The Rifleman's Rifle Returns
September 23, 2010
The Winchester Model 70 is back in a big way, and it's being made entirely in the good old U.S.A.
The author compared the newest Model 70 Featherweight Deluxe to a Pre-'64 Model 70 Featherweight and a 1990s-vintage Model 70 Featherweight, all in .270 Win.
Winchester Repeating Arms Company introduced its first bolt-action centerfire rifle in 1884. Invented by Benjamin Hotchkiss and initially called the Hotchkiss Magazine Rifle, the Model 1883, as it was later designated, had a tubular magazine located in its buttstock, and it was chambered for the .45-70 Government cartridge. Considering the fact that the hunting roost was ruled by single-shot and lever-action rifles at the time, Winchester was probably lucky to sell just over 60,000 Model 1883s before tossing in the towel in 1899.
For about the next quarter-century, a bolt-action rifle was absent from the Winchester lineup, but the coming and going of World War I changed that. The Johnnie that came marching home from the trenches of Europe was not the same fellow who had left his beloved Winchester 94 lever-action deer rifle behind several years before. After experiencing firsthand the long-range power and accuracy of the 1903 Springfield and 1917 Enfield rifles "over there," Johnnie and his fellow doughboys yearned for the same performance from a hunting rifle upon returning home.
It did not take American firearms manufacturers long to respond to their demands. Less than a year after the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, Savage introduced a bolt-action rifle on a slightly modified Mauser action called the Model 1920. Remington had previously manufactured thousands of 1917 Enfields for the war effort, enabling that company to take the quick and easy route by utilizing existing tooling to produce a sporting version of that same rifle called the Model 30. Winchester, on the other hand, started from scratch in designing a new bolt gun, and doing so delayed its introduction until 1925. But as hunters and shooters around the world quickly discovered, the Model 54 was well worth the wait.
The Model 70, 1937-2008
During its heyday the Winchester Model 54 was the finest mass-produced sporting rifle for the money in the country, if not the world. But a few design details, such as a trigger guard/floorplate assembly of stamped steel and a sear that also served as a boltstop, made it less than perfect. Then in 1937, Winchester took a giant step closer to perfection by introducing an improved version of the Model 54, and just as the old rifle had been, the new Model 70 proved to be the world's finest sporting rifle of its time to be produced on a mass-production basis.
Collectors spend a lot of time separating Model 70 rifles into several categories. Prewar rifles are those produced prior to World War II, and postwar rifles were built after the war and up until 1963, both commonly classified as Pre-'64 production. The saddest days for the Model 70 began in 1964 when a group of executives who had recently been hired away from the Ford Motor Company decided to drastically slash production costs by cheapening an American icon. Practically overnight they managed to transform a handsome classic into one of the homeliest rifles ever produced by any company anywhere. Everybody, including the few writers--like Jack O'Connor--who had the guts to do so, complained to the high heavens, and plummeting sales eventually prodded Winchester into improving the appearance of the Model 70 around 1973. By then, the Model 70 had once again become a very handsome firearm, one any hunter would have been proud to own, but the damage to its reputation seemed final, and what had once been fondly described as the "Rifleman's Rifle" became the rifle few wanted to buy.
Barrels are made at the FNM plant in Columbia, South Carolina; rifles are also assembled there.
Adding to the troubles of the Model 70 was a 1979-1980 strike among employees at the New Haven factory, one that prompted top decision-makers of Olin Corporation to get out of the firearms manufacturing business by selling its Winchester Sporting Arms Division to a group of executives who left the firm in 1981 and formed U.S. Repeating Arms Company (USRAC). Despite their efforts to keep the new venture afloat, financial problems prompted a sale of their relatively new company in 1985 to a French investment group called GIAT, who already owned Browning. In 1990 the Belgium firm of Fabrique Nationale (FN) acquired both Browning and USRAC from GIAT.
Up until about the late 1990s, the quality of Model 70 rifles built by USRAC was not all that bad, but workmanship eventually began to suffer terribly. However, I found the rifles to be quite accurate to the very end. And the end came on January 17, 2006, when company officials announced that production of the Model 70--along with the Model 94 lever rifle and the Model 1300 pump shotgun--would cease in March. Gloom settled over the land, but fortunately, all was not forever lost. In August of 2006, Olin Corporation--which still owns all Winchester trademarks--announced that it had entered into a license agreement that allowed Browning to manufacture the Model 70 as long as it was not done at the New Haven factory. Finally, in October of 2007, everyone--including rumormongers who foresaw Model 70 rifles being built everywhere from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City--learned from FN that the Model 70 would be manufactured at its plant in Columbia, South Carolina, where the M240 and M249 machine guns and the M-16 rifle were, and still are, being produced for the U.S. military. Once known as FNH, the Columbia plant is now known as FN Manufacturing, or FNM for short.
The Model 70 Today
Bringing the Model 70 into its fold was not exactly a new job for the Columbia facility--for quite sometime it had been building its Special Police Rifle and Patrol Bolt Rifle on Model 70 barreled actions that were being supplied to the firm by U.S. Repeating Arms. Even today, the entire Model 70 is not being produced at FNM. The barrel is hammer-forged there, but the bolt and receiver are made by a company in Greenville, South Carolina. As is common in the firearms manufacturing industry, various pins, screws, and springs are made by several other companies, but none of this should matter since the really important thing is the Winchester Model 70 is once again manufactured in its entirety in America, as we all hoped it would be. Equally important is the fact that it is being assembled and final-tested by company personnel who are accustomed to building rifles capable of satisfying the stringent quality control demands of the U.S. military. In other words, if they can satisfy Uncle Sam, they will have no problem keeping you and me happy.
A drilled barrel blank (top) emerges from the hammer-forging machine with the rifling formed on the inside and the finished length and contour on the outside.
So now in addition to having prewar/postwar Pre-'64, Post-'64, and USRAC Model 70s for collectors to fuss over, we now have those from FNM. For the benefit of collectors out there in Shooting Times land, I will mention that production of FNM rifles did not commence until June of 2008, although a number of Model 70s assembled from spare parts left over from USRAC production were sent out to various writers several months prior to that. A few of those rifles were also used on various Browning-sponsored hunts for deer, elk, antelope, and other game. Serial numbers of rifles built at FNM from newly manufactured parts started at No. 1, with the first 100 reserved for special rifles, which means that one of the first standard-production rifles shipped from Columbia, South Carolina, wore the number 101. By October of 2008, just over 1,000 rifles had been shipped. The serial numbers of all FNM Model 70s have an "AMP" prefix, making them easy to identify from USRAC-built rifles and rifles assembled by FNM from parts manufactured by USRAC.
Serial numbers of the FNM rifles started at No. 1 with the first 100 reserved for special rifles. All FNM serial numbers contain the "AMP" prefix.
As design details go, the FNM Model 70 action differs from the USRAC version in a couple of details, one being a one-piece trigger guard/floorplate assembly. I consider this an improvement because it eliminates the middle action bolt required in the original two-piece design.
The trigger is also different. Whereas the USRAC version retained the original trigger introduced on the Model 70 back in 1937, the FNM version has an entirely new unit of three-lever design called the M.O.A. Trigger System. Fully adjustable, it has a pull weight range of 3 to 5 pounds. From the factory, the trigger on the Model 70 Featherweight in this report averaged just about dead on 4 pounds, and while its weight varied by as much as half a pound from pull to pull, its smoothness and crispness fooled my finger into feeling very little variation. Creep, take-up, overtravel, and other ugly gremlins that sometimes plague rifle triggers were totally absent.
Whether or not the new trigger is a great improvement over the old one depends on your point of view. If both were subjected to decades of hunting seasons filled with rain, snow, sleet, mud, and all the other things Mother Nature can throw at us, along with a lack of maintenance, the pure simplicity and ruggedness of the old trigger, which was basically a single-stage version of a military trigger, might give it an edge in reliability. On the other hand, when it comes down to the level of smoothness desired for varminting and precision target shooting, the new trigger is a clear winner over the triggers of production rifles built by USRAC. I own several Model 70s, some Pre-'64 and some built by USRAC; only two wear triggers that feel as nice as the FNM rifle, and both were products of the USRAC custom shop. In other words, the old trigger can be made to feel as nice as the new trigger but not at production-rifle price.
Comparing Old And New
Since everything else about the FNM Model 70 has basically remained unchanged during the past 72 years, I won't bore you to tears with yet another detailed description of a rifle that every serious hunter and shooter in the world is intimately familiar with. Instead, I believe it would be more informative for me to round out this opus with a brief comparison of three of the Model 70s, all in .270 Winchester and all of the Featherweight variation. The Pre-'64 rifle was built around 1950, the USRAC rifle was built during the early 1990s, and the FNM rifle was fresh off the assembly line when I received it.
For starters, I'm probably in the minority here, but I've never really cared for a bolt-action riflestock with a Schnabel-style fore-end tip, and while this would have been an excellent time for FNM to bring back a slightly trimmer version of the original Model 70 Featherweight stock, the company chose to pretty much duplicate the one introduced by USRAC back in 1981. The butt and midsection of the FNM stock are thicker, and the circumference of its grip is larger, making it a bit stronger than the USRAC stock, but it is also a tad heavier, and it lacks the trimness felt in the USRAC stock. FNM also retained the USRAC checkering pattern, but the diamonds appear to be laser-applied rather than cut with sharp-pointed diamonds, giving it a more finished look than the flat-topped diamonds of the USRAC stock. Checkering quality on both is a cut above that of the Pre-'64 stock.
The new FNM Model 70 utilizes a one-piece trigger guard/floorplate assembly (top) whereas the original Model 70 used a two-piece assembly (bottom).
The author says the new FNM Model 70's M.O.A. trigger (right) is much better out of the box than the original Model 70's trigger (left).
Finish quality of the USRAC and FNM stocks is about the same and much better than on the Pre-'64 stock. The thin rubber pad on the USRAC stock is about as soft as a brick, while the Pachmayr Declerator on the FNM stock is soft and cushiony and does a much better job of soaking up recoil. The metal buttplate of the Pre-'64 stock looks better but rates poorly in recoil reduction. Wood-to-metal fit on the USRAC and FNM rifles is quite good by today's factory rifle standards but not quite on par with the Pre-'64 rifle.
Metal finish on the three rifles is equally good, and how they are rated depends on personal preference. As is typical of Pre-'64 rifles, the receiver of mine was given a matte finish, and its barrel was polished prior to being blued, a combination I have long been fond of. The receiver and the barrel of the USRAC rifle have a shiny blue finish, while all metal on the FNM rifle was not polished quite as brightly prior to receiving its bluing. The latter is not as pretty, but since it is not as likely to reflect light in the field, it is more practical on a hunting rifle.
The unique feel of smoothness and solidity felt when operating the bolt of a Pre-'64 Model 70 is difficult to describe in print, and while USRAC was never able to quite duplicate it except on its custom-shop guns, FNM is so close on its production guns we might as well say they have arrived. The safeties of some guns produced by USRAC during its later years were difficult to operate, and while the one on the FNM rifle is not as smooth as those on my Pre-'64s, it probably will be once it is subjected to as many years of use. Close examination of the three rifles with a bore scope revealed a bore smoothness in the FNM
barrel unmatched by the other two, although (and this came as a surprise) the one on the 58-year-old Pre-'64 rifle was in a very close second place.
One of the features I have always liked about a Model 70, regardless of who made it, is a three-position safety that locks the bolt from rotation when in its extreme rear position, yet when pushed to its middle position, it allows the bolt to be rotated with the safety engaged. I also like the ease of field-stripping the bolt without tools. Simply place the safety in its middle position, hold down the spring-loaded bolt sleeve lock with a finger, and turn the bolt sleeve counterclockwise until it, the firing pin, and its spring are free from the body of the bolt.
For now, the Model 70 is available in five variations; three are offered with either standard or short action length. The Extreme Weather SS version, with its synthetic stock and stainless-steel barrel, comes in three barrel lengths: 22 inches in .270 Winchester, .308, and .30-06; 24 inches in .270 WSM, .300 WSM, and .325 WSM; and 26 inches in .300 Winchester Magnum. Leave barrel length/caliber combos the same but switch to an American walnut stock and blued steel barreled action and you have the Featherweight Deluxe, which is the subject of this report. The Sporter Deluxe is dressed the same except its walnut stock is standard in styling, and it is available only in .270 Win., .30-06, .300 Win. Mag., .270 WSM, .300 WSM, and .325 WSM. Moving on up in price, we have the Super Grade in .30-06 or .300 Win. Mag. with blued steel and fancy walnut stock replete with black fore-end tip. At the very top of the heap in price is the Super Grade Special Limited Edition, with its even fancier grade of walnut, in .300 Win. Mag only. All Model 70s presently being produced by FNM have the original Mauser-style external extractor. Whether or not the push-feed extractor that was introduced back in 1964 will eventually appear remains to be seen, but my guess is it will once again appear should the Model 70 become available in .223 Remington and perhaps .204 Ruger.
Take a close look at the Winchester Model 70s being turned out by FNM, and I am sure you will agree when I say, "The 'Rifleman's Rifle' is back in a big way."