441 manufactured for. the three years of 1983 through 1986.

Marlin got out very quickly, while Winchester/USRAC tried to hold on to all three chamberings for a while longer. Regardless, they did not make it into the 1990s. The .375 Big Bore Model 94 was dropped in 1988.

Cold Reception

Winchester's bold experiment of the Model 94 Big Bore fell flat. Shooters took to these three new modem lever gun cartridges like a duck takes to cement. Instead of setting sales records, they were quietly removed from production, and are still easy to find in gun shops and gun shows in new or nearly new condition at extremely attractive prices.

The .375 Winchester, which was nothing more than Winchester's attempt to modernize the .38-55, had died. Strangely enough, the .38-55, a black powder cartridge dating back to the 1880s, is still available in current production leverguns. For a time, the .375 was also a standard offering in the TIC Contender. Alas, even this one is gone. This is especially regrettable, as it was the most effective factory chambering ever offered in the Contender except for the .45-70.

So what went wrong? Winchester had tried to modernize lever actions before with the Model 88. That didn't last, so this time they maintained the traditional look of the Model 94 and it still didn't work. Shooters will accept the Model 94 in .30-30, even in sixgun cartridges such as the .45 Colt, .44 Magnum and .357 Magnum. Perhaps it has been ingrained in levergun shooter's minds that the Model 94 is basically a short-range, brush and woods rifle, and they simply would not accept three new cartridges that greatly expanded the effective range of the traditional saddle gun.

The .307 Winchester offers more than the .300 Savage, while the .356 Winchester and .375 Winchester are surely capable of taking anything that walks on this continent. Perhaps the latter two would have survived if they had been placed in a heavier rifle, as recoil with both in the lightweight Model 94 is best described as brisk.

Life is full of trade-offs, and one can have a heavy rifle to combat felt recoil, or a lightweight rifle that is easy to carry. For hunting certainly most of us would choose the latter option, and the Model 94 has always been recognized as one of the easiest rifles to pack in the woods, and perfect for carrying in a saddle scabbard or pickup truck rack.

Perhaps, these good cartridges would have survived in a rifle better suited for scope use, as most users of the trim saddle gun that is the Model 94 prefer to use open sights or receiver sights. Both cartridges will outshoot iron sights. Perhaps, gun writers of the time were not enthusiastic enough about old-fashioned leverguns. Perhaps. Whatever the reason, it is our loss that these lever guns are no longer offered.

Very Nicely Executed

It could easily be argued that the Big Bore Model 94 represents Winchester's finest effort in the Model 94 series at least in my lifetime. Both my Big Bore .375 and .356 were found on the used gun rack at Shapel's and purchased for less than the cost of an everyday run-of-the-mill .30-30. In fact the total cost for both was less than the price for one scoped bolt action rifle. I do love bargains!

They are beautiful rifles with deep bluing, checkered forearm and buttstock, and just a slight telltale bulge on each side of the back of the receiver that says these rifles are stronger than the ordinary Model 94. The Big Bore models are pre-rebounding hammer versions without the pushbutton safeties found on all current lever guns. Both rifles are specially marked. The .375 features "BIG BORE MODEL 94 XTR-375 WIN" on the left side of the barrel. However, the .356 is inscribed "MODEL 94AE XTR CAL 356 WIN."

Barrels are somewhat different, as the .356 is much slimmer in profile than the .375. The .375 features the old-style, top ejection of fired cases, while the .356 tosses its brass off to the right. For me at least there is something comforting or maybe spiritually traditional about a Winchester that throws its brass straight up as they have always done since the 1860 Henry. There is a lot to be said for the "don't fix what ain't broke" philosophy. Millions upon millions of traditional ejecting Winchesters have been sold so there must be something comfortably right about them.

Reciever Sight Perfect

Both rifles have the traditional fold down rear sight mated up with a bead front sight on a ramp. The .375 Winchester has a traditional Model 94 butt stock, In contrast, the .356 was obviously designed to be used with a scope as it came drilled and tapped for a scope base, and the butt stock has a cheekpiece.

However it is they were intended to be used, I treat both of them the same as they have both been fitted with Williams receiver sights. For my use, they are for deep woods, brush, or up close hunting on critters that look a little large and/or a little mean to allow 100 percent confidence in the .30-30. They both fulfill this role admirably.

Top Notch Performance

How do these cartridges, the .375 Winchester and the .356 Winchester, and for that matter the .307 Winchester stack up against their counterparts?. The factory loaded versions of the .375 Winchester are 200- and 250-grain JSPs that clock out of the 20-inch Big Bore Model 94 at 2,121 fps and 1,843 fps respectively. Compare this to the current factory loaded 255-grain .38-55 that just barely tops 1,200 fps from a 24-inch barrel.

The .356 Winchester is loaded by the factory with a 250-grain flat point that travels over the Oehler Model 35P at 1,881 fps. By comparison the factory-loaded .358, Winchester fired from the longer barreled Winchester Model 88 clocks out at 2,250 fps with the same weight bullet. The factory-loaded .307 Winchester is rated at 2,760 fps with a 150-grain jacketed bullet, which means the .308 Win. only shades it by 60 fps.

For reloading the .356 Winchester and the .375 Winchester, I use Lee dies in the RCBS Rockchucker reloading press. Since the .375 is basically a straight walled cartridge, Lee supplies a three die set, while the dies for the .356 Winchester are the two die set common to bottlenecked cartridges. All cases are sprayed with Midway's spray on lube, full-length re-sized, and then primed with CCI's No. 200 large rifle primers using the RCBS priming tool.

Favorite Bullets And Loads

Being a straight walled cartridge and descended from the .38-55 Winchester, the .375 Winchester is a natural for use with cast bullets. Two excellent two-cavity molds, whether bullets are to be used in the .38-55 or .375, are the Lyman No. 375449 and the RCBS No. 37-250FN. Both are gas check designs, drop from the mold at approximately 250 grains, and are sized to .375-inch for use in the .375 Winchester.

Two favorite loads, both assembled with the Lyman bullet, are 16.0-grains of Accurate Arms XMP5744 to basically duplicate the old .38-55 black powder load. It generates an easy shooting 1,121 fps from the 20-inch Big Bore .375. For a full-power hunting load, 30.0-grains of Alliant's Reloder 7 clocks just a shade under 2,000 fps.

Since the Model 94 features a tubular magazine, only flat point bullets should be used in the .375 Winchester. Both the Hornady 220-grain and Sierra 200-grain flat points work exceptionally well. Favorite loads include 36.0-grains 114198 for 2,200 fps with Sierra's 200-grain flat point, and 36.0-grains of Hodgdon's H322 for 2,040 fps with Hornady's 220-grain version.

For the .356 Winchester, my flat-nosed bullets of choice are both from Speer. The 180-grain FN is loaded over 48.0-grains of Hodgdon's H335 for 2,550 fps, while the heavier 220-grain FN is propelled at 2,405 fps with 46.0-grains of the same propellant. This is a great powder for use in the .356 Winchester, however, these loads should not be taken for granted. As always, work carefully up to these loads in your particular rifle, looking for signs of excess pressure.

Important Caution

I do use round-nosed bullets in the .356 Winchester. However, when I do, it becomes a lever action "double barrel." That is I load only two rounds so there is no danger of a round nosed bullet tip pounding against the primer of a cartridge in front of it in the magazine tube and possibly causing it to fire in recoil. Never load more than two rounds of round-nosed or spire point bullets in a lever action rifle where the possibility of recoil setting off a round exists.

With these round nose bullets, two exceptionally good shooting loads for the .356 Winchester are the Hornady 200-grain RN over 46.0-grains of H335 for 2,360 fps, and 37.0-grains Reloder 7 with Sierra's 200-grain RN for 2,191 fps. If I could choose only one powder for use with the .356 Winchester it would be Hodgdon's H335.

Both the :375 Winchester and the .356 Winchester chambered in the Big Bore Model 94 are excellent cartridges for hunting big game, certainly for anything in the lower 48. They also work well in handguns, and I have shot both extensively in the T/C Contender in the case of the .375, while the .356 resides in Rock Pistol Manufacturing's RPM single-shot. Both versions have very much appreciated muzzle brakes.

The .375 Winchester and the .356 Winchester are both long gone from new-production leverguns. They were an attempt to bridge the gap between the traditions of yesteryear and the ballistic performance of today. Their lackluster success had nothing to do with lack of. performance, and owners of these good rifles today should appreciate and enjoy them.


A variety of powders that can be used in the .356 Winchester Hornady, Sierra, and Speer all offer excellent bullets for use in the .356 Winchester. A side-by-side comparison of the big bore cartridges offered in traditionally sized leverguns: the .35 Remington, the .356 Winchester and the .375 Winchester. The .375 Winchester with loads using the 200 gr. Sierra and 220 yr. Hornady Flat Nosed jacketed bullets.

 Cast Bullet Loads


 Lyman 250 gr. FNGC 16.0 gr XMP5744 1,121 1 1/4"
 Lyman 250 gr. FNGC 30.0 gr. Reloder 7 1,987 1"
 Lyman 250 gr. FNGC 28.0 gr. AA1680 1,879 1 5/8"
 Lyman 250 gr. FNGC 30.0 gr. IMR3031 1,766 1 3/4"
 RCBS #37-250 gr. FNGC 20.0 gr. H4198 1,398 1 5/8"
 RCBS #37-250 gr. FNGC 37.0 gr. BLC-2 1,751 2"

Jacketed Bullet Loads

Winchester 200 gr. PPSP Factory 2,121 2 3/4"
Winchester 250 gr. PPSP Factory 1,843 2 3/4"
 Sierra 200 gr. FP 36.0 gr. Reloder 7 2,050 1"
 Sierra 200 gr. FP 38.0 gr. Reloder 7 2,227 2 1/2"
 Sierra 200 gr. FP 34.0 gr. AA#2015 1,762 1 3/4"
 Sierra 200 gr. FP 36.0 gr. AA#2015 1,897 1 1/8"
 Sierra 200 gr. FP 36.0 gr. H322 2,021 1 1/8"
 Sierra 200 gr. FP 38.0 gr. H322 2,092 1 1/2"
 Sierra 200 gr. FP 38.0 gr IMR3031 1,918 7/8"
 Sierra 200 gr. FP 34.0 gr H4198 2,116 1 3/8"
 Sierra 200 gr. FP 36.0 gr H4198 2,199 1"
 Hornady 220 gr. FP 34.0 gr Reloder 7 1,905 1 1/8"
 Hornady 220 gr. FP 36.0 gr Reloder 7 2,229 2"
 Hornady 220 gr. FP 34.0 gr. AA#2015 1,805 2"
 Hornady 220 gr. FP 36.0 gr. AA#2015 1,893 1 3/8"
 Hornady 220 gr. FP 38.0 gr. AA#2015 2,051 1 1/8"
 Hornady 220 gr. FP 36.0 gr. H322 2,039 1"
 Hornady 220 gr. FP 38.0 gr. H322 2,111 1 7/8"
 Hornady 220 gr. FP 36.0 gr. IMR3031 1,801 1 1/2"
 Hornady 220 gr. FP 38.0 gr. IMR3031 1,958 1 1/4"


Winchester 250 gr. PPSP Factory 2,113 1"
 Speer 180 gr. FN 38.0 gr. Reloder 7 2,193 1 1/2"
 Speer 180 gr. FN 40.0 gr. Reloder 7 2,367 1 1/2"
 Speer 180 gr. FN 48.0 gr. H335 2,550 1"
 Speer 180 gr. FN 44.0 gr. AA#2015 2,438 1 1/8"
 Speer 180 gr. FN 46.0 gr. AA#2015 2,533 1 5/8"
 Speer 180 gr. RN 48.0 gr. AA#2520 2,551 1 3/4"
 Speer 220 gr. FN 33.0 gr. Reloder 7 1,996 1 1/4"
 Speer 220 gr. FN 35.0 gr. Reloder 7 2,129 1 1/2"
 Speer 220 gr. FN 42.0 gr. AA#2520 2,065 1 3/4"
 Speer 220 gr. FN 44.0 gr. AA#2520 2,170 1 1/4"
 Speer 220 gr. FN 36.0 gr. AA#2015 1,951 5/8"
 Speer 220 gr. FN 38.0 gr. AA#2015 2,071 1 1/4"
 Speer 220 gr. FN 44.0 gr. H335 2,313 1 1/2"
 Speer 220 gr. FN 46.0 gr. H335 2,405 7/8"
 Hornady 200 gr. RN 46.0 gr. AA#2520 2,175 5/8"
 Hornady 200 gr. RN 38.0 gr. AA#2015 2,031 1 3/4"
 Hornady 200 gr. RN 40.0 gr. AA#2015 2,086 1 5/8"
 Hornady 200 gr. RN 46.0 gr. H335 2,358 1/2"
 Hornady 200 gr. RN 48.0 gr. H335 2,477 1 3/4"
 Hornady 200 gr. RN 35.0 gr. Reloder 7 2,104 2 1/2"
 Hornady 200 gr. RN 37.0 gr. Reloder 7 2,200 2 1/2"
 Sierra 200 gr. RN 44.0 gr. AA#2520 2,127 1 1/4"
 Sierra 200 gr. RN 46.0 gr. AA#2520 2,156 1 1/4"
 Sierra 200 gr. RN 38.0 gr. AA#2015 2,026 1 1/4"
 Sierra 200 gr. RN 40.0 gr. AA#2015 2,109 1"
 Sierra 200 gr. RN 46.0 gr. H335 2,375 1 1/2"
 Sierra 200 gr. RN 48.0 gr. H335 2,471 1 1/2"
 Sierra 200 gr. RN 35.0 gr. Reloder 7 2,140 1 1/4"
 Sierra 200 gr. RN 37.0 gr. Reloder 7 2,191 1 1/8"
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Author:Taffin, John
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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