The Trusty Old Winchester "Thutty-Thutty"
October 22, 2012
The days are growing shorter and cooler. The leaves are turning red and falling from the trees, and for many people, this is a good thing. Deer season is near! Deer hunting is a tradition that has been passed down through families and communities since Colonial days. I can think of no other thing that better embodies that tradition than the Winchester Model 1894 lever-action carbine in .30 WCF (better known as .30-30) caliber. In the days of yore, when someone said "deer rifle," this was likely what they meant.
Nowadays, you’re much more likely to come across a deer hunter with a high-tech bolt-action rifle chambered in some modern magnum caliber and topped with a high power variable scope. Most hunters today want to take full advantage of the latest technologies, just in case that trophy buck steps briefly into view 437 laser-ranged yards away. However, there are those of us out there who sometimes willingly do things the old-fashioned way. Yes, we are limiting ourselves, but not as much as the technohunters would have you believe. While .30-30 looks pretty wimpy by today's standards, it’s more than capable of cleanly taking game up to deer, black bear, and feral hogs at reasonable ranges, about 200 yards or so.
The Winchester 1894 is probably the most popular sporting rifle of all time, with over 7 million sold. It was traditionally chambered in .25-35, .30-30, .32-40, .32 Winchester Special, and .38-55 calibers, with the .30-30 the most popular by a huge margin. While the Model 1894 was available in a dizzying array of rifle and carbine versions, the standard 20" barreled carbine in .30-30 was the workhorse of the line. Literally so, as many of these carbines resided in the saddle scabbards and pickup trucks of legions of farmers and ranchers, used for controlling pests and predators as well as supplying the yearly venison.
One of the drawbacks of the Model 1894’s action design is that empty cartridges are ejected out of the top of the receiver, limiting scope mounting options. While a tang or receiver sight works as well as a scope at .30-30 ranges, hunters in the post-WWII years began to abandon the lever-action rifle for easily-scoped bolt-action rifles in flat-shooting calibers like the .30-06 Springfield. The 1894 design was modified to allow scope mounting and to chamber more powerful cartridges, but these innovations were met with a resounding "meh." Lever-action holdouts were fine with the old-school 1894. In the deep woods, powerful scopes and long-range cartridges aren’t needed. The ability to make quick follow-up shots is, and the Model 1894 has been doing that well for over 100 years.
The 1894's 112-year unbroken run of American production came to an end in 2006 with the closing of U.S. Repeating Arms’ New Haven factory. For those who really want a new model 1894, Winchester now offers high-grade (and high-cost) versions made by Miroku in Japan. However, there are over 7 million Model 1894s floating around out there. Some versions are much more collectible than others, but there are so many standard carbines in .30-30 out there that finding one for a reasonable price shouldn’t be hard. And if you own one, you ought to take a step back from techno-hunting every once in a while and take that old gun out into the woods.
My father owns several Model 1894s (in .25-.35, .30-30, and .38-55 calibers) of early 20th century vintage. He and my mother still take them into the Ozark woods to hunt the wily whitetail deer. I might claim one of his .38-55 1894 rifles for this year's hunt myself. How many deer have fallen to these classics in our hands? None so far, but at least those good old 1894s get to spend some of their retirement years reliving their glory days. For more information about the American legend of Winchester rifles, check out the following titles:
- The Winchester Model 94: the First 100 Years by Robert C. Renneberg
- Winchester Repeating Arms Company: Its History & Development from 1865 to 1981 by Herbert G. Houze
- America's Premier Gunmakers, Winchester by K. D. Kirkland
- The History of Winchester Firearms by Dean K. Boorman