Introduced when grizzlies still roamed the West, when there were still occasional conflicts with hostile Indians, and when blackpowder was still the propellant of choice, the Model 94 capably survived the transition to smokeless powder and went on to become America’s highest-selling hunting rifle of all time. Over seven million were manufactured and sold during its original 111-year run.
It may surprise many to suggest that the Model 94 was the AR-15 of its day. It offered high magazine capacity, low recoil, above-par ballistics (for that era), and could be fired with incredible speed.
Purists maintain that the finest 94s were built prior to 1964. Pre-’64 Model 94s were made in varieties. Winchester cheerfully built just about any custom configuration a customer could dream up, including various barrel lengths and profiles, stock configurations and wood grades, checkering patterns, sight types, and whatnot. However, the vast majority of Model 94s were configured exactly like the carbine shown here, with a 20-inch barrel, full-length magazine, flat “shotgun-style” buttplate, semi-buckhorn rear sight, and bead front sight. Cartridges offered over the years ran the gamut from the .38 Special up through the .375 Winchester, but by far the most popular was the .30-30 Winchester.Mechanicals
Courtesy of John Browning’s genius, the Model 94 comfortably houses medium-size high-power rifle cartridges in an action smaller than many predecessors that barely shoehorned in standard handgun cartridges. Loading is accomplished by thumbing cartridges in through a loading gate in the right side of the action.
Opening the lever briskly—no leveraction likes a tentative touch—allows a cartridge to slide onto the lifter, tilts said lifter up to present the fresh round to the chamber, and cocks the hammer. Closing the lever runs the bolt forward, picking up and chambering the cartridge, and raises the breechblock.Provenance
When I purchased the 1951-era carbine featured here, I was unsure whether it had been reblued. I’ve since concluded that it was, but it was done beautifully.
Interestingly, it had a small glitch. The lever loop had a slight warp to it and sometimes slipped off the trigger disengagement post, failing to depress it and leaving the carbine loaded and cocked but unable to fire. In a wildly misguided moment, I put one end of the lever in a vice and tried to straighten it. Its steel is tempered to withstand wear and use-induced bending, and instead of straightening the part, I broke it.
Luckily, I was able to find and purchase an original, correct-period lever on gunbroker.com, and that one was straight. When I installed it, the issue with the trigger block was resolved.Rangetime
With the replacement lever installed, the sleek little carbine functions without a hiccup. It’s accurate, too. From a benchrest, it averages under 2 inches at 100 yards with Hornady 160-grain FTX bullets—and that’s with my middle-age eyes trying to resolve the fairly coarse semi-buckhorn and bead sights. Even better, it shoots every kind of ammunition I’ve put in it into 2.5 MOA or less.
Point of impact trends quite high. Even when taking a 6 o’clock hold on an 8-inch black bullseye with the tip of the front bead, bullets generally group in the upper portion of the target. A slight marring on the side of the front sight ramp indicates the bead has been drift-adjusted for windage, and I suspect it was replaced with a shorter version at some point. That would explain why the carbine shoots high even with the rear sight on the lowest step of the adjustment ramp.
Although the carbine is lightweight—just over 6 pounds—and has a checkered steel buttplate, recoil is mild. Like all 94s, it shoulders beautifully, balances naturally, and points almost like a good shotgun. The fact that it has a surprisingly crisp 3.5-pound trigger—as measured with my Lyman digital trigger gauge—helps make it easy to shoot well.