It was John Browning’s Industry, Everyone Else Just Worked in It
The Winchester/Browning guns
John Browning’s first design from Winchester was a world-beater. The famed Ogden gun builder dumped the toggle-link action that originated with the Henry and instead designed a locking-block lever action, producing what was finally an American express rifle, a repeater capable of handling the most powerful cartridges of the late black-powder era. This was the 1886 Winchester, originally offered in the popular .45-70 Government, the .45-90 Winchester Center Fire (WCF) and the steamrolling .50-110 Winchester.
At a stroke, then, Winchester and Browning not only matched Marlin’s .45-70 Model 1881 but surpassed it in the power stakes by offering not only the more powerful .45-90 but the big .50 buffalo gun cartridge. The 1886 was later offered in the .40-82 WCF, .40-65 WCF, .38-56 WCF,.40-70 WCF, .38-70 WCF and finally the smokeless-powder .33 WCF.
The Winchester 1886 would be made until 1935, when it was redesigned and released as the Model 71, chambered for a new generation of high-performance cartridges. But more importantly, the Browning-designed 1886 and its locking-block action was to form the basis for an entirely new generation of Winchester lever guns.
Remember that neat little pistol-caliber carbine the folks at Marlin brought out in 1889? Turns out that three years later, the Browning-Winchester alliance had brought out a competing product, the great Model 92 Winchester, which was to become seen in countless Western movies and television shows. No less than John Wayne favored the 92 in action—packed Westerns, but outside of Hollywood the 92 found a big following as well. Chambered in the .44-40, .38-40, .32-20 and .25-20 WCF rounds. Later, the .218 Bee cartridge would be offered as well.
The ’92 Winchester was and is (the company that calls itself Winchester today has re-introduced the gun, and many companies make replicas) a light, handy little rifle, slick and fast-handling. It’s something of a minor mystery that the ’92 was never offered in the cartridge that the U.S. Army was using in revolvers at that time, the .45 Colt, but the modern Winchester and replica manufacturers have addressed that need. Cimarron makes a big-loop Winchester 92 replica with a 20” barrel in .45 Colt called the Rio Bravo, and best of all, Cimarron’s version lacks the idiotic add-on “safeties” found on the Rossi and Winchester models. They are neat little things, and one of these days I’ll probably buy one.
Winchester and Browning were far from done. Two years later, the first lever gun to properly be called “America’s Rifle” was introduced.
The 1894 Winchester was a slightly elongated version of the 92, released originally chambered in two black-powder cartridges, the .32-40 WCF and the .38-55 WCF. In 1895 Winchester changed the composition of the steel used in action and barrel and released the ’94 in two new smokeless-powder rounds, the .25-35 and the .30-30. This made the 94 Winchester the first repeating rifle to be offered chambered for dedicated smokeless powder cartridges. Finally, in 1899, Winchester also introduced the .32 Winchester Special; it’s a matter of “common wisdom” in the shooting community that the .32’s slower rifling twist and larger bore size was more friendly for black-powder loads and so was intended for hand loaders who had a big store of black powder laying around – or maybe for some stubborn holdouts who thought this newfangled smokeless powder wasn’t really around to stay.
It was with the .30-30 that the Winchester 94 hit its major success. If you mention “Winchester” to most shooters, the ‘94 is the first rifle that will come to mind. The ’94 Winchester in .30-30 is, especially east of the Mississippi, almost synonymous with “deer rifle,” and even today, “.30-30” is damned near synonymous with the Winchester ’94. There are damned few rifle/cartridge combinations better suited to hunting whitetails in thick woods than the fast-handling, agile ’94 chambered for the .30-30. It’s not often a manufacturer hits on such an ideal combination of gun and cartridge.
The ‘94 was so popular, in fact, as to become the first American-made sporting rifle to sell over 7,000,000 copies. The 1,000,000th Model 94 was ceremoniously presented to President Calvin Coolidge; the 1,500,000th copy to President Harry Truman and the 2,000,000th to President Dwight Eisenhower.
The U.S. War Department even bought a quantity of ‘94s during World War 1 and issued them to Army Signal Corps troops stationed in the Pacific Northwest overseeing the harvesting of timber for aircraft. If you can find one of these ‘94s with the Ordnance Corp symbol and “US” stamp, it will command a fancy price from Winchester collectors. In World War 2 the Canadian government bought a number of ‘94s to issue to forces guarding the West Coast against a possible Japanese incursion, thus freeing up the standard Lee-Enfield rifles for Europe-bound troops.
In recent years the fate of the Model 94 has become somewhat mixed, as we’ll discuss in Part 6. But if you can lay hands on a Model 94 Winchester chambered for the .30-30, preferably one made before 1964, you have a world-class timber rifle that will easily handle big whitetails and black bear out to 150 yards or so, and best of all, if you give it even a little care your grandchildren will still be using it for its true and intended purpose.
But only a year after the immortal ’94 burst onto the market, Winchester was to release something different.
In 1895, the final Winchester/Browning lever gun hit the market. The Model 1895 was the first lever-action Winchester designed and produced solely for smokeless powder cartridges; not only that, it was offered chambered in some real powerhouse rounds. Eventually offered in chamberings including the 7.62×54mmR, .303 British, .30-03, .30-06, .35 Winchester, .38-72 Winchester, .40-72 Winchester and .405 Winchester, the 1895 took a step away from what was a piece of Winchester tradition in loading from a box magazine, thus allowing the use of spitzer bullets.
No less a famous – or maybe notorious, depending on who you talk to – sportsman than Theodore Roosevelt favored the ’95, carrying one chambered in the .405 Winchester on outings in North America and Africa. Teddy killed animals up to the caliber of African lions with his “Big Medicine” and often spoke fondly of this new modern lever gun. And like the ’04, the ’95 saw some martial use, as the Russian government bought around 300,000 of them chambered in the 7.62x54R round better known as fodder for the Mosin-Nagant.
So, in the late Nineteenth century and in the opening years of the Twentieth, Winchester truly dominated the lever gun market. But the still weren’t alone. The folks at Savage and Marlin were still patiently cranking out guns.
Savage’s Single-Minded Success
While the original 1895 Savage had been chambered only for the .303 Savage, a proprietary round roughly the equal of the much more popular .30-30 in performance, Savage saw the light quickly. When the 1899 Savage was released, Savage added the .30-30 as well as the .25-35, .32-40 and .38-55 chamberings to the line.
Savage never sold as many guns as Winchester, but they had a latent prize in the 99. It’s beefy, tough action would stand the test of time better than the lighter Winchester guns, as it was better suited for the more powerful smokeless powder cartridges that would be introduced in the early- to mid-Twentieth century. The solid striker-fired Savage, with its signature rotary magazine, cartridge counter and side ejection, would only gain ground as time went on, and the 99 in a wide variety of chamberings is still a common sight in game fields across North America today.
Marlin’s Steady March
During these years Marlin didn’t innovate overly much. The big-bore 1881 was made until 1922. The 1893 and 1894 rifles would continue in production, the 1893 until it was redesigned as the 1936 (later just the 36) and the 1894 and the .22 caliber Model 39 until, well, now.
During these years Marlin seemed content to play second fiddle to Winchester. They sold rifles that were roughly the equivalent to Winchester’s in performance; they were a little cheaper, a little less popular, but they kept Marlin going through to the early Twentieth century, when a key little difference in gun design would begin to give them a slowly-increasing advantage over the 900-pound gorilla in New Haven.
And Then This Happened
In the early years of the Twentieth century, shooters began to see the beginnings of a revolution in sighting equipment. Optical sights – scopes – weren’t really a new thing, having been used to good effect in the Civil War, but the original models were long, cumbersome, heavy and unreliable. But in the early years of the new century, scopes began to become more practical. Improvements in lens-making and in scope bodies would turn the telescopic sight from an expensive novelty to something within the reach of the average shooter. This would tip an advantage away from the company that had dominated the lever-gun market since 1866, as the side-ejecting Marlins and Savages were better suited for scope mounts than the top-ejecting Winchesters.
There was news on the ammo front as well. In 1915, a fellow named Charles Newton (who would by himself be a good subject for a gun article) had been messing around with some groundbreaking bolt guns and designing cartridges for them. In that year he brought out a new cartridge, not a big-bore black-powder thumper but just the opposite; this was a medium-caliber, high-velocity round for the newest smokeless powders that were still coming into the market.
The cartridge came to be known as the .250 Savage or the .250-3000, and it was the first rifle cartridge to break the 3,000 feet per second muzzle velocity level in a factory load.
The .250 Savage was the first but wouldn’t be the last. Gunmakers and shooters were still learning the possibilities of the new smokeless powders. Muzzle velocities and chamber pressures were rising, but American shooters would find gunmakers up to the challenge. Lever guns would be a part of this; as the world moved into the smokeless powder era, old designs would be modified, and new designs would be produced to meet the new ammunition. It was an exciting time to be a shooter. More on this in Part 5.