Winchester's Model 94 Sporter

Updating A Timeless Classic? You Bet!

Winchester 94

Winchester’s 94 Sporter features a 24" half-round, half-octagon barrel and crescent buttplate. John’s aging eyes love the Leupold 3X!

The Winchester Model 94 and .30-30 cartridge are so tightly linked in shooters’ minds, some think .30-30 means Winchester 94. But both were born under different names, like a movie actor who changed his name from Archibald to something more suitable for public adoration.

Winchester Model 1894

Three generations (bottom to top): A Model 1894 .25-35 made in 1898, a 1940-vintage Model 64 .30 WCF and the new Model 94 Sporter.

The Thirty-ish Century Begins

Originally, the rifle appeared as the Model 1894, chambered in the black powder .32-40 and .38-55. The following year the .30-30 appeared as the .30 Winchester Center Fire after Winchester switched to stronger steel, along with the .25-35 WCF.

The .30 WCF immediately became the rifle’s most popular chambering since it shot a lot flatter than black powder cartridges. As a side note, this move offended some staunchly traditional hunters, just as the 7mm Remington Magnum offended some .270 and .30-06 fanboys in 1962 and the 6.5 Creedmoor offends some semi-geezers today.

The Model 1894 turned into the Model 94 near the end of World War I. Apparently Winchester never made a formal decision; instead, the barrel stampings were simply changed as old stamps wore out.

The popularity of the .30 WCF forced Marlin to chamber the round in their lever actions but they simply couldn’t bear to stamp anything hinting of “Winchester” on their barrels so they changed the name to .30-30. Eventually Winchester followed suit though they clung to the .30 WCF billing far longer than Model 1894.

When great and powerful editors at GUNS asked me to review a new 94, a love for this historical trivia resulted in choosing the most traditional of the present-day 94’s — the Sporter, featuring a blued-steel crescent buttplate, buckhorn rear sight, and 24" half-octagon barrel.

My own modest collection of traditional Winchester lever actions also includes a pair of much older “Model 94’s,” an 1898-vintage .25-35 and a Model 64 (barrel-stamped .30 WCF) made in 1940. Produced from 1933 to 1941, the Model 64 was essentially a 94 with a pistol-grip stock and a half-magazine. Choosing a new .30-30 Sporter for this review would provide a look at how the 94 has evolved over almost 125 years.

Winchester trigger

The Model 94 now includes a tang safety and a rebounding hammer with side-mount cocking spur for ease of use with a scope.

Winchester trigger

Unlike older 94’s, the latest model can’t be fired unless the lever fully depresses a steel pin to release the trigger.

Changes, Changes

As with other Winchester rifles, the first major changes to the 94 occurred in 1964 with parts simplified to suit newer production methods, including the use of stampings. Many Winchester purists decided this was the end of civilization as they knew it but the basic mechanical function of the rifle remained the same.

But the 94 started really changing in 1982, because Marlin and Savage lever actions were kicking its butt in the modern marketplace. The 94 ejected straight up, so if somebody decided they had to use a scope instead of manly iron sights, side-mounting was the only original option.

Marlins and Savages could be easily scoped due to side-ejection and action-tops with handy places to screw on mount bases. Winchester changed ejection from straight-up to the side by changing the placement of the extractor and ejector in the bolt face. Cases still jumped out of the top of the action but not off the bottom of even a low-mounted scope.

By 1992 younger shooters had apparently forgotten how to use an external hammer lever-action so a cross-bolt, trigger-blocking safety was added. This also didn’t please traditionalists and in 2003 the safety got switched to a sliding button on the tang behind the hammer. This change made it impossible to attach a traditional tang-mounted aperture sight, another ancient device unknown to most 21st Century hunters.

My sample rifle turned out to have a pretty nice chunk of walnut for the buttstock. It was well-done, real actual checkering, with sharp-topped diamonds and a one-line border without overruns. When empty the rifle weighed 7-1/2 lbs., only 4 oz. more than my 24" barreled Model 64, probably due to the 94’s half-octagon barrel and full-length magazine. The MSRP of our test rifle was $1,399.99.

The trigger broke pretty crisply at just under 5 lbs. but testing the pull revealed some of the less-obvious changes to the modern 94 action. The hammer on the originals rested directly on the firing pin when lowered, with a half-cock (“safety”) position between lowered and cocked. The modern version features a rebounding hammer with the uncocked position about 1/4" from the firing pin.

Also unlike the original, the trigger can’t be pulled unless the lever’s firmly held against the grip, depressing a square pin releasing the trigger. The tang safety provides a third layer to this ultra-safe “fire control system,” but if you’re a real lever-action traditionalist, the button can just be left pushed forward, and ignored. I did this throughout my range-testing and there was nary an accidental discharge.

I’d have guessed the trigger pull at closer to 4 lbs. and perhaps a little less. This often happens with traditional lever-action rifles. My Model 64 also has about a 5-lb. pull but it feels lighter as did a Marlin Model 36 (not 336) .30-30. The pull worked fine at the range and if the rifle belonged to me, it would not visit the gunsmith for a lighter pull.

winchester barrel

Wood is good: The walnut is nicely checkered with pointed diamonds and a one-line border without overruns.

Winchester Ammo

Originally the .30 Winchester Center Fire cartridge, Marlin couldn’t stomach the moniker and christened their rifle “.30-30,” a name that eventually stuck.

winchester stock

The crescent buttplate is a stylish retro traditional touch. Photo: Winchester Repeating Arms

Sighting and Shooting

The first range session took place with the factory open sights, a classic rear buckhorn with an elevation ladder, and a brass bead front sight, .07" in diameter. The buckhorn sits just in front of the action since the rear sight dovetail is about 1/2" farther back than those on old 94’s. The sight notch is pretty small — making it harder to see for a guy who’d recently signed up for Medicare. But I shoot with irons year-round and 3-shot groups at 50 yards with several different brands of factory ammo averaged a little less than 1-1/2".

Such accuracy might not seem adequate to millennials who consider 1/2" groups at 100 yards barely adequate for slaying deer but somehow a lot of venison ended up in frying pans after being .30-30’d by previous generations of hunters.

The elevation ladder on the buckhorn was apparently designed around 170-gr. ammo. In its lowest position, all 150-gr. loads landed several inches above point-of-aim at 50 yards, meaning a taller front sight would need to be installed for correct sight-in.

I didn’t bother, instead mounting a 3X Leupold scope in traditional Weaver “Detachable Top Mount Rings,” as they’re now called. These used to be called “Tip-Off” rings, because they can easily be used as very repeatable detachable mounts. Apparently the “tipping” connotation doesn’t work for 21st-Century marketing.

The front Weaver base can be reversed for different ring separations. While I ended up turning the base “forward” so the front ring sat in front of the action, I first screwed the base with the cross-slot over the front of the ejection port to see whether it might interfere with a flying .30-30 case. It didn’t as ejected cases slipped easily under the base and flew across the workbench.
With the scope, the rifle weighed a couple ounces over 8 lbs., and at 100 yards factory loads grouped in the typical 2 to 3" expected of tube-magazine, lever-action .30-30’s. However, I also tried my favorite .30-30 handload, the 170-gr. Nosler Partition with Hodgdon’s listed maximum charge of LEVERevolution powder.

This shoots very well in the Model 64 and the Partitions consistently penetrate deeper than typical cup-and-core softpoints. That is reassuring when hunting around my Montana home where animals larger than deer frequently show up, whether highly edible elk, or (rarely) a grizzly running toward the hunter rather than away. In the 94 Sporter this load grouped three shots under 1-1/2" at 100 yards — very fine accuracy for a rifle with all sorts of stuff hanging on the barrel. Oh, and the full-length magazine permits an 8+1 capacity in .30-30. The Sporter can also be had in .38-55 and .32 Winchester Special.

This 21st-century version of an ancient rifle looks good and works “good” as well. Some hunters might find the lack of sling-swivel studs odd, especially for hunters used to attaching a bipod. But more traditional types often feel a Winchester .30-30 should be in your hands when slipping through the woods, where a sling or bipod often hangs up on pieces of Mother Nature.
Of course, you could just buy a horse and keep your 94 in a saddle scabbard. Believe it or not some Montanans, even a few millennials, still do that!

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