If there exists a more iconic rifle than the Winchester Model 1894, it would be very tough to argue. Who of us raised on John Wayne and Clint Eastwood westerns didn’t spend many an hour pining for a rifle just like the ones they used on the silver screen? In George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead what rifle did the protagonist find and arm himself with against hordes of the undead? That’s right the Winchester ‘94! There are precious few weapons which enjoy such widespread recognition as does the model ‘94 and with good reason too.
According to my research, my own rifle was manufactured in 1902. Some events in those days included Theodore Roosevelt assuming the office of U.S. President following the assassination of President McKinley late in 1901. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid making their move to Bolivia to start over and Tom Horn was on trial in Wyoming for murder. This was a year before Henry Ford established his automobile factory in Detroit, 10 years before the Titanic sank, 12 years before the Great War began in Europe, and 16 years before the Spanish flu claimed nearly one third of the world population. On a more local note, 1902 is the same year my great-grandmother and her twin brother were born. As children they rode horses to school often passing Native American encampments along the South Fork of the John Day River.
Times have surely changed but thankfully some things, like old leverguns only seem to get better with age. My rifle, pictured above is a Winchester Model 1894, caliber .25-35 WCF. When it was first introduced you could get an 1894 in only the .32-40 and .38-55 calibers while the .25-35 and .30-30 made their debut in 1895 and the .32 Winchester Special in 1901. While you will find a few fellas shooting the .32-40 and .38-55 for nostalgias sake, they’ve pretty well went the way of the dodo. By contrast the .30-30 even today remains a top seller especially in the eastern and south eastern states. I know of many who hunt western Oregon with a .30-30 levergun because they need good punch at close range from a rifle that maneuvers quickly in the brush with quick cycling follow up shots at the ready. My best childhood friend and in turn each of his three brothers each took their first buck with their Father’s hand-me-down .30-30 carbine. This has been and always will be the .30-30’s area of expertise.
In later years additional “modern” cartridges like the .307, .356 and .375 Winchester were added to the lineup (while the .32 Winchester Special, .32-40, and .38-55 were dropped) but never achieved the popularity nor the ubiquity of the good old .30-30! While it might seem like all but the .30-30 are headed for obscurity, any of the cartridges chambered in the Model 1894 are unique and useful in their own right.
Although my rifle has been very well used, at 118 years old it still shoots remarkably well. One can still buy factory loaded .25-35 ammo from both Winchester and Hornady but being as it’s expensive and tough to come by, reloading for such a cartridge is a must for more than only occasional shooting. The long 26-inch octagonal barrel pilots the Hornady 117 grain roundnose bullets with exceptional efficacy. In deference to the centenarian status of this fire stick, I keep the loads quite mild. The buckhorn sights, though rudimentary in comparison to the many advances in optic sights since 1902 are still precise enough for shooting deer sized targets to easily 150 yards. With practice one could shoot farther yet. The recoil is super pleasant, practically non-existent and the rifle is a joy to carry.
Whenever I am overcome with feelings of nostalgia, I simply thumb a few cartridges into the spacious tube magazine and take for the hills. On one such early summer foray, while shed hunting I stalked up on a young coyote browsing for vermin. After cycling the raucous lever action, he was riveted on my position. As I took aim he extended his neck trying to pick out the source of the motion. At 40 yards with a single offhand shot it was lights out. The quintessential levergun had spoke once more.
Oh to know the miles it’s covered in a saddle boot, gently rubbing the blueing and walnut finish slowly away with each stride of a horse’s gait. Each trip through the brush inscribing with scratch ding and dent, telling the tale of every hunt in its unique unspoken language. The stories it could tell, the stomachs it has filled. I wonder who it was that bought it brand new. I wonder if they knew it would still be going strong long after they were gone? It is true that if you care for something it will last. It’s also a testament to just how well built these old guns are to see them still in use so many years later. Who knows, maybe my great grandkids will be hefting that old .25-35 to their shoulder for its bicentennial.
The Western Huntsman would like to thank Dale for the article! If you know me, I’m slightly obsessed with my Winchester Model 94 30-30. Lovingly referred to as the HellBitch, she has provided many full freezers for my family over the years!
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