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Winchester Model 70 Super Grade African Rifle
This customized pre-1964 example features a gold bas relief bull elephant on the floorplate. SN 122824
1936/ 1960 Winchester (U.S.) Customized Model 70 Bolt-Action Box-Magazine Rifle (repeater/ breech-loading/ smokeless powder/ cartridge ammunition) Evolving, as do so many modern arms, from one model variation to another, the Winchester Model 70 showed progressive changes for many years. But beyond the manufacturer's progress is the North American ideal of personalizing a mass-produced object. This example was personalized by a custom gunmaker into a one-of-a-kind piece for a new symbolic meaning. It says of the owner, I am different."
This social need to stand out a little from the crowd is a very common trait, especially among Americans. If a society positively sanctions such activity, personalization of the sort shown here signals that better economic times have arrived." --Dr. William L. Roberts, THE AMERICAN LIBERTY COLLECTION; #133 The Model 70 bolt action rifle, widely considered to be the finest bolt action ever produced in the United States, has achieved legendary status among shooters and collectors. Nicknamed "The Rifleman's Rifle," this extremely popular design traces its heritage from the earlier Model 54.
The evolutionary process for both of these rifles began in the Roaring Twenties, when the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. made the decision to produce a bolt-action centerfire rifle for various sporting applications. After the First World War, bolt action rifles grew in popularity for several reasons. Many young men had trained with these rifles while serving in the armed forces, and the bolt action had proven to be extremely reliable and durable in that conflict. In addition, many surplus military arms were available for conversion into civilian sporting rifles. American firms discovered that their sales were shrinking as the public rejected older lever- and slide action rifles in favor of center-fire bolt actions. The Remington Arms Co. of Ilion, New York, had positioned itself as a leader in this market with the introduction of their successful Model 30 bolt action.
At the direction of company president Frank G. Drew, Winchester made the leap into this new and promising field. Although Winchester had experience in the manufacture of military bolt action center-fire arms, the New Haven firm had not previously entered the civilian sporting market with this design. The company's engineering staff, which included such notables as Thomas C. Johnson and Frank F. Burton, was confident that they could design a commercially-successful model. This team had experienced success with the earlier Model 12 slide action shotgun, and they set out to repeat this triumph. First and foremost, Winchester intended to reduce production costs. Consequently, many parts, including the trigger guard and magazine floor plate, would be stamped rather than milled. The receiver ring gas port utilized in earlier designs was eliminated, and the receiver was re-contoured to include a round bridge design with no rear sight cut.
Additional savings were realized by incorporating tools and production techniques used in First World War military contracts in the manufacture of Winchester's civilian bolt-action sporting arms. The design group rejected the Enfield P-14/U.S. Model 1917 bolt action design as unsuitable for civilian use. Its bulky action, cock-on-closure feature, weak spring ejector, and long striker fall and consequent slow lock time all ruled against the British rifle. Rather, Johnson's team looked to the Mauser Model 1898 and its near-copy, the U.S. Springfield Model 1903 rifles for suitable features. After three years in the design phase, the new Winchester Model 54 made its debut in 1925.
Initially offered in both .30-Ô06 and in the proprietary .270 Winchester calibers, the streamlined heat-treated receiver was milled from a block of nickel steel, and the one-piece bolt with integral handle featured dual opposing front-mounted locking lugs and a large claw-type extractor. These features provided a strong action and smooth, reliable cartridge handling. A speed lock was introduced in 1932. The bolt sleeve and safety were also of the Mauser pattern, but the operation of the latter was reversed from that featured in military arms and proved to be a plus for right-handed shooters. A coned breech system adapted from the Springfield and Enfield military rifles ensured smooth feeding of cartridges from the integral box magazine. One-piece walnut pistol-grip stocks were a standard, and checkered fore ends and grips were featured on several variants.
Other versions had finger-groove fore ends, and rifles with either schnabel or tapered fore ends could be purchased. Low- and fluted, near-level combs were typical, and high-end Model 54s, including the Super Grade, were equipped with oval-shaped cheek pieces. Originally made from nickel steel, Winchester Proof Steel became the company's choice for barrels, with stainless steel available as a special-order feature. Initially offered in .30-Ô06 and .270 Winchester calibers, the Model 54 would later be available in ten different chamberings. Custom and special order models increased this number. Both rifle and carbine configurations were produced, as were "sniper," target, and Super-grade versions. The Model 54 could be factory-equipped with nearly any commercially-available sight, including the Lyman 6W, 66W, 48W on the rear, and 26W and 17A on the front. Better-grade rifles were factory-equipped with scope blocks, while less expensive models were drilled and tapped for aftermarket block installation.
Over its twelve-year production run, the Model 54 was subject to a series of modifications. The rifle proved to be reasonably popular, but sales were affected by ready availability of surplus military arms for sporterization. Nonetheless, the company sold approximately 50,000 examples. Two factors, both unseen, would eventually spell the end of the Model 54. The economic collapse of the 1930s drastically reduced sales across-the-board. In addition, Winchester entered receivership in 1931, and the firms assets and liabilities were acquired by Western Cartridge Co. Under the leadership of president John M. Olin, Winchester opted to re-design the Model 54 and to address some of the earlier model's shortcomings.
The company's Model 52 bolt action rimfire rifle had secured its position as the premier competition smallbore rifle, but the Model 54 had failed to enjoy the same success in shooting circles. Foremost among the improvements to the latter design was the revamping of the Model 54's military-type double-pull trigger/sear/bolt stop arrangement, which was not at all suited to competition shooting. Winchester engineers opted to add a receiver-mounted bolt stop that was separate from the trigger assembly, thus permitting the introduction of a trigger mechanism that was adjustable for pull and over-travel. Additional improvements included the addition of a gas port on the right side of the receiver ring; a hinged magazine floor plate with plunger-type release; and a re-contoured bolt sleeve with a re-designed safety which, unlike the earlier military design, worked on a horizontal plane.
The bolt handle profile was also re-designed. Both of these features enabled the rifle to easily accommodate a telescopic sight. The receiver was notched to accommodate the new bolt handle design, and this feature had the effect of providing an additional locking lug. The solid walnut stock was re-designed to include a high comb and beavertail fore-end unlike those previously seen on competition arms, and stock checkering was more extensive than on the earlier Model 54. After Thomas Johnson's death in 1934, Edwin Pugsley assumed leadership of the design team for the new rifle. Initial production was limited to 19 toolroom and prototype examples in 1935, followed by more than 2,000 rifles during the following year. These were warehoused until 1937, when the new Model 70 entered the market.
Available in a "standard" grade, Winchester also offered a variety of alternate choices for hunters, competition shooters, and other sportsmen, including Super Grade, National Match, Target Model, Featherweight, and Varmint Grade rifles. These rifles were available in nine chamberings, ranging from .22 Hornet to .375 H&H Magnum calibers. Six barrel lengths were also available, including the 28-inch bull barrel and the 22-inch Featherweights, as well as the more common 24-inch model. A 20-inch version was discontinued in 1947. The Model 70 took the sporting world by storm.
Popular with hunters, these rifles could be found in locations ranging from the woodlands of the eastern United States to the big-game areas of Canada, Alaska, and the American West, and even on African safaris in pursuit of dangerous game. With their superior adjustable trigger mechanisms, Model 70s were also responsible for many competition records in the U.S. and abroad. Some Model 70 single-year sales figures exceeded the 12-year production totals of the earlier Model 54. In addition to standard production models, Winchester also produced several thousand special-order Model 70s.
Custom features ranged from non-standard chamberings, after-market sights, straight-grip stocks, or select-grade woods to fancy checkering and presentation-grade engraving. Over the years following its introduction, some additional modifications were made to the design, including a re-styled tang that prevented the stock splitting sometimes seen on earlier Model 70s and Model 54s. The safety lever was also improved from the original design, which blocked the shooter's line of sight when engaged to a three-position full-lever style that remained clear of the sight line when in use, as well as providing a firing pin lock for the chambering and unloading of cartridges.
Other modifications affected virtually every major component of the rifle, from bolt handle to front sight, and from sling swivel to pistol grip cap. Various changes in the design of followers, bolt faces, extractors, and ejectors were required to accommodate the wide variety of ammunition used by members of the Model 70 family. Eventually, the Model 70 line would grow to accommodate 18 different cartridges including the .243 Winchester, .300 Savage, .308 Winchester, .35 Remington, and the .458 Winchester Magnum calibers, and additional chamberings were available as custom-order items.
Some, such as the 7.65 mm and 9 mm calibers were fairly rare and command a premium in today's collector's market. The Model 70 stock also received its share of modifications. The low-comb "N.R.A. stock" was joined by a high-comb Monte Carlo version; and on Super Grade rifles, cheek piece designs ranged from a small oval "European Style" to the large piece featured on Monte Carlo stocks. Pistol grip contours changed, as did inletting on both external and internal stock surfaces. Checkering, originally in 20 lines-per-inch size, was replaced by 18 lines-per-inch in 1940; by 1960, hand checkering had been superseded by a machine cut pattern.
During the same period, the original checkered steel butt plate was replaced by a hard rubber version, and solid rubber recoil pads featured on magnum-caliber rifles gave way to a webbed design. In the post-war years, Winchester began to see slippage in its market share, as improved manufacturing techniques and competing designs eroded the Model 70's supremacy. The fabled rifle had become increasingly expensive to manufacture, and Winchester found itself at a competitive disadvantage.
Although the company realized that something needed to be done to maintain its profitable position in the sporting arms market, the firm wished to retain the Model 70 at a price range affordable to average hunters who could not purchase premium-grade firearms. In 1964, Winchester introduced a re-designed Model 70 that was different from its predecessor in several respects. The cone breech that was characteristic of the earlier model was dropped in favor of a flat breech that provided additional support to the chambered cartridge. Adopting a "push feed" bolt design, Winchester incorporated a small hook extractor into the right locking lug, and a plunger-type ejector that worked from the bolt face. Both of these features worked well with the new flat breech.
The receiver was lengthened by 1/4 inch but with no additional weight penalty, and the earlier milled nickel-steel receiver and bolt design gave way to one of forged chrome-molybdenum steel. The earlier trigger design was retained but the trigger face was made wider, thus improving on an already-superior feature. The magazine and floorplate remained unchanged, with the exception of providing integral feed rails, a feature that proved advantageous to those who wished to change their rifle to a different chambering. Although superior in some ways to the earlier design, this new rifle failed to capture the market as Winchester had hoped, and older Model 70s became cherished by both sportsmen and collectors. Shortcomings were seized upon by the shooting public, and the new Model 70 was roundly condemned. The fit and finish of the new design was inferior to that seen in earlier models.
The rifle's stock received especially harsh criticism. Select-grade walnut had become a thing of the past. Earlier hand-checkering was replaced with an inferior pressed type, and the barrel channel was overly large and accounted for the excessive accumulation of twigs, grass, and other debris while in the field. Many buyers chose to re-bed, re-checker, and even re-stock these guns, and Winchester tacitly acknowledged the problem in 1965 when, for the first time in the company's history, Model 70 barreled actions were included in the sales catalog. The lone example of earlier Model 70 craftsmanship was the .458 African, which also cost twice as much to produce as the newer design. Over time, many of the problems that plagued the post-1964 Model 70 were addressed.
Originally marketed without a bolt guide lug, Winchester changed the design within a few years to include an anti-bind device on the bolt head. The newer push-feed bolt, although proven in field applications, received criticism from many shooters. Although this system is still offered, the Model 70 Classic, which was introduced during the mid-1990s, marked a return to the controlled-feed large-claw extractor featured in the original design. The Model 70 line grew to include newer chamberings such as the .308 Winchester, .22-250, and .222 Remington calibers.
Improvements were not limited to the rifle's action. Most notably, the problematic barrel channel was reduced in size. In addition, a full-length Mannlicher-style stock was offered briefly. With an eye toward continued cost-cutting, Winchester introduced the Model 670, introduced in 1966, and the later Model 770, which appeared three years later. The former design was a simplified Model 70 design with a two-position safety, blind magazine, and non-walnut stock; while the Model 770 was an intermediate-grade rifle which offered certain features of both the 670 and Model 70. This rifle was later re-designated as the Model 70A, and the Model 670 was dropped entirely in 1978.
Recently, the use of automated machine tools has proven to be a boon to firearms manufacturing, and Winchester has made widespread use of this technology. The ability to turn out large numbers of parts that are made to exacting tolerances has yielded a superior product while helping to reduce costs. Computerized production has also made possible the re-introduction of many features common to earlier-production rifles without breaking either the company's budget or that of the sporting public. Over its long history, the Model 70 has earned the sobriquet "The Rifleman's Rifle."
Although the term "pre-Ô64" has taken on a pejorative meaning among Model 70 aficionados, some writers believe that any distinction between the earlier and later designs should properly cite the period between 1964 and 1968. Post-68 improvements, especially those incorporated within the past ten years, have enabled the Model 70 to regain its reputation as one of the finest American-made bolt action rifles.