The Winchester Model 88.
Lever action fans are a conservative lot. Departing from classic lever-action lines and punching up the power level of lever-action rifles seems to be a dead-end business in the firearms industry. Winchester has experienced a stream of false starts. The ultra modern Model 88 and the more recent Big Bore Model 94s in .307, .356 and .375 are cases in point and remember the 7×30 Waters!
Sako joined the doomed club in 1962 with the introduction of their lever action Finnwolf in .308 and .243 Winchester. Savage retired the Model 99 from its line, and I have a hunch Marlin’s Model 308/338 MXLR in .308 Marlin and .338 Marlin isn’t exactly setting any sales records. Left standing may be Browning’s long and short action BLR. We’ll see.
The first Model 88 I ever saw passed me on a motorcycle. I was trudging up a steep foot trail in Arizona’s Santa Catalina Mountains just before daybreak searching for Coues whitetails when I suddenly was aware of a motor behind me. Stepping off the trail with haste, I was amazed to see a young hunter zipping along on a trail bike, successfully negotiating a steep, rocky trail I thought impassible on a machine of any type. Without a word he rocketed on by, and as he did, I got a good look at his hardware. Slung across his back was a Model 88 Winchester. It was the beginning of the Model 88 itch.
Introduced in 1955, the Model 88 was a radical departure from Winchester’s historically strong lever-action line. The advertising copy of the day made the claim that it was a “Bolt Action Rifle with a Lever.” Mechanically speaking, there was a lot of truth to that jingle and psychologically speaking, that ad copy was designed to appeal to both the traditional lever action user and the confirmed bolt-action person.
Gone were an external hammer, side loading tubular magazine, rear locking bolt and 2-piece stock. In their place were an enclosed action with an internal hammer, a detachable box-magazine, a massive side-ejecting, 3-lugged rotating bolt that locked up right behind the chamber, a 1-piece stock and a trigger that stayed with the lever as the lever was cycled. Overall the new Model 88 was sleek as a jet fighter and scope ready.
Even more radical were cartridges the Model 88 chambered. In place of the .30-30, .32 Special and the .348 Winchester were the .243, .284, .308, and .358 Winchester. When introduced in 1955, the Model 88 was chambered only in .308 Win. The only other rifle chambered for the relatively new Winchester round at that time was the Model 70. In 1956, Winchester added the .243 and .358 Win to the available chamberings in the Model 88 and one year earlier in the Model 70.
In 1963, Winchester developed the short, sharp-shouldered .284 Winchester specifically for the Model 88 and their Model 100 autoloader. They wanted a short-action cartridge that could go head-to-head with the .270 Winchester and the .280 Remington, and they got it with the radical, rebated rim .284.
Savage must have been a bit shell shocked by the cartridges available in the new Winchester lever action and soon responded by chambering the whole Winchester quartet of compact cartridges in their Savage Model 99.
The Model 88 was available in two models—a rifle with a 22-inch barrel and a carbine with a 19-inch barrel and barrel band. Total production of the Model 88 over its 19-year lifespan from 1955 through 1973 was 283,913. It is estimated that of that total, 255,549 were rifles and 28,330 were carbines.
In terms of chambering, the .308 Win was by far the most popular chambering with 110,289 units manufactured. The .243 Win takes second place with 74,294 being made. The .284 Win and .358 Win are almost tied with 35,330 and 35,636 units produced respectfully.
The Model 88 gets the same pre- and post-1964 treatment in collectors’ circles as the Model 70. The only significant change in the Model 88 is in the checkering of the stocks. In pre-1964 rifle models, the checkering is cut. In post-1964 rifle models, the checking is an impressed basketweave design. The carbine stocks of either period are not checkered or impressed.
In the .308 chambering, there were more than twice as many cut checkered units as impressed. In the .243 chambering, it’s about equal. Out-of-production by 1964, there are no .358s with impressed checkering.
The rarest of all is the .284 Win with only 2,925 units produced with cut checkering. Because of its collector value, it is also the most commonly faked model with impressed stocks being swapped for checkered stocks. The only safeguard against such fraud is an examination of the serial number range. If the serial number range of a cut checkered .284 falls between 142,917 to 151,693, it’s legit. If not, it’s counterfeit goods.
I’ve owned and worked with two Model 88s—a .284 rifle and a .308 Carbine. Some of the design features that impress me the most are its lightening fast action. The lever throw is only 60-degrees and the linkage is slick. The stocking, which typically features a quality piece of walnut, is very modern and comfortable when using a scope sight with a drop-at-the-comb of 1-1/2 inches and at-the-heel 2-5/8 inches. The neutral balance point of the Model 88 in both the carbine and rifle models falls approximately at the magazine well making the Model 88 handy to carry. The detachable 4-round magazine system permits the use of spitzer bullets, and with an extra, loaded magazine in your pocket; it makes for a fast reload.
The Model 88s are accurate, as accurate as a typical bolt action, but some of the early production guns do have creepy triggers that take some getting used to. The .308 Winchester carbine pictured in the article is mounted with a vintage Lyman All-American 4X scope. In testing .308s, my protocol is to determine what the inherent accuracy of the rifle is using a 168-grain match load. There is some great factory .308 match ammunition available over-the-counter, or you can put together a handload with a 168-grain match bullet and 40 to 42 grains of IMR 4064.
The Model 88 carbine firing Black Hills .308 match ammunition will keep three shots into 1 to 1-1/4 inches at 100 yards. The Model 88s shoot, even the carbines with their odd-looking barrel bands!
Maybe most of all, I just love their zesty lines. Esthetically, the Model 88s are the most pleasing of all lever actions. Gone but not forgotten. The Model 88 is a classic in the world of lever actions.
The Eighty-Eight by Douglas P. Murray, Softcover, 50 pages ©2000, Privately printed, $40, A&J Arms Booksellers, 4731 E. Cooper St., Tucson, AZ 85711. (520) 512-1065, www.ajarmsbooksellers.com
34th Edition Blue Book of Gun Values, by S.P. Fjestad, softcover, ©2013, 2,408 pages, Blue Book Publications, 8009 34th Avenue South, Suite 250, Minneapolis, MN 55425, (800) 877-4867, www.bluebookgunvalues.com
By Holt Bodinson
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