December 1980—American Rifleman.
The Year 1964 has come to be associated as much with the Model 70 rifle as the Winchester name itself. Comments by some shooters might lead one to believe that any Model 70 made after that date is pure junk. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The attitude of collectors is more understandable, as the pre-’64 Model 70 is distinctly different from succeeding models, regardless of year, and forms a fascinating collector field in itself. As time passes, however, the post-‘64s will find their collector niche, as have the postwar Single Action Colt revolvers.
In addition to the two preceding articles in the American Rifleman, there is a good deal of printed matter available on the various models of Winchester’s premium bolt-action. Most of it dwells on production before the fateful 1964, but much information can be had from Dean Whittaker’s The Model 70 Winchester 1937-1964; The History of Winchester Firearms 1866-1966 by Georg R. Watrous; Bill West’s Winchester-Complete; and The Winchester Book by George Madis. The facts as given by the authors do not always coincide, but the comparison of views and statements is interesting in itself and does not detract from the pleasure of studying America’s most famous bolt-action sporter.
One book that has no counterpart—and no flaw that this author is aware of—is Stuart Otteson’s The Bolt Action. This remarkable volume covers, from an engineer’s standpoint, the major turnbolt actions from the M98 Mauser (1898) through the Mossberg Model 810 (1971). There are separate chapters devoted to the Winchester 54, the pre-’64 Model 70 and, finally, a 1968 version of the Winchester. Otteson finds little bad to say of the new versions, and those adversely critical points he does make apply to the pre-’64 version as well; i.e., “1. Action over-long for many calibers; 2. Two-piece trigger guard/floorplate assembly.” Anyone with prime interest in the mechanics of the various Winchesters would do well to study Otteson’s book carefully.
It should be emphasized that Otteson devotes his comments almost entirely to the action per se. He pays little attention to anything forward of the receiver ring. This is precisely the area where, in 1964, Winchester ran into trouble.
Winchester knew by 1960 that, despite its good sales, the Model 70 was becoming too expensive to manufacture and compete with other rifles made on more-modern machinery. By 1962, Winchester was at work on an updated version, and in a remarkably short time had completed, if not perfected, a rifle with an improved action. “Improved” here applies to manufacture as well as design.
Gone was the cone-breech system of the Springfield and previous Winchester models. No one complained, as the coned breech had always been considered a weak point, and the new square breeching left very little of the cartridge head unsupported.
The receiver, though ¼” longer than that of Model 70s of the 1950s, was no heavier, and its feeding rails were not integral with it but were contained in the magazine box. These changes were actually to prove beneficial to those owners who decided to change their guns from one caliber to another, dissimilar one.
The external form of the receiver was not changed, though it was no longer milled form nickel-steel bar stock but forged from chrome-molybdenum steel. Again no one complained.
The bolt body was machined form the same type steel as the receiver—with the familiar dual front locking lugs—and its handle, an investment casting, was securely pressed and brazed in place. There is nothing substandard in this arrangement.
A relatively small hook extractor was housed in the right locking lug, and a plunger-type ejector worked from the bolt face. This tied in neatly with the flat vs. cone breeching, and despite its by-now proven effectiveness came in for much criticism at the time.
For economy reasons, the 1964 models were made without the guide lug on the bolt, but this was found to be an unsatisfactory arrangement. In 1968, an excellent anti-bind device was incorporated in the bolt head.
The magazine/floorplate assembly remained virtually unchanged except for the feeding lips being made integral with the magazine box, as mentioned earlier. Best of all, the Model 70 trigger remained as it was—admirable in every respect and now with a wider finger surface.
With no consideration to nostalgia, then, the actions of the “new” Model 70, or at least those made after 1968, are nothing to be ashamed of but are in fact, if not in reputation, excellent.
The 1964 Winchester catalog announced the many actual improvements of the “New ‘Proved on Safari’ Model 70,” but it may have gone too far when it said, “New high-gloss finish plus handsomely checkered grip and foreend are standard on the Model 70.” Actually, the pressed checkering, cunningly glossed over by the finish, looked as though it took third prize in a two-entry contest. It was no more effective in its utility. Winchester went on to say, “Free floating barrel…the same type used in International Free Rifle Matches and bench-rest shooting…you can’t ask for better accuracy than that.” Maybe not, but you could ask for better looks and common sense.
Free floating it was. There was such a gap between the barrel and its channel in the fore-end that the accumulation of twigs and degrees during a normal hunt was almost assured.
Winchester hired a personable African professional hunter to test and promote the new guns, and he attended many gun shows in the U.S. to comment on the results of his experiences. One irritated visitor inserted a finger between barrel and fore-end and testily told the African, “That’s called a channel all right, but it’s for the barrel, not a canoe.”
There was not much Winchester could do about the customer reaction. The new guns, which began with serial No. 700,000, were in inventory and were moved out to dealers. Few of the guns are to be seen in their original form today, however, as the buyers, in many cases, elected to rebed, rechecker, refinish or restock them with all haste. The custom stockmakers were delirious, and Winchester grappled with the problem as best it could. In 1965, the firm offered Model 70 barreled actions as regular catalog items for the first time in its history. The completed rifle line remained the same with the addition of the .225 Win. chambering and the so-called Deluxe model—more pressed checkering plus an ebony grip cap and fore-end tip with white line spacers but select walnut. Only the .458 African held out with cut checkering and non-floating barrel. Its cost was more than twice the price of the standard model, making clear the reason for the change. The new stocks and their installation were simply an economy move, and the savings were being passed on to (or forced on) the customer.