July 20, 2020
By Joseph von Benedikt
Inspired by returning World War I servicemen’s interest in bolt-action rifles, Winchester commissioned R&D gurus Frank Burton and Thomas Johnson to design a new bolt-action smallbore rifle for competitive target shooting. Originally dubbed the G22R, six prototypes debuted at the 1919 National Matches at Camp Perry and earned five individual event championships as well as the Dewar Cup team competition. Wide acclaim followed, and before long Winchester’s Model 52 was dubbed “the king of the .22s.”
Many small refinements were added in the following years, often but not always accompanied by a fresh letter designation after the serial number on the receiver. Early versions incorporated a ladder-type rear sight and a military-esque barrel-band fore-end. Both features went away eventually.
Although most Model 52s were manufactured as repeaters and shipped with a five-round magazine, a single-shot adapter was introduced as an accessory—and sometimes included—in 1935. Late in its production life, the single-shot 52 “D” variation was introduced after 10 custom Model 52s built as true single shots were commissioned for the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne.
The Model 52’s full life cycle spanned 1920 to 1980, during which time 125,419 Model 52s were made.
Manufactured in 1948, the Model 52 shown here is of the “B” variation and wears the Marksman Stock that was standard from 1948 through 1961. As with all postwar Model 52s, the action is the “round-top” type originally available as a special-order item starting in 1931 and then standardized in 1946.
Aside from those standard features, this particular rifle has had a great deal of modification. Probably the most subtle is the full-length sling/hand stop rail inset into the bottom of the fore-end. It’s so well done that it possibly was a special-order factory option.
The rifle was rebarreled by Eric Johnson (not to be confused with gun designer Thomas Johnson). Winner of the 1929 smallbore prone National Championships at Camp Perry, Eric was one of the most popular smallbore custom barrel specialists of the 1940s and ’50s. His barrels were stamped with stars, and some suggest the stars designate a certain grade or perhaps to indicate the number of national championships his barrels had won. This particular barrel shows five stars over the number “8,” which most likely refers to its eight-groove rifling.
The barrel is not the only significant modification to my rifle. The original internal barrel-band attachment points have been removed and the holes filled with what looks like AcraGlas dyed to match the color of the stock. Micrometer-marked dial-type tunable pressure-point fixtures were installed at 4, 6, and 8 o’clock in the fore-end tip. The action has been glass bedded, too. Obviously, it’s been customized to maximize accuracy.
The Model 52’s bolt has a non-rotating bolt body with dual, rear-locking lugs incorporated into the base of the bolt handle. The cylindrical receiver was machined from billet. Dual extractors function in controlled-feed fashion. The boltface is recessed and supports the cartridge case head. A robust fixed blade-type ejector flings empties out with gusto.
The magazine release is located in the right side of the stock. While early Model 52s featured wing-type safeties on the left side of the bolt, this rifle and most others made after the mid-1930s have a more convenient rocker-type two-position safety engineered by Capt. Albert F. Laudensack and located on the right side just forward of the bolt.
Like most “B” variations, the rifle shown here is fitted with the Speed Lock trigger designed by Laudensack. It proved to be unpopular among trigger cognoscenti, and in 1951 the much better Micro-Motion trigger designed by Harry Sefried became the new gold standard.
Like so many other intriguing vintage firearms, I discovered this Model 52 while browsing Gunnies in Orem, Utah. I’d had a hankering for a Model 52 for some time, but I lacked the funds to purchase one. This one was priced nearly within my reach, and it had clearly been set up and accessorized by a shooter passionate about smallbore competition.
It came with a wood case, a clear J.W. Fecker riflescope, Fecker scope rings, and Redfield “Olympic” sights. And there’s a cool support-hand grip that attaches to the fore-end rail for use in offhand stages.
Competitive shooters of that era were practical folks who didn’t hesitate to modify their match rifles if an increase in performance was probable. Based solely on his choice of custom barrelmaker, I can surmise that the original owner was both serious about his sport and quite savvy. As for the dialable pressure points in the fore-end tip, I confess I’m unfamiliar with them. If any readers can throw some light on their use and manufacture, please send me the information.
Filled with curiosity as to whether my new old Model 52 would live up to its legend, I couldn’t wait to get to the range. I tested a handful of SK and Eley .22 LR match ammo from a benchrest, using a Sinclair rest and a rear bunny-ear sandbag.
Wind was gusting hard enough to buffet me at the bench and certainly enough to mess with accuracy results downrange, so I opted to test the rifle at 50 feet, which as I understand is the standard distance for indoor smallbore competition. Fiddling with the J.W. Fecker scope, I figured out how to adjust parallax via the mid-body indexed dial around the scope tube and settled in.
My first two shots landed side by side, just touching. Apparently, the clean barrel settled after that, and I watched in delight as four consecutive bullets went through the same hole!
The results speak for themselves and are listed in the accompanying chart. My best five-shot group of the day was just 0.04 inch. The “worst” was 0.21 inch. Most groups fell in the 0.12- to 0.16-inch range. As the target photo on the Table of Contents on page 4 shows, when I really focused and did my part, one-hole groups resulted. Not ragged holes—single holes.
Throughout my testing, the Model 52 ran smoothly and with 100-percent reliability, proving itself to be the thoroughbred legend suggests. Interestingly, at one point I carefully inserted an SK Rifle Match cartridge into the chamber to test how snug it fit and was surprised to find that it encountered slight resistance with the rim about 0.10 inch out. I pressed, and it easily snugged home. Closing and then opening the bolt to eject the cartridge, I examined the bullet. It had crisp rifling marks around its circumference, indicating not only that the chamber is cut so rifling engages fresh bullets, but also that the throat is clean and not overly worn. Another win.
Winchester Model 52 “B”
- Type: Bolt-action repeater
- Caliber: .22 LR
- Magazine Capacity: 5 rounds
- Barrel: 28 in.
- Overall Length: 47 in.
- Weight, Empty: 11.63 lbs. (with scope)
- Stock: Walnut
- Length of Pull: 13.25 in.
- Finish: Satin blue steel, gloss wood
- Sights: Redfield Olympic aperture rear and globe front
- Trigger: 4.3-lb. pull (as tested)
- Safety: Two-position rocker-type
- Manufacturer: Winchester Repeating Arms, winchesterguns.com