Winchester Centennial '66 Rifle

By Chuck Hawks

Winchester Centennial '66 Rifle

1966 was the Winchester Repeating Arms Company's 100th year of operation. To commemorate this occasion, Winchester produced a run of fancy Model 94 rifles. These were based on post 1964 Model 94's actions with a gold plated receiver and forend cap, brass "rifle" (curved) buttplate, saddle ring, and a heavy octagon barrel with a full length magazine that was nicely polished and deeply blued. The straight hand stock was select walnut. All were in caliber .30-30 Winchester.

There were rifle (26") and carbine (20") barrel lengths, and sets of rifle and carbine with consecutive serial numbers were also offered. The point to all of the gold and brass was to make the 1966 Centennial reminiscent of the brass framed Winchester 1866 "Yellow Boy" rifle that was Winchester's first product.

I believe that Winchester intended to make something like 44,000 of these Centennial '66 Model 94's. But a surprising consumer demand, and Winchester's desire to make a buck, resulted in a final combined production total of 102,309 rifles and carbines. The Centennial '66 was quite a hit, and a highly engraved version shared the cover of the 1967 Gun Digest with an equally highly engraved Model 1866 Winchester.

These Centennial '66 rifles and carbines generally showed a high order of fit and finish. The receiver was 24 carat gold plated inside and out, so they were pretty with the action open, too. Here are the basic specifications of the Centennial '66 Rifle:

  • Caliber - .30-30 Winchester
  • Magazine capacity - 8 cartridges
  • Barrel - 26 inch octagon
  • Twist - 1 in 12 inches
  • Sights - Adjustable semi-buckhorn rear and blade front; tapped for receiver sights
  • Length of pull - 13 1/8 inches
  • Drop at comp - 2 inches
  • Drop at heel - 2 3/4 inches
  • Overall length - 44 1/2 inches
  • Weight - 8 pounds

Winchester had issued a factory commemorative in 1964, the Wyoming Diamond Jubilee 94 Carbine, of which only 1501 were made. So the Centennial '66 was their first big commemorative issue. Its startling success paved the way for a long series of commemorative models honoring the Canadian Centennial (1967), various U.S. states, Canadian provinces, famous people, or tied to historical events. Some of these were quite a stretch (the Cowboy Commemorative Carbine of 1970, or the Antlered Game Carbine of 1978, for example) and laid bare the greed behind the whole commemorative business.

Of course, in 1966 when the Centennial '66 was released, all of that was in the unknown future. Winchester's 100th birthday was an event worth commemoration by the Company. In 1966 a new Winchester Model 94 Carbine sold for $84.95, a Marlin 336C sold for $89.95, a Savage Model 99DL sold for $145, and a Centennial '66 rifle or carbine sold for $125, so it was not outrageously priced.

To this day most have never been fired, nor even had their actions cycled. Collectors purchased most Centennial '66 rifles and carbines. To retain its collector's value a commemorative firearm must remain in "new in the box" condition. A shame, as these are good shooting guns, but a questionable investment. The (2005) 25th Edition of Fjestad's Blue Book of Gun Values quotes a 100% condition price of $450 for a Centennial '66 rifle. That sounds like pretty good appreciation until you factor in the inflation that has occurred since 1966!

I purchased a Centennial '66 rifle in 1966. It was new, of course, but I bought the rifle to shoot, not collect. I will admit that its spectacular looks didn't hurt, though. My theory was that its heavy 26" octagon barrel would provide maximum ballistic performance and enhance accuracy. As it turned out, I was perfectly right.

That rifle could really shoot. The heavy octagon barrel did wonders for the gun's accuracy. Of course, no rifle's accuracy can be fully appreciated without a telescopic sight. And the rifle's top ejection required either an offset side mount or a mount forward of the receiver for an extended eye relief scope. Today the latter would be called a "Scout Rifle" style scope mount, but this was a couple of decades before Jeff Cooper would coin that term.

Never having been much of a fan of side mounts on Model 94's, I chose a Leupold M8-2x EER (extended eye relief) scope with Leupold rings and a quick detachable Leupold base designed to be mounted on the barrel. Naturally, the Centennial '66 rifle was not drilled and tapped for scope mounts, and the Leupold base was designed to fit a round barrel contour. I had Eugene, Oregon gunsmith Jim Felton drill and tap the barrel for me, and he ground the bottom of the base flat so that it could be mounted on the octagon barrel.

My rifle became the first, perhaps the only, Centennial '66 to wear a scope. A writer for a national gun magazine saw the rifle and wanted to do an article about it, but I declined. (Maybe I had a premonition that someday I would write this piece!)

That scope and mount allowed me to take advantage of the rifle's inherent performance advantages. And its performance was excellent. It shot pretty consistent 1.5" three shot groups at 100 yards with my standard handload using a 150 grain Speer flat point bullet in front of 32.6 grains of IMR 3031 powder for a muzzle velocity (MV) of about 2400 fps. Once in a while I'd hold just right and shoot a 1" group. That was my deer and all-around load.

I then worked up a reload using the 100 grain Speer Plinker RN bullet in front of 37.0 grains of IMR 3031 for a MV of around 2800 fps. That was a very effective jackrabbit load.

I also experimented with what I called my "antelope load." This was a long range load using a 150 grain Speer spitzer bullet in front of 32.6 grains of IMR 3031 powder. Due to the pointed bullet and the Centennial '66s tubular magazine, this had to be single loaded directly into the chamber. Once that was done the magazine could be filled with cartridges using flat point bullets for repeat shots. The spitzer bullet shot to the same point of impact at 100 yards as the FP bullet, but gave a flatter trajectory downrange.

If I remember correctly, I zeroed the rifle to put the 150 grain bullet about 3" high at 100 yards to maximize the maximum point blank range of the cartridge. This allowed me to keep up with my buddies who were shooting bolt action rifles in .308 Win. and .30-06 zeroed at 200 yards. With that long barrel and 150 grain bullets I never felt that I was at any particular disadvantage, and I got pretty good at estimating the long range trajectory of that .30-30.

One thing for sure, I had the prettiest rifle among our little group of shooters. In those days none of use could afford a battery of centerfire rifles, so most of us subscribed to the theory of owning one good centerfire rifle, rimfire rifle, handgun, and shotgun rather than a greater number of cheaper guns. Among those good centerfire rifles I remember a Mannlicher-Schoenauer carbine in .30-06 (beautiful, but it kicked like the devil in such a powerful caliber), a Remington Model 700 BDL in .30-06, a Remington 600 carbine in .308, a Marlin 336 in .35 Remington, and some sort of bolt action (Savage?) in 7mm Rem. Mag.

One day during the summer of 1966, a group of us were in the Mojave Desert hunting jack rabbits with our deer rifles. In those days we spent most of our free time hunting in the desert. This particular afternoon we chanced upon one of the old "desert rats" who lived out there. These tough old individualists eked out a substance living by residing in caves, trapping or shooting game, and scavenging a little bit of gold from the various abandoned mines that littered the area. This they used to pay for the few store bought necessities they purchased in tiny semi-ghost towns like Randsburg and the comparative metropolis of Red Mountain.

Anyway, I was carrying my Winchester Centennial '66 rifle when we happened upon this old boy. He had a truly ancient Winchester .30-30, as I recall, and was intrigued by our modern hunting rifles. But the gun that really caught his eye was my Centennial '66 rifle. He was absolutely knocked out by the flashy Winchester. He told me that he had never seen such a beautiful rifle. I let him play around with it a little bit, for which he was very appreciative. I mention this incident only because it was in some ways typical--the Centennial '66 always stood out in a crowd!

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Copyright 2005, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.