Winchester Model 1894 Classic Gun Review

By Chuck Hawks

Winchester Model 94
Illustration courtesy of U.S. Repeating Arms Co., Inc.

Probably the most famous, and certainly the most popular, hunting rifle in history is the Winchester Model 1894. The Model 94 was the first sporting rifle to sell over 1,000,000 copies. Sales ultimately totaled somewhere around 7,000,000 before the Model 94 was discontinued when the U.S. factory was shut down in 2006. No other sporting rifle has approached those numbers, and it is unlikely that one ever will.

But back in 1894 when John Browning completed his design and Winchester began to market it, none of this success was assured. In fact, the Model 1894 was a ground breaking sporting rifle; the first chambered for the (then) new smokeless powder cartridges. It was a big leap forward, and a big gamble. The Model 1894 could, like the first Colt double action revolvers and many other firearms that were ahead of their time, have been a commercial flop. In which case it would be only a historical footnote today. But, as it turned out, the Model 1894 appeared at exactly the right time, and the rest is history.

Since the Model 94 has been produced for 110 years, it has been offered in a bewildering number of variations. I counted 14 versions of the Model 94 in the 2005 Winchester catalog alone! But for this Classic gun test we are going back to the beginning, with a Model 1894 saddle ring carbine (serial #63,xxx) produced in 1896, just a year after the introduction of the .30-30 cartridge for which it is chambered.

The .30-30 Winchester is the cartridge that has became synonymous with the Model 1894 rifle. Introduced in 1895, the .30-30 was the first North American sporting cartridge designed for use with smokeless powder. The .30-30 is a .30 caliber cartridge that was originally loaded with 30 grains of the new smokeless powder, which is the source of its name. The old factory loads used bullets weighing 160-165 grains.

For a time during the early 20th Century the .30-30 Winchester was also known as the .30 WCF (for "Winchester Center Fire"), and occasionally still is. But its original ".30-30" name is the one that stuck and is most commonly used today.

The .30-30 ushered in the modern era of high velocity cartridges. It quickly became the most popular hunting cartridge in North America, and is widely credited with killing more North American game than any other cartridge. It also developed big followings in South America, Europe and Australia, so the .30-30 is a true worldwide rifle cartridge. For a very long time the .30-30 has been the best selling, or one of the best selling, rifle cartridges on the market. It remains so today.

There are a number different of factory loads available for the .30-30, as virtually every ammunition manufacturer offers the caliber. The most typical modern factory loads use a 150 grain bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2390 fps or a 170 grain bullet at a MV of 2200 fps. .30-30 ammunition today is loaded to a SAAMI maximum average pressure (MAP) of 38,000 cup (it used to be higher) in deference to the many old .30-30 rifles still in use--such as our test rifle!

The Model 1894 carbine reviewed for this article is in good mechanical condition. Its original blue metal finish is worn from honest use, but the action is tight and the bore of its 20" round barrel is clean. The black walnut stock with its "shotgun" style steel butt plate also shows wear but is generally in good shape. This rifle could still feed a family, or defend the family ranch, if called upon.

It wears only iron sights, in this case a Marble's semi-buckhorn rear and a blade front sight. The rear sight has one of the smallest and hardest to see "V" notches that I have encountered in a long time. Frankly, it is a lousy rear sight. This traditional type of Model 1894 sighting equipment is not well suited to the middle aged eyes of Guns and Shooting Online Technical Assistants Bob Fleck, Nathan Rauzon and yours truly, who had to do the shooting.

The basic specifications of our old Model 1894 saddle ring carbine are as follows:

  • Caliber - .30-30 Winchester
  • Magazine capacity - 6 cartridges
  • Barrel length - 20" (round)
  • Twist - 1 in 12"
  • Trigger pull weight - 7 pounds
  • Length of pull - 13"
  • Length overall - 37 3/4"
  • Weight - 7 pounds

We did our shooting at the Isaac Walton rifle range south of Eugene, Oregon. This outdoor facility provides solid shooting benches and target distances of 25, 50, 100 and 200 yards. Due to the iron sights and the limitations of our eyes, we did our shooting at 25 and 50 yards.

We used a Caldwell Lead Sled rifle rest loaded with a single 25 pound bag of shot for stability. Most shooting was at Outers 100 yard Small Bore Rifle targets, which feature an 8" diameter black bullseye. I have learned from sad experience that this is the easiest type of target for me to see over iron sights. The big bullseye helps, at least a little bit.

First, for reference, I fired a 3-shot group at 25 yards with Remington Express Core-Lokt factory loads using a 150 grain bullet at a MV of 2390 fps. These formed a satisfying (for me using that horrible rear sight) 1" triangular group.

All subsequent shooting was done with reloads, and three different reloads were tried. We fired 3, 4, or 5 shot groups, depending on how well we thought we were doing. (We tended to quit while we were ahead.)

The first of these used the traditional 30 grains of powder (IMR 3031 in this instance) behind a 150 grain Speer Flat Point bullet. With this load the MV should be around 2100 fps and the estimated MAP below 33,000 cup. We did our shooting at 25 yards with this load. Nate's group measured a tidy 9/16" (the best of the day), Bob's group went 1 3/4", and mine strung vertically into 1 3/4". The average group size for all three shooters was 1.35"

The second reload used the Speer 150 grain bullet in front of 33 grains of IMR 3031 powder for a MV (according to the 26th edition of the Hodgdon Data Manual) of 2364 fps. This maximum load essentially duplicates the common 150 grain factory load and is credited with a MAP of 38,600 cup. Bob and Nate did the shooting with this load at 50 yards. Bob put 3-shots into a very credible 1 3/8". Nate put 3-shots into 1 1/8" and 5-shots into 2 1/8". The average for all groups was 1.54", not much larger than the average group size at 25 yards. This reflects the fact that the limiting factor was not the rifle's intrinsic accuracy, but the tiny and difficult to see "V" notch at the bottom of the Marble's semi-buckhorn rear sight.

The third reload we tried in the old Model 1894 consisted of a 110 grain Speer JHP Varminter bullet in front of 16.5 grains of SR 4759 powder for a MV of approximately 1895 fps. This is a mild, reduced velocity load that generates very light recoil. Nate did the honors with this load at 50 yards, producing a 5-shot 3 3/16" group strung vertically. It was vertical alignment that we found most difficult to determine with that old Marble's rear sight.

We all had a good time shooting this old Winchester. It is seldom that we get to take an authentic piece of history to the range and shoot some groups. The experience gave me a renewed appreciation of the inadequacies of the primitive sighting equipment with which many of these old Western rifles were equipped.

Note: There are reviews of modern Winchester Model 94 rifles on the Product Review Page.

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Copyright 2005 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.