The Savage Model 99
By Jon Y. Wolfe
I recently read an article in Field and Stream, "The World's Leading Outdoor Magazine," and the article was ranking the 50 best guns ever made. I immediately skipped the introduction and went directly to the list.
I have a real affection for the great Savage 1889 and later 99, and highly regard it as one of the jewels in the history of America firearms. To my surprise, the Savage 99 was ranked 35th. I was sure it would have at least made the top 5. In my humble opinion the great Model 99 should have ranked higher.
It was a great design, which was truly ahead of its time when Arthur Savage developed it in the 1890s. He designed the 1899 in hope of winning a contract with the war department. Although he did not, his design endured and the 99 went on to become a representation of its creator's genius.
For hunting North American game the Savage 99 is still one of the finest hunting rifles of all time. In fact, it was a solid performer well into the later part of the last century, nearly one hundred years after its creation. It was manufactured for nearly a century with over a million rifles produced before the Savage 99 was discontinued due to decrepit machinery and increased cost.
Before it was retired, it is purported that the company had plans to introduce the 99 with the capability to handle long action cartridges, such as the .30-06 and .270 Winchester. One such prototype is on display at the Savage factory and the other was recently sold for $6000.
The design of the 99 is superior to lever actions such as the Winchester 94 and the Marlin 336 because it can handle high intensity cartridges. It has several superior design features that make it more comparable to the Browning BLR and even modern bolt actions like the Winchester Model 70. The rotary spool magazine allows for the use of pointed bullets, which retain greater velocity downrange than the flat point bullets required by lever guns with tubular magazines. Its strong action allowed it to be chambered in many modern, short-action, high intensity cartridges. A few of the most popular calibers were the .250-3000 Savage, .300 Savage, .243 Winchester and .308 Winchester.
For a rifle designed in the last decade of the 1800s, it had many modern day features that are still prevalent on currently produced rifles. It has a cocking indicator on top of the tang. And it ejected spent cartridges at an angle, which made it easily adaptable to the use of telescopic sights.
Most 99s were not drilled and tapped for scope mounts until the late 1950s. Until that time, most were only available with drilled and tapped tang mounted peep sights or standard iron sights. It has a good trigger and is reportedly a very accurate and dependable rifle.
Another characteristic of the 99 that is worth mentioning is its great looks and balanced carrying qualities. The early models were produced with a straight grip stock and slim Schnable fore end. This era of rifles was stately, and as pleasing to the eye as it was satisfying to use. Later models appeared with a pistol grip stock, and rounded fore end tip. In the 1960's impressed checkering became standard on deluxe (DL) models.
The rotary magazine caused the bottom of the action to be rounded, which fit naturally in the hand. In an "Instructions for Use" guide that came with a rifle made in the 1950's, Savage encouraged customers to carry the rifle fully loaded, as it would balance perfectly if carried at the bottom of the rounded action. This is why so many rifles still around today, have receivers with worn bottoms. The rotary magazine would hold five cartridges, thus enabling the rifle to be fully loaded with a total of six shots. Another of its prominent aesthetic features was the color case hardened trigger guard and lever. This provided a distinguishing touch to an already lovely rifle.
The cartridges developed for and offered in the 1899 and 99 were as far ahead of their time as the rifle. The rifle was first offered with the .303 Savage. This cartridge was a ballistic twin to the .30-30 and some believe it was the first high velocity smokeless powder cartridge.
The next offering was the .22 High Power. This cartridge was developed by Charles Newton and would push a 70-grain bullet to a muzzle velocity of 2,800 fps. It is still popular in Europe today, where it is known as the 5.6x52R.
Shortly thereafter came the first commercial cartridge to offer a muzzle velocity of 3000 fps, the .250 Savage (.250-3000). The .250 achieved this breakthrough with an 87-grain bullet. For comparison, the modern .243 Winchester will push a 90-grain bullet to 3100 fps.
The next Savage cartridge, the .300 Savage, went on to become one of the most popular short action .30-caliber deer and elk cartridges of all time. Later it was to become the basis of the experiments conducted by the U.S. military when they began developing a replacement for the .30-06 service rifle cartridge. Ultimately, the 7.62mm NATO/.308 Winchester was the result.
My favorite 99 is a post war 99EG made at the Utica, NY plant in 1947. I acquired it purely by luck. I walked into my local gun shop and asked if there was anything odd or unique that had come in. As it happened an older fellow had just cleaned out his safe and asked the shop to help him sell some of his guns. He had an older Savage 99EG. I picked it up, looked it over and made my offer. The rest is history.
Mine weighs just slightly over 7 pounds, has a 24 inch medium taper barrel, a steel shotgun style butt plate, and slim Schnable fore end. It is chambered in .300 Savage and shoots and handles as well as any rifle I've ever owned. It is not drilled or tapped for a scope, but with iron sights I consistently place shots in a 5-inch circle at 100 yards using Remington's 150 grain Core-Lokt PSP bullet at a muzzle velocity of 2630 fps.
All said the Savage 99 is a genius of a rifle that epitomizes the best in American craftsmanship, creativity, and originality. Although no longer produced it remains highly revered, as it was the foundation from which Arthur Savage built one of America's great gun companies.
A few notes to those who might consider the purchase of an older 99. All older models have matching numbers on the fore end, butt plate, butt stock and bottom of the receiver. The model is stamped in front of the receiver just behind the fore end. For example EG, R, or other variations.
The web site www.savage99.com has interesting information on the various models, their respective characteristics, and a date of manufacture reference based on serial number. All of the popular Savage cartridges are covered by articles on the Rifle Cartridge Page of Guns and Shooting Online.
Copyright 2005 by Jon Y. Wolfe. All rights reserved.