Savage 1920 Rifle

A Rifle Ahead Of Its Time
14

The Savage 1920 was the first American-made, lightweight bolt-action
hunting rifle but it came at a time when American hunters preferred lever actions.
Dave’s rifle was made in 1920 while the car was made in 1925.

The Savage model 1920 rifle was introduced over a century ago. Commercially it was not a big success with only about 12,000 made and production ending around 1928. By 1931 it was out of the Savage catalog. Nonetheless it remains a milestone, a rifle far ahead of its time — the first American-made, lightweight bolt-action sporting rifle. Today we are fortunate to have several sub 6-lb. hunting rifles and a few around the 5-lb. range. Mostly the light weight is achieved with synthetic stocks, carbon fiber for the really light models, often with 18″ to 20″ barrels.

The Model 1920 in .250-3000 was a favorite of Larry Koller, a fine outdoor writer mainly remembered today for his timeless classic book Shots at Whitetails.

The Original

Savage did it in 1920 with a 5-lb., 14-oz. hunting rifle and they did it with a walnut stock, blued steel and 22″ barrel in .250-3000. The .300 Savage version had a 24″ barrel.

Well into the 20th century, lever-action rifles were the choice of most American hunters. A few rifle enthusiasts wanting something different imported European-made bolt action hunting rifles such as the Mannlicher-Schoenauer and Mauser sporting rifles. Remington also introduced the Remington-Keene and Remington-Lee bolt-action sporters to an indifferent market. Meanwhile Marlin and Winchester lever actions sold briskly, and the Savage 1899 would prove to be a spectacular success.

American hunters may have preferred lever actions, but armies all around the world preferred bolt actions as they were perceived as more reliable and durable for hard military use. The main advantage of the lever action — a faster rate of fire — was considered unimportant if not actually detrimental by the military “old guard.” A magazine cut-off was considered a desirable feature so soldiers would use their rifles as single-shots, only utilizing the magazine to repel an assault. As late as WWII, there were still military planners who saw the rifle as primarily a handle for a bayonet.

The action of the Savage 1920 was a shortened version of a military prototype. It can even use stripper clips, though no hunter would!

Demand Increases

The outbreak of WWI led to a huge demand for military rifles. Although the U.S. remained neutral until 1917, it was evident if the nation were ever to send an expeditionary force, there would not be nearly enough 1903 Springfield rifles. Circa 1915–16 under the direction of its chief designer Charles Nelson, Savage built several prototypes for military consideration chambered for the .30-’06 service cartridge. The military instead chose the Enfield pattern currently in production for British armed forces, making only the changes necessary to accept the .30-’06 rather than .303 British cartridges.

Savage put the prototypes and blueprints away and spent the war years making Lewis machine guns. As the war ended, Savage began transitioning back to making sporting arms for the civilian market. At the time, conventional wisdom held soldiers who had been trained in the use of bolt-action rifles in the military would want bolt-action sporting rifles but none of the major American gunmakers — Marlin, Remington, Savage, Winchester — offered a bolt hunting rifle. To Savage management it seemed a prudent decision to add one to their line.

It also seemed sensible to chamber the rifle for Savage’s proprietary cartridges, the .250-3000 introduced in 1915 and the still-in-development .300 Savage. Savage designed these cartridges not out of some fixation with short cartridges but to fit its bread and butter rifle, the great lever-action model 1899.

Savage wanted their new rifle as lightweight as possible. The model 1920 was introduced in the May 1, 1920 issue of Arms and the Man, at the time a publication of the NRA.

The bolt handle of the Savage 1920 is shaped to follow the contour
of the stock and is flat enough to work quite well in a saddle scabbard.

Arrival

The model 1920 shown here is one I purchased several years ago. It’s a .250-3000, made in September 1920 according to Savage historian John Callahan. Savage took its military design of 1915-16 — which they knew could be made without patent infringement, and for which they had blueprints and tooling — and shortened the action by about 1-1/4″. All other dimensions remained identical to the original design intended for the .30-’06 cartridge.

The biggest factor in keeping the rifle light was the slim barrel. The .250-3000 version has a 22″ barrel with a relatively short chamber area, tapering to a diameter of 0.550″ at the muzzle. The bore is rifled with six lands and grooves, right hand twist, with a twist rate of 1:14. Five shot groups at 100 yards run around 2-1/2″ to 3″, about as good as I can do with iron sights. I’m sure with a scope — or a better iron-sight shooter — the rifle could cut those groups in half.

More weight is saved with the walnut stock, made with a slim pistol grip and slender forearm. Dimensionally it’s stocked to suit the iron sights, with a 1-1/2″ drop at comb and 2-1/2″ drop at heel. Length of pull is 13-1/2″.

The front sight boss is integral with the barrel and is slotted for a brass bead held by a cross pin. Sitting high and with no protective wings, the bead looks about as vulnerable as a lollipop at a kid’s birthday party. The boss itself is very strong and even if the bead is damaged, it can be replaced. Standard rear sight on the original 1920 was leaf sight mounted in a slot in the barrel. On my rifle, the slot is filled with a Marble’s blank and a Lyman 54 sight fitted.

The Lyman 54 sight could be factory-ordered as an option or the sight could be purchased separately and fitted by a gunsmith. The sight is fitted to the bolt sleeve and moves with the bolt so it’s not as consistent as a receiver-mounted sight. For my old eyes it provides satisfactory accuracy, much better than a barrel-mounted sight. It should also provide some protection against escaping gas in the unlikely event of a case head failure.

The original 1920 was ideally suited to the .250-3000 cartridge but in the book Bolt Action Rifles, author Frank de Haas suggests it may be a bit too slim, especially for the more powerful .300 Savage. After 1925, Savage revised the rifle with a fuller stock and heavier barrel, adding about 14 ounces of weight. They also added sling swivel studs, slanted the bolt handle back a bit and made the Lyman 54 sight standard. Collectors sometimes call this the 1920/1926 model. Around 8,500 original 1920s were made, about 3,500 of the revised version.

he 1920 (below) has a sliding tang safety easily accessible to both right- and left-hand shooters. Checkered bolt knob is similar to the 1903 Springfield and can be used to manually decock or cock the firing pin.

Pros And Cons

The 1920 has a lot of features I like. It is a very strong action, originally intended for the .30-’06 cartridge with a large, long receiver ring. I like the sliding tang safety, which locks both sear and bolt. The rifle balances and handles beautifully and the stock dimensions are just right for the iron sights. Quite a few 1920s have been drilled and tapped for scope bases but this one will stay original because if I want a scope sight, I have other rifles. I like the light weight and trim, slim lines of the rifle, especially the handsome barrel contour. I like the Mauser/Springfield features such as controlled round feeding, large extractor, pivoting ejector, the forged one-piece bolt and forged receiver and the matte finish on top of the receiver.

It also has features I don’t like. The trigger is a typical two-stage military style and on my rifle the sear breaks at 6-1/4 lb. The combination of a heavy cocking piece/firing pin assembly and small mainspring leads to a sluggish lock time. The published lock time is 6.7 milliseconds, a bit slower than the ’03 Springfield though not as slow as the No. 3 Lee Enfield at 9ms. By comparison, Winchester 70 and Remington 700 short actions have about 2.6ms lock time.

The extractor extends only about half the length of the bolt, presumably to save weight. A full-length extractor would support the bolt at both ends while being cycled. Aesthetically the large receiver ring looks out of proportion on the slim rifle — at 1.425″ diameter it is larger than a large-ring Mauser. And, there’s no excuse for the ugly steel strap trigger guard/floorplate assembly.

The integral front sight boss of the Savage 1920 is slotted for a brass bead front sight.
This sight looks like it could be easily damaged, but it hasn’t happened so far

The Lyman 54 sight (below) was a popular option on the 1920 rifle
and became standard on the revised version after 1925.

Too Soon

Despite talk of returning GIs wanting bolt-action rifles, lever-actions continued to dominate the pre-WWII era. Records indicate the big three gunmakers — Remington, Savage, Winchester — made about 53,000 bolt action centerfire rifles in the 1920-1931 era. During the same time, Savage and Winchester made about 487,000 lever action rifles. If you add Marlin production of its various levers, it would surely bring the total to well over 500,000. In terms of commercial sales, lever-actions outsold bolt guns by a 10:1 margin.

Actually the toughest competition the Savage 1920 faced was Savage’s own model 99. In the time it took Savage to produce 12,000 Model 1920s, it made about 126,000 model 99s. It seems hunters and shooters who wanted bolt actions wanted them in .30-’06 (or after 1925, in .270). The light Savage 1920 was a brilliant concept and despite some flaws, a pretty good rifle. It was just too far ahead of its time.

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