Winchester Pre '64 Model 94 Classic Gun Review

By Chuck Hawks

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

Surely among the most beloved firearms of all time are the Winchester pre 1964 Model 94 carbines. These graceful little rifles are a study in functional walnut and steel. With nearly perfect lines and balance, they became the best selling sporting rifles of all time.

Unfortunately, by the early 1960s the production costs of the traditional Model 94 with all of its forged steel parts had risen dramatically. Winchester executives realized that soon the Model 94 would have to be priced beyond the reach of the average hunter. This is exactly the fate that befell the classic Mannlicher-Schoenauer carbine, and eventually spelled its doom.

To save the Model 94 and restore a reasonable profit margin, Winchester redesigned the action for cheaper manufacture, substituting stamped sheet metal and roll pins for parts previously machined from forged steel. The steel buttplate became plastic and a less durable metal finish was substituted for the traditional bluing. The new guns still worked and shot just fine despite their aesthetic flaws, but the credibility of the Model 94 took a serious hit, and examples manufactured prior to the 1964 changes became instant classics.

Most of the shortcomings of the post 1963 Model 94s were eventually corrected, but the pre '64 versions remain the most desirable of all Winchester Model 94s. Which brings us to the subject of this classic gun test, a Model 94 carbine manufactured in 1961. This example is in excellent condition. It shows practically no wear, inside or out. The barreled action is finished in a polished blue, and the black walnut stock wears its original gloss lacquer finish.

I happened across this rifle at a gun show a year or so back. I wasn't looking for a Model 94, but the price was more than reasonable. I purchased it on the spot. (The classic definition of a bargain is something you don't need at a price you can't refuse.)

Pre '64 Model 94s eject fired cases up and over the shooter's shoulder when the lever is operated. This precludes a scope mounted to the top of the receiver. The alternatives for scope mounting are an offset side mount, or a "scout type" mount forward of the receiver. I chose the latter, and equipped this rifle with an XS Sight Systems "Lever Scout" mount, Weaver rings, and a Leupold M8 2.5x28mm IER scope. I also had Rocky Hays, our Guns and Shooting Online Gunsmithing Consultant, smooth and lighten the trigger pull to 3 pounds.

Our test rifle is chambered for the popular .30-30 Winchester cartridge, one of the best medium range hunting cartridges ever designed. The Model 94 is the best selling sporting rifle of all time, and the .30-30 is the best selling cartridge. It is hard to go wrong with this combination.

The basic specifications of our pre '64 Model 94 carbine are as follows:

  • Caliber - .30-30 Winchester
  • Magazine capacity - 6 cartridges
  • Barrel length - 20" (round)
  • Twist - 1 in 12"
  • Trigger pull weight - 3 pounds
  • Length of pull - 13 3/16"
  • Length overall - 37 7/8"
  • Weight - 7 1/2 pounds (including scope and mount)

Because this is my personal rifle I have had the opportunity to put a reasonable variety of ammunition through it over a number of range sessions. For this review Guns and Shooting Online Technical Consultant Bob Fleck also did some shooting.

We did our testing 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.

We used a Caldwell Lead Sled rifle rest loaded with a single 25 pound bag of shot for stability. Targets were Outers Scorekeeper 100 yard targets and Outers 100 yard Small Bore Rifle targets. Bob and I fired 3-shot groups at 100 yards. I also fired a couple of reference groups at 25 yards for comparison to an old Winchester Model 1894 carbine (manufactured in 1896) equipped with iron sights that we were testing that same day.

First, for comparison to the old 1895 carbine, I fired two 3-shot groups at 25 yards. For the first 25 yard group I used a reload consisting of a Speer 150 grain Flat Point bullet in front of 33 grains of IMR 3031 powder. This is a full power hunting load that essentially duplicates the standard 150 grain factory load. The three bullets overlapped, forming a cloverleaf that measured 5/16" center to center.

For the second 25 yard group I used a light reload consisting of a Speer 110 grain Varminter JHP bullet in front of 16.5 grains of SR 4759 powder for a MV of about 1895 fps. This load delivered another cloverleaf of overlapped bullets that measured 7/16". The best 25 yard 3-shot group that I shot this day with the old rifle's iron sights (using the 150 grain Remington Core-Lokt factory load) measured 1". The difference between the two rifles was primarily a function of the Leupold scope. Which is why I scope all of my hunting rifles.

Bob Fleck shot the best group of the day with the scoped pre '64 Model 94 using the 110 grain reloads. This 100 yard, 3-shot group measured a tiny 5/16". That is the best group ever fired with this rifle. It is a good, accurate rifle, but it's not usually that good!

The average size of my 100 yard, 3-shot groups with the Speer 110 grain Varminter bullet and 16.5 grains of SR 4759 powder was 1 7/16". My smallest group measured 5/8", and my largest group measured 2 3/4".

3-shot groups at 100 yards using Federal 150 grain factory loads averaged about 1 1/2". The smallest measured a tidy 1", and the largest 2 3/4". This is what I would consider typical for a modern hunting rifle using a 2.5 power scope. Of course, this modern hunting rifle is 44 years old!

The best thing about any Model 94 carbine is its balance and handling qualities. Just handling a Model 94 is a pleasure. Its clean lines, slender receiver, the 20" barrel and full length magazine that help achieve that perfect line and balance, and its blued steel and walnut construction are what make the Winchester Model 94, and particularly the pre '64 Model 94 carbine, the epitome of a hunting rifle.

Note: A complete review of the Winchester Model 94 Trail's End Hunter Octagon can be found on the Product Reviews page.

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