WINCHESTER MODEL 70 - 50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)

50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)


If ever there was the epitome of a classic bolt-action sporting rifle, it has to be the Winchester Model 70, an innovative firearm that emerged just as American hunters were starting to embrace the new-fangled crank actions for big-game hunting.

This is Winchester’s current top-of-the-line Super Grade Model 70, featuring fancy grade checkered walnut stock, decorative steel crossbolt for added strength, and pre-’64 style controlled round feeding system. (Photo courtesy Winchester Repeating Arms)

Ever at the forefront, Winchester had already captured much of this audience with its Model 54, its first big-bore bolt-action since the introduction of its .45-70 Hotchkiss Model of 1883. The Model 54 had been introduced in 1925, officially ushering in a new era and by an industry leader previously best known for its lever guns. Initially chambered for the popular Government .30-06 and .270 (a cartridge that had been created especially for the Model 54), Winchester’s new bolt-action enjoyed a fair modicum of success, although it was hampered by a rather sluggish trigger pull and a bolt design that wasn’t always conducive for use with a scope (although, to be fair, scope-mounted sporting rifles were still in their infancy during this period). Nonetheless, competition was catching up and shooting styles were changing; more scopes were being seen afield and newer cartridges were emerging.

Winchester answered this challenge by discontinuing the Model 54, in 1936, and introducing the Model 70 in January 1937. The Model 70 designation was part of a new numbering system, in which Winchester was revamping its older models or introducing newer ones. For example, the Model 69 was a new .22 bolt-action repeater that had been introduced in 1935, while the Model 71, brought out the same year as the Model 70, was an updated version of the Model 1886 lever-action. Thus, the newer models were not named after the years of their introduction (such as the older Models 1873 and 1892).

Rather than being thought of as an “improved Model 54,” the Model 70 was a new bolt-action altogether (although it had its roots in the Mauser 98 design), and was more the result of the Winchester R&D boys having the conversation of, “What are the shortcomings of the Model 54 that we can overcome to make a better rifle?” The result was what the late, highly opinionated but extremely knowledgeable gun writer Jack O’Connor rightfully dubbed, “the rifleman’s rifle.”

For starters, the Model 70 featured a new stock design more attuned to the twentieth century shooter. It was graceful, sturdy, well balanced, and featured a better angle with which to absorb the increased recoil of the newer cartridges. Mechanically, the Model 70 set the stage for scores of bolt-actions since. The safety has now become a classic—a three-position horizontal lever that, in addition to “On” and “Off,” enables the shooter to lock the firing pin while working the bolt, so that cartridges could be quickly and safely ejected. Moreover, the bolt and safety lever were designed so they would not interfere with a mounted scope.

Like the Model 54, the magazine held five cartridges, but the floorplate was hinged for ultra-fast unloading without having to cycle the bolt. What became known as the Winchester Speed Lock permitted faster cycling and, combined with a redesigned bolt stop, the Model 70’s new controlled round feeding ensured reliability, a big selling point for hunters in pursuit of dangerous game. In fact, the action of the Model 70 was so smooth and strong, ballistics laboratories for velocity and pressure testing of experimental cartridges often used it. Everything about the new bolt-action, in the words of the late Harold F. Williamson, in his classic book, Winchester—The Gun That Won The West, had been “calculated to make the Model 70 the best bolt-action on the market.”

The author’s Model 70 and his Randall Big Game and Skinner hunting knife have been inseparable companions for years.

The Model 70’s hinged floorplate was an improvement over the fixed floorplate of the previous Model 54.

Initially, a Standard Grade and a Super Grade rifle were offered, with the Super Grade boasting fancier wood, a cheekpiece, black fore-end tip, and hand checkering. Both had 24-inch barrels, although there were variations. Initially, customers could pick from seven calibers: .22 Hornet, .250-3000 Savage, .257 Roberts, .270 Winchester, 7mm Mauser, .300 Savage, .220 Swift, and, of course, the classic .30-06. Later that year, the .300 and .375 Holland & Holland Magnums joined the lineup. Indeed, highlighting the Model 70’s versatility, no less than 23 different calibers were eventually offered, ranging from .22-250 to the .458 Winchester Magnum. There were also National Match, Target, and Bull Gun target models, along with a 20-inch barreled “carbine” and a full-stocked Mannlicher. Numerous other variations were subsequently offered, including the Featherweight, African, Varmint, Westerner, and Alaskan, to name a few. Even with a halt in production from 1942 to 1947 caused by WWII, by 1960 more than a half-million Model 70s had been made.

Among the many celebrated owners of the Winchester Model 70 were General Curtis LeMay and Hollywood actor William Holden, who took his .458 Magnum to Africa. In addition, a number of Model 70s were called into service as sniper rifles by the United States Marine Corps, during the 1950s and in Vietnam.

The author outfitted his vintage 1948 Model 70—originally purchased by the father of a high school friend—with a Leopold Vari-X scope.

The three-position safety of the Model 70 has become legendary.

Then, in 1964, the Model 70 (beginning with serial #700,000), along with every other gun in the Winchester catalog, fell victim to an ill-advised cost-cutting rampage that has forever given the rifle two identities: post-’64 and pre-’64 models, with pre-’64 versions commanding the most attention among today’s collectors and shooters. Changes to the post-’64 Model 70 included pressed checkering, doing away with the much-heralded “controlled round feeding,” and a stamped rather than forged trigger guard, among other less than desirable aspects. By 1991, the company, under the then-auspices of U.S. Repeating Arms Corporation (which served as Winchester’s licensed manufacturer from 1976 to 2006), had returned to making rifles with pre-’64 quality, although they still lacked the cachet of pre-’64 Model 70s among collectors. By 2006 the Model 70 legacy among shooters kept on with the introduction of stainless steel Camo models chambered in WSSM calibers, a synthetically stocked Shadow Elite, and checkered classic walnut Super Grade, Safari Express, and Sporter III models.

But then a hiccup occurred in Winchester’s history. The New Haven plant, where the gun had always been made, was closing. Ironically, this announcement came exactly 70 years after the date of the Model 70’s introduction. Thankfully, and although the prices of currently made guns took a brief but dramatic swing upwards, the disruption was short-lived, as Browning soon assumed the Winchester banner. Today, the Model 70 is once again being produced in the U.S. by FN Herstal in Columbia, South Carolina, thus ensuring hunters will still be able to go afield with a gun that set the standard for the bolt-action rifle in America.

My Model 70 is a pre-’64 Standard Grade rifle that was made in 1948. I bought it from one of my old high school buddies whose father was the original owner, and who had the gun drilled and tapped (they didn’t come that way back then) and outfitted it with a Redfield Widefield scope notable for having an ocular lens shaped like a TV screen. My friend’s father had taken the rifle on many a successful elk, deer, and moose hunt. At one point, the sling swivel came loose and the rifle took a summersault backwards off his shoulder. As a result, it lost its front sight and sight hood. For some reason, I can’t seem to find a proper front sight and hood to replace them, although I have purchased a number of them and now have the largest collection of Model 70 front sights and hoods on my block. Nevertheless, the rifle still retains most of its original blued finish, which is somewhat amazing, considering all the hunts it has been on between my friend’s father and myself. The stock, which plainly shows the brunt of its hunting battle scars, had an aftermarket recoil pad on it, so I have since purchased an original 1948-era Model 70 stock with an original steel buttplate which upgraded the gun dramatically, although I still swap it out with the original stock for hunting. I also replaced the Redfield scope years ago with a Leupold Vari-X III, which has superior optics compared to the older glass. As a result, I’m continuing to keep the hunting tradition alive for this classic Winchester bolt-action.