Savage Model 99 Rifles, the "First Choice for Big Game"
By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
A nice example of a Savage 99-EG rifle made in the early 1950s. Photo courtesy of GunsAmerica.
Arthur Savage's famous Model 1899 rifle, promoted as the "First Choice for Big Game," was a modified version of his Model 1895. The Model 1895 was itself an improved version of the Model 1892 rifle (never produced), which was a joint project of Savage and Colt.
The Models 1895 and 1899 are quite similar and when the Model 1899 was introduced Savage offered to upgrade any Model 1895 to 1899 standard for $5.00. The Model 1899 series rifles made the reputation of Savage Arms. In 1920, the model number was shortened to "Model 99," but the rifle remained the same.
Savage's Models 1895/1899 were introduced at an interesting time in the development of American sporting arms. Along with the Winchester Model 1894, Winchester Model 1895 and Marlin Model 1893, they are what might be called "fully developed" lever actions and represent the crest of the wave of lever action rifle popularity in North America.
The Winchester 95 was less commercially successful than the other three, being discontinued in 1931. The Savage 99, Winchester 94 and Marlin 336 had each sold well over a million copies by the time economies began to be instituted in the 1960s to combat rising production costs.
The Savage Model 99 was the most expensive of the three surviving rifles to produce. By 1995, a Winchester 94AE carried an MSRP of $370, a Marlin 336CS carried an MSRP of $416 and a Savage 99C (clip magazine version) carried an MSRP of $629, all with checkered walnut stocks. The Model 99 was finally discontinued in 1998, by which time the rising cost of labor meant that even the detachable magazine version could no longer be profitably produced.
These lever action rifles were introduced when the American lever action was first being challenged by the European bolt action magazine rifle. While the Winchester 1894 and Marlin 1893 still retained under barrel tubular magazines that required the use of flat-nose bullets, the Winchester Model 1895 used a single stack, internal box magazine and the Savage 1895/1899 design used a superior rotary magazine. These latter rifles allowed the use of spitzer (pointed) bullets, like the new bolt action rifles with which they had to compete.
The Savage 99 lever action is quite different from the Winchester 94 and Marlin 336 designs. It is a right side ejection, hammerless action with a rounded, streamlined receiver shape. The action is enclosed in a solid steel receiver designed to protect the shooter from any possible trouble.
Its smooth feeding, machined, rotary magazine incorporates a cartridge counter on the magazine spool, which is visible through a small oval window on the left side of the receiver. This shows the number of cartridges remaining in the magazine (not including a chambered cartridge, if any) and counts down from 5 (fully loaded) to 0 (empty). The magazine's smoothly rounded, solid metal parts cannot dent or damage the cartridges within.
The action also has a cocking indicator in the form of a pin that protrudes from the top of the receiver behind the bolt when the rifle is cocked and ready to fire. Lacking an exposed hammer with a "quarter cock" hammer position serving as a safety, the Model 1899/99 has a small safety catch mounted on the bottom tang behind the trigger that blocks the trigger and also locks the lever closed. This is commonly called the "trigger safety," due to its location. In the 1960s, the Model 99 safety was changed and became a slider on the top tang.
The Savage's big, squared bolt is wedged firmly against the rear of the loading/ejection port in its massive, machined from billet, steel receiver. (Much later, a similar system was used by Gaston Glock in his autoloading pistols.) The Savage 99 lever action was inherently stronger than its competition and this allowed it to be chambered for high intensity cartridges when they came on the scene. The action's strength and rigidity minimizes cartridge case stretch, making it suitable for reloaders who prefer to only neck-size their cases.
There is a long, hook style extractor mounted in the right side of the bolt that grips the case head as a fresh cartridge is levered from the magazine, making the Model 99 a controlled feed action. If desired, a single cartridge can be loaded directly into the chamber; the extractor will easily override and engage the rim when the bolt is closed. A large, combination magazine cut-off and ejector mounted inside the left receiver wall reliably kicks fired cases out the side of the action when the bolt is opened.
Model 1899 and Model 99 rifles were offered in many configurations over the years, including solid frame and takedown models, far too many to go into in detail here. A letter after the Model 1899 or Model 99 model number designated the specific variation, starting with the Model 1899A Rifle (round barrel), Model 1899B Rifle (octagon barrel) and Model 1899C Rifle (half octagon barrel), all introduced in 1899 with 26 inch barrels. There was also a Model 1899A Short Rifle with a 22 inch round barrel.
The principle model variations included musket (rare), rifle, short rifle, carbine, featherweight and takedown models with round or octagon barrels in lengths ranging from 20 to 30 inches. For most of the rifle's life, the most common barrel lengths seem to have been 20, 22 and 24 inches.
Various types of open rear sights were normally dovetail mounted on the barrel and the top tang was drilled and tapped for peep sights, at least until the safety was moved to the top tang. Some special models were supplied with peep sights. Telescopic sights can be conventionally mounted low atop the receiver and, after scopes became popular, Model 99s came drilled and tapped for scope bases.
Like most lever action rifles, the Model 99 uses a two-piece stock. The buttstock is attached by a draw-bolt, a stronger system than the tang screws used to secure Winchester 94 and Marlin 336 stocks. Due to the Savage's thicker receiver, there is more wood where the stock meets the receiver.
Buttstock and forend styles varied. Perhaps the most common forend shape for most of the model's history was a slender Schnable, but plain end and carbine ring forends were supplied on some models. There were also variations in the shapes of the Schnable forends.
Most of the early Model 1899A through F models normally came with straight hand stocks, as did pre-WW II Model 99s. After the war, pistol grip stocks predominated. Buttstocks terminated with steel, hard rubber or black plastic butt plates and sometimes (on later models) recoil pads.
By about 1960, plain end forends, Monte Carlo stocks, white line spacers and impressed checkering made an appearance. In the opinion of many, these features degraded the sleek appearance of the Model 99. The Model 99DL (1960-1973) was the flagship production model of this period and exhibits these features.
Relatively late in the Model 99's production life the original safety, cartridge counter, machined rotary magazine and provision for mounting tang sights went by the wayside. They were replaced by a top tang safety and a detachable, sheet metal box magazine that were much cheaper to manufacture. The latter was released by a large, unsightly round button on the right side of the receiver. By this time the action had lost some of its (previously) silky smooth operation.
Many options and custom features were offered during the model's long production run. These included special sights, plating, factory engraving, fancy checkering, deluxe grade walnut, straight hand or pistol grip stocks, round or octagon barrels of various lengths, rifle (crescent) or shotgun (flat) style butt plates and various forend shapes.
At one time, starting in 1905, Savage offered special grades of the Model 1899 with engraving options. (Standard grades A to G were not offered with engraving.) These included the A2, CD, BC, AB, Excelsior, Leader, Crescent, Victor, Rival, Premier and Monarch. The latter was the top of the line and retailed for $250, a lot of money in 1905. According to Fjestad's, top of the line, factory engraved Savage 99s in excellent condition now sell to collectors for as much as $75,000.
Although the seminal Model 1895 was offered only in .303 Savage caliber, the Model 1899 was initially offered in .303 Savage, .25-35, .30-30, .32-40 and .38-55. These were rimmed cartridges, but later (starting with the .250-3000) rimless cartridges were added. In 1912, the .22 Savage Hi-Power was added to the line and in 1914 the .250-3000 Savage (the first commercial cartridge with a MV of 3000 fps) appeared. 1920 saw the introduction of the famous .300 Savage cartridge in the Model 99. Between 1920 and 1940 there was even a takedown Model 99 offered with a .410 bore shotgun barrel.
In the 1950s, new short action cartridges began appearing and many of these were adapted to the Model 99. These included the .308 Winchester, .243 Winchester, .284 Winchester, .358 Winchester, .375 Winchester, .22-250 Remington and 7mm-08 Remington.
We were fortunate to acquire a traditional style Model 99-EG rifle for this article. The Model 99-EG solid frame rifle was manufactured from 1935-1941 pre-war and from 1946-1960 post-war. Our example was made in 1953, judging by the serial number and the letter "E" stamped on the lever boss, a date of manufacture code.
It is an original type Model 99 with a 24 inch barrel, rotary magazine, cartridge counter, trigger safety and cocking indicator pin. The dovetail-mounted open rear is complemented by a long brass bead front sight on a ramp. Barrel, receiver, trigger and butt plate are blued, the lever is color case hardened and the bolt was left in the white; these are typical finishes for Model 99s.
It has a pistol grip stock and the Schnable forend used on Savage Model 1899/99 rifles for most of their production life. We have always found this Schnable forend more attractive than the bulkier plain or semi-beavertail forends. There is four panel, bordered, hand cut checkering on the forend and pistol grip. The black pistol grip cap has very fine checkering and appears to be made of hard rubber, while the shotgun style butt is protected by a steel butt plate.
The action is so smooth that, once the bolt is unlocked, gravity alone will cause the action to simply fall open if the barrel is pointed skyward. Yet, unlike most bolt action rifles that will do the same thing, there is almost no slop or play in the system. When operated, the mechanism feels tight, yet smooth, with zero tendency to bind as the bolt is closed. It is an impressive action.
Guns and Shooting Online Gunsmithing Editor Rocky Hays disassembled the rifle and checked it for proper function. At the same time he did a trigger job, which resulted in a clean, 2.5 pound pull with zero take-up and no creep, although some over-travel is unavoidable.
Our Model 99 is chambered for the .300 Savage cartridge. This is the cartridge that, more than any other, popularized the concept of short action cartridges.
In 1920, Savage shortened the .30-06 case to fit the Model 99 action and attempted to duplicate the ballistics of the original .30-06 load, which used a 150 grain spitzer bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2700 fps. Limited by the powders available in 1920, the Savage engineers nevertheless came pretty close: 150 grains at 2670 fps. In addition, a 180 grain bullet was offered at 2370 fps. Using modern powders, the Hornady Superformance .300 Savage load launches a 150 grain SST bullet at 2740 fps, realizing the full potential of the cartridge.
The .300 Savage uses a short (1.871 inches long) case with very little body taper, a sharp 30 degree shoulder and a short neck to maximize powder capacity. The maximum cartridge overall length is 2.60 inches.
The .300 Savage quickly became a best seller. It became the most popular of the cartridges offered in the Model 99 and was also chambered in bolt action rifles from Savage, Winchester and other makers.
In the early 1950s, when the US military was looking to replace the .30-06 with a shorter cartridge offering similar ballistics, but better adapted to use in automatic service rifles, their starting point was the .300 Savage. Through the design process the concept evolved into the T-65, which Winchester introduced to the civilian market in 1952 as the .308 Winchester and NATO adopted as the 7.62x51mm in 1954. The .308 case has a longer neck than the .300 Savage and is 0.144 inch longer overall. Contrary to current practice, the .308's shoulder angle was set at 20 degrees, 10 degrees less than the .300 Savage, presumably to aid feeding in autoloading rifles.
Soon after Winchester introduced the .308, Savage offered the new cartridge in the Model 99. By the middle 1960s, Savage was selling more Model 99s in .308 than in .300.
Although not the best seller it once was, the .300 Savage cartridge remains reasonably popular due to the large number of rifles so chambered that are still in use. Federal, Hornady, Remington and Winchester, among others, currently offer .300 Savage factory loads. In addition, Remington and Ruger have fairly recently made limited runs of bolt action and single shot rifles in the caliber.
The Savage receiver is a smooth-sided, flattened oval shape, which makes it more comfortable to carry than a bolt action and repeat shots can certainly be fired more quickly than with a bolt action. The Savage's slick lever action is definitely a plus in this regard. The balance point is about an inch behind the breech face, so it is almost exactly between the hands if your hands are on the checkered areas at grip and forend.
Because the standard Savage Model 99 rifle is no lightweight, the recoil in .300 Savage caliber is not bothersome. On the other hand, the extra weight and bulk of its very strong action and draw-bolt attached buttstock means that the Model 99 does not handle quite as fast or point quite as quickly as an equivalent Winchester Model 94 rifle.
Aesthetically, the Savage Model 99-EG got high marks from our staff. It is an exceptionally sleek design with a smooth, strong, reliable action and deserves its reputation among knowledgable shooters as perhaps the best lever action rifle ever produced.
Its only real flaw is that it became very expensive to produce as the price of skilled labor steadily increased after the end of the Second World War, with no end yet in sight. The modern Savage Arms Company carefully examined the possibility of reintroducing the more economical, detachable magazine version of the Model 99 in the 21st Century and, regretfully, decided it could not manufactured at a profit.
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