Annie Oakley and her Winchester

by Rob Kay

In a world enthralled by the latest zombie guns there’s nothing like the venerable Winchester Model 94 to bring you down to earth.

Of course, the lever action gun is an anachronism compared to the semi-auto, sub moa wonder guns produced by modern day manufacturers such as Knights Armament, LWRC and the like.

However, this rifle has provenance that transcends the latest 21st century fads. This was one of the guns that transformed America and made Manifest Destiny possible. Since its introduction westerners hunted, fought and died with a Winchester lever gun in their hands. It wasn’t just the settlers.

Geronimo and Sitting Bull, perhaps the most famous war chiefs, owned precursors of the Model 1894 and they knew how to use them.

Aside from Indian wars, this gun proved to be one of the most successful hunting rifles of all time.

Back in it’s day, it was on the bleeding edge of technology. The Winchester 30-30, “delivered excellent if not shocking ballistics” says Hal Herring, the author of Famous Firearms of the Old West. Even at 300 yards writes Herring, ”it packed a punch that was equivalent to being shot point blank with a Korean War-era M-1 carbine.”

In Hawaii the Winchester 30-30 was the staple of Hawaii pig hunters and has served to put many a meal on a local dinner table. I have no doubt this is still the case on the Big Island and on Molokai.

I found my Model 94 at the Candler Road Pawnshop in Decatur, GA. I was in town for a family reunion. (No doubt some of my relatives would have been horrified knowing I was spending time in a pawn shop instead of doting on my nephews).

The Candler Road Pawnshop was not in Decatur’s toniest neighborhood, but then, you don’t find pawnshops at Kahala Mall either. The salesman who lorded over the counter looked like a bouncer at one of the nearby strip clubs, but he was respectful and patient with me, an obvious Yankee interloper.

I gazed at the guns on the rack behind him and asked to inspect the 30-30.

The gun had a 20-inch barrel and a 7 round, internal tube magazine. There was pitting and a few blemishes on the receiver but most of the bluing on the barrel was intact. The wood on the stock and fore grip was colored a deep, almost amber tone and was, for the most part unscarred

Given the blemishes on the receiver, it wasn’t going to win a beauty contest but the rifle was more than presentable. The bore was dirty, which wasn’t a great sign, but a quick cleaning with a bore snake revealed it was just fine. The serial number, as I determined later, gave it a birth date of 1974.

1974 Vintage Winchester Model 94 Chambered in 30-30 (Photo courtesy of RN Price)
The shop owners told me they had never test-fired it but tried to convey their bona fides as pillars of the community. They wouldn’t be in business, after all they explained, if they made a practice of cheating their customers.
I looked around the seedy neighborhood and wasn’t so sure.However the gun appealed to me.“How much?” I inquired. “$260” was the answer. I told him I’d think about it. Hesaid he’d look into sending it to Hawaii, where I’m sure this would be their first sale.

 

Back in Hawaii

I went back to the Mainland and the die was cast. I was going to buy it. I called up the store manager, Joey, and he offered to sell it for a grand total of $280, including shipping. My only concern was if they would stand behind the product if it wasn’t in working order. He assured me they would pay for it, even if meant paying a Hawaii gunsmith to fix it.

Winchester Model 1894. Factory round on left. Rounds in middle and right made from Berry’s 150 gr plated bullet. (Photo by Rob Kay)

At $280, buying it wasn’t a huge gamble.

The gun arrived a few weeks later at “Ready on the Right” and in the interim I ordered a set of dies and the requisite loading gear from Dillon Precision for my 550B.  I visited Sports Authority and Security Equipment  and picked some factory loads.

It took me a few months before I had the time to actually take the time to shoot the gun. I was working as a press secretary for a mayoral candidate and my life wasn’t my own. When I finally carved out some time, I went down to the range with my trusted On Target adviser, RN Price, who was willing to help me sight the carbine in.

The “barleycorn-type” sight picture on the Model 94 was different from the typical modern rifle and took some time to getting used to.

However the issue I faced was the proper (elevation) adjustment on the leaf rear sight. My first shots didn’t even hit the paper. Even after considerable “experimentation”, we were flummoxed.

Another issue was recoil. The factory stuff had more pop than I liked at the bench.

Site picture from Model 94. Note “Barley Corn” style front sight. (Photo courtesy of RN Price)

This was not a lot of fun. Finally, my nightmare about having a broken gun seemed to come true. It was impossible to load more than three rounds in the magazine. It seemed as if there was an impediment or blockage in the tube.

Back to the Drawing Board

I called the Candler Road Pawn Shop in Georgia and Joey suggested removing, cleaning and lubricating the spring inside the magazine tube. He assured me it wasn’t easy and gave me a how-to over the phone. I followed his instructions, and voila, it worked.

The next step was to begin reloading. I went online to google “loads for a Win 94 30-30” and checked my Lyman and Speer manuals.

The goal was to come up with a load that would avoid a lot of recoil. There was no reason to shoot full-on loads. It just wasn’t going to be pleasant. In the course of my online research I stumbled on some loads for cast bullets that were supposedly easy on the shoulder.

Copper plated bullets

On this old gun, subsonic (lead) loads were what it was designed for. Besides, lead bullets were a helluva lot cheaper than the jacked variety. I decided to order round nosed, copper plated bullets from two manufacturers that specialize in this category, Berry’s Manufacturing, located in St. George, Utah and Rainier Ballistics out of Tacoma, Washington.

I liked the idea of copper. The plating was aesthetically pleasing and they were clean to load. Perhaps the biggest reason is that I don’t like lead on my skin.

Jerome Nriagu, a geochemist, argued in a 1983 book that lead poisoning contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire. The Romans flavored their wines with a syrup made from simmered grape juice, brewed in lead pots. The result, claimed Nriagu, were quantities of lead far exceeding today’s safety standards.

It was bad news for the Romans. I didn’t want to repeat history.

I ordered 150 gr bullets from Berry’s and the 110 gr item from Rainier.After a great deal of experimentation, I came up with a couple of loads that worked very well, providing more than enough opportunity to sight in the gun.What was also convenient was not having buy a special bottle of powder just for this beater Winchester. I was able to “re-purpose” powder sitting in the cabinet that was going unwanted.

This was only from 50 yards but those little 110 gr plated Rainers are accurate

I worked up a load for the 150 gr Berry’s over 16 gr of 2400, a powder usually reserved for magnum loads in my revolvers. (While at the Shot Show I went by the Alliant Powder Booth and the rep assured me that the load was safe). It proved to be very accurate.

Similarly I found that 9 gr of Unique was deadly accurate for the 110 gr Rainier bullet. This gun could now shoot without thumping my shoulder. Sans optics, you could blow out a bullseye at 50 yards. At 100 yards this was more challenging, and I started practicing with the gun offhand until I was able to consistently hit the paper.

Perhaps the Winchester 94 can’t compete with the latest offering from Bravo Company or LMT, but that did not diminish my pleasure. On the contrary, it was a real joy in cocking that lever and hitting the bullseye just like Buffalo Bill or Annie Oakley did 100 years ago–with essentially the same gun. I was in good company.

Questions?  Comments?  Contact us directly at ontargethawaii@gmail.com

Rob Kay writes about firearms for Hawaii Reporter and is the author of How to Buy an AK-47.
 
Read more of Rob’s articles on OnTargetHawaii.com

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