Winchester Model 94 Trails End Hunter Octagon
By Chuck Hawks and the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
Over the last few years I have occasionally mentioned in articles that I'd like to see Winchester and Marlin offer their traditional lever action rifles in .25-35 WCF (Winchester Center Fire) caliber. It is a medium range deer caliber that offers minimal recoil (only 6.3 ft. lbs., noticeably less than a .243) in a lightweight 7 pound rifle. And for 2005 Winchester/U.S. Repeating Arms Co. has done exactly that, in the form of the Model 94 Trails End Hunter Octagon. (There is also a round barrel version of the Trails End Hunter.)
Naturally, as soon as I heard that these rifles were in the works, I requested a sample to review for Guns and Shooting Online. And when production rifles began to arrive, the folks at Winchester, true to their word, shipped the rifle reviewed here for our perusal.
Our Trails End Hunter arrived in good condition. It was double boxed and well packaged for shipment. Included with the rifle was an Owner's Manual, hammer spur, list of authorized service centers, registration card, plus the usual string tags and literature.
Here are the catalog specifications for the Model 94 Trails End Hunter Octagon:
This exceptionally attractive carbine length rifle uses the latest version of the Model 94 angle eject action mated to a 20" octagon barrel. The barrel is made of cold forged chrome molybdenum steel, the same material used for Model 70 rifle barrels.
The barrel, full length magazine, loading gate, bolt, hammer, trigger, bottom iron and bottom tang are finished in a polished, deep blue. The receiver, lever, forend cap, and crescent (rifle) buttplate are attractively case-colored. Other notable features include a straight-hand walnut stock, Marble's gold bead front sight and adjustable semi-buckhorn rear sight, provision for the included hammer spur, and a shotgun style top tang safety.
Since this rifle, unlike pre-1964 Model 94's and earlier post-'64 Model 94's, also features a visible rebounding hammer, the safety is completely superfluous. Fortunately, it is the least intrusive type of manual safety that I have seen on a traditional lever action rifle.
This safety does not lock the action or the trigger, or prevent the hammer from being cocked. The action may be cycled, the hammer cocked, and the trigger pulled with the sliding tang safety on "S" (Safe). The hammer will drop, but is blocked from contacting the firing pin. This safety seems to me to be far more useful as a "dry firing" feature than in the field.
When hunting with the Trail's End Hunter, I would simply leave the safety in the "fire" position and rely on the rebounding hammer feature (which automatically blocks the hammer from contacting the firing pin when the hammer is down) to keep the rifle reasonably safe. Real firearm safety is, in any case, between the shooter's ears.
The color case finish on this rifle deserves special recognition. It is exceptionally well executed, with a variety of deep, swirling colors. This is probably the nicest case coloring job I have encountered on a mass produced rifle. It would not look out of place on a fine double gun.
The satin-finished, straight grain black walnut stock is typical of Model 94 wood. It is about the same grade of wood used in my 1961 vintage Model 94, adequate but not fancy. The stock finish itself was smooth, well applied, and filled the pores of the wood.
Unlike my old Model 94, the fit and inletting of the butt stock around the action leaves quite a bit to be desired. There are noticeable gaps between wood and metal, especially on the right side of the action, at the head of top tang on the right side, and at the end of both the top and bottom tangs. The wood is proud on the left side of the top tang and on both sides of the bottom tang. This uneven bedding should have been corrected before the rifle left the factory. Fortunately, the .25-35 cartridge does not kick very much and the wood has a tight, straight grain, so the stock is unlikely to develop splits. On the other hand, the forend and the traditional curved steel buttplate fit well and were nicely inletted.
Like most new Model 94s, the action of our test rifle was stiff. The trigger pull is reasonably clean but inordinately heavy. Fortunately, Model 94 actions and triggers are not particularly difficult to work if you or your gunsmith knows how. They will wear in naturally if used a lot, but it might take 100 years of regular use before an action as rough as this one smoothes out.
The trigger pull of this example was inconsistent, measuring between 6 7/8 and 9 pounds according to my RCBS Premium Trigger Pull Scale. This is simply unacceptable on a hunting rifle. The factory should take whatever measures are necessary to provide rifles with triggers that are field ready out of the box. A new rifle should not require the attentions of a gunsmith before it can be taken hunting. Triggers like this one promote flinching and the consequent wounding and loss of game animals.
The Winchester Model 94 has sold more units than any other sporting rifle in history. The serial number stamped on our test rifle is above 6,750,000. It has been in production for some 110 years as I write these words, suffering through several modifications and "improvements" to keep it up to date.
Model 94's are still being made in New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A. You'd think that the workers at Winchester would know how to make these rifles by now, and take some pride in doing it right, but evidently not. No way an action as rough as this one or a buttstock as poorly fitted would have made it out the door if anyone cared. I don't think that Oliver Winchester, who founded the company, or John Browning, who designed the Model 94, would be pleased if they examined this rifle.
Despite its rough action, crummy trigger pull, and indifferent wood to metal fit, the Model 94 Trails End Hunter is extremely attractive overall. It is a potentially capable hunting rifle available in three traditional Winchester deer calibers: .25-35, .30-30, and .38-55. All three are based on the same (.38-55) case necked to accept different diameter bullets.
The .38-55 was originally loaded with black powder, but survived the transition to smokeless. The .30-30 and .25-35 were the first smokeless powder hunting cartridges offered to the North American sportsman. The .32 Special, based on the same case, came a few years later and completed the famous quartet.
The rifle reviewed here was chambered for the .25-35 Winchester. Like the .30-30, the .25-35's name is derived from its .25 caliber (.257") bullet that was originally propelled by 35 grains of the then new smokeless powder.
For most of the 20th Century, standard Remington/Peters and Winchester/Western .25-35 factory loaded ammunition advertised a 117 grain round nose (RN) bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2300 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 1370 ft. lbs. This provided a mid-range rise of 4.6" when zeroed at 200 yards, identical to the mid-range trajectory of the 170 grain .30-30 loads of the period.
Today, only Winchester (Olin) among the "big three" U.S. ammo makers still offers .25-35 factory loads. Current specifications call for a 117 grain RN jacketed soft point bullet at a MV of 2230 fps and ME of 1292 ft. lbs. Zero that load to hit dead on at 150 yards and it will strike 2.1" high at 100 yards and 5.1" low at 200 yards.
Winchester only produces .25-35 ammunition as a seasonal special, which means that they do a production run as required for hunting season, but are no longer making .25-35 ammo on a continuing basis. Ditto for correctly head stamped component brass. That comes straight from Winchester (Olin) as of this past June. Of course, that may change now that Winchester (USRAC) is again marketing rifles chambered for the cartridge--it probably depends on rifle sales and the resulting demand for ammunition.
Fortunately, there are alternatives from the specialty ammunition makers. Stars and Stripes Custom Ammunition offers new .25-35 factory loads using the Hornady 117 grain RN InterLock in virgin Winchester brass and kindly provided the cartridges for this review. The Stars and Stripes .25-35 ammo that we used for this review was loaded to a muzzle velocity of approximately 2300 fps, the traditional .25-35 deer load, with approximately 100% loading density. For the varmint hunter, Stars and Stripes can also provide .25-35 factory loads with 60 or 75 grain bullets.
Despite its traditional good looks, the Trail's End Hunter Octagon is a modern hunting rifle, and if used as such it deserves a telescopic sight. Guns and Shooting Online Contributing Editor David Tong suggested an I.O.R.-Valdada scope, a brand with which I was not previously familiar. These Romanian made scopes use German Schott optical glass and the present I.O.R. factory was established with the assistance of the Carl Zeiss (Jena) company.
I contacted Mike Saulsbury, the Western distributor for I.O.R., who graciously consented to send one of their 4x32mm fixed power hunting scopes for this review. The optical quality of this scope proved to be excellent. (A stand alone review of the I.O.R. scope can be found on the Product Review Page.) Most I.O.R. scopes come with a 30mm main tube, in the European fashion, but the 4x32 is still built on a 1" diameter tube. This allowed us to use widely available and inexpensive Weaver 2-piece M-94 AE bases and Weaver rings to mount the scope on the rifle.
All of us here at Guns and Shooting Online regard a fixed power scope between 2 and 4 power to be a good choice for any .25-35, .30-30 or .32 Special rifle. Such scopes are compact and provide a sufficiently wide field of view, along with adequate magnification, for deer hunting within the (approximate) 200+ yard maximum point blank range of these cartridges. Fixed power scopes are also typically brighter, sharper, less complex, and more durable than variable power scopes of equal quality.
The biggest drawback to the I.O.R. scope is its size and weight. It is very large for a fixed 4x scope, approximately 1" longer and 4 ounces heavier than most of its competition (Leupold, Sightron, Weaver Grand Slam). This is an important consideration for a scope to be mounted on a Model 94, which is one of the world's best handling hunting rifles--an asset that is degraded by a large, heavy scope.
I bore sighted the Model 94/I.O.R. scope combination at home using my Bushnell magnetic boresighter. This allows us to start shooting at the 25 yard position with a pretty good chance of at least hitting the paper.
For the shooting part of this review I was joined by two other members of the Guns and Shooting Online staff, Bob Fleck and Rocky Hays. The three of us put the .25-35 Winchester through its paces.
As usual, we did our testing at the Izaak Walton range south of Eugene, Oregon. The typical November weather was damp, but not raining, with a low overcast. The wind was negligible. The ambient air temperature reached a high of about 45 degrees F.
The shooting was accomplished using a Caldwell Lead Sled rifle rest weighted with 25 pounds of lead shot on a solid bench rest. Outers Score Keeper targets were used for all recorded groups. We each shot a number of 3-shot groups for record, expending a total of 40 rounds of ammunition, and the results were then averaged.
At 25 yards it took only 3 single shots to "walk" the bullets into the 10 ring of a 100 yard small bore rifle target. We then moved back to the 100 yard line to (first) zero the rifle, and then shoot some groups for record. After some unexpected elevation adjustment problems at 100 yards with the I.O.R.-Valdada scope were addressed, we got down to business.
Because of constraints on our range time we were not able wait for the barrel to cool between shot strings, as we usually do when testing rifles. The barrel never got really hot, but it remained warm. I know from experience that this usually increases the average group size of any rifle, and especially those with two-piece stocks.
The Winchester rifle shot about as well as expected, given its atrocious trigger pull. Everyone complained about the trigger, and felt that it resulted in some wild flyers that opened up the groups. A better trigger pull would almost certainly have resulted in smaller groups.
Despite its rough action, the Model 94 AE operated reliably. There were no malfunctions of any kind during our testing.
The best group (shot by yours truly!) using the 4 power I.O.R. scope measured only 1 1/2". The worst group measured just over 3". The 100 yard, 3-shot groups fired by all three shooters averaged 2.66". Despite what you may have read elsewhere, this is adequate accuracy and will allow the clean harvesting of deer size game to beyond the MPBR (and effective killing range) of the cartridge for which this Model 94 is chambered.
For fun, I removed the I.O.R. scope and used the supplied iron sights to shoot a couple of pretty decent groups at 25 and 50 yards, using up the last of our .25-35 ammunition. These groups are not included in the results above. I will say that if I could have ambushed a deer with this rifle at 50 yards it would have been a dead deer, even using the iron sights.
Note that we were able to test the .25-35 Hunter Octagon with only one bullet weight, powder, and brand of ammunition. Stars and Stripes is top quality ammo, to be sure, but all rifles have their individual preferences. Stars and Stripes could produce other loads (and offers other bullet weights), but our time with the .25-35 Model 94 was limited. And none of us at Guns and Shooting Online reload .25-35 WCF ammunition.
Despite the criticisms noted in this review we all liked this attractive little rifle, and especially its soft recoiling cartridge. It's a joy to behold and pleasant to shoot. Personally, I would love to own it, but the poor workmanship and execution dragged this rifle down in our final ratings.
My fear is that the high price of Winchester's Model 94 Trail's End Octagon Hunter will effectively limit the popularity of both the rifle and the .25-35 cartridge for which it is chambered. This is a beautiful rifle, but its MSRP will probably keep it from achieving best seller status in any caliber. I wish that Winchester (USRAC) would see fit to offer all of their Model 94 variants in .25-35.
RIFLE REVIEW SUMMARY
Copyright 2005, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.