Winchester Medium Bore Lever Action Rifles

By Chuck Hawks

This is a brief chronology of the .33 Winchester/Model 1886 rifle, .35 Winchester/Model 95 rifle, .348 Winchester/Model 71 rifle, .358 Winchester/Model 88 rifle, .375 Winchester/Model 94 Big Bore, and .356 Winchester/Model 94 Big Bore cartridges and rifles. These Winchester cartridge/rifle combinations span the time from Winchester's introduction of smokeless powder cartridges in 1895 to the middle 1990's, when the .356 Winchester cartridge was finally dropped as a chambering for the Model 94 Big Bore rifle.

The story starts with the Model 1886 lever action rifle, designed in the black powder era for large black powder cartridges. The Model 1886 was perhaps the most famous of the traditional, large frame, Winchester lever action rifles, and it was chambered for a variety of cartridges including the .45-70. In 1902 the Model 1886, the strongest of the Winchester lever action rifles at that time, was adapted to a new smokeless powder medium bore cartridge called the .33 Winchester (or .33 WCF, for "Winchester Center Fire"). The Model 1886 was produced for many years, and has recently been brought back by Browning/Winchester as a limited edition in .45-70 only. My article The Lever Action takes note of the modern Model 1886.

The .33 Winchester was the first smokeless powder medium bore cartridge to bear the Winchester name. The .33 Winchester, like the powerful Winchester medium bore cartridges that were to follow it, was designed for hunting large North American game. It pioneered the American fascination with powerful .33 caliber cartridges, and used .338" diameter bullets, the same size used in today's .338 Magnums, not the .333" bullets used by most British .33 caliber cartridges.

The .33 Win. can drive a 200 grain Flat Point bullet (SD .250) at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2200 fps. At that velocity the trajectory of such a load should look like this (Hornady figures): +2" at 100 yards, 0 at 150 yards, and -5.2" at 200 yards.

The M-1886 in .33 Winchester was before my time. But in my late teens, while out squirrel hunting, I met an old fellow named Jack. Jack lived alone in a large cabin in a remote wooded canyon. We became friends, or at least friendly acquaintances, as I hunted in the area of Jack's canyon on several occasions. Jack was quite elderly, and his hands visibly trembled, but he could still shoot! Somehow he compensated. One day, knowing I was interested in guns, Jack showed me his Winchester hunting rifle. It was a Model 1886 in .33 Winchester, the first and only time I have encountered an original M-1886 still in use. Jack kept his .33 loaded at all times, but allowed as how he was having trouble finding ammunition (by then .33 WCF ammo had been discontinued for years). A year or two later I happened to spot a somewhat faded box of brand new .33 Winchester cartridges on the shelf in a small country store, and I immediately thought of Jack. That was the only new box of .33 Win. cartridges I have ever seen, as today it would be considered a collector's item.

The Model 1895 rifle was introduced in 1896 and discontinued in 1938. It was a departure from previous Winchester lever action rifles in several ways; the most important being that it was designed from the outset for smokeless powder pressures, not adapted to them as the 1886 had been. It was much stronger than previous Winchester lever action rifles, designed to handle the pressure of high intensity cartridges. It also had a fixed box magazine that allowed it to safely use cartridges with pointed bullets, and the Model 95 was most often seen in small bore calibers like .30-40 Krag, .303 British, and .30-06 Spfd. But it was also chambered for the powerful .35 Winchester and .405 Winchester cartridges, and became famous as a rifle for big and dangerous game. The Model 1895 was brought back as a limited production rifle by Winchester in 2001. See my articles The Lever Action and Big Medicine: The .405 Winchester for additional comments on the M-95.

The .35 Win. was a long, rimmed, big case medium bore cartridge that could give a 200 grain bullet a MV of 2400-2500 fps, a 220 grain bullet a MV of 2300-2400 fps, or a 250 grain bullet a MV of 2200-2300 fps. It was an effective elk and moose cartridge, comparable to the .348 Win. and .358 Win. cartridges that came later.

The .348 Winchester was introduced in 1936 in the Winchester Model 71 lever action rifle. The .348 cartridge was a modernized replacement for the .33 Winchester, and the Model 71 was essentially a modernized and improved version of the old Model 1886 rifle, designed for a smokeless powder cartridge. The Model 71 was the final culmination of the traditional large frame Winchester lever action rifles. Most experts regard it as the best and smoothest of them all.

The Model 71 would be superceded (in 1955) by the modern Model 88 lever gun chambered for the .358 Winchester short action cartridge, and the M-71 rifle was finally discontinued in 1958. A total of 47,254 Model 71 rifles were produced. The .348 Winchester was the only cartridge for which it was ever chambered.

In its heyday the .348 was factory loaded with 150, 200, and 250 grain bullets at MV's of 2890 fps, 2530 fps, and 2350 fps. Only the 200 grain load survives today, and it is still taking elk and moose, particularly in Alaska where it has always been viewed favorably. The .348 is discussed in greater detail in my article The .348 Winchester.

The streamlined, Model 88 with its front-locking rotating bolt and one piece stock was functionally a bolt action rifle operated by a lever, an entirely different gun than the classic Winchesters. Advances in metallurgy and cartridge design would by then allow the smaller .358 Winchester to be just as powerful as the bigger .348 cartridge it replaced, due to increased operating pressure. Unfortunately, the M-88 rifle never really caught on with the shooting public. Every year it was manufactured it was outsold by the much older Model 94 lever action. The M-88 was discontinued in 1973. The Model 88 is also covered in my article The Lever Action.

The .358 Winchester cartridge was introduced with Winchester/Western factory loads using 200 and 250 grain bullets. The 200 grain Silvertip load had a MV of 2530 fps. The 250 grain load has been discontinued, but had a MV of 2250 fps. The 200 grain Silvertip load is still available, but its MV has been reduced to 2490 fps. For more on the .358, see my article The .358 Winchester.

In 1978 the last (so far) of the powerful medium bore Winchester lever action rifles would appear, a reinforced and strengthened Model 94 called the "Big Bore." This new version of the M-94 was chambered for a new, strengthened version of the old black powder .38-55 cartridge called the .375 Winchester. The .375 Win. operates at much higher pressure (50,000 cup) than its black powder predecessor.

There were two factory loads for the .375 Win. when it was introduced. The more powerful of these drove a 250 grain Power Point bullet at a MV of 1900 fps. Its superior sectional density made this the elk load for the .375. The other factory load for the .375 Winchester cartridge is still available from Winchester. This load drives a 200 grain Power Point bullet at a MV of 2200 fps. It is an effective deer and black bear load at short to moderate range. The .375 is covered in greater detail in my article The Interesting .375 Winchester.

In 1982 the M-94 Big Bore was offered in two new calibers, the .307 Winchester and the .356 Winchester (a powerful medium bore cartridge). The small bore .307 is beyond the scope of this article (it is covered in my article The .307 Winchester), but the .356 was based on a case which looked for all the world like a semi-rimmed version of the .358 Winchester. The .356 operates at exactly the same pressure as the .358, 52,000 cup.

The .356 was and is the best large and heavy game cartridge of the original trio of M-94 Big Bore cartridges. Factory loads were offered with 200 and 250 grain Power Point bullets at MV's of 2460 fps and 2160 fps respectively. The .356 is an effective 200 yard big game cartridge.

The .356 cartridge was dropped as a M-94 Big Bore chambering for 1987, but immediately reinstated in 1988. It was dropped from the 94 Big Bore rifle for the second and last time (so far) in the mid-1990's, apparently bringing to an end a century of powerful medium bore Winchester lever action rifles. For more on the .356, see my article The .356 Winchester.

Unfortunately, all three of the 94 Big Bore cartridges were relatively short lived. The M-94 Big Bore itself still soldiers on at this writing, available in a single caliber, .450 Marlin.

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Copyright 2002, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.