The Winchester Model 71 .348 Lever Action Rifle

By David Tong with Chuck Hawks

Original Winchester Model 71 Deluxe
Original Model 71 Deluxe Rifle.

I do not consider myself a disciple of the lever-action rifle. Mostly, I have owned and shot military or sporting bolt action and semi-automatic rifles.

Until my exposure to the Model 71, my personal lever action experience had been limited to the Browning M92 in .44 Magnum, Marlin Model 1895 in .45-70, Winchester Model 94 in .30-30 and Winchester Model 95 in .30-40. I preferred the Marlin, because of its solid top receiver and locking system.

Most lever action rifles had ergonomic flaws for my physical stature. The stocks were relatively short and they had too much drop at comb and heel for my slender face to establish a quick cheek weld with iron sights, let alone an elevated telescopic sight. In addition, the crescent (rifle) butt plates on early examples of some of these rifles made firing hard kicking cartridges punishing. The M95 was especially bad in this respect, even with the old .30-40 Krag round.

Consequently, I pretty much ignored the lever action for thirty-some years and did not miss them. However, when I picked a Model 71 off the shelf at my local gun dealer and shouldered it for the first time, I realized that if I ever wanted another lever action rifle, this had to be the one.

Incidentally, unlike previous Winchester lever action rifles, the 71's nomenclature is not date based. It was simply the next rifle designed after the Model 70 bolt action, thus it became the Model 71. 47,254 Model 71s were manufactured between 1935 and 1957.

The Model 71 is based on a simplified (for more efficient production) version of the John Browning designed Winchester Model 1886. The 1886 was the largest of the Winchester lever rifle actions. Its action was made to use the largest black powder cartridges of the day, including the .45-70 and up to the .50-110 WCF. The .50-110 was introduced as a big-game round in 1899 and survived in the Winchester ammo catalog until 1935.

Later, the 1886 was chambered for the .33 WCF, a medium bore cartridge designed for use with smokeless powder. It was this specific rifle/cartridge combination that the Model 71 and its .348 WCF cartridge were intended to replace.

One of the Model 71 improvements was to replace the original leaf mainspring (hammer spring) of the 1886 to a more durable coil spring, which made cocking the hammer lighter and the trigger pull smoother. In addition, the Model 71 was fabricated from Winchester Proof Steel. This is harder wearing and took a better blued finish than the earlier nickel steel used in the Model 1886.

All metal parts were machined from steel. Locking the action is achieved by dual, vertically sliding lugs in receiver raceways that engage matching cut-outs in both sides of the bolt when the bolt is fully forward (closed). This is the same strong system used in the Model 1886 and it is a very smooth action. The exposed hammer has a quarter cock safety notch. The open top receiver ejects upward by means of a fixed ejector, making conventional (receiver top) scope mounting impractical. However, an off-set side mount could be used.

Model 71 rifles came with a round 24 inch barrel and short rifles (carbines) were supplied with a round 20 inch barrel. Barrels were rifled one turn in 12 inches. The Model 71 was provided with a tubular "half magazine" that held four cartridges and protruded only a couple of inches from the front of the forend.

Both Standard and Deluxe grades were offered. The Standard had a smooth walnut pistol grip stock, while the Deluxe featured four panel checkering on the pistol grip and forend, a pistol grip cap, detachable sling swivels and (on pre-war guns) a bolt-mounted aperture sight. On both grades the external metal surfaces were polished and blued, the flat (shotgun) buttplate was checkered steel, the wood finish was lacquer and the forend was secured by a blued metal cap.

Early Model 71s featured a long receiver tang, as Winchester had concerns about the heavy recoil and they wanted to reinforce the buttstock at its weakest point, the wrist. Post World War II examples used the so-called short tang and the stock's shape was broadened and lengthened. The new stock accepted the Model 70's buttplate, which improved gun mounting.

The .348 cartridge and the Model 71 rifle were designed for each other and the only rifle ever produced in .348 was the Model 71. This rimmed, bottleneck, centerfire cartridge is based on a necked-down .50-110 case. It features considerable body taper and a 19-degree, 4-minute shoulder. The maximum case length is 2.255 inches, the maximum cartridge overall length is 2.795 inches and the rim diameter is a whopping .610 inch. The case will hold about 76 grains of water.

The .348's elegant tapered case ensured a very smooth feeding and chambering cycle in the Model 71. Indeed, the M71 fed those big rounds like water through a funnel.

This unusual cartridge actually uses .348 inch diameter bullets, making it a true .34 caliber (.340 bore diameter, .348 groove diameter). It is the only commercial .34 caliber cartridge.

Many have wondered why Winchester chose this unusual bullet size. I suspect it was simply that Winchester wanted something new. Winchester had chambered the previous Model 1886 for .33 Winchester (.338 inch bullet) and the Model 1895 for .35 Winchester (.358 inch bullet). The new Model 71 rifle and its in-between .348 caliber cartridge were intended to replace both.

Making the cartridge a .35 would certainly have made life easier for reloaders, as many bullets are available in .358 inch diameter and very few in .348 inch. In the 1950s, when designing the .348's replacement, Winchester did go to a true .35 caliber bullet and the result was the .358 Winchester.

.348 factory loads were offered with 150 grain (MV 2890 fps), 200 grain (MV 2530 fps) and 250 grain (MV 2350 fps) jacketed flat point hunting bullets. The 150 grain deer load exhibited poor sectional density and a low ballistic coefficient that caused it to rapidly shed velocity. The 250 grain load developed a reputation for excessive recoil, so most hunters settled on the middle weight, 200 grain bullet. In 1962, the 150 and 250 grain bullet weights were discontinued. A 200 grain Power Point bullet (SD .236, BC .246) is the only one of the three still loaded by Winchester today.

For many years, Remington offered .348 ammo using a 200 grain Core-Lokt soft-point bullet with the same ballistics as the Winchester 200 grain load, but this load was discontinued in the late 1970s. Buffalo Bore currently offers a Heavy .348 factory load using an Alaska Bullet Works 250 grain bonded core FP bullet (SD .295) at a MV of 2250 fps with 2810 ft. lbs. ME.

The current Winchester Super-X .348/200 grain factory load (X3484) advertises a muzzle velocity of 2520 fps and muzzle energy of 2820 ft. lbs. from a 24 inch rifle barrel. Expect around 100-150 fps less from a 20 inch carbine barrel. At 200 yards, the 200 grain Power Point is still rolling along at 1866 fps and packing 1546 ft. lbs. of kinetic energy (Winchester figures).

Trajectory tables show that when zeroed at 200 yards, the 200 grain Power Point bullet strikes 2.9 inches high at 100 yards and 13.0 inches low at 300 yards. That makes its maximum point blank range (+/- 3 inches) about 233 yards.

These ballistics can be replicated by reloaders with a supply of .348 brass. The Hornady Handbook, 9th Edition shows a maximum velocity of 2500 fps using their 200 grain InterLock flat point bullet (BC .246) or FTX spitzer bullet (BC .320). Although several powders produce satisfactory results, the Hornady Handbook particularly recommends IMR 4320 and IMR 4350.

The .348 was originally intended as an all-around woods cartridge for use on Class 2 and Class 3 North American big game (from deer to moose). However, while the .348 is not as vicious a kicker as most modern Magnum cartridges, it is hardly trifling. The cartridge's considerable recoil, especially in the carbine model, and the substantial weight of the Model 71 rifle, limited its popularity as a deer cartridge in the lower 48 US states. It ultimately made its reputation for use on large (Class 3) animals and the cartridge was well regarded in Alaska and Canada.

I had one brief range session and fired one box of the relatively rare .348 cartridges. I remember shooting two to three inch groups at 100 yards, which seemed pretty good for barrel-mounted open sights. I fully expect an aperture sight would allow tighter groups.

The Model 71 rifle was brought back as a limited production item by Browning in 1986-1987 (some 13,000 units produced) and by Winchester in 2011-2013. These rifles were built by long time Browning/Winchester partner Miroku of Japan and came with holes drilled and tapped in the left side of the receiver for Lyman or Williams aperture sights. Fold down the barrel mounted open sight and reserve it for back-up.

2013 Model 71 Deluxe
2013 Model 71 Deluxe. Illustration courtesy of Winchester Repeating Arms.

The latest Winchester/Miroku Model 71 carried a 2013 MSRP of $1469.99 for the Standard model (with a select walnut stock) and $1659.99 for the Deluxe model (with a Grade IV walnut stock and cut checkering). A sliding, top tang safety and a rebounding hammer were added to these most recent Model 71s. Other specifications include a 24 inch round barrel, four shot half magazine, 43-1/8 inch overall length, 13-1/4 inch length of pull, 1-1/8 inch drop at comb, 1-1/2 inch drop at heel and eight pound weight (empty).

The Model 71 was the last of the classic Winchester lever guns. (The streamlined Model 88 lever action of the 1950s was designed with a front locking rotary bolt, one-piece stock and detachable box magazine; it was essentially a lever-operated bolt action rifle.) Today, an original Standard Model 71 in 98% condition sells for around $2000 and a Deluxe Model in similar condition sells for around $4000.

The Model 71 represents a cherished and simpler time in America. It is a homegrown invention with direct ties to the Model 1886 and hence the Old West.

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Copyright 2014, 2016 by David Tong and/or All rights reserved.