A look back at the history of the Winchester Model 1894

The Winchester Model 1894 was the first commercially produced smokeless powder lever action rifle for Winchester. (Photo: Winchester)

A lever action rifle developed by the illustrious John Moses Browning, the Winchester Model 1894 is one of the most successful smokeless powdered lever action rifles in history — having sold well over 7 million units since its inception in 1894. How did this rifle come to be and what has driven its success for the past century?

How it all began

In 1893, Winchester’s ammunition division began experimenting with a new smokeless powder, loading cartridges with the powder which was less corrosive than the more traditional black powder. The smokeless powder contained more energy that allowed bullets to travel further, offering flatter trajectories and allowing hunters to tackle bigger game and much further ranges. The problem was, Winchester needed a rifle capable of handling the new smokeless powder.

John Moses Browning developed the Model 1894 at the behest of Winchester’s ammunition department. (Photo: Winchester)

Browning, at the height of his career, was tasked with developing a new firearm designed around the new powder. Additionally, Browning was asked to make the firearm both simple to manipulate as well as easier to manufacture. Doing what Browning did best, he developed the Winchester Model 1894, applying for a patent on the device on August 21, 1894. By November of that same year, the Winchester Model 1894 was made available to the public.

A classic rifle

The Winchester Model 1894 was the first commercial American repeating rifle developed for smokeless powder. It was originally chambered to fire two metallic black powder cartridges – the .32-40 Winchester and .38-55 Winchester. In 1895, however, Winchester moved to a different steel material for rifle manufacturing allowing the rifle to be take on higher pressure rounds; thus, the Model 1894 was soon offered in .25-35 Winchester and .30-30 Winchester. The .30-30 Winchester, also known as the .30 W.C.F, quickly became synonymous with the Winchester Model 1894.

The Winchester Model 1894 was an almost instant success for Winchester. Its lightweight, compact design paired with the power packing punch of the .30-30 Win. round quickly made it popular among hunters. Its success was pushed even further during World War I after the U.S. Army signed an order for 1,800 rifles to members of the Signal Corps stationed in the Pacific Northwest. Numbered 835800 to 852500, these rifles were later sold as military surplus after the war. The Winchester Model 1894 went to war again during World War II, this time in the hands of the Canadian Pacific Coast Rangers guarding against Japanese invasion along the West coast of Canada.

Pre-1964 Model 94 rifles are valued higher than post-1964 rifles due to manufacturing changes. (Photo: Rock Island Auction Company)

One of the best-selling lever action rifles in American history, the Winchester Model 1894 hit the one million mark in 1927. The millionth rifle was presented to President Calvin Coolidge. President Harry S. Truman was awarded the millionth-and-a-half rifle in 1948 while President Dwight D. Eisenhower took possession of the two millionth Winchester Model 1894.

Revamps and revisions

The Winchester Model 1894 underwent several revisions as time passed and the wants of consumers changed. Its first minor alteration came in the form of a name change around 1927. After its millionth production, Winchester shortened its name to simply the Model 94 – the same name still in production today.

In 1964, the rifle underwent a revamp with a manufacturing change in order to bring down costs. Changes included replacing forged steel receivers and internal components with sintered steel in addition to swapping out solid steel pins with hollow roll pins. Though the Model 94 still performed, its aesthetics left a lot to be desired and eventually pushed the pre-1964 Model 94s into premium antique pricing.

The Model 94 today has undergone a return to solid bar stock components thanks to CNC machining. (Photo: Winchester)

In 1982, the Model 94 was tweaked again, this time seeing the addition of an angled cartridge ejection. The change centered around shooters ability to mount optics with the redesign allowing hunters to mount their preferred optics over the top of the receiver.

By 1989, the Model 94’s parent company was bankrupt and had recently been purchased by FN Herstal. The Europeans elevated the rifle’s manufacturing performance using CNC, or Computer Numeric Machining, to introduce bar stock back into the manufacturing process in a cost-effective manner. Solid pins made their triumphant return; however, FN Herstal’s manufacturing changes weren’t all positive. With the revision, the company added a manual safety onto the Model 94 – much to the horror of lever-action rifle purists.

Model 94 today

The Model 94 is still alive and well; though currently manufactured in Japan by Miroku and imported stateside by Browning. The Model 94 still continues its tradition of an easy-to-operate, lightweight rifle capable of downing deer or other targets in the field. A true iconic piece of American history, the Model 94 may have seen some questionable revisions in its history but, ultimately, has proved itself with a well-built design and reliable performance.

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