The End of an Era: The Last of the Winchester Model 94

 

by Jeff Quinn

photography by Jeff Quinn

January 18th, 2006

 

 

 

Black Tuesday: January 17, 2006. That was yesterday.  It is now about 2:00 in the morning on January 18th, about  seventeen hours since I learned the news that the American Winchester lever actions have been dropped from production. The great old Model 94, along with the Model 70 bolt action; a true legend in its own right, and the Model 1300 pump shotgun, have been issued a death warrant. Operations at the New Haven, Connecticut United States Repeating Arms Company (USRAC) will cease operations on March 31, 2006. To me, this is sad news.

This is not the first time that the Model 94 has been pronounced dead. Although it has been in almost continuous production for 112 years, right now things donít look so good for the dandy little levergun. USRAC has been producing the Model 94 Winchester  since about 1981, and the quality has been very good. It has suffered a few unwelcome changes in those years, beginning with the crossbolt safety, which had recently been changed to a much better top tang safety. The Angle Eject action was seen as an improvement by some, and as a fault by others. Still, it was a very good lever action carbine. In the last couple of years, some great variations of the 94 had been introduced, from pistol-caliber carbines aimed toward the Cowboy Action market to some beautiful rifles such as the Legacy, it looked as if the Model 94 was  becoming better than ever.

Perhaps we levergun fans are living in a bubble. There was a time when the Model 94 was the epitome of a deer rifle, at least around here. Back in the 1970s, when I was a teenager, if you wanted a deer rifle, you went to the Western Auto or other similar store and bought a new Model 94 for about one hundred bucks. If you were really well-heeled, you went to Riley Hardware in Clarksville and bought a new Remington BDL bolt gun or a 742 automatic, but the majority bought a good old 94, chambered for the .30-30 Winchester, and it worked just fine. Living in that bubble, it seems that that is the way that things should continue. However, save for the Cowboy Action crowd, levergunners are a dying breed.

The fact is, a new hunter these days can go to the local Wal-Mart or other huge store and buy a new Stevens bolt action .30-06, a scope, mounts, sling, hunting license, and lunch for less money than a new Winchester levergun.  He will have a flatter shooting, harder hitting, and probably more accurate rifle. Why should he even consider a lever action? I canít answer that for him, at least not in a way that he could understand.

Just as most shooters prefer auto pistols to sixguns, riflemen are moving away from the levergun to autoloaders and bolt guns. Most lever gunners also like single action revolvers. They just go together. However, one of the largest Ruger distributors tells me that for every Blackhawk sold, they will sell fifty or more P95 autoloaders.  The same trend holds true for the levergun. If it were not for the Cowboy Action shooters, I suspect that Marlin would also be struggling with slow levergun sales.  A large piece of the levergun market thrives on nostalgia. It shouldnít really be that way, but it is.

I will admit, as will most levergunners, that hunting with, or just casual plinking with, a levergun is at least partly due to the guns' connection with the past.  The name Winchester to most conjures up thoughts of the Old West, even though as many or more of the rifles are used in the South and East for hunting whitetail in the deep woods. Still, visions of sitting around the campfire under the stars, the smell of wood smoke, coffee, and dust in air, with cattle grazing just over the hillside drift through the minds of most lever gunners.  We are the ones who go to the show see a new western movie when they sparsely appear at the theater.  Levergunners and sixgunners are the folks that would much rather watch a Gunsmoke rerun than Dr. Phil on the TV. We prefer John Wayne to Brad Pitt and Maureen OíHara to J-Lo. We like regular coffee instead of a soy latte.  If we wear a cap, it is pointed in the direction that we are facing. If you are a lady, we are the men who open your door.  If we shave, we shave clean; if we donít it is a real beard, not just three days' growth.  We like our guns made from walnut and blued steel, and we like our Winchesters to be made in America.

Over the past few years, there have been a few limited production Winchesters that are produced in Japan, such as the Models 95, 1885, and 92. These Japanese Winchesters are of the highest quality, with a fit and finish better than any Winchesters of recent manufacture. They are, however, relatively expensive. We levergunners ogle these limited edition rifles with lust in our hearts, but few of us can purchase them in quantity.  Even if we could, there are those of us who, and I am in that group also, want our Winchesters to read: Made in the USA on the barrel. I own a couple of Japanese Winchesters, and they are fine rifles, but I still wish that they were built in Connecticut. I suppose that I really should not care, but I do. It would be like Harley-Davidson  making their motorcycles in Japan. They would be good machines, but I prefer mine to be made in Milwaukee by beer-drinking, tattooed, overweight Americans.  Itís just supposed to be that way.

The same with Winchesters.  I like mine American made. However, the decision to cease production of products that are not making a profit is understandable. It is a sign of the times. FN Herstal, which owns USRAC, is under no obligation to produce rifles that are not profitable. Why should they? They will produce what shooters will buy, and most shooters are interested in other rifles. The day before the SHOT Show in 2005, Winchester had reserved a shooting range near Las Vegas for writers to try out their new products. There were about twenty shooting stations, each with new rifles and cases of ammunition. Every station except for one had a new bolt action, mostly ones chambered for the latest short magnums. One station down near the right side of the range had a new Legacy Model 94 levergun chambered for the .30-30 Winchester cartridge. It was mostly ignored. I was the only writer I know of who shot that levergun all morning. I am sure that someone else must have fired the gun, but most were flocked around the new short magnums. That was fine with me, as I had all the time that I wanted to plink away at a 300 yard gong with the levergun, shooting as much free ammo as I desired. Still, it rather surprised me that more interest wasnít shown the new Legacy rifle.

Perhaps I should have seen it coming, but the news of the death of the Model 94 took me by surprise.  However, its swan song has been played before, with its epitaph all but written, and it has always came back from the grave. The 94 is just too good a design to die, and hopefully it has just suffered a stroke instead of a cold death.  Hopefully, someone will secure the name of Winchester to be placed on a new Model 94. Hopefully, the rifles will be better than ever, and be built in the USA. There is always hope.

Nostalgia aside, the Model 94 Winchester is really a great design, brought forth from the genius of John Browning over a century ago. The guns are light, handy, powerful, and plenty accurate. It is the gun that is Winchester. It is the rifle that is America. If we lose the Winchester Model 94, we have lost a piece of ourselves. If you are not a lever gunner, that sounds like foolishness I am sure; but if you are, you will understand what I mean.

Jeff Quinn

 

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Click pictures for a larger version.

 

As a lifelong fan of Winchester lever-actions, Jeff was saddened by the news of the Model 94's demise.

 

 

Winchester's Trails End Hunter rifle, chambered in .25-35.

 

 

Old gun, new gun...author's vintage-1895 Winchester Model 1894 in .30 WCF (left), Legacy Model 94 in .38-55 (right).

 

 

Winchester's Legacy Model 94 in .38-55.

 

 

Winchester Model 94 Ranger Compact .357 Magnum (left), and Model 94 20-inch carbine in .30 WCF (right).

 

 

Winchester Model 1894 Chief Crazy Horse commemorative rifle in .38-55 with Marble's tang sight installed.