It’s known as the “Rifleman’s Rifle,” which is about as high as praise can get in the gun world. Introduced in back in 1936, the Winchester Model 70 is—incredibly–still in production today. But to understand the rifle we need to go back a bit further.
The U.S. Military adopted the Springfield Model 1903 in 1903. The M1903 is a magazine fed, bolt-action rifle that was primarily used by the U.S. military in World War I, and it made the future of the bolt-action rifle in America plain to see. Doughboys coming home from Europe were no longer satisfied to hunt with and shoot their lever-action rifles chambered for antiquated black-powder cartridges. The popular culture question of the day was “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” But what they should have been asking, at least of the hunters and shooters coming home, was: “How you gonna keep them using lever-action guns after they’ve seen the Springfield?”
Americans wanted a bolt-action centerfire rifle chambered for a powerful smokeless-powder cartridge. Nothing else would do. In response, Winchester introduced their first commercial, centerfire bolt-action rifle, called the Model 54, in 1925. It was chambered for the .30-06 Springfield cartridge that so many of the boys had fought with and trusted. It was also chambered for a new, hotshot upstart cartridge called the .270 Winchester, which was based on a necked-down case of the 30-06. The .270 was largely ignored at first, but became significant later.
The Model 54 went on to be chambered for a very wide range of cartridges over its short reign. Despite having a hard-to-pull, two-stage trigger (trigger pull is split between two stages—the take-up and the final pull), it became a very popular rifle.
Winchester made some improvements in 1936, including a better trigger, an improved safety, a hinged floor plate, new bolt stop, a steel trigger guard, and other changes. The rifle also featured a two-lug, controlled-round-feed action (more on this later). They named it the Model 70 and a legend was born.
Over the years it was chambered for just about every rifle cartridge ever produced and it became the rifle of choice for many hunters and shooters. After a then up-and-coming writer named Jack O’Connor (1902-1978) began praising the Model 70 chambered in .270, the rifle and cartridge moved to the top of the heap in the world of serious hunting rifles. O’Connor went on to write a column and many features for Outdoor Life magazine for more than three decades, and his name is forever linked to the Model 70 and the .270 cartridge.
The Winchester Model 70 ruled supreme in the rifle world until 1964, when Winchester instituted some drastic, and infamous, changes. They cheapened many parts to reduce the cost of manufacture. The cut checkering, so revered by riflemen, was replaced with a pattern that was pressed into the wood. It was not only ugly and cheap, it did little to help someone grip the rifle.
The biggest and most dire change, though, was changing the action from controlled-round feed to push-feed, which was the action used in the M70’s main competition, Remington 700.
In a controlled-round feed rifle, a cartridge was captured as it exited the magazine by a large, claw-style extractor that held the cartridge against the bolt face as it fed into the chamber. This is popular for two reasons: First is the belief that the gun is far less prone to jamming, because a shooter can operate a controlled-round-feed rifle even when it’s upside down. This makes it a very desirable feature with dangerous-game hunters. The other reason is that if a cartridge sticks in the chamber after the round is fired, the big claw can often pull it out. The smaller extractors used in push-feed designs often will rip through the case rim instead, or even break.
The new bolt was manufactured in two pieces and then brazed together. It was a wobbly affair that would bind in use and lacked the slick feel of the old action. Hand-cut rifling in the barrels was replaced by hammer forging, which was perceived to be a much poorer design. The machined steel trigger guard and floor plate were replaced with parts stamped from aluminum alloy.
The list goes on, but it was apparent that those in charge of this great rifle at the time had no idea what appealed to shooters.
Some of those changes were eventually reversed. In 1968, Winchester redesigned the bolt so it wouldn’t bind and would run more smoothly. They also returned to a steel floor plate and added a stainless steel magazine follower, though they kept the hated aluminum trigger guard. Eventually, the Post-64 rifles became pretty decent guns. But the damage was done. The status shooters once placed on that the legendary rifle would never be regained.
In 1992 Winchester reintroduced control-round feed in the “Classic” Model 70 line, while they continued to offer push-feed versions of the 70 as well. Later, as the Winchester Short Magnum and Winchester Super Short Magnum cartridges were being introduced, the company developed a hybrid they called the “control-round push feed.” This uses a small extractor like a push-feed action, but it only captures the cartridge as it exits the magazine. It was designed in response to feeding problems with the WSSM cartridges (which have since been discontinued).
For 140 years, Winchester rifles were made in New Haven, Connecticut. But, rising costs, antiquated machinery, and union problems all took their toll. On March 31, 2006 they closed the doors, ending the Model 70—at least for a while.
In October 2007, the owners of Winchester, FN Herstal, announced it would produce Controlled Round Feed Winchester Model 70 rifles at their facility in Columbia, South Carolina. These new rifles were well received by the shooting public, who were glad to see that America’s rifle was still being made in America. But in 2013, Model 70 assembly was relocated to Portugal.
No matter: it’s a global economy today, and the elegance and legend of the original Model 70 lives on in history. And, while the new guns may lack the soul of the original Model 70, modern manufacturing techniques and materials make them perhaps the best made and best performing Model 70 rifles in history.