For generations, the Winchester Model 70 has been known as the “rifleman’s rifle.” The rifle emerged in the ancient year of 1936 and set the standard for every bolt-gun to follow. It hasn’t always been well respected though. It’s reputation took a beating after a design change in 1964. In this article, I will be writing about the “pre ’64” Model 70 only.
The Model 70 is an improvement on the earlier Winchester Model 54. The 54 was a very fine rifle for its time, but was eclipsed by the Model 70. Essentially a refined version of the military action used for so long by the Germans, I like to refer to the M70 action as a perfected Mauser action. The Mauser is to bolt-guns like the M1911 Colt is to semi-auto pistols. Both were mature tech the day they were born.
Some of the features of the M70 include its famous controlled round feed (CRF), its coned breech that protected the bullet during feeding, the strong ejector, the safety, the steel machined floor plate. It was a handmade masterpiece and very expensive to make. It was chambered in almost every round available at the time from the.22Hornet to the 458 Win Mag. Anyone who has any real experience with one will agree that it really is a work of art. The M70 came in a variety of models for many purposes, including sporters, guns for NRA highpower, and varmint rifles. Also, as can be found on this website, it was used for sniping by US forces in 3 wars from WW2 through Korea to Vietnam. It accounted for the bulk of Gunnery SGT Carlos Hathcock’s 93 confirmed kills including several of his most famous shots.
Above picture is a pre-WW2 M70 at the NRA museum standing in as a USMC Vietnam sniper. This early rifle has some similarities with the USMC sniper. This has a Lyman optic and is actually a Model 70 made to the specifications of Evaluators LTD, a company owned by a USMC officer , George Van Orden, who championed the Model 70, which was eventually adopted as the sniper standard. These rifles are very rare. This variant was sold to customers who used them for NRA matches, target shooting, and hunting. They were factory made and were not used by the USMC in Vietnam. The so-called Van Orden rifles were personal purchases only, not USMC contract rifles. A few of these Model 70s that were reworked for the USMC rifle teams eventually did make it to Vietnam and they are very similar.
Though a “clone,” the rifle pictured above more closely resembles the USMC sniper rifle produced by the USMC RTE and sent to Vietnam.
The rifle I will be talking about is my personal M70 varmint rifle. The gun was made in 1959 and is in .243, which is my personal favorite cartridge for non-fighting purposes. The “heavy match” contour barrel on the rifle is 24 inches long. Though the stock is clearly different, it is the same barrel and action used on the Target versions. At one time, early heavy barrel Model 70s were used during national matches with the standard stock seen on my rifle in order to meet the NRA weight requirements then in place. Shooters had to choose between a heavy marksman stock with sporter barrel or a heavy barrel with a sporter stock. Most feel the heavier target barrel is more important than the heavy wide marksman stock and I agree. I feel this is why the “varmint” rifle has the standard stock. The .243 was used in the national match, target, and bull rifles as well, so if you are looking to collect, be careful about what stock is on the rifle and check to make sure it is not being sold as a NM rifle when it may be a varminter with a marksman stock swapped around. Even if that combo is real, it would need to come to from the factory that way to have full value.
Since I still shoot with iron sights at long range in the high power style, I wanted to complete the rifle with iron sights to go along with the optics of the time period. This way I could varmint hunt and shoot it in competition.
The rear sight on the model 70 is the Redfield Olympic rear sight. It has 60 minutes of elevation and 18 minutes of windage. It attaches with a thumb screw to a standard sight base that screws onto the left side of the action. This sight was the standard for target shooting at long range for many years and was only discontinued in 1976.
The front sight is also a Redfield Olympic front sight. It attaches to a standard target block used for most sight and optic use at the time. It has insets that can be changed out very easily. It came with various globes and posts. I like the front post similar to the AR15 front sight post. It gives me the best ability and versatility to shoot more then black bullseyes. The front sight is made in such a way to channel light onto the actual sight. If you have never looked through this type of sight combo, you would be surprised how naturally and easy the front and rear line up with the target. The barrel muzzle is crowned with a flat target crown.
Above is a picture of the target blocks (bases) for mounting optics like the Unertl. The blocks seen above are Unertl blocks but will work with any sight of its type. The rear block mounts to the front of the action and the front sight block rests on the barrel. Unertl optics need a certain length between blocks to get a certain value out of each click on the optic. It changes the value of the scope adjustment if the blocks are closer or further apart. Some people use a different position, but I use the most common block placement to make sure my Unertl is 1/4 value per click.
John Unertl Sr. Worked in the optics field in Germany during WW1 In 1928 he and his family immigrated to the US and he began to work for the J.W. Fecker scope company. In 1936, the same year the M70 was brought out, he left Fecker to start his own optical company. He first worked form his own home and upgraded as the company grew, making some of the highest quality rifle/target scopes in America. The company grew beyond rifle scopes to be a supplier of glass for NASA projects and the US gov for anything needing the highest of quality. After a long time the company stopped making optics since John Jr concentrated on the bigger contracts. The optics was his father’s love but just cost too much money. A third party bought the rights to use the Unertl optics name and tried to start it back up, but failed and we have seen nothing for years. The last high profile optic from Unertl was the USMC 10x sniper scope used by the Marines on the Barrett M82, the M40A1, and M40A3 sniper rifles until recently when replaced by the S&B 3-12x and the PR optics.
Optic above is one of the scopes used on my varmint M70. It is the 2.0 Unertl 8x Ultra varminter model. You can see how the base/rings attach to the blocks by dovetail in the right side picture.
The field of view on the 8x Unertl is 12.6 feet at 100 yards with an eye relief of 4.5 inches. It is 24.0 inches long a weighs 34 ounces. The 1-inch tube has a 1.3125 inch eye piece and a 2.1875 inch front objective. The recticle is the fine target crosshairs. A lot of people do not know how tough and simple Unertl optics are. The tube is solid steel constructed with external adjustments. Almost nothing can go wrong. The optics are also made to be easily fixed in the field. John Unertl thought a riflescope should not be complicated and that you should be able to fix it in the field. The optics are made to be taken apart with nothing more than a pocket knife. The crosshairs, if broken, can be fixed by taking the scope apart and substituting strands of your own hair! Among other features, the optic can be taken apart and dried out and cleaned, though I am not going to give the details because someone will try to prove me wrong by taking apart and breaking their valuable scope. They are a very rugged simple tool of very high quality. As a old friend said. They are a perfect example of the highest quality American optical craftsmanship.
Above, you can see the windage and elevation turrets that work on a spring that presses against the tube. Rather than internally, the adjustments are made this way. The right picture is a view of the recoil spring. The spring is tightened to bring the scope back into position after the gun recoils. The scope moves in its rings. This keeps the optic from taking any abuse from recoil as it experiences no shock. The spring is called a recoil, or return-to-battery spring. The clamp in front of the front base is tightened to position the optic and stop it from moving forward. The rib on top keeps the optic perfectly straight up and down so canting is not a problem. It is called a “pope rib” for reasons I have long forgotten. The front and rear lenses are covered by steel screw on caps.
Scanned copies of original instructions describe the normal features of various Unertl models and the optics features.
Above shows how the optic mounts to the blocks on the receiver and barrel as well as shows the size of this optic. The size of the match varmint barrel can be see in the forearm of the varmint standard walnut stock as well as the rear match sight mounting block. The eye piece can be replaced with a “booster” that would increase the optics magnification by 2X. This booster is almost never found it is so rare–I have only seen one of them.
My rifle has the accuracy typical of the quality of the pre 64 guns. With its “pet loads” it shoots around 1MOA to slightly less. This may not sound impressive, but during this gun’s time, 1MOA was a very, very hard thing to achieve. The limited choices in quality bullets and powder of the time did not help much at the time either. I use exclusively the Sierra 85 grain HPBT game king bullet with IMR 3031, Federal cases and Federal primers. This load has never failed me and has shot well in every .243 I have owned. I have owned a lot of .243s. Though the load is not hot, I’m not giving it out publicly for liability reasons.
My rifle does its varmint duty mainly as a crow gun. I love to shoot crows with a rifle above all other forms of hunting. It takes real skill, patience, and camouflage to hit a crow past 200 yards. The 8x is enough for the longest shots the rifle can be expected to hit. I have made hits on groundhog targets out to 800 yards with the rifle/Unertl and it easily will bust skeet at 300 yards with the load and optic.
Crow above was taken at 235 yards using the 85 grain HPBT load. I have killed a lot of crows with the .243 WCF using that load.
I have used a Model 70 .243 WCF to kill everything from deer to chipmunks and a lot of stuff in between and it has never failed me. I actually used it to nail a turkey at 515 yards one season as well. The round has been with me my entire shooting life and I love it. Only the 5.56 equals it in my heart, followed closely by the .218 Bee. The model 70 is also a constant in my life. Colt firearms and the Model 70s are things I will never be without.
Above the author takes long range shots at crows and ground hogs from a bench.