Winchester 94: The Best-Selling Rifle Ever is Back


Towsley looks at the new Winchester 94.The first day back in the office after a long hunting trip is always a bust. I am invariably tired, worn out, unfocused and stuck dealing with emails, phone calls and nothing that is ever productive. That’s how my day started, just back from an Alaska brown bear hunt, but while I was sorting through all the offers to enhance my male parts and to sell me gold, a new email popped up with good news.

The Winchester Model 94 rifle is back.

Sort of.

Winchester announced today (October 21, 2009) that they are reintroducing the Model 94 with two high-end, high-dollar limited-edition rifles that will commemorate Oliver F. Winchester’s 200th birthday.

The Model 94 was originally called the “Model 1894.” This lever action rifle was a John Browning design and was important for a couple of reasons. First is because it introduced smokeless powder to the civilian world. The military was first to use smokeless powder with the .30-40 Krag in 1892. The Krag was also the first “small bore” military cartridge.

It didn’t hang around long, as the .30-03 replaced it in 1903 as a military cartridge. That was replaced by the updated version called the .30-06 (well actually, it was named “Cartridge, Caliber .30, Model of 1906”) three years later. But the Krag was significant as it introduced smokeless powder and small diameter bullets to the United States.

The new Winchester Model 94 is quite fancy. It's no longer a commoner's gun.
The new Winchester Model 94 is quite fancy. It's no longer a commoner's gun.

It was inevitable that the civilian world would follow suit and the Model 1894 Winchester was the rifle that introduced this new concept in cartridges and propellants to civilians. When it first shipped in early 1895, the Winchester Model 1894 rifle was chambered in two new, “cutting edge,” high-velocity, small-bore, smokeless powder cartridges, the .30 WCF or, as we came to know it, the .30-30 Winchester; and the .25-35 WCF, known best as the .25-35 Winchester. These were the first two smokeless powder cartridges ever offered to the civilian market in America, and they ushered in an unprecedented era in American rifle cartridges.

In less than a generation we witnessed the birth of some of our greatest hunting cartridges ever, cartridges that continue to be at the top of the popularity heap even today. While these two Winchester cartridges were the portal that transitioned American hunters from big-bore, low-velocity, black powder cartridges to the high velocity, small bore cartridges that continue to dominate our hunting rifle choices today; the Winchester Model 1894 rifle was the delivery system. For that alone this rifle will remain one of the most important ever in American firearms history.

The second reason the Model 94 is so important and historic and why it was such a tragedy when Winchester folded its tent and stopped production in January of 2006, is because with more than six million sold, the Model 94 is the most popular rifle in history.

It is common knowledge among gun guys that the .30-30 Winchester is even today one of the most popular cartridges in terms of sales numbers, and it was claimed without challenge for decades that the .30-30 killed more deer than any other cartridge in history.

That’s certainly not because of any magic ballistic powers the .30-30 contains. The truth is, it’s antiquated and underpowered by today’s standards. But, it continues to be in the top two or three of big game cartridges sold for one simple reason, the Winchester Model 94.

This was the perfect marriage. The rifle sold the cartridge, not the other way around, as with some other popular introductions. The Winchester Model 94 carbine is a slick handling, good feeling rifle that everybody loves. It was priced just right for the working man and it was durable and reliable. But, best of all, it simply felt right in your hand as you carried it. It probably didn’t hurt that for much of the rifle’s life America’s heroes were cowboys. Generations watched the Winchester lever action rifles deal with the bad guys in movies and television shows. It was the gun our heroes used and so it was the gun we used.

The .30-30 proved to be the best performer of the two new cartridges and quickly surged ahead in sales. The name also rolled off the tongue much better than .25-35 Winchester and so it was much cooler to say. Laugh if you must, but the marketing people will tell you that is an important aspect to success. But, without the Model 94 rifle the .30-30 Winchester would have been dumped on the junk heap of obsolescence years ago. Sure it is popular in other rifles, such as the Marlin 336, but without the Model 94 the .30-30 would never have lasted long enough to become popular in the Marlin.

Now it’s back.

But not in the classic Model 94 spirit. These rifles are fancy looking and priced for kings, not commoners. The limited edition Model 1894 Custom Grade rifle has a suggested retail of $1,959. The Model 1894 High Grade rifle’s suggested retail is $1,469. I expect they will sell out production quickly, but these new rifles are not in the true spirit of what made the 94 historic.

The return of the Model 1894 is a wonderful thing, but it didn’t become the most popular rifle in history by selling high grade walnut and embellished engraving. This is the working man’s gun and these two are not in a working man’s budget. In fact, I would be shocked if any of these new rifles ever shoot a white tail.

Will the plain, vanilla Model 94 return? The word I have from a Winchester representative is yes. But, he couldn’t say when or for what price. It’s also going to be made in Japan by Miroku. They make high quality firearms, but will the American cowboy (and we gun guys are all a little bit “cowboy”) accept a rifle made in Japan?

My guess is it will depend on the price. If they bring back the Model 94 rifle that became famous, that is a simple, functional, well made carbine for a reasonable price, we won’t care where it’s made and will buy it again. But, if the falling dollar leaves it priced too high, I predict the Model 94 is in for a rough time and will be fighting for survival.

This may be the rebirth of an American legend. Let’s hope it can survive.


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