Help with an Antique Winchester Model 1894 Rifle

By Chuck Hawks

I get quite a bit of e-mail, often with questions concerning subjects about which I am not knowledgeable. I am, for example, not a gun collector.

You could probably call me a "gun accumulator," but not a collector. My battery is mostly relatively modern firearms (made in my lifetime) that I happen to like. I do own a few "collectible" firearms about which I have written articles, but they are not part of any coherent collection and, unlike most dedicated collectors, I shoot every one of them.

I have no focus on any manufacturer, or historical period, or particular type of firearm. I guess my interests are too catholic to be that refined.

Despite making this clear in several articles, I continue to get e-mails with questions about obscure or collectible firearms. In almost all cases such e-mails would more appropriately be directed to one collector's association or another.

For those who still read books and can do research in libraries, many of the prominent firearms designers and manufacturers of the 19th and 20th Centuries (Sharps, Savage, Parker, Colt, Winchester, A.H. Fox, Ithaca, Browning, B. Tyler Henry, Sturm Ruger, etc.) have been the subject of detailed reference books. Fjestad's Blue Book of Gun Values is another reference with much useful information beyond gun prices.

Anyway, I recently received an e-mail from a representative of the Bonner County Historical Museum (Sandpoint, Idaho) requesting information about a first year production Winchester Model 1894 rifle in their collection. So many millions of hunters and recreational shooters own Model 94s (including me) that I thought this particular e-mail might be of interest to Guns and Shooting Online readers.

Here is the meat of the e-mail I received:

"I am writing on behalf of the Bonner County Historical Museum in Sandpoint, Idaho. We have in our collection of antique firearms what appears to be a first-year production Winchester Model 94, serial number 3xxx."

"The rifle has generated a couple questions. First, are all early production Model 94s .30-30s? There is no indication of caliber on the rifle. Second, it has a half round/half octagon barrel. Is this typical?"

"The rear site has been knocked out of the dovetail and a peep sight mounted on the stock, just above the grip. I believe that this was a common after market change."

Ordinarily I would suggest the e-mail writer do his or her own research. I am always hard pressed for time to research my own articles. However, I happen to have a fondness for Sandpoint, Idaho and for the Museum there I was willing to do some research, since I own a copy of The Winchester Book, 1 of 1000 by George Madis. This is, perhaps, the ultimate Winchester reference book and it might take them some time to track down a copy.

Hence my reply:

I am not a Winchester collector, although I am a fan of lever action rifles. According to the The Winchester Book by George Madis, the Model 1894 was introduced in November of that year in calibers .32-40 and .38-55. These rifles used barrels of what was called "Winchester Proof Steel."

Winchester was working on producing barrels from stronger and longer lasting nickel steel for two new smokeless powder cartridges they had designed and in 1895 they were successful; the .25-35 and .30-30 were introduced in the Model 1894 with nickel steel barrels. The .25-35, .30-30 and later .32 Win. Special (1902) were all based on necked-down .38-55 cases. The rifles with nickel steel barrels were substantially more expensive, so the .32-40 and .38-55 stayed in the line with proof steel barrels. Either of these caliber could be special ordered with nickel steel barrels at extra cost.

Winchester was always willing to build special order guns in those days, including guns with non-standard specifications, engraving, high grade walnut and special checkering/stock carving. I have seen Model 1894s and Model 94s (I believe the nomenclature changed about 1908) with barrels and magazines longer and shorter than standard and with octagon, half octagon and round barrels in both carbines and rifles. According to Madis, a survey of production records from 1894 to 1932 revealed that 1 in 275 rifles had part-round or special barrels.

The butt treatment also varied, with rifles normally having a crescent (rifle) butt plate and carbines a shotgun butt plate, but either style could be specially ordered. Special sights were also available, both front and rear.

The standard barrel lengths in early Model 1894s were 26" for rifles and 20" for carbines. Round barrels were lowest in price, followed by octagon barrels, which were more popular than round up to serial number 300,000. Half round barrels were the most expensive and are rarest.

Again according to Madis, Model 1894s actually produced in 1894 carried serial numbers starting at 1 and ending with 14,759. As you mentioned, a tang mounted peep sight was a common aftermarket addition, as it is faster and more accurate than the stock open sight. In fact, one of the special order options available from the factory was a tang peep sight.

Since your Model 1894 is an initial production rifle, there are only two calibers it could be, .32-40 or .38-55. The easiest way to determine which is to measure the diameter of the hole in the barrel. Alternatively, try to manually slide a .38-55 cartridge into the chamber. If it fits, the rifle is not a .32-40.

As far as I know the .32-40 is obsolete, but the .38-55 is still factory loaded and is again available in new Model 94 rifles. A full review of one of these new Model 94s in .38-55 can be found HERE.

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Copyright 2019 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.