This Smokeless, Lever-Action Classic
Is Even Better With Modern Components
By John Barsness
The .25-35 Winchester Center Fire (WCF) was introduced in 1895 in the Model 1894 Winchester lever-action, along with the .30 WCF, better known as the .30-30. Both cartridges also appeared in later variations of the 94 (Winchester shortened the year-designation in 1919) called the Model 55 and 64, along with other manufacturer’s lever-actions. The rimmed case made it a natural for single-shots, including Winchester’s Model 1885, and a number of European kipplaufs and drillings, under its metric name of 6.5x52R.
The .30-30 became one of the most popular hunting rounds of all time, but the .25-35 apparently hung right in there until the 1920s, when higher velocity bolt-action cartridges took over the “smallbore” market. Original factory ammo featured 117-grain softpoint and full metal jacket bullets at a listed 1,960 feet per second, but a 1925 “Super Speed” load with an 87-grain bullet supposedly got 2,700 fps—pretty close to the .250-3000 Savage—but soon disappeared.
The 1954 Gun Digest was the last edition listing Winchester lever actions chambered in .25-35. Winchester ammunition has been continuously available since 1895, though since around World War II the only load has been the 117-grain roundnose softpoint. Published muzzle velocity reached its peak at 2,300 fps in the early 1970s, when most factory ammunition was still tested in 26-inch barrels, but is now 2,230.
John’s Model 1894 was made in 1898, and has the fast 1:8 rifling twist of early .25-35’s. The Beach front sight
can be flipped between a small ivory bead and a globe with a taller pin, while the rear sight is a 3-leaf Winchester
“express.” Such multiple-choice iron sights were common back when versatile cartridges like the .25-35 were used
with different ammo for small to large game.
The Model 94 .25-35 was revived in 2005 in the scope-friendly, Angle Eject version introduced in 1983. Since then at least seven variations have appeared, selling well enough to result in another factory load, Hornady’s LEVERevolution 110-grain FTX at a listed 2,425 fps—almost exactly the velocity of my 110 FTX handloads using 27.9 grains of LEVERevolution powder, the maximum charge listed in Hornady’s manual. (Hornady also offers their excellent brass in .25-35, a good thing since Winchester’s is just about “unobtanium.” I used Winchester in the handloads because of stocking up after buying my 1894.)
The FTX’s soft-synthetic spitzer tip prevents primers from being ignited in the tube magazine during recoil, and the increased ballistic coefficient and muzzle velocity flattens trajectory. With FTX ammo sighted-in 2 inches high at 100, a scoped 94 allows aiming in the middle of a deer’s ribs out to 250 yards, where the bullet lands about 3 inches low, while the 117 roundnose is about 4 inches low at 200.
Of course, exact velocity depends on barrel length. My own .25-35 was made in 1898, a Winchester Model 1894 with a 26-inch octagon barrel, purchased off the used rack at Capital Sports & Western Wear in Helena, Montana, shortly before the announcement of the new Model 94’s. From my 1894 the 117-grain Winchester factory load averages around 2,150 fps, and also shoots pretty well, despite the dark bore common in smokeless rifles made before the 1920s, thanks to corrosive primers.
The sights are a Winchester 3-leaf “express,” and a Beach flip-over front with both a low ivory bead and a globe with a taller pin. Both were probably factory options: My Castle Books facsimile of the 1916 Winchester Repeating Arms Co. catalog lists the Beach sight at a dollar extra, and the express sight $1.50.
I can shoot irons pretty well, but normally do most range testing of open sights at 50 yards. Three-shot groups with the Winchester factory load average under an inch at 50, and on the two occasions I’ve tried them at 100, measured around 2 inches. This is very good for the bore and the sights, but apparently the .25-35 always had a reputation for accuracy.
Winchester’s original rifling twist was 1 turn in 8 inches (1:8), fitting right in with today’s hot trends. In the early days of smokeless powder many barrels had faster rifling twists, but within a couple of decades many high-velocity sporting cartridges used slow twists, considered more accurate with the bullets of the day. The recent Model 94 .25-35’s have 1:10 twists, plenty for any .25 caliber bullet.
The quick twist and slightly rough bore of my 1894 created some interesting problems with lighter bullets. It would not shoot the Hornady 60-grain flatnose designed for the .25-20, perhaps because of the thin jacket, and the stumpy bullets also couldn’t be seated far enough out to function through the action. As a result I didn’t include any loads, but if you’re really interested, Hornady’s manual includes several.
Speer’s 75-grain flatnose is also primarily designed for the .25-20, but functions through the 1894’s magazine when seated with the crimping cannelure about 0.15-inch ahead of the case mouth. At velocities over 2,800 fps it flew off in strange directions, and target holes often showed severe tipping. The most accurate load turned out to be from Vihtavuori’s 2005 printed manual (the .25-35 isn’t even listed in their present Internet data). The velocity of the 85-grain Going Ballistic cast bullet had to be dropped to around 1,300 fps to shoot half-decently.
The most accurate handload with 117-grain Hornady roundnose bullets used LEVERevolution powder.
Obviously, .25-35’s without tube-magazines can be used with spitzer bullets, including single-shots and Savage 99’s. My friend Tim Crawford has a German “kipplauf” break-action single-shot in 6.5x52R, and shoots the 115-grain Nosler Partition at about 2,400 fps with 27.5 grains of Vihtavuori N140, a slight modification of another load listed in the 2005 manual, 27.2 grains with the 117 Winchester softpoint. My friend Janene Caywood hunts with her father’s old Savage 99, using handloads put together by her husband Milo McLeod, with 100-grain Speer boattails and 26.0 grains of IMR3031. Milo doesn’t own a chronograph, but an old Lyman manual lists 27.0 grains at 2,450 fps. Both Tim and Janene have taken many antelope and deer with no problems.
Spitzer loads can be safely single-loaded in lever-actions, along with one in the magazine as well as the chamber, resulting in a 2-shot repeater. The initial spitzer round loaded into my 1894 wedges under the edge of the magazine button, jamming the action, but filing the tips slightly flat prevents this.
After buying the rifle, I tried a few handloads with the bullets crimped and uncrimped, and didn’t find any difference in accuracy. I also found the .25-35 recoils so lightly, uncrimped bullets don’t shift inside the case necks when a round’s left for several shots in the magazine, so quit crimping. Your results may vary.
Early opinions of the .25-35’s killing power differed. In his autobiography Hell, I Was There!, former GUNS columnist Elmer Keith mentions taking only two animals with the Winchester 1894 “long-barrel rifle” his father gave him. One was a doe mule deer shot at an estimated 300 yards, and the 117-grain Winchester roundnose broke the shoulder but only entered one lung. Keith had to track the deer down and shoot it again. The other was a coyote Elmer shot with the 117 “full patch” factory bullet at a range his father paced off at 600 to 700 yards. (Elmer made the shot with his left arm rested on the firewood stacked behind the Montana State Capitol in Helena.) That bullet also broke the shoulder and didn’t penetrate much further.
On the other hand Francis Sell, another widely published writer of Keith’s era, really liked the .25-35, using the cartridge to shoot lots of deer, and while out hunting one fall ran into a local rancher, who’d just killed a 5-point bull elk with one 117-grain roundnose behind the shoulder. The rancher said, along with deer and black bears, he’d taken nine elk with his rifle. When aimed accurately at realistic ranges, the .25-35 is quite adequate for big game.
John Barsness’s latest book is The Big Book of Big Game Hunting and can be ordered through www.riflesanrecipes.com, P.O. Box 579, Townsend, MT 59644,