Made: Winchester Repeating Arms Company 1894-1980, US Repeating Arms 1981-2006, Miroku in Japan 2010-present
Variants: Various rifle and carbine configurations. Models include more than 100 commemorative editions: 64 (Deluxe), 9422 (.22 and .22 WMR), 9410 (.410 shotgun), 71, and Sears Ted Williams Model 100, synonymous with .30-30 (.30 WCF), and numerous rifle and handgun cartridges.
Production: More than 7.5 Million
Original price: Less than $20
Current value: Used pre-1964: $700+; post ’64: $600; commemorative: $700-$1,000+; new $1,700-$2,000
My son’s 1953 Winchester Model 94 .32 Special is a family treasure. I’ll never forget when my father-in-law asked my then 15-year-old to sight it in. Later, when he asked how it was shooting, my son replied, “As good as I can get it.” “That’s good”, his grandfather said, “because it’s yours.” He then poked me in the ribs, and quipped, “For you, it’s just another gun. For him it’s a memory!”
Volcanic Repeating Arms
Our heirloom is also a North American icon. The Model 94 is the most popular high-powered sporting rifle ever produced, especially in .30-30. It reflects the progression of 19th century American firearm technology and manufacturing. Its enduring popularity, however, stems from 20th century marketing.
In 1848, Walter Hunt introduced the Volition Repeating Rifle and “rocket ball” ammunition, with powder in a hollowed-out bullet base. In 1855, Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson added a primer charge, creating the .22 rimfire.
Their company, Volcanic Repeating Arms, produced both a lever-action pistol and rifle. They moved to New Haven, Connecticut in 1856, but the company soon went into receivership. Oliver Winchester, their largest stockholder, bought the bankrupt company and renamed it the New Haven Arms Company in 1857. Plant manager, Benjamin Tyler Henry, modified their rimfire cartridge to create the .44 Henry. He introduced his redesigned rifle, the 1860 Henry, aka “Yellow Boy,” just as the Civil War started. It featured a lever action with a top ejection brass receiver, exposed hammer, and full length tube magazine.
Winchester Repeating Arms Company
After Henry’s failed takeover attempt, Winchester renamed the company the Winchester Repeating Arms
Company in 1866. He “improved” Henry’s design and introduced the Model 1866 Winchester. Winchester refined the design further with the Model 1873 by replacing the brass receiver with iron (and later steel) to fire the more powerful .44-40 cartridge. After test firing every rifle, Winchester began marketing the most accurate guns as “One in a Thousand.” Few were sold, but it added to the allure, especially after the 1950 movie starring Jimmy Stewart.
The Gun that Won the West
While popular on the American frontier, Winchester did not promote the Model 1873 as “The Gun That Won the West” until 1918. To meet the demand for stronger cartridges, like the .45-70, Winchester next introduced a longer, heavier, and stronger version, the Model 1876, which they marketed as the Centennial Model. But, they still could not beat Sharps’ and Remington’s stronger, more accurate, falling blocks.
John Moses Browning’s designs
So, they turned to gun designer John Moses Browning. Following the success of his Model 1885 falling block, Browning incorporated his rear-locking block action on the Model 1886, creating the smoothest of all Winchester actions capable of handling even the .50-110 Express.
Browning then designed the Model 1892 as a smaller lighter version of the 1886 for short-action pistol-caliber rounds, like the .44-40. The 92 soon eclipsed the 1873, to become Winchester’s second most popular lever action.
The Model 1894 (aka 94) is the pinnacle of Browning’s lever-action designs. The first Winchester designed for smokeless powder, it featured a stronger rear-locking bolt, short receiver, and pivoted shell carrier. Despite many variations, the basic carbine model with blued action and barrel, plain straight stock, shotgun-style butt plate, and 20-inch round barrel remains the most popular.
From 1964 to 2005, Winchester also sold more than 1 million 94s in more than 100 special editions to commemorate famous individuals, First Nations, special anniversaries, and organizations. Unfortunately, company owners decided to reduce costs, speed up production, and increase profits in 1964 by using cheaper materials and processes. As a result, pre ’64 guns with serial numbers lower than 2,700,000 are considered better quality and more desirable.
Thankfully, in 1982, Winchester improved the cartridge ejection port to toss the brass to the side rather than the top. This enabled top-mounted scopes for more accurate shooting. Later, new owners reintroduced quality machined parts and incorporated better safeties. Despite the temptation of unique Winchesters, like the Model 95 or the newer 88, I’m going to focus on using this sweet handling little brush gun to hunt deer!
Ken Doherty is a retired teacher, curator, writer, and a long-time resident of Peterborough. He enjoys collecting, target shooting, and hunting with vintage firearms. Contact Ken at: email@example.com
Originally published in the May 2021 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine.