Winchester’s .348 Thumper
By Holt Bodinson
“It is a rifle suitable for all North American big game from Alaskan moose and Kodiak bears to Florida deer and panthers. With the heavier 250-gr. cartridge, right, too, for South American jaguars, African buffalo and lions, Asiatic tigers — all but the thick-skinned big game species or pachyderms.”
So read Winchester’s advertising copy circa 1936. The rifle? The massive, the powerful, the elegant lever-action Model 71.
Introduced in 1936 along with the Model 70, the M71, an improved version of the Model 1886, was in production from 1936 to 1958 with 47,254 made over a span of 22 years. It was the last of its kind in the Winchester stable — a magnum sized, lever action that handled a magnum sized, rimmed case, the .348 Winchester.
The Model 71 (bottom) is an updated and improved version of Winchester’s legendary Model 1886 (top).
Some have thought the .348 Winchester was derived from the .45-70 case, like the .33 Winchester. Nothing could be further from the truth. Winchester wanted to pack power into their new levergun, so they chose their cavernous .50-110 Winchester case — which had been introduced in the early 1900s for their Model 1886. They shortened the .50-110 case, necked it down to .348-caliber and the rest is history. Holding approximately 60 grains of slow-burning powder, it delivered a wallop on both ends.
The eternal question will be: Why did Winchester choose a bullet diameter of 0.348″ rather than a standard .35-caliber diameter, 0.358″? They had the .35 Winchester cartridge with its 0.358″ bullet as well as the .33 Winchester wearing a bullet diameter of 0.338″.
My own hunch? Either Winchester wanted something radically new and unique to wrap advertising copy around, or they wanted to market a proprietary bullet diameter to maximize the sale of factory-loaded ammunition as well as controlling the handloading market for jacketed bullets with that distinct diameter.
Original Winchester/Western loadings for the .348 included a 150-gr. jacketed flat nose at 2,890 fps, a 200-gr. JFN at 2,530 and a 250-gr. Silvertip JFN at 2,350 fps. (Remington and Peters offered the 150- and 200-gr. loadings at those velocities as well.)
When the dust settled, the 200 emerged as the dominant choice of most big-game hunters, although in Alaska and Canada the 250 Silvertip was regarded with some favor for moose and big bears. Looking over today’s scene, Winchester still loads the .348 in their Super-X line with a 200-gr. Power-Point at 2,520 fps, while the custom manufacturer, Buffalo Bore Ammunition (www.buffalobore.com) offers a 250-gr. bonded-core JFN at 2,250 fps. As you can imagine, the .348 is still a potent champ in the field!
Holt’s wife, her Model 71 and her first deer, circa 1970. One 200-gr.
CoreLokt was all it took.
Unlike the .33 Winchester (left), derived from the .45-70 case, the .348
(right) is based on the .50-110.
To handle the new cartridge, Winchester gave their classic Model 1886 a modern makeover. Internally, a coil spring replaced the traditional flat mainspring, which smoothed out the action and lightened the trigger pull.
Visually, the most noticeable changes were in the stocking. The slab-styled M86 forearm was replaced by a palm-filling semi-beavertail design. The buttstock was widened, elevated and given a thicker comb. A fully curved pistol grip was added. Overall, the M71 looked like what a 20th Century lever action should look like.
Initially, two models were offered — a rifle with a 24″ barrel and a carbine with a 20″ barrel. Both featured a 4-shot tubular magazine and a solid frame. In addition, there was the option of a standard or deluxe grade. The deluxe was offered with checkering, a pistol grip cap, sling swivels and a military-type sling. The front sight was a ramped Lyman gold bead.
Three rear sight options were available — an early Winchester No. 98 bolt-mounted peep sight (later replaced by a Lyman No. 56 receiver sight) and a standard open leaf. In 1947 the slow-selling carbine was dropped from the line. In 1952 the standard M71 with the Lyman sight was priced at $112.25 and the deluxe version at $128.65. By comparison, the standard Model 70 bolt action at the time sold for $126.50.
The M71 holds 4 rounds in its half-magazine. The Lyman No. 56 receiver
sight proved an invaluable accuracy upgrade.
The rakish, checkered pistol grip is an eye-catching signature feature.
The deluxe M71 pictured has a bit of family history. In 1970 I took my new wife on her first deer hunt in the Adirondacks. She voiced concerns about woman-eating bears so I promptly made her a gift of the rifle, assuring her the mighty .348 would decisively smack down any marauding bruins she might encounter.
We were hunting with another couple, George and Nancy Lamb. There was a foot of fresh snow on the ground. Us boys headed up the mountain while the girls stayed low. Just after daybreak, Nancy Lamb came trudging up our backtrail and announced my wife had shot a buck. I said that was impossible. We hadn’t heard a shot. Then she added a bear had crossed my backtrail.
That was enough to get me down off the mountain and sure enough there was my wife, M71 in hand, smugly standing next to a huge — and very dead — whitetail buck.
She’d been sitting on a high rock. The old buck had been in a fight that morning and was seriously torn up. Venting his anger and frustration, he stalked through the woods attacking one sapling after another. It was the thrashing noise that got my wife’s attention, and as she had been instructed, she carefully, oh, so carefully, cocked the hammer, placed the bead on the buck’s heart at 20 yards and pressed the trigger.
I found her Remington 200-gr. Core-Lokt just under the hide on the off-side. If there ever was a picture-perfect, mushroomed bullet, that was it — an ideal balance between bullet construction and velocity. I kept it.
The M71 is a classic that’s just too good to die. Browning and Winchester revive it with limited runs from time to time. Loaded ammunition is still available. And Hornady and Barnes offer a variety of 200- to 220-gr. bullets, while Kodiak Bonded Core Bullets offers a wicked 250-gr. number.
And, no, my wife says her M71 is not for sale.
Kodiak Bonded Core Bullets
Ph: (907) 789-3834