Review: Winchester Model 70 Featherweight

Review: Winchester Model 70 Featherweight
The Featherweight version of the Winchester Model 70 is celebrating its 66th birthday. It is one of the finest standard-production big-game rifles of all time.
Winchester announced the venerable Model 70 Feather-weight along with the new .308 Winchester cartridge in August 1952. The Model 70 Featherweight was initially advertised at 6.5 pounds—the standard Model 70 usually weighed 7.75 to 8.0 pounds. The price was $120.95, and the stock was available with standard or a subtle Monte Carlo-style comb. The Super Grade version wore a fancy walnut stock with black grip cap and fore-end tip and “SUPER GRADE” stamped on its floorplate. It sold for $179.45, and like the Super Grade version of the standard rifle, its stock had dual-screw bases for quick-detachable swivels, and a nice leather carrying sling was included.

Weight was reduced in several ways. While the overall length of the original Featherweight stock was the same as the standard Model 70 stock, its fore-end was considerably trimmer, and the trimness extended back onto the action area of the stock. A couple of large holes drilled deep into the stock beneath the buttplate left another ounce or two of wood on the shop floor. The checkered buttplate and bottom metal were aluminum rather than steel, and the knob of the bolt handle was hollowed.

More ounces were shed by a slim 22-inch, cut-rifled barrel with a nominal muzzle diameter of 0.560 inch. The rear sight of the standard rifle was attached to an enlarged section on the barrel called a boss. It was eliminated from the Featherweight, and a folding sight was dovetailed directly to the barrel. Two hundred Featherweights built in 1959 as a special order for Winchester distributor Gopher Shooter’s Supply had smooth barrels with no sights. All standard-production Featherweight rifles had sights. The standard-production Featherweight with a 24-inch barrel with the same contour was available on special order from Winchester. Not many rifles with the longer barrel were made; the only one I have seen through the decades was on a Super Grade, which also had steel bottom metal. The attractive Featherweight barrel contour went on to become popular among builders of fine custom rifles in .270 Winchester, .280 Remington, .30-06, and other standard chamberings.

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The Classic Model 70 Featherweight has gone through some design changes over its 66 years of existence. Shown here are a Pre-’64 Featherweight with subtle Monte Carlo-style stock (top) and a current-production Featherweight with ribbon-style checkering (bottom).

Before going further, I will mention that weight originally advertised by Winchester for the Featherweight proved to be a bit optimistic. Within a couple of years it was increased to 6.75 pounds, which put actual weight at about 8 pounds with scope, sling, and a magazine full of cartridges. That was still light at a time when most fully equipped big-game rifles exceeded 9 pounds. The densities of walnut stocks can vary from rifle to rifle, and barreled actions housing long cartridges in large calibers weigh less than those chambered for short cartridges in small calibers. Of several Featherweights I have owned, the heaviest was 7 pounds dead-on the money: a .243 purchased for my wife. The lightest—one in .270, one in .30-06—weighed a hair under 6.75 pounds.

In 1952 reports, various firearm writers used up most of their ink extolling the virtues of the .308 Win. while barely mentioning the new Featherweight rifle. Despite that, the cartridge was ignored by most hunters who saw little reason for the existence of a round that played second fiddle in performance to the beloved .30-06 Springfield. Featherweight sales picked up in 1955 with the addition of the .270 Win., .30-06, and .243 Win. chamberings. Many hunting seasons would come and go before the .308 finally caught on, but it ended up being the second most popular chambering behind the .30-06 with the .243 and .270 following in that order. The .358 Winchester is the rarest. The .264 Winchester Magnum was added in 1962 in the “Featherweight Westerner,” as Winchester called it, but chambering a cartridge that demanded a 26-inch barrel in a 22-inch barrel proved to be a terrible idea. It ranks just behind the .358 in rarity.

I recently read that the Pre-’64 version of the Model 70 was discontinued in 1963 because quality had hit rock bottom due to outdated and worn-out production machinery. That came as a surprise to me because I have owned my share of the old Model 70s in calibers ranging from .22 Hornet to .375 H&H with production dates ranging from 1942 to 1963. Except for a total lack of contrasting figure in their stocks, three rifles built during the final two years of production were quite nice. The Pre-’64 was dropped, not due to a decline in quality, but because it could no longer be produced at a competitive price. Due to increased production cost, the grand old Winchester generated almost no profit during its final years, and some models were actually sold at a loss.

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Like the Pre-’64 Featherweight’s bolt (top), the current-production bolt (bottom) has the non-rotating claw extractor and three-position safety.

The first blow came in 1949 when Remington introduced the Model 721/722 at $74.95; the Model 70 was priced at $109.50. The Winchester was a better rifle, but the difference in price was a big deal back then. The final blow came in 1962 when Remington improved the Model 722 and reintroduced it as the Model 700. In some ways the Model 70 was still better, but due to a flashy new look along with the new 7mm Remington Magnum chambering, the Model 700 sold quite well at $115, which was mere pocket change more than it cost Winchester to manufacture the Model 70 at that time.

During the year of the Remington Model 700 introduction, Olin Corp. (owners of Winchester at the time) tasked new management with revamping the entire product line, and that included the Model 70. Officially known as the “Product Improvement Program,” the actual goal was to make the Model 70 as cheap as possible to manufacture, and they were given only 18 months in which to do it. The new rifle went into production on October 1, 1963, at serial number 700,000, and it proved to be even less costly to produce than the Remington Model 700.

Many changes were made—too many to be included in detail here—but the one that generated the most criticism was replacement of the non-rotating, Mauser-style extractor by a small, spring-loaded hook housed in the right-side locking lug. Adding insult to injury, the fixed-blade ejector of the old rifle was replaced by a plunger-style ejector.

The Featherweight was absent in the 1964 lineup, and that was just as well because what it would have looked like wearing that homely stock cannot be imagined. On the positive side, the very best safety to ever appear on a hunting rifle managed to survive. Realizing that loyal Model 70 fans had been pushed too far, Winchester officials eventually not only improved the appearance of the Model 70, but also a number of design details.

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The fore-ends of the Model 70 Featherweight have changed over the years. The familiar schnabel style was introduced in 1981. Left to right: Pre-’64, USRAC, and FNH/Portugal.

During early 1981, and the final days of Model 70 production by Olin, the lightweight rifle was reintroduced as the XTR Featherweight in .243, .257 Roberts, .270, 7x57mm Mauser, .30-06, and .308 Win. It had a push-feed bolt, and the ribbon-style checkering pattern on its stock had originated in the Winchester custom shop during the 1950s. Unlike the old Featherweight, the new one did not have open sights, nor was the side of its receiver drilled and tapped for an aperture sight. Neither mattered because at that point in time most hunters who were buying bolt-action rifles were using scopes.

And whereas the old rifle had an aluminum floorplate, the new one was steel. Pilot versions proved to be a bit heavier than the Pre-’64 rifle, and the extra weight was removed by shortening the fore-end an inch and making it even slimmer than the old Featherweight stock. Adding a schnabel up front reinforced what would otherwise have been extremely thin wood subject to splitting. The stock was quite similar in shape to one worn by the Winchester Model 54 back in the 1920s.

In August 1981, Olin sold Model 70 manufacturing rights to a group of investors who had formed U.S. Repeating Arms Company (USRAC). Production of the Olin-modified Featherweight continued, and the new company improved it by bringing back the Mauser-style extractor and fixed-blade ejector. Production of the push-feed Featherweight continued.

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Despite their efforts to keep the new venture afloat, financial problems prompted the sale of the relatively new company in 1985 to a French investment group called GIAT who already owned Browning. In 1990 the Belgium firm Fabrique Nationale Herstal (FNH for short) acquired both Browning and USRAC from GIAT. Up until about the late 1990s, the quality of Model 70 rifles built by USRAC continued to be very good, and even though workmanship eventually began to suffer, I found their rifles to be quite accurate to the very end.

That end came on January 17, 2006, when company officials announced that Model 70 production would cease in March of that year. Gloom settled over the land, but fortunately, in August of that same year, Olin (which still owns the Winchester name and trademarks) announced that it had entered into a license agreement allowing Browning to manufacture the Model 70. In October 2007, production was relocated to the FNH factory in Columbia, South Carolina, where the M240 and M249 machineguns and the M16 rifle were produced for the U.S. military. Model 70 barrels were hammer-forged there, but other parts, including the action, were made by other South Carolina companies and shipped to Columbia for assembly. The only part not made in the United States was the stock. It came from a Browning facility in Viana, Portugal.

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FNH-built Model 70 rifless differ from those built by USRAC in several ways. The USRAC version retains the original trigger introduced on the Model 70 back in 1937, while the FNH version introduced a new three-lever design called the M.O.A. Trigger System. It is essentially the Feather Trigger of the Browning X-Bolt rifle modified to fit the Model 70 receiver.
 
In 2013 we learned that all parts of the Winchester Model 70 barreled action would continue to be made in South Carolina, but assembly and stock-fitting would take place at Browning in Portugal.

The Featherweight Today

In preparation for this report, I requested a current-production Featherweight in .270 Win. Its buttstock is thicker, and the circumference of its grip is noticeably larger, making it a bit stronger than the USRAC stock but also heavier. My USRAC rifle weighs 6 pounds, 7.6 ounces versus 7 pounds, 2.1 ounces for the rifle assembled in Portugal. Both rifles have Olin’s 1981 checkering pattern, and while the diamonds of the USRAC stock are not pointed up as nicely as on the Portugal stock, coverage is greater. A thin rubber pad on the USRAC stock is quite hard, and the Pachmayr Decelerator on the current stock does a much better job of soaking up recoil. By any mass-production standard, wood to metal fit on both rifles is quite good.

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Over the years the buttstock designs have changed significantly. Left to right: Pre-’64, FNH/Portugal, and USRAC.

Shortly after production was moved to the FNH factory in Columbia, I paid them a visit and brought back a Featherweight in .270 Win. When writing it up for Shooting Times, I compared its accuracy with two other Featherweights in the same caliber, one built by Winchester in 1960 and the other a USRAC rifle built in 1993. I already had too many .270s, so the FNH rifle was returned soon after my tests were completed. After recently shooting the Portugal rifle, I added its test results to the old accuracy comparison chart and included it in this report. A couple of the loads fired back then are no longer available, so others were substituted.

One of the remarkable things about the Winchester Model 70 is how close to the same level of accuracy different makers have maintained over the past 81 years. The very first report in which the accuracy of Pre-’64 and Post-’64 rifles was compared was written by Bob Hagel and published in the 1965 Gun Digest. The old rifle was one of the last built during 1963, and the new rifle was one of the first produced in 1964. Both were in .300 Winchester Magnum. Average five-shot accuracy at 100 yards was 1.34 inches for the old rifle and 1.41 inches for the new one. Both averaged around an inch with their favored loads.

Hagel was testing standard-weight rifles, but over the decades I have found his findings to hold true for the Featherweight as well. Some of those Featherweights built during the final years of U.S. Repeating Arms had a bit to be desired in fit and finish, but the ones I shot never failed to shoot most loads inside 2 inches. That may not sound very exciting during this era when factory rifles are expected to shoot inside an inch, but it will always be more than accurate enough for hunting big game at ethical distances.

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The Model 70 Featherweight has undergone many changes during the past 66 years, but its 22-inch barrel still has the familiar contour of the original version. Those first .270, .30-06, .243, and .308 chamberings have been joined by the .22-250, .25-06, 7mm-08, and .280 Remington. Regardless of whether a Featherweight was built in 1952 or 2018, I believe it is one of the finest standard-production, big-game rifles of all time.
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