Winchester Model 94 Legendary Frontiersmen .38-55 Rifle

By Chuck Hawks


Winchester Model 94 Legendary Frontiersmen
Promotional photo showing Winchester Legendary Frontiersmen with box.

Following the surprising sales of their 100th Anniversary Centennial '66 Model 94 in 1966, which far exceeded expectations, Winchester brass came to see the issuing of commemorative rifles as a way to boost profits. There seemed to be a collectors' market eager to snap-up limited edition Winchesters and Winchester sought to exploit it. As so often happens when marketing types latch onto a new idea, they ran it into the ground, issuing commemorative after commemorative until these fancy Model 94s became commonplace.

Today, most commemorative Model 94s have little added value over standard Model 94 rifles, unless they are unfired, 100% condition and "new in the box." Even then, the premium is not great. For example, according to Fjestad's Blue Book of Gun Values, the current (2016) price of a standard production Model 94 XTR in 100% condition is $650, while a NIB Legendary Frontiersmen is $895. However, a commemorative that has been fired or shows any wear and lacks its original factory box and papers becomes a "fancy shooter" and commands little, if any, premium over a standard Model 94.

Here at Guns and Shooting Online we believe firearms are made to be enjoyed, which to us means used. Speaking for myself, I purchased a Winchester Centennial '66 .30-30 Rifle when they were introduced, as I thought they were beautiful. Having no interest in the rifle's collector's value, I immediately had a local gunsmith modify a Leupold scope base and drill and tap the barrel to accommodate an extended eye relief Leupold 2x scope mounted in front of the receiver in QD rings. (This was in 1966, long before such an arrangement became known as a "scout scope" set-up, courtesy of gun writer Jeff Cooper.) I threw the box away and hunted extensively with that rifle, finding it to be very accurate.

Jump forward 50 years in time and in 2016 Guns and Shooting Online had an opportunity to acquire a NIB Model 94 Legendary Frontiersmen .38-55 rifle from a local estate sale at a fair price, so we did. No one on the staff is a Winchester collector, but the caliber was appealing. Guns and Shooting Online Gunsmithing Editor Rocky Hays and I have become enamored with the mild mannered .38-55 cartridge and I had been wanting a rifle to serve as a test bed for +P (over pressure) .38-55 loads to explore the cartridge's full potential.

Let me briefly explain, as I generally counsel against exceeding SAAMI pressure limits. The .38-55 (.38 caliber bullet / 55 grains of black powder) was introduced in 1884 for the Ballard single shot target rifle and it quickly became popular as both a match round and a hunting cartridge. It drove a 255 grain bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 1320 fps.

The .38-55 made the transition to smokeless powder and "high velocity" factory loads became available with a MV of 1590 fps. Subsequent "high power" factory loads pushed the MV to 1700 fps and the muzzle energy (ME) to 1630 ft. lbs. Such loads have been discontinued by Winchester, but are perfectly safe in Model 94 rifles in good condition.

When the Winchester Model 1894 lever action was introduced, it was chambered in .38-55. The other famous Winchester cartridges for the Model 94, the .25-35, .30-30 and .32 Special, are all based on a necked-down .38-55 case.

The current SAAMI MAP specification for the .38-55 is 30,000 cup and Winchester factory ammo is loaded below the maximum permissible pressure in deference to black powder rifles chambered for the cartridge. (The Winchester catalog MV/ME for a 255 grain bullet is 1320 fps/987 ft. lbs.)

However, .30-30 ammo is loaded to a MAP of 38,500 cup and happily fired in millions of Winchester, Marlin and Henry lever action rifles. The .30-30 case was formed by simply necking-down the .38-55 case, so the rim size and case head diameter are the same, with the same back thrust area against the bolt face and .38-55 brass is as strong as .30-30 brass. Do you see where I am going with this?

Buffalo Bore Ammunition has been loading Heavy .38-55 cartridges to a MAP of 38,000 cup for about 20 years with no problems. These loads are for use ONLY in modern rifles designed for use with smokeless powder, NOT black powder .38-55 rifles. Buffalo Bore Heavy .38-55 loads claim a MV of 1950 fps and ME of 2153 ft. lbs. and are suitable for all North American game at moderate range.

In 2011, Winchester brought back the Model 94 as a regular production item in .38-55 and we reviewed a new Winchester Model 94 Sporter .38-55 Rifle in 2012. Previously, the easiest way to get a modern .38-55 rifle suitable for use with heavy (+P) loads was to purchase a Model 94 Legendary Frontiersmen (1979), Oliver Winchester (1980), or Chief Crazy Horse (1983) commemorative in the caliber. The total production of these three models, each made for a single year, was 41,997 rifles. These Winchester commemoratives are seldom actually used, but they are excellent and very accurate hunting rifles, as I discovered 50 years ago with my Centennial '66 rifle.

In 1979, Winchester produced 19,999 Model 94 Legendary Frontiersmen rifles in their New Haven, Connecticut, USA factory. The serial numbers ran consecutively from LF1 to LF19999. These post-1964 Model 94 actions were the later type with good steel receivers and improved shell elevators and loading gates. They pre-date the introduction of the Model 94 AE (angle eject for scope mounting, which became standard in 1984), but the top eject receiver is drilled and tapped for mounting receiver (peep) sights.

The Legendary Frontiersmen, fortunately, also predates the introduction of the ugly, receiver mounted, cross-bolt safety mandated by lawyers that appeared in 1992 and was finally replaced by the current top tang safety in 2003. Like all Model 1894 and Model 94 rifles made before 1992, a quarter-cock hammer notch serves as the "safety" for the Legendary Frontiersmen.

The bottom line is that the Legendary Frontiersmen of 1979 is based on the best of the post-'64 Model 94 actions. It is a good rifle built on a good action.

The Legendary Frontiersmen rifle that is the subject of this review is an exceptionally attractive rifle. The antique silver plated receiver and fore-end cap nicely complement the highly polished and hot blued steel barrel, magazine tube, bolt, lever, loading gate, hammer, trigger, butt plate and all external screws. In addition, there is a silver medallion about the size of a 50 cent piece inletted into the right side of the butt stock. This depicts a fight between a buckskin clad frontiersman and an Indian with a tomahawk.

Winchester Model 94 Legendary Frontiersmen Commemorative .38-55 Rifle
Engraved receiver and Fleur-de-lis checkering. Photo courtesy of JackTheDog.

Both sides of the receiver are nearly 100% covered with engraving. The right side of the receiver pictures a standing grizzly bear, a frontiersman in buckskin greeting two Indians on horseback, a rattlesnake and a beaver. The left side of the receiver features a fierce bald eagle about to grab a jack rabbit with its extended talons and a mounted frontiersman leading his pack mule through high country with a second mounted frontiersman following.

Both sides of the receiver are complemented by American style scroll and borders. This roll engraving is unusually well executed and, when examined under a loupe', appears to have been touched-up by hand.

The receiver top tang is stamped "Model 1894 WINCHESTER." The serial number is stamped in the bottom front of the receiver. The right side of the barrel bears a silver-filled "Legendary Frontiersmen" script.

The well matched stock and fore-end of the test rifle are carved from very nice, semi-fancy walnut with attractive grain and figure that is close to being full fancy grade. (It is much better wood than shown in the photo at the top of this page.) The extensive, hand cut checkering wraps around both the straight hand stock and fore-end in a fancy, Fleur-de-lis pattern. The wood to metal fit is very good. Winchester obviously put a lot of time and attention into the manufacture of these rifles, which I consider to be among the most attractive of the Model 94 commemoratives.

Specifications

  • Caliber: .38-55 Win.
  • Barrel: Round, 24 inches
  • Twist: 1 in 15 inches
  • Barrel finish: high polish bluing
  • Magazine: Full length under barrel
  • Magazine capacity: 7 rounds
  • Sights: Semi-buckhorn rear, blade front
  • Receiver: Roll engraved w/antique silver plated finish; drilled and tapped for aperture sights
  • Stock: Semi-fancy black walnut w/silver medallion, satin finish; blued rifle butt plate
  • Checkering: Hand cut, wrap around, Fleur-de-lis style
  • Fore-end cap: Antique silver finish
  • Weight: 6-3/4 pounds
  • Overall length: 42-1/2 inches
  • Length of pull: 13-1/2 inches
  • Country of Origin: USA
  • 1979 MSRP: $425
  • 2016 Value, 100% NIB: $895 (per Fjestad's)

The operation and feel of the action is like any standard Model 94. I measured the trigger pull at 4-1/2 pounds per my RCBS pull scale. The single stage trigger pull is smooth with very little creep.

Since this rifle was to be a shooter and I abhor semi-buckhorn sights, I removed the rear sight and replaced it with a Williams receiver mounted aperture sight. (The open rear sight must be removed to clear the sightline of the aperture sight.) The stock front sight incorporates a fine brass bead that allows precise aiming. The result is a faster and more accurate aiming system that is also far easier and more precise to adjust.

Having installed a receiver sight, it was time to take the Legendary Frontiersmen to the rifle range to see how it shoots. As usual, I did the test shooting at the Izaak Walton outdoor gun range south of Eugene, Oregon. G&S Online staff members Rocky Hays, Jim Fleck and Robert Fleck were there to provide assistance, although I did all of the shooting for record myself with Winchester Super-X factory loads. These use a 255 grain Power Point (JSP) bullet at a MV of 1320 fps.

After first adjusting the sights at 25 yards, I moved back to 50 yards to shoot some three shot groups from a solid shooting bench using a Lead Sled DFT rest. 50 yards is my usual shooting distance with iron sights, due to the inadequacies of my Mark 1 eyeballs. Multiply the 50 yard group size by two to get the equivalent 100 yard group size.

The resulting groups with the Legendary Frontiersmen averaged a surprising (at least for me using iron sights) 15/16 inch, or slightly under 2 MOA. As expected, this is an accurate rifle!

It is also a beautiful rifle in any company. Model 94s are sleek rifles, partly due to their slender fore-ends and thin, relatively low receivers. (The latter is achieved by an internally pivoted lever and open top receiver.) The Legendary Frontiersmen's 24 inch round barrel and straight hand stock serve to emphasize the design's inherently fine lines.

I did a little online research and found several Legendary Frontiersmen NIB for sale at or a bit below the Fjestad's price. If you want a modern .38-55 "fancy shooter" at a reasonable price, the Legendary Frontiersmen fills the bill.

Note: This review is mirrored on the Product Reviews index page.




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Copyright 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.


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