Printer Friendly

Winchester model 70 "the rifleman's rifle;" after half a century of production this true American classic just seems to get better.

It is rare thing these days when a product actually lives up to the hyperbole of its advertising copy, but Winchester's Model 70. "The Rifleman's Rifle," has matched and perhaps surpassed the claims made for this fine arm.

Since its introduction in early 1937, this turnbolt sporter has been chambered for some 31 rounds (if one wishes to include a possibly apocryphal .416 Rigby custom gun) and has been offered in a dizzying variety of styles and models. Its reputation has scarcely diminished.

Actually the '70 story begins in 1925 when Winchester decided to produce a high-grade, but affordable sporter, to introduce its new .270 round. The Model 54 came out initially in .270 and .30-06, though about eight rounds were eventually added to its repertoire. It was an immediate success, and soon outclassed all other American bolt-action game and target rifles. Like the Model 70 to come, the M-54 was available in a number of styles aimed to suit just about any shooter's needs.

Despite the onset of the Depression in 1929 and the takeover of Winchester by Western Cartridge Company in 1934, the M-54 remained fairly popular. Still, Winchester felt that a few improvements were warranted, and as early as 1934 work was begun to redesign this fledgling classic.

The Model 54 had racked up a few complaints and these were to be rectified in the new arm. Though lock time had been improved immeasurably, it still came up for criticism as shooters found the rifle was prone to occasiional misfire.

Additionally, the M-54's two-stage military-style trigger pull was not particularly conducive to match-grade accuracy, and the Mauser/Springfield-style flip-over safety was found to be awkward to use when the gun was fitted with a scope.

While the first "Model 70," as the new rifle was to be called, rolled off the line in mid-1936, the rifle was not actually announced until January of 1937, the year in which it went on sale.

Offered initially in five versions (the Standard Rifle, Super Grade, Target Rifle, national Match and Bull Gun), though it harked back to the M-54, the Model 70 was really unlike anything yet seen on the American sporting market.

The Model 70 included such innovations as a more convenient horizontal safety, hinged floorplate, improved speed lock, new bolt stop, straighter stock design with 21 line-per-inch checkering, and forged steel triggerguard (as opposed to the M-54's formed sheet metal unit).

While the '70 was a more appealing and functional piece than its predecessor, the gun's real magic rested in its action.

Though some of the '70's "innovations" had actually been incorporated in late Model 54's, the newer gun was still seen by shooters as a considerable improvement. The two-lug Mauser-style bolt had a one-piece firing pin and was pierced with a pair of vent holes which, according to a 1938 Winchester brochure, "are there to relieve pressure in the firing pin hole in case of a ruptured primer." The gun was fitted with a typical Mauser-style long external extractor, which contributed to its controlled feeding.

The trigger system had been almost completely revamped, though again, it still had some features found on the '54. Without going into tedious mechanical details, let it suffice to say that the designers came up with a smooth, sure trigger that had a minimum of letoff. In fact, the basic device has hardly been changed over the past 38 years of the gun's production.

The Standard Model 70, in its 1937 guise, was a rifle that today would probably be considered a strictly custom item. The attention to detail on the metalwork, to include superb polish and blue, fit, and mating of wood-to-metal, was nigh onto impeccable. The good grade American walnut stocks were available in low comb or Monte Carlo styles, checkered at wrist and fore-end. There was no fore-end tip, and the pistol grip was topped with a surprisingly tasteful sheet metal cap debossed with the Winchester Emblem. The butt-plate was of checkered steel. Sights, recalling the old days of the "factory-custom" Winchester lever guns, could be had in a variety of styles, including simple flip-up rear or rreceiver peep.

Despite its name, the Standard Rifle was anything but standard. There were several different, widely varying calibers offered, as well as 20, 24 and 26-inch regular barrels, and 24 and 26-inch medium heavy tubes. As the years progressed, options increased accordingly, so an almost unheard-of spectrum of choices was soon available.

The Super Grade, as its name implied, was, as per period advertising material, was, as per period advertising material, "built in general the same as the Standard Grade, with these refinements: Stock of selected walnut with or without cheek rest, and with hard rubber grip cap, black molded forestock tip and fine checkered grip and forestock." The gun also had detachable sling swivels, and a leather sling.

Other early M-70 variants were the National Mathc with its target stock, free-floating barrel and slightly more sophisticated eight; The Target Model, resembling the National Match in most details excepting its medium heavy barrel; and the Bull Gun, also maintaining the basic National Match lock with the addition of a 28-inch extra heavy barrel.

As the years progressed, other models were added to the line such as the Featherweight, Varmint, African, Westerner/Alaskan, Mannlicher, and International Army Match.

The versatility of the arm was not limited to stock and barrel styles, however. The basic action was adaptable to a wide diversity of centerfire calibers ranging from .22 Hornet, through a healthy portion of the .30s, to the .458 Win. Mag.

Those Model 70s, made from 1937 to the beginning of World War II, are considered by many shooters and collectors to be the cream of American bolt action sporting rifles. At the risk of sounding redundant, they exhibited an attention to detail, fit and finish found only on some European production guns and a few Yank custom arms.

Even though everything from Spam to Donald Duck was pressed into service against the Axis, the Model 70, despite its admirable reputation for reliability and accuracy, was overlooked as a sniper arm in W.W. II. While it is rumored that some men took their personal M-70s overseas to be used as special purpose arms, it wasn't until the Vietnam conflict that the sporter was finally drafted.

Though there were variants, the standard M-70 sniper, as employed in Southeast Asia, was a heavy barrel .308 topped with an Unertl or Lyman target scope. In the hands of the Marines, these guns performed yeoman service.

Following the Second World War, the M-70 appeared with much of its old pizazz, though signs of postwar austerity were starting to make themselves felt in the firearms industry. Checkering, while still hand cut, was reduced from 21 to 18 lines-per-inch, and there was some grousing from older sportsmen that wood, finish and fit were not up to 1930s' standards.

To be sure, the Model 70 shot as well as ever and was comparatively still a thing of beauty, but some of the luster had dulled in the grey days of the Cold War.

Through the 1950s, along with this noticeable de-glamorizing trend, mechanization was conversely experiencing a considerable revolution. Technology was escalating in leaps and bounds and American industry could hardly keep pace with it. Economical production was the result, or more correctly, the target of this new revolution.

Many firearms makers applied this new technology as it became available, and several new firearms makers were born because of it. These "shortcuts" were applied to existing products gradually and weren't readily noticeable to the consumer.

Winchester, on the other hand, continued on in the traditional manner of gunmaking, which is to say they were losing money. The quality of the wood dropped and the hand checkering--which now was a custom feature in the trade--was becoming more coarse with each passing year. Finally, in the early '60s, cost effective measures became mandatory. A mechanical improvement was also in order and 1964 seemed as good a time as any to Winchester executives to make the change.

The resulting mechanical redesign wasn't actually as bad as many felt, but unfortunately, the "short cuts," which Winchester had to now incorporate overnight, so soured the public that the new design improvements were viewed with the same contempt as the short-cut measures. It was the old "guilt by association" syndrome that suppressed the mechanical design.

Obvious differences, like the Parkerized receiver, alloy floorplate and screw-on sights, turned the public off. But the real mortal sin was the light-colored stock, sporting darkened impressed checkering and a hogwallow for a barrel channel. These were just too much for the buying public to swallow at one time.

Taken individually, none of these features is necessarily bad. In fact, for the most part, many of the 1964 "goofs" are applied today by practically every production gunmaker. Winchester just gave us too much, too soon, thereby desecrating the rifle that by now had become an institution. Though the shooting public bemoaned the passing of prewar workmanship in the later pre-64s, and considered them inferior while in production, now they were beginning to look pretty good in comparison to the 1964 model!

Because so many pre-64s were still on the market, both new and used, no one had need to buy the new Model 70--and they didn't. This compounded Winchester's problem. Their own beloved Model 70 had become their worst competition.

The following years saw Winchester do a turnabout--albeit gradually. Their checkering was reversed with positive diamonds, the receivers' finish was given a bit more attention, barrel channels were reduced to reasonable widths, and all-in-all the guns became "acceptable." But it was too late. It seemed that Winchester would never live this one down.

Through the sixties another threat arose in the form of hordes of surplus military bolt action rifles that hit the market. These were being "sporterized" by backyard gunsmiths everywhere, and sold for ridiculously low prices. A 1903 Springfield with a new Monte Carlo stock and fancy sights--or even a scope--could be had for less than a "C" note.

Again Winchester had to downgrade in order to compete for the shooting dollar. The Model 670 was born. It was a blondewood, blue-metalled baby offered in three versions--Carbine, Standard and Magnum. Deleted was the three-position safety and the floorplate. Instead we were given a two-position side-tang safety and a blind magazine. Later a slightly jazzier version, termed the Model 770, was offered with a few more refinements. Through it all, the Model 70 proper remained pretty much the same with subtle upgrading in the form of finer finish, tighter inletting and more artistic checkering patterns. Unbeknownst to the public, Winchester was not sitting home nursing its black eye. Instead they sat quietly back in the corner and flexed their new technologically-advanced gunmaking muscles.

Later the 670 and 770s were dropped from the line and a few new ones, such as the Mannlicher and International Army Match, made their appearance in 1968 and 1970, respectively. In 1972 Winchester again offered a slightly downgraded M-70A as we entered the recession of the 1970s. Things remained quiet in Winchester's corner through the 1970s, but they kept flexing those muscles.

Then in 1981 all hell broke loose in the gun business. Winchester came on the market with a vengeance, announcing the reintroduction of the Model 70 Featherweight after an 18-year absence. The new rifle was absolutely gorgeous and the world was agog with wonderment!

Gone was the clubby stock, the afterthought sights, the sandblasted finish, the angular checkering patterns, white-line spacers and space-age plastic finish that everyone remembered from the recent past.

Instead, here was a slim, trim rifle sporting a classic took with Schnabel fore-end, satin finished high-grade walnut, perfectly executed, borderless, cut checkering in the most pleasing patterns and metal finishing that rivaled many of the Super Grade Model 70s of the early days. Today's Featherweight should wear the "Super Grade" logo on its floorplate--it has surely earned the right.

Shortly after the introduction of the Featherweight, Winchester (actually Olin) announced that its entire line of firearms would be made under license by a new company--United States Repeating Arms (USRAC). This further shook up the industry and the shooting public. Many thought that this meant that Winchesters would now be made in Japan as some other brands were. Actually, nothing has changed except the name, as it did when Olin Mathieson Chemical took over Winchester back in the 1930s.

The factory is right where it always has been and virtually the same people are making the game guns here in the U.S.A.

However, under the leadership of USRAC, the new Model 70 has regained the status of its predecessor. Winchester has been redeemed. No longer should they bear the stigma of "1964."

There is a new sense of direction at Winchester. They now have their ear in the marketplace and are in tune with giving the shooting public what they want--quality at a reasonable price. For the first time it is possible to have a short-action M-70 for those short rounds. Carbine and varmint variants, as well as the Standard and Super Express models, are also available in some new calibers, such as .280 and .25-06 Rem., and some old favorites like the .257 Roberts and the 7x57 have made guest appearances in recent 70s.

Starting this year in September, U.S. Repeating Arms opened the doors of its Model 21 Shop to the custom Model 70 market. Now, much like in the old days, you can order a Model 70 to suit your taste. Have your dealer contact USRAC for details.

Today's Model 70 is the result of 60 years of development, beginning in 1925 with the Model 54. Combine this experience with the precision of today's computer-operated machinery and a dedication at U.S. Repeating Arms to recapture the Winchester mystique, and the result is a modern classic, which not incidentally pays homage to the hand-fitted original.

The authors would like to thank the following for their help in the preparation of this article: Michael Kokin, Pony Express Sport Shop, Sepulveda, Calif., Wallace Beinfeld, Jerry Vallens and Tom Rawson.

For those who would like to delve further into the history and development of the Model 70, we recommend The Rifleman's Rifle, by Roger C. Rule, Alliance Books, Inc., 18714 Parthenia St., Dept. GA, Northridge, CA 91324.
COPYRIGHT 1985 InterMedia Outdoors, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:James, Garry; Renner, Roger
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Nov 1, 1985
Previous Article:Top performance shotgun slugs; today's slugs and slug guns have gained an enviable reputation among savvy hunters.
Next Article:"Everlasting" stainless-brass cases; the new two-piece "steelhead" cartridge cases offer reloading versatility in either standard or wildcat calibers.

Related Articles
A break in tradition: Winchester's Short-Action Model 70.
Allen Fire Arms' Henry rifle a rapid fire replica!
1890 Winchester - a boy's first 'real rifle.'
Winchester's versatile .308; after 33 years, this little .30 has become Winchester's jack-of-all-trades.
Lone star lever guns; Texas is celebrating its Sesquicentennial in a unique way, with a chance to join an authentic Old West wagon train and own a...
Remington's Model Seven in 7mm-08 - a real undiscovered "sleeper." (column)
New long guns for 1989.
Winchester: rifles and shotguns.
U.S. Repeating Arms Co.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters