January 15, 2019
By Joseph von Benedikt
Even though it was manufactured in 1971,seven years after the 1964 Winchester economizing debacle, the Model 1894 NRA Centennial Musket lever-action rifle I used for this report displays very good workmanship. Wood-to-metal fit is superior to most of the recently manufactured lever guns I’ve handled, and the action is tight. Polish and bluing are exceptional.
Interestingly, this rifle fits between the purist-preferred Pre-’64 models and the later, modified-for-scope rifles that were reengineered to toss empty cases out at an angle. However, like earlier iterations, it is drilled and tapped at the rear left side of the action for an aperture-type receiver sight.
Created to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the NRA, 23,000 muskets were made and offered in 1971 for $150. An additional 21,000 rifles were configured along popular sporting-rifle lines: half magazine, pistol grip, shotgun buttplate, 24-inch round barrel.
Musket versions harken back to the military configuration of earlier days, offering a 26-inch barrel for increased velocity and longer, more precise sight radius; a ladder-type rear sight for extreme-range “volley” fire; a full-length musket-style forearm to protect the hand when shooting became hot and heavy and the barrel reached skin-scorching temperatures; a barrel band and sling swivels; and a shoulder-friendly carbine-type buttplate.
Walnut quality is superb—dense and straight-grained, just the sort of stock that would serve yeoman’s duty for decades of military service.
Like any other Winchester Model 1894, this Centennial Musket is a tube-fed lever action with an exposed hammer. Load it through a gate in the right side of the action. Magazine capacity is seven rounds.
To cycle the action, insert the last three fingers of the firing hand through the lever and work it briskly down and forward as far as it will go, then rotate it back into firing position. Don’t be shy; lever actions run best when functioned with gusto. A world-champion cowboy action shooter once advised me “to work it like your trying to break it.”
As the lever rotates down and forward, the extractor draws the empty cartridge case (if present) from the chamber and a plunger-type extractor heaves the empty up out of the action. Simultaneously, the lifter pops up and presents the cartridge sitting on it to the chamber, and the bolt pushes the hammer back to the cocked position. Pulling the lever back causes the boltface to boost the fresh round into the chamber, and as the lever closes, the magazine releases a fresh round to slide back onto the lifter.
To fire, squeeze the lever fully shut to disengage the trigger safety (the trigger is locked forward until the lever presses the safety in) and squeeze the trigger.
I found the rifle pictured here in a Cabela’s gun library, unfired, in the box. Being the sort of chap who likes to shoot the guns I own, I soon changed the “unfired” part. NRA centennial guns are cool and have just a bit of collector value but will never be the 1965 fastback Mustang of Winchester ’94s, if you get my drift, so firing the musket didn’t significantly reduce its value.
Being unfired, this rifle has no significant provenance of its own, but I have a bit of history with the ’94 Musket. I recall standing beside my twin brother in a central Utah pawn shop in my early teens, both of us gazing wistfully at a pair of brand-new Model 1894 Muskets. Even then I was a gun nut, and the unique long-barreled, full-stock configuration just entranced me. I think the price tag was $200. Needless to say, I couldn’t afford it at the time.
My Cabela’s had my rifle listed for less than $900, and when I spotted it leaning in the glass case, I was still entranced by the unique configuration. I tried to resist—briefly and halfheartedly—but I just had to have it.
Wondering how the musket would shoot because the full-length forearm is a prime candidate for exerting a bad influence on a barrel, changing harmonics and point of impact as it heats during a shot string, and because the long magazine tube with those seven rounds loaded in it can cause the point of impact to change primarily because it becomes lighter with each shot fired, also changing barrel harmonics and point of impact, I rushed out to the shooting range.
On the plus side, the trigger is nice and crisp and quite light for an untuned lever action, averaging just 3 pounds, 10 ounces over a series of measurements using my Lyman digital trigger gauge. And the rifle balances beautifully, both at the shoulder and in the hand while carrying.
The rear sight features a semi-buckhorn profile with a crisp U-notch when folded down and has a spring-tensioned slider on the ladder. Unlike other ladders I’ve used, it’s not marked for range with hashes at increasing intervals. Rather, it’s marked with even lines, numbered on the fives up to 20. Each increment is precisely 0.05 inch, and sight radius is exactly 21.75 inches. According to my calculations, each hash equals 8.3 inches of adjustment at 100 yards—almost exactly 8 MOA.
With targets placed out at 100 yards, I sandbagged the rifle and fired two, five-shot groups with each type of ammunition, allowing the barrel to cool between each group. I needn’t have been concerned about the full stock causing accuracy issues. All six loads tested averaged less than 4.0 inches. Most averaged between 2.0 and 3.0 inches, and one averaged less than 2.0 inches. That’s not quite as precise as my Pre-’64 Model 1894 carbine, but it is definitely usable.
Interestingly, actual muzzle velocities measured 100 to 150 fps faster than factory-advertised numbers. Clearly, the longer-than-average 26-inch barrel makes a difference.
Distinctly different from just about any other Model 94 lever action, the NRA Centennial Musket has quality, panache, and character.