The Shootist: Winchester Model 71
November 30, 2011
In the mid-1880s, Winchester started working with a promising young designer, John M. Browning. Existing 1873 and 1876
Winchester rifles were excellent designs, but couldn't handle the larger rifle cartridges of the day. Browning addressed the project and soon came up with a massive, locking-block action capable of handling express loads, what we'd call magnums today.
The resulting production rifle was designated the Model 1886, and it remained in production chambered for both "buffalo" blackpowder cartridges, such as the .45-90 and .50-110, and later smokeless rounds, such as .33 WCF and .405 WCF.
In 1935 Winchester upgraded the 1886, calling it the Model 71, and chambered it solely in the new "one-size-fits-all" .348 WCF. This powerful smokeless round was created by necking down and slightly shortening the .50-110 case, creating a cartridge that, with different bullet weights, could arguably replace everything from .33 to .405.
The Model 71 was a high-end rifle introduced at the nadir of the Depression, using bullets for which no one had molds and requiring a new casing. It goes against reason that this unusual rifle and cartridge survived at all, but it remained in production from 1935 to 1957, with just over 47,000 being built. The 71 was most popular in Canada and Alaska, where the .348 could take a moose — and then the brown bear that showed up to help with the field dressing.
A carbine version was offered with a 20-inch barrel, and an extremely small number of 71s were sold in .33 WCF.
Today, few Model 71 owners take these extremely collectable rifles to the field, and most live on in fine collections.
According to the serial number, the subject rifle was made in 1937. It now belongs to my friend and neighbor, Danny Cifers, who bought the rifle in the early 1990s. Cifers was stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska, with the Army's recruiting command, and a friend had owned and hunted with the rifle for many years. Apparently this was not hard hunting, as the rifle has much case wear but none of the dings and scratches associated with bashing about in the bush. The rifle came with ammunition as well as reloading gear, including a set of RCBS dies.
When he purchased the rifle it was still wearing the original buckhorn sight mounted on the barrel. Cifers swapped it out for a Williams peep sight mounted on the receiver. The rifle is factory cut for a bolt-mounted peep, but this feature appears to have never been used. The rifle already had an aftermarket rubber buttpad when he bought it.
This 71 hasn't been shot very much in the last 20 years because, well, the .348 is not a pleasant chambering to shoot, especially off the bench. It kicks, and I mean hard.
This proud rifle remains one of the flagships of Cifers's collection, occupying an honored corner of the gun safe.
Browning's locking-block action is extremely simple. Pulling down on the lever draws down two bars. These bars travel in vertical slots cut into the walls of the receiver. When the bolt is fully forward, slots cut into the rear of the bolt correspond to those in the receiver. The two bars fill the slots on both bolt and receiver, securely locking the bolt. When they are lowered, the bolt is unlocked. A nose on the front of the lever engages the underside of the bolt, withdrawing it, and with it the spent casing from the chamber. A fixed ejector kicks the casing out of the rifle. The bolt rides over the hammer, cocking it during its rearward travel. Near the end of the bolt's travel, a fresh round is released from the four-round tubular magazine. The feedramp is cammed up and presents the cartridge to the chamber.
Returning the lever pushes the bolt forward, leaving the hammer at the ready. As the bolt locks on a loaded chamber, the extractor snaps over the case rim. The Model 71 is now ready to fire and your rotator cuff is in for a real treat.
Winchester's .348 has had firearms enthusiasts scratching their heads since its introduction. The wide, .610-inch rim prohibits it from being chambered in other rifles, such as the Marlin Guide Gun, and it really isn't practical for whitetails. It's way too stout for almost every game animal in the Lower 48, and most African countries don't allow lever actions. It's like having a 500-horsepower Cat diesel in your half-ton pickup.
Originally, Winchester sold 150-, 200-, and 250-grain rounds, with the heaviest being preferred by Alaskan hunters as bear repellant. At present Winchester sells a 200-grain load in its Silvertip line. Recently, a new company, Buffalo Bore, has offered a 250-grain load.
For handloaders, bullet selection is limited. Fortunately, due to Winchester's continued small factory runs, brass is readily available. I had Winchester factory loads and burned some reloads cooked up by Cifers when he first got the 71. These use Winchester brass with 65 grains of Hodgdon H4831 backing up a Hornady 200-grain InterLock flatnose softpoint. Due to the severe cold and damp of Alaskan hunting, Cifers chose to use Large Rifle Magnum primers. According to handloading guru Bob Forker, this makes good sense with charges of slow powders over 60 to 65 grains.
All of this was loaded using RCBS dies on a dependable Rock Chucker press. Powder was loaded using a trickler from Brownells.
Cifers and I both live just a few miles from the Mohave Sportsman's Club's Seven Mile Hill shooting range. But Cifers is a crotchety curmudgeon, and I couldn't talk him into joining me for the shoot.
The 71 is a class act, and it draws much praise and admiration from all who see it. It's beautifully built with nearly flawless fit and finish. I was careful to keep the rifle on its case or on my Shooter's Ridge bags the whole time.
Initially, I fired through my Oehler 35P chronograph. This was an early morning session, and the Oehler's "glint" sensor allows for shooting early and late in the day, unlike a lot of less expensive chronos that work well only between 9 and 3 o'clock.
With the chronograph's summary tape in my wallet, I put out a Birchwood-Casey Shoot-N-C target at 100 yards and settled in for some group shooting. Cifers's work on the trigger was noticeable, but the 71 has never been noted for tight accuracy.
Winchester's factory ammo yielded a 3.75-inch group at 2,562 fps. His handloads went 4.5 inches at 2,441 fps.
I was particularly glad to finish this range session because the 71 is no fun on the range. However, if I was to go into the Alaskan wilderness and could only take one rifle, Winchester's last big-bore lever gun would be high on my list — very high, indeed.