Winchester Model 94 Sporter .38-55 Rifle

By Chuck Hawks

Winchester Model 94 Sporter
Illustration courtesy of Winchester Repeating Arms.

In 2011, regular production Winchester Model 94's finally became available again. The new Model 94 is produced in Japan by Browning/Winchester's longtime partner Miroku. It is a very handsome rifle with a traditional polished blue and walnut finish. The new Miroku built Model 94 is certainly the best made and most refined Model 94 we have handled since the pre-'64 model was discontinued. In fact, it is probably the best Model 94 ever. This is one case where moving production overseas served to improve the product. Of course, Japan is a first world country renowned for high technology and fine workmanship. It is not as if the Model 94 is being built in some third world sweatshop by slave labor. This is a high quality product throughout.

The new Model 94 is offered in Sporter (rifle with 24" barrel), Short Rifle (carbine with 20" barrel) and Trails End Takedown (carbine with 20" barrel) versions for 2012. The 20" carbines have round barrels and smooth walnut stocks, while the deluxe Sporter rifle comes with a half octagon/half round barrel and a checkered walnut stock. All three models have full-length magazines and terminate the forend in a blued steel cap, rather than a barrel band. I have always preferred this forend treatment, because I think it is an aid to accuracy, as well as more attractive.

The external metal parts are deeply blued and the straight grip stocks are fashioned from black walnut, as Winchester 94 stocks have always been. The Short Rifle and Trails End Takedown models come with a flat "shotgun" type butt plate, while the Sporter features a steel crescent "rifle" butt plate.

The Trails End Takedown is available in .30-30 Winchester and .450 Marlin calibers, while the Sporter and Short Rifle are offered in .30-30 and .38-55 Winchester. Note that the barrel of the test rifle is marked, "Caliber .38-55 Win. ONLY," presumably a warning to those tempted to try shooting .375 Winchester cartridges. (The .375 Win. is based on a slightly shortened and strengthened version of the .38-55 case. The big difference is the .375 operates at a maximum average pressure (MAP) of 52,000 cup, while the MAP of .38-55 loads should not exceed 30,000 cup.

The Model 94 reviewed here is a Sporter rifle in .38-55 caliber. It uses the latest angle eject (AE) action, drilled and tapped for low and over-bore scope mounting. The Sporter comes with an elegant half-round/half-octagon 24" barrel and a full length magazine that holds eight rounds. The action of this Miroku built Model 94 is nicely fitted and operates smoothly. Obvious care was taken during assembly. Externally, the barrel, receiver and other steel parts are polished to remove all traces of machine work. The deeply blued finish is well done.

Winchester is proud of a number of the new Model 94's more subtle features that enhance operation and function. Some of these represent a return to the old (pre-1964) way of doing things. Among these features is a rebounding hammer, an excellent safety feature. Notable, too, are the round locking bolt trunions that reduce friction, lever slop and ensure smoothness of the lever throw, as per the original Model 94 design. The edges of the lever are radiused for a smoother feel. The lever slot has been improved for smoother operation; it is now more like the original design. There is a relieved area under the bolt (where the top of the hammer rides) for smoother operation when cocking. The loading gate is again being machined from steel, rather than stamped, and the edges are radiused for easy feeding. The cartridge stop inside the action is articulated, allowing cartridges to feed smoothly with no misfeeds or double feeds under the carrier. A steel forend cap replaces the forend/barrel band to enhance both appearance and accuracy. The barrel is button rifled. An adjustable rear sight and Marble flat-faced brass bead front sight are provided.

While we are mentioning sights, I should comment that, while the Marble front sight is a good one, the supplied buckhorn rear sight is horrible. The tiny "U" shaped notch is very difficult to see and the buckhorn arms on each side block the shooter's view of the area around the target. Furthermore, its adjustment is imprecise in elevation and worse in windage. (You must tap the sight laterally in its dovetail to adjust windage.) Anyone who chooses to hunt with open sights needs to replace this abortion with a high visibility rear sight. The side of the Model 94 receiver is no longer drilled and tapped for receiver sights, which is a pity. A peep (or "ghost ring") rear sight is far superior to open sights in both speed and accuracy. Worse, the superfluous tang safety complicates installation of a tang peep sight.

At first, overcome by nostalgia (my first Model 94, purchased while I was in college, wore an aperture sight), I wanted to mount a peep sight on the test rifle for this review. However, it is considerably more hassle than mounting a scope, so I took the easy way out and went with an optical sight. Since I will soon be hunting with the test rife (it is deer season in Oregon as I write these words), a scope is, for any serious hunting rifle, the logical way to go.

Out of the box, the Sporter's trigger released at 4.5 pounds, as measured by my RCBS trigger pull scale. There is considerable light take-up and some over-travel, but the trigger releases with a clean break. This trigger pull weight is about 1.5 pounds heavier than it should be for a hunting rifle in this price class.

New Model 94's are supplied with a tang mounted safety. Any manual safety is superfluous on a new Model 94, since the action incorporates a rebounding hammer. However, the Model 94's tang safety is a minimally intrusive version of these government and tort lawyer mandated devices. It does little harm and can be ignored, unless you want to mount a tang mounted peep sight.

A notable oversight is the failure to provide mounting studs for quick detachable sling swivels. A hunting rifle should have provision for mounting a sling. Fortunately, detachable sling swivel studs for Model 94's are available from the after market.

Winchester stocks, including our Sporter test rifle, tend to straight grips and slender forends. The butt stock has a subtle fish belly curve from receiver to toe. (Not noticeable enough to be unattractive.) This raises the comb slightly to better accommodate users who prefer telescopic sights. The wood to metal fit is good, without any unsightly gaps. The satin oil stock finish is smooth with the wood pores properly filled. The three panel, bordered, laser cut checkering seems to have been done at 18 lpi. It provides a functional gripping surface and looks nice.

Specifications

  • Model: 94 Sporter
  • Item number: 534178117
  • Caliber: .38-55 Win.
  • Barrel length: 24" half-octagon
  • Magazine capacity: 8 rounds
  • Twist: 1 in 15"
  • Sights: Semi-buckhorn rear, gold bead front; receiver drilled and tapped for scope mounts
  • Stock: American black walnut, checkered, oil finished
  • Metal finish: Polished and blued
  • Overall length: 42.5"
  • Length of pull: 13.5"
  • Drop at comb: 1.25"
  • Drop at heel: 1.75"
  • Weight: 7.5 pounds
  • Accessories supplied: Owner's Manual, gun lock, offset hammer spur for use with scope
  • 2014 MSRP: $1400

Weaver bases for the Model 94 AE are cheap and widely available, so that is what I used for scope mounting. I chose Leupold's machined steel, QRW 30mm quick detachable scope rings, since the same type of rings have proven very satisfactory on the .30-30 Model 94 Sporter rifle that we reviewed last year. (See the Product Reviews page for details.)

In the spiffy 30mm Leupold rings I mounted a Leupold VX-R 2-7x33mm riflescope with a Duplex FireDot reticle. (There is a full review of this fine scope on the Scopes and Sport Optics page.) If you have not yet tried one of Leupold's VX-R scopes, you should. At least, when I miss with this rifle, I won't be able to blame it on the sighting system!

The .38-55 cartridge was the first for which the original Winchester Model 1894 rifle was chambered. It started life in 1884 as a black powder match cartridge, but successfully made the transition to smokeless powder when that propellant became available. Its case was subsequently necked-down to form the smokeless powder .30-30, .25-35 and .32 Win. Special, among other cartridges.

The .38-55 became popular in the latter 19th Century as both a match cartridge and a hunting cartridge. The original cast lead bullets were .379"-.380" diameter, while most modern jacketed bullets are .375"-.377" diameter. I have read that modern Winchester Model 94 .38-55 barrels have a groove diameter of .377".

Original .38-55 factory loads launched a 255 grain bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 1320 fps. Later, a High Velocity load using the same weight bullet at 1590 fps was introduced. Finally, a High Power load for Model 94 and other strong actions increased the muzzle velocity to 1700 fps, which developed 1630 ft. lbs. of kinetic energy at the muzzle (ME). Those numbers may not sound impressive by modern standards, but historically the .38-55 was a successful deer, black bear and elk cartridge.

Current Winchester .38-55 factory loads are loaded with smokeless powder to black powder velocity, in deference to old rifles with weak actions (Ballard, Stevens, etc.). The catalog specifications call for a 255 grain Power Point (soft point) bullet (SD .259) at a MV of 1320 fps and ME of 987 ft. lbs. Winchester considers this a Class 2 game hunting load.

We chronographed this load and found that it actually averaged about 1210 fps 10' from the muzzle of our test rifle's 24" barrel. This makes it a about 100 yard deer cartridge. Since the Winchester .38-55 factory load is limited by its remaining energy to about 100 yards for CXP2 game, we zeroed the test rifle at 100 yards.

Reloaders with modern Model 94's can do considerably better. Barnes (255 grain/SD .259), Hornady (220 grain/SD .223) and Sierra (200 grain/SD .203) offer suitable jacketed soft point bullets.

Barnes Bullets data shows a maximum load of 32.0 grains of IMR 3031 powder with their 255 grain Original bullet for a MV of 1623 fps from a 26" barrel. The Lyman 47th Reloading Handbook lists loads up to 1805 fps using 35.0 grains of IMR 3031 powder behind a 255 grain Remington soft point bullet, also from a 26" barrel.

The Hornady Handbook, 7th Edition shows loads up to 1700 fps using their 220 grain FP InterLock bullet with several powders, including 34.7 grains of IMR 3031. Hornady considers this bullet suitable for Class 2 and Class 3 game.

Hornady's loads were chronographed in a Model 94 with a 16" barrel and they state that 20" and longer barrels should produce 80-100 fps higher velocities. I would accept the latter figure for the Sporter's 24" barrel. At 1800 fps from a 24" barrel, the Hornady bullet is delivering 1350 ft. lbs. of energy at 50 yards, 1090 ft. lbs. at 100 yards and 759 ft. lbs. at 200 yards.

Buffalo Bore offers a "Heavy" .38-55 factory load using a 255 grain Bonded Core Soft Point bullet at MV 1950 fps and ME 2153 ft. lbs. This Class 3 big game load should be safe in a new Model 94, but I would avoid it unless I really needed the extra power. (For deer hunting, you don't.) It will make the normally soft recoiling .38-55 a lot less fun to shoot and the 2014 MSRP of $64.54 for a 20 round box will seriously lighten your wallet. However, it should be a good factory load for hunting the big Roosevelt elk of the Pacific Northwest.

We did our shooting for record at the Izaak Walton outdoor range south of Eugene, Oregon. Guns and Shooting Online staffers Gordon Landers, Rocky Hays, Schuyler Barnum, Jim Fleck and myself participated in the test shooting. Our standard testing distance for scoped rifles is 100 yards and we shot our recorded groups with the .38-55 at that distance. All of our shooting was done from a solid bench rest using a Caldwell Lead Sled.

We fired three-shot groups for record with Winchester Super-X, 255 grain Power Point factory loads, graciously supplied by our friends at Winchester Ammunition. Our range day with the Model 94 Sporter was partly sunny with a high temperature of about 60-degrees F. There was a light and variable wind of about eight MPH.

Shooting Results at 100 Yards

  • Win. 255 gr. PP: Smallest group = 1-1/8", Largest group = 3-3/8", Mean average group size = 2.0"

This time out, Rocky and I shot the smallest 100 yard groups (tied at 1-1/8"). The largest group, 3-3/8", was an exception and not typical. As expected with a Model 94, there were no malfunctions.

The recoil of the light Winchester load in the 8.4 pound (with scope and mount) Model 94 Sporter rifle is very moderate (less than 7 ft. lbs.), as is the muzzle blast. It is an exceptionally pleasant gun to shoot. The Model 94's open top receiver makes it easy to single load cartridges, or to clear a jam in the unlikely event one should occur.

We all appreciated the Sporter's smooth action. The radiused loading gate made for exceptionally smooth and easy loading.

No one liked the crescent butt plate for shooting from a bench rest. It provides a classic look, though. This style of butt plate is most functional when the rifle is fired from the offhand standing position.

We all thought the trigger was too heavy and should be lightened to about three pounds. This is an expensive rifle and it deserves a good trigger pull. There is no question in our minds that we could have shot tighter groups more easily with a lighter trigger pull. With some trigger work and a little load development, we are convinced this is a MOA lever action rifle.

Due to its 24" barrel, the Sporter rifle balances about 3/4" forward of the receiver (without a scope), making it slightly muzzle heavy. The effect is to steady the rifle and smooth the swing on moving game, but slow its handling compared to a Model 94 with a 20" carbine barrel. On the other hand, the Sporter is shorter, slimmer and faster than a bolt action rifle with a 24" barrel.

While at the range, another shooter asked about our new Winchester test rifle. He had previously owned a Big Bore 94 in .375 caliber and regretted selling it. (One way or another, we've all been there!) We let him shoot the .38-55 and he loved it, vowing to order one for himself.

Conclusion

The Winchester 94 Sporter's open top action makes it more petite than its primary competition, the Marlin Model 336XLR. It is just as easy to mount a scope on an angle-eject Model 94 as it is on a Marlin 336, so that is no longer a consideration. Both are good hunting rifles, but the current (Miroku) Winchester Model 94's, commensurate with their higher price, are better made and better finished than the competition.

If you are considering a traditional lever action hunting rifle, try a new Winchester Model 94 before you decide. The Model 94 is definitely back and it is a fine rifle.

Note: A review of the .30-30 Model 94 Sporter can be found on the Product Reviews page.




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