The guns that truly changed the world form a unique and rare club. While the membership requirements are vague and unwritten, nobody can dispute that the Winchester Model 1894 sits on the board of directors. The lineage and pedigree of this gun is truly an American success story.
Oliver Winchester was a shirt maker when he invested in Volcanic Repeating Arms, a company making an odd lever-action rifle. That rifle used a hollow-base bullet with a powder charge inside the bullet. The trouble was the powder charge was too small and the gun was not very powerful. When the company failed, Winchester and his business partner John M. Davies bought the assets. They named their new venture the New Haven Arms Company, and with the help of an engineer named Benjamin Tyler Henry, they introduced a new and innovative rifle.
The Henry Rifle used a self-contained rimfire cartridge and had a magazine capacity of 16 cartridges. That prompted one Confederate officer during the Civil War to call it “That damn Yankee rifle they load on Sunday and shoot all week.”
The success of that design launched a series of new Winchester rifles over the next 40 years, including the Model 1873, which became known as “The Gun that Won the West.”
All of those guns used cartridges filled with blackpowder, which is a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate (saltpeter). It was introduced to the western world by Roger Bacon in the 1200s, who was said to fear it so much that he wrote about it in code. Blackpowder had been used as propellant for the very first recorded firearms in 1326, but it had its limitations. By the early 1890s it was clear that blackpowder’s days were numbered. The U.S. Military had switched to the European invention called smokeless powder when they adopted the .30-40 Krag cartridge in 1892.
This new powder’s different burning characteristics allowed bullets to attain a higher velocity. It also wasn’t corrosive like blackpowder, so failing to clean a gun after firing it would not lead to damage (although the primers of that era were still corrosive).
The .30-40 Krag ushered in a new era of small-bore, high-velocity rifle cartridges, and it was a forgone conclusion that the sporting world would follow. But the question was: Which company, and which cartridge?
The new Winchester Model 1894 rifle answered those questions. It was first introduced in two blackpowder cartridges, the .32-40 Winchester and .38-55 Winchester, but very soon thereafter two more cartridges was added. In 1895, the .25-35 WCF (Winchester Center Fire) and the .30 WCF were the first American sporting cartridges to use smokeless powder. The .25-35 Winchester has pretty much faded away, but we know the .30 WCF today as the .30-30 Winchester.
There was no way of knowing it then, but the introduction of those two new cartridges launched a new era of firearms that is continuing to evolve even today.
Some gun/cartridge combinations are a perfect fit, and the Model 1894 Winchester rifle and the .30-30 Winchester cartridge are perhaps the best example of that phenomenon. Most historians agree that neither would have survived without the other, but together they became the most successful rifle/cartridge combination in history.
The Model 1894 Winchester rifle followed the basic design of the hugely successful Winchester lever-action line of rifles. There were some significant engineering changes, including the use of nickel steel to contain the higher pressure of smokeless powder, but the technical aspects were mostly lost on the shooting public. What they saw was the next step in the evolution of the classic American rifle, the lever-action.
The Model 1894 was lighter and trimmer than older rifles in the same class of power. It fit well in a man’s hand and was easy to carry, particularly in the carbine version that later dominated sales. It just felt “right” when you held it.
The .30-30 cartridge ushered in a new way of of thinking about hunting-bullet power and capabilities. It used a smaller bullet at a comparatively high velocity. The bullet had a hard metal jacket over the lead core, and would expand on impact to act like a larger bullet inside the animal. The higher velocity extended effective range, while the smaller bullet and powder charge reduced recoil.
The Winchester Model 1894 was chambered in a multitude of cartridges over the years. Some were very successful, others not so much. But none of them ever approached the popularity of the .30-30 Winchester, and over 112 years of production, the cartridge became synonymous with the Model 94 rifle. Even today the .30-30 Winchester continues to be well up in the list of top rifle cartridge sales.
The Model 1894 later became known as the Model 94, or to any person familiar with rifles, simply “the 94.” The American public could not get enough of the 94, making it the first sporting rifle in history to sell more than a million. President Calvin Coolidge received the one-millionth rifle in 1927, and President Eisenhower got the two-millionth 94 in 1961. By the time Winchester ceased U. S. production in 2006, more than 7,000,000 Model 94 rifles had been produced.
As with the rest of the Winchester line, the Model 94 was “modernized” in 1964 to make production more economical, which hurt sales dramatically. The growing use of scopes also reduced sales, because the top ejection of the Model 94 didn’t allow for easy scope mounting. In 1983 the rifle was given an “angle ejection” design, which allows mounting a scope on top. That helped sales some, but the era of lever-action rifles was winding down in America as hunters gravitated to bolt-action rifles that could be chambered in much more powerful cartridges.
By 2006, union problems, rising costs, and decreasing sales caused Winchester to close its doors in New Haven, Connecticut. They came back a few years later in a new location, but the Model 94 was made only in a few special, limited runs. Today, copies of historical lever-action Winchester rifles, including four different configurations of the Model 94, are being made in Japan.
The heyday of lever-actions may be over, the Model 94 will always be an icon of American gun history.