Winchester's Model 70: The Rifleman's Rifle

By Chuck Hawks

Model 70 Super Grade
Win. Model 70 Super Grade. Illustration courtesy of U.S. Repeating Arms Co., Inc.

The Winchester Model 70 is one of the best known rifles in the world. It is probably equaled only by the Mauser 98 as a revered icon among bolt action rifles.

The Model 70's immediate predecessor was the Model 54. The Model 54 was produced from 1925-1936. But the M-54 had some drawbacks, chief among them a bolt, safety, and stock not designed for use with telescopic sights. Early Model 54's had no gas escape port, although this was corrected in later production. So in 1936 Winchester introduced a similar but revised and improved rifle, the famous Model 70.

The Model 70 corrected the faults of the Model 54 and was produced from 1936 to 1963 with only relatively minor changes. During this time the Model 70 became a legend in its own time, the favorite hunting rifle of a plethora of knowledgeable sportsmen and gun writers of the era who sang its praises. The Model 70 also became the favorite American action on which to base a fine custom sporter. The pre-1964 Model 70 is now a collector's rifle, particularly in scarce calibers, and specimens in excellent or better original condition bring high prices on the used market.

Between 1936 and 1963 the Model 70 was built in a number of variations and calibers. Not all calibers were available in every variant. Models included the Standard Grade, "Carbine" (not an official designation, but a short 20" barreled Standard version produced between 1936-1946), Featherweight, Super Grade, Super Grade Featherweight, Super Grade African, National Match, Target, Bull Gun, Varmint, and Alaskan. Calibers included .22 Hornet, .220 Swift, .243 Winchester, .250 Savage, .257 Roberts, .264 Winchester Magnum, .270 Winchester, 7x57 Mauser, .300 Savage, .308 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, .300 H&H Magnum, .300 Winchester Magnum, .338 Winchester Magnum, .35 Remington, .358 Winchester, .375 H&H Magnum, and .458 Winchester Magnum. A few Model 70 were produced to special order in 7.65mm Argentine and 9mm Mauser, based on left over Model 54 barrels. These are very rare, and along with specimens in .250 Savage, 7x57, .300 Savage, and .35 Remington command premium prices. The more recent .358 Winchester, available only in the Featherweight model, is also a rare caliber.

Pre-1964 Model 70's usually had 24"-26" barrels and were equipped with open sights. The action has a flat bottom, two front locking lugs, an excellent single stage adjustable trigger, a full length Mauser-type extractor, fixed ejector, and a steel trigger guard and hinged magazine floor plate assembly (aluminum in Featherweight models). The breech was coned for smooth and reliable feeding and enclosed the cartridge head to the extractor groove. The Magazine capacity was 5 rounds for standard calibers, 4 rounds for .300 and .375 H&H, and 3 rounds for Winchester Magnum calibers. Checkered walnut pistol grip stocks were universal. Standard rifles weighed about 8 pounds. Post WW II production was usually drilled and tapped for scope mounts. I have read that production of Pre-1964 Model 70's stopped at serial number 581,471.

Super Grades usually have jeweled bolts, fancy grade walnut stocks with a raised cheekpiece, deluxe wrap around checkering, black forearm tips and black pistol grip caps. "Super Grade" is marked on the floorplate.

For all of its vaunted reputation, the pre-1964 Model 70 was not perfect. The Standard Grade rifle came with a 24" medium contour barrel in standard calibers like .270 and .30-06 and had a substantial stock. Add a scope and mount and it usually weighed in at around 9 pounds, empty. Of course, the weight minimized recoil while the long and relatively stiff barrel got full velocity from its cartridges and had a fine reputation for accuracy, but shooters began to think it was too heavy. Also, more modern rifles like the Weatherby Mark V and Remington 721, 725, 700 series fully enclosed the cartridge head and were therefore stronger. From Winchester's point of view its biggest flaw was that it was relatively expensive to mass produce given the technology of the time.

In 1964 a revised Model 70 was introduced. This new Model 70 retained some of the good features of the pre-1964 Model 70, but was in fact a new action. It was a stronger and more modern action that was more economical to produce. The pre-1964 Model 70, like all Winchester rifles designed prior to WW II, required a lot of hand labor. The new Model 70 introduced labor saving innovations intended to keep it competitive in price with Remington and Savage bolt action rifles.

To put it mildly, the new rifle was not an immediate success. Some of the Model 70's biggest fans were bitter about the changes, and castigated the new model in print. Jack O'Connor, who had helped popularize the pre-1964 Model 70, put it this way in his The Rifle Book:

"Sometime in the very early 1960's I was informed by Winchester brass that the Model 70 was being redesigned. I told them I was glad to get the information so I could lay in four or five more before they loused the rifle up."

"Then I saw the pilot model of the 'New Model 70.' At the first glimpse I like to fell into a swoon. The action was simplified, the trigger guard and floor plate made of a flimsy-looking one-piece stamping. The stock had stodgy lines and no checkering, and the barrel channel was routed out so much a herd of cockroaches could hold a ball below the barrel. On my first glimpse of the 'New Model 70' I was surrounded by the designers and by Winchester brass. I told them the creation would not sell, that it was one of the ugliest rifles I had ever seen."

Before the new Model 70 was introduced to the public, Winchester took some of this criticism to heart and substituted the aluminum trigger guard and magazine floor plate assembly from the previous Model 70 Featherweight. They impressed a moderate amount of (reverse) checkering into the stock, and cleaned up its lines somewhat (but not enough). The soaring barrel remained, as Winchester was committed to using a free floating barrel on the new Model 70 and had over estimated the gap required.

The new Model 70 abandoned the full length extractor and fixed ejector of its predecessor in favor of a smaller claw extractor and a plunger ejector in the bolt face (similar to the Weatherby Mark V). Thus it became a "push feed" rather than a "controlled feed" action. There were never any feeding or ejection problems with the new Model 70, but Winchester was roundly criticized for abandoning controlled feed.

The case head was completely enclosed in the new action, which was stronger than its predecessor. The much copied three-position safety was retained, as was the adjustable trigger. The machined, flat bottomed action had a large, integral recoil lug. In the event of a ruptured case it handled escaping gas well. The polishing and bluing remained good, the bolt was jeweled, and the stock had a high gloss finish. However, the new action's good points were overlooked and, as Jack O'Connor had predicted, the new Model 70 did not sell very well. Within just a few years the stock was slimmed some more, the barrel channel gap was reduced, and the impressed checkering diamonds became positive.

About 1972 the Standard Model 70 rifle, particularly the stock design, was again revised. The pistol grip stock was entirely redesigned, becoming slimmer and more shapely with a restrained Monte Carlo comb and sculpted cheekpiece. It was decorated with a generous amount of well executed cut checkering in a traditional Model 70 pattern and a black forearm tip and steel pistol grip cap, which were set off by white line spacers. The durable satin stock finish looked great, and detachable sling swivels were included.

Jack O'Connor was an honest man, and he freely praised the newly revised version of the Model 70 in print, announcing that the Model 70 was back. I had the temerity to telephone the great man (who didn't know me from Adam) to discuss the revised Model 70 with him, and he politely answered my questions and shared with me some of his vast experience. Unfortunately, many of his fellow gun writers of lesser stature were unwilling to revise the anti-new Model 70 position to which they had publicly committed themselves.

The revised Model 70 Standard rifle looked much like the current (circa 2002) Super Grade, but of course it came stocked in standard grade walnut. I regarded it as the best looking mass-produced rifle of its time, and I still do. Never the less, Model 70 sales continued to lag behind the Remington Model 700, which had become the top selling bolt action rifle in the U.S., even though it incorporated more cost reducing measures in its design than the new Model 70. Winchester had committed the unpardonable sin of tampering with a legend, and few shooters were willing to cut them any slack.

In 1974 I purchased a new Model 70 Standard rifle in .270 Winchester caliber. It came with a medium weight 22" barrel, adjustable iron sights, and a jeweled bolt with a knurled bolt handle. It measured 42.5" overall with a 13.5" length of pull, and weighed 7.5 pounds. The metal finish was a well-polished deep luster blue. I mounted a Weaver K4 (4x) scope in Weaver mounts and rings.

About that time I ran across a late pre-1964 vintage Model 70 in like new condition, and I was surprised to find that my revised new Model 70 was a much more handsome rifle in every way, not to mention stronger and more accurate. The standards had changed without my realizing it, and the legendary pre-1964 Model 70 looked dated and plain.

At the range I found that the new Model 70 would average three shot groups of about 1.5" at 100 yards with 130 grain Hornady factory loads (which this rifle favored) or my equivalent handloads using the same 130 grain Hornady Spire Point bullet. Occasionally I would do everything just right and a group of around 1" would be the result. I never had any sort of malfunction with the Model 70, and at the range you could feed a cartridge directly into the chamber and close the bolt (which is not possible with most controlled feed rifles).

In 1992 Winchester again revised the Model 70 action, this time restoring the full length extractor, receiver mounted ejector, coned breech, and controlled round feed (CRF) while retaining the other good features of the push feed Model 70 action. The new, revised action became the heart of the Classic models, available in many variations, which now constitute the bulk of the Model 70 line. There are super-short, short and standard length Model 70 Classic actions.

The Classic controlled feed Model 70 action was designed from the outset for a hunting rifle, not adapted from a military or target rifle. Its coned breech ensures smooth and reliable feeding, the full length Mauser style extractor grabs a big slice of the rim of the case, and the fixed blade-type ejector allows reloaders to remove their brass by hand if they so desire. The flat bottomed action is partly glass bedded and the integral recoil lug is substantial. With the bolt back the opening is large and thus the action is easy to reload rapidly. The Model 70's 3-position safety is highly regarded by most users and has been widely copied.

The Model 70 Classic action is perhaps the finest Mauser pattern, two front locking lug, bolt action ever mass produced for a hunting rifle. It offers just about everything the aficionado of such actions could want, including strength, accuracy, and exceptional feed reliability. It is the odds-on choice among bolt actions for ultra-critical hunting applications such as rifles for hunting dangerous game.

But the push feed action is still available (2003) in three somewhat less expensive models. These are called the Coyote (a bean-field type rifle with a brown laminated stock), Stealth (Kevlar/fiberglass stock), and Black Shadow (composite stock).

In 2003 Winchester announced a new super-short Model 70 action designed for the equally new WSSM cartridges. This new action is approximately .5" shorter than the previous short Model 70 action and is offered in Coyote, Super Shadow, and Featherweight models. The Featherweight and Super Shadow versions come with 22" barrels and weigh about 6 pounds. The Coyote weighs 9 pounds and is supplied with a 24" barrel in all calibers.

The Super Shadow and Coyote models in WSSM and WSM calibers now feature a new "controlled round push feed" (CRPF) action. This action variation uses the extractor of the push feed rifle in a modified bolt face that no longer completely surrounds the case head, and the fixed ejector of the Classic model. This change was apparently required to get any sort of adequate feed reliability from the stubby WSSM cartridges, and is also being used for the WSM cartridges (which have their own feeding issues). The supposition is that this new CRPF action will eventually replace the old push feed action in the Model 70 line.

The new CRPF Super Shadow and CRF Ultimate Shadow models features a composite stock with rubberized grip surfaces and an energy absorbing butt pad. Rather than checkering the rubberized grip surfaces incorporate large, oval-dots in two sizes, rather like a rubber shower mat. There are swoopy lines molded into the plastic stock to accent the contour of the cheekpiece and forearm. These are certainly the most bizarre looking Model 70's ever introduced, and make the much maligned 1964 version look quite restrained by comparison!

In 2003 Model 70 Classic controlled feed models include the Featherweight (named the "Bolt Action Rifle of the Century," with some justification), Super Grade, Safari Express (the former African), Compact (a "mountain rifle"), Sporter LT (the former Standard), Laminated, Stainless (Composite), and three variations of the new Ultimate Shadow. There are left handed versions of the Sporter LT and Featherweight. The Stainless and Ultimate Shadow versions come with synthetic stocks, the Laminated comes with (guess what) a brown laminated wood stock, and the rest come with walnut stocks. Model 70's are made in a wide range of calibers from .223 Remington to .458 Winchester Magnum, although not all calibers are available in all models.

Olin/Winchester never really recovered from the negative reaction to the changes of 1964, and in 1981 Olin sold the rights to manufacture Winchester firearms to the newly created U.S. Repeating Arms Company. U.S. Repeating Arms made every effort to remain true to the Winchester heritage, and the Classic controlled feed Model 70 rifles are evidence of that.

After that the corporate history becomes a bit confusing, at least to me, as I am no businessman. From what I can gather, Winchester Repeating Arms was acquired by the Belgian Herstal Group (Browning/FN) in 1990. In 1992 the French company GIAT purchased the Herstal Group and in 1997 the Herstal Group was purchased by the Walloon region of Belgium (where the FN factory is located in the town of Herstal).

The corporate offices of both Browning and Winchester are now located in Morgan, Utah in the U.S.A. Unfortunately, in March 2006 the Winchester plant in New Haven, CT was closed as unprofitable. This brought production of Model 70 (and Model 94) rifles to an end, at least temporarily.

However, in 2008 it was announced that production of the Model 70 would resumed in the FN/Browning factory complex in Columbia, South Carolina, in a dedicated Winchester portion of that facility. New Model 70's finally became available to consumers in mid-2009.

These are made to the ISO 9001 standard of quality. The classic Model 70 controlled feed action is retained, the only significant change being the replacement of the very good original Model 70 trigger with the new and even better MOA trigger. These new Model 70's are built to the highest standards of precision and accuracy ever in the history of the Model 70.

Through all the changes, the Winchester Model 70 has remained a top quality firearm and an international legend. It still deserves the title, "The Rifleman's Rifle."

Note: Complete reviews of the Model 70 Lightweight Carbine, Classic Featherweight, new (produced in SC) Super Grade and Jack O'Connor Tribute Rifle may be found on the Product Reviews page.

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Copyright 2003, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.