It was the first morning of my honeymoon safari, and we’d cut buffalo spoor an hour after first light. There was no shortage of Cape buffalo in the Luangwa Valley of Zambia, so I wasn’t overly concerned on the first day, but having been skunked in the Tanzania’s Selous Reserve—in a bizarre set of circumstances—I wasn't going to kick sand in the face of opportunity. Three hours later, with my new bride looking at me wide-eyed, we caught a glimpse of the back edge of the herd.
The more we glassed, the more buffalo we saw, and we agreed on a hard-bossed bull of average width. When he stood and turned enough for a shot, a 400-grain Swift A-Frame from my .416 Remington Magnum sorted him out. It was my first Cape buffalo, and a moment I will not forget for the rest of my days, made even more special because I go to share it with my wife. Oh, the rifle I was using? One of the last of the New Haven-era Winchester Model 70s.
“The Rifleman’s Rifle.” Man, that’s an incredible claim, but Winchester’s flagship rifle is, was and always shall be incredible. It has gone through some changes, and not all were for the better, but to look at the longevity of the Winchester Model 70, there aren’t many other sporting rifle designs which can rival the Rifleman’s Rifle.
Winchester—long revered for its fantastic lineup of lever-action rifles—released the Model 54 bolt action rifle in 1925, based loosely on the Mauser 98 action. Designed for use with iron sights, the Model 54 remains noteworthy because it was the rifle which introduced the .270 Winchester to the world. In production from 1925 to 1936, the 54 would be kicked off the stage by the Model 70; little did Winchester know it had what many would consider the best sporting rifle of the 20th century.
Mauser’s 98 was a military rifle first and foremost, and while the comparisons are inevitable, and though the Model 70 would see limited military service, it was designed as a hunting rifle. Winchester’s new rifle—released in 1936—would retain the dual locking lugs of the Mauser design, as well as the non-rotating claw extractor. Both the Mauser 98 and the Winchester 70 employ the fixed blade ejector, but while the Mauser uses a slot cut through the left locking lug, the Winchester 70 locates the slot lower, through the bolt face.
The Model 70 used a receiver machined from bar stock steel, a one-piece bolt and a three-position safety which allows the low mounting of a riflescope, yet the safe unloading of the rifle. A trigger, which was fully adjustable for weight and over-travel, was shrouded in steel bottom metal, and the one-piece bolt added further strength. A checkered walnut stock and deep bluing rounded out the package, with a barrel that has the classic hump for the rear sight.
Collectors seem to prefer the pre-WWII Model 70s for the attention to detail, though most of the rifles prior to 1960 are very well made. The 1960s saw a decline in the quality of the Model 70, and in 1964 Winchester made a radical design change to their rifle, completely reworking the action, bolt, receiver, barrel, bottom metal and stock design. Even the hand checkering changed to pressed checkering. Many hunters lost faith in the new push-feed rifle, and the “pre-’64” Model 70 became a highly desirable rifle.
That’s not to say that all the post-’64 rifles are terrible. Though they are a push-feed design, I have had several of these rifles which were extremely accurate. My first Model 70 was a 1980s vintage Super Express in .375 H&H Magnum, and that rifle went on my first safari, in addition to hunting all over the U.S. and Canada with me. Eland, gemsbok, impala, warthog, bison, caribou and more fell to that gun, and though it now belongs to a dear friend who cherishes it, it will always be one of my favorites.
Recognizing that many shooters would quickly embrace a re-introduction of the pre-’64 action, Winchester introduced the Classic series in 1992. Retaining many of the key features of the pre-’64, the Classic is a great rifle, and the used Classic Stainless .300 Winchester Magnum I picked up at the local gun shop fifteen years ago or so has become a dear friend. It’s been across America with me, taking bear and deer here in my native New York, pronghorn in Wyoming, aoudad in Texas and more. I've seen African Professional Hunters carry a Classic in .375 H&H for backup work, and I've handloaded for at least a half-dozen Classics; all were wonderfully accurate.
That .416 Remington is a also a rifle that is near and dear to me; while I own a fair number of fine dangerous game rifles, I wouldn’t hesitate to grab that rifle to pursue any and all game on earth. The 2005-vintage rifle has a dark chocolate stock, and because of that I named it ‘Cocoa’; it still prints sub-MOA groups with only a 1.5x-5x-20mm Leupold scope.
The famous New Haven, Conn. plant closed its doors in 2006, and subsequently the production of Winchester Model 70s had shifted. Today’s Model 70s—and there are many different models within the line—are manufactured in Portugal, at the Browning/FN factory. There are differences, but in spite of the changes in both features and locations, there is no mistaking a Model 70; you can pick one out from across the room based on the silhouette alone.
It has been offered in cartridges as meek and mild as the .22 Hornet up through classics like the .300 H&H Magnum, and was greatly responsible in keeping the safari industry alive, as the ammunition for the big British doubles had all but dried up, and nearly everyone was carrying a .458 Winchester Magnum or .375 H&H Model 70. Winchester’s Man in Africa, David Ommaney, inspired all kinds of daydreams, with a good number taking the plunge and heading for the Dark Continent. The Model 70 Alaskan in .338 Winchester Magnum is still a staple in the 49th state, being fully capable of sorting out all of Alaska’s game, including the great bears.
A Winchester Model 70 Featherweight may be one of the most handsome iterations of the rifle; the Schnabel forend adds a different dimension to the classic stock design, and though I've never owned one myself, I’d admired each and every one I've ever shot.
Rifles, optics, projectiles and cartridges all continue to evolve, and somewhat impossibly, so does the Model 70. It is, in the opinion of this author, the All-American hunting rifle, capable of handling nearly any situation you'd ask of it. Whether is wears fancy walnut, or a simple synthetic stock, whether stainless metal, Cerakote or rich bluing, the lineup of Model 70s has something for everyone. My Model 70s have been a vibrant part of my hunting memories, and may the rifle continue to help hunters make happy memories for another 80 years or more.