The Birth of the Winchester Model 70


Most of this week I was working on some posts about the Model 70 Winchester, my favorite bolt action rifle. I had about half of a long article going when I checked my email today and saw that Rock Island Auction had already finished one. Well that was a lot of work for nothing. Waaa Waaaaah Sad trombone.. So, instead of finishing that first post, here is the RIA article. Or about half of it. Follow the link at bottom to read it all and I will be back with more Model 70 stuff to show you and talk about next week.

From the RIA Gun Blog

The earliest version of the Winchester Model 70 borrowed heavily from its short produced predecessor, the Model 54. Designed by Thomas Johnson and developed in the early 1920s, the Model 54 became the first bolt action rifle made by Winchester and continued production until around 1935. Bolt action rifles had gained popularity in America after World War I since soldiers coming home were well acclimated with them after using their service M1903 and M1917 rifles. Between 1925 and 1941, around 50,000 of these guns were manufactured. The Model 54 came in several different caliber variations with the most popular being .30-30 Winchester and .30-06 Springfield, but customers could also place special orders for other calibers. The gun’s main purpose was for hunting, but was also customized and used in shooting competitions.

The original Model 54 was a dangerous and poorly produced rifle. Originally designed without the necessary gas escape ports, it could present an explosive hazard to its user. This blunder was corrected on later productions of the model, but the gun still fell short with the public. The main reason the Model 54 was never found success was due to the obvious flaws in its bolt and safety design. The wide throw of the bolt and placement of the safety did not all allow for telescopic scopes to be mounted on to the gun which turned away a wide array of civilian and military customers. The trigger was loose due to the cheaper materials used in the gun, causing inaccuracy and a relatively weak action. To say the least, customers were not pleased by the rifle’s performance.

Beyond the shortcomings of the rifle, the fact that it was sold in the Great Depression Era in America also contributed to lower sales. Something had to change in order for the Model 54 to make a profit for Winchester.


Rare Winchester Model 54 Deluxe Heavy Barrel Bolt Action Rifle in 250-3000 Savage Caliber

The Winchester Model 54 was a bust and in the hopes of redeeming their name in the bolt action rifle market, Winchester knew they would need to come up with a firearm that knocked its customers’ socks off. In 1935, attempting to use parts and the machinery purchased for the previous gun, they released a much improved version of the bolt action and called it the Winchester Model 70 rifle. The gun was so well made that it is considered one of the finest bolt action rifles made in America. The first incarnation of the Model 70 hit the market in 1936.

The rifle came in 18 cartridge varieties and additional variations were available through special order. The standard Winchester Model 70 offered a 24”, 26”, or 28” inch barrel. Perhaps the best feature of the rifle that made it superior to other guns was the Mauser two lug extractor bolt with controlled round feeding, which was smooth and made for faster firing. The early versions of the gun were equipped to accept stripper for quicker reloading relative to other options on the market. The entire gun was made from steel and wood. The finished pieces were true works of art.

Highly engraved Winchester Model 70

Elaborate Relief Engraved, Gold Inlaid African Big Game Themed Winchester Model 70 Bolt Action Rifle in .458 Winchester Magnum. Avaliable this December.

Hunters, competition shooters, and other sportsmen took a liking to the accurate and efficient Winchester hunting rifle. The first production run was short lived due to the outbreak of World War II, which changed Winchester’s military production efforts. The U.S. military adapted a small amount of Model 70 rifles for training and some use in combat during World War II,  but the government already had on hand thousands of M1903 and M1917 rifles from the first World War, as well as new contracts for thousands of new M1903A3 guns, resulting in little need for another bolt action rifle. In fact, during the Vietnam War, in an attempt to use all available resources, the US government gave troops the Model 70 rifles from World War II for actual use in combat. Despite the advancements in military arms over the last 30 or so years, the Model 70 proved to be an excellent sniper rifle for the Marines with its reliable accuracy and long distance power.

After World War II, small alterations were added to the Winchester Model 70 making the early 1940s era a transitional time for the gun. From the late 1940s to 1963, several different models and chambering adaptations were added. The Varmint, the African, the Alaskan, and the Featherweight are just a few of the variations that came about during that era. Around 600,000 Winchester Model 70 rifles were made in that time span; substantially more than the 50,000 Model 54 rifles produced during its 16 year run. The Model 70 a tremendous hit and the premier bolt action hunting rifle even while it was still undergoing changes.

The “New” Winchester Model 70

The Model 70 was made in the exact same design until 1964, but there was new, less expensive competition emerging in the market such as the Weatherby Mark V and the Savage Model 110. Winchester had to find a way to produce the Model 70 in a cheaper and quicker way while still maintaining quality if they wanted to stay on top. The new gun had drastic changes that made fans of the Model 70 quite unhappy. The most controversial was the switch from the controlled round feed with a claw-like extractor to a push feed bolt with a small hook extractor on the right locking lug. People didn’t trust the little hook would be reliable compared to the claw-like extractor used in the previous design. The original hand cut barrel and rifling was changed to a cheaper and easier process of using a forged barrel. Winchester began to cut costs on the deluxe features by adapting a pressing method instead of cut checkering on the wood of the gun. Some materials used went from steel to aluminum to reduce costs further. One improvement was the anti-bind feature which actually helped the bolt become smoother. The addition was referred to by Winchester as the “guide lug” which was essentially a lug on the bottom left of the bolt that that ran on a track inside the receiver. This kept the bolt at the correct angle to prevent binding.

The changes from the original design to the new production is why the Winchester Model 70 rifle is referred to by gun enthusiasts as “pre-64” and “post-64.” Getting a Model 70 made before these changes occurred is much more pricey and desirable due to age, quality, and nostalgia.

Model 70 Super Grade

Factory Engraved Gold Inlaid Winchester Custom Shop Custom Grade Model 70 Super Grade Model 70 Bolt Action Rifle. Avaliable this December.

In 1968, Winchester took note of the public’s disdain in many of the changes and started adding back elements of the original rifle throughout the next decade or so. In the 1990s, Winchester released what was called, “The Model 70 Classic” which was a callback to the original Model 70 design and features. The most requested feature was added, which was the return of the controlled feed ejector bolt. The gun was well-produced and some may say an improved version of the original with the addition of the anti-bind bolt feature. The changes Winchester made to redeem the new Model 70 contributed to the rifle retaining its name as the finest American hunting gun.

If you would like to read an in-depth description of the evolution of the Winchester Model 70 and all its variations, purchase a copy of the book The Rifleman’s Rifle by Roger Rule. It provides a thorough overview of all iterations of the Model 70.

Link to read the entire piece and see more pictures below.


  1. Rather than expound upon the goodness vs/ ugliness of the pre/post 64 situation, I’d like to give some gunsmith’s thoughts on the Model 70 in both configurations (pre and post-64 and post-68).

    OK, pre-64: They were produced with high production values, especially from the custom shop. The pre-’47 barrels, with the “dog knot” or “wedding ring” (depending on the level of manners in your interlocutor) are highly desired by collectors, but they didn’t help accuracy all that much. They did provide a nice place to put the dovetail for the rear sight, so there is that.

    That said, the level of work in the pre-64 Model 70 was pretty high, and it was deservedly called “the Rifleman’s Rifle” for good reasons. The swept-back bolt handle was “just right,” the single stage trigger was quite adjustable (and easily set – unlike trigger designs with 2-56 screws going into a trigger cartridge, ala Remington), and the “feel” of the stock was pretty doggone good for most shooters.

    Many people like the controlled round feeding on the pre-64 70, with the big Mauser-98-like rotating claw extractor. Here’s a little history for y’all. The Mauser 98 claw extractor wasn’t Peter Paul Mauser’s idea. Nooooo folks, that was the German armaments board’s idea of an extractor. Mauser (the man) wanted an extractor much as you see on the post-64 Model 70 bolt – a little sliding bit of tool steel that was machined into the right/lower bolt lug. The massive claw extractor has an issue in the Mauser action in that it is difficult to slap a round that is hand-loaded into the chamber and then slam the bolt home on it. When Mauser owners come to me and want to be able to have their cake and eat it too (ie, feed a 98 action by CRF or by hand-loading and slamming the bolt home), I have to thin out the extractor spring (the part of the claw extractor that is over the middle of the bolt, speaking lengthwise) to allow the extractor to flex and fit over the rim of the cartridge.

    Many model 70’s would allow you to load a round and push the bolt home, as well as CRF. If they didn’t, they could be modified as the 98’s and 1903’s were, by taking material from the middle of the length of the extractor spring.

    Second issue where Winchester did the job right (for a game rifle) was the conical breech. The Mauser 98 has a flat breech; the 1903 Springfield and Model 70 have coned breeches, which makes a mis-feed very difficult to accomplish on those rifles. As a result, it takes more to machine the tenon on a 1903 or 70 than on a Mauser 98. The Springfield 1903 makes up for this effort a bit with square tenon threads, which are VERY fast to put onto the barrel; the Model 70 uses 60 degree threads, which take longer. Both types of barrels then need the extractor cut milled into them, which takes yet more work (and a setup on a mill after the lathe work is done).

    The trigger on the 70 is under-appreciated – until you sit down with (eg) four bolt action rifles of similar vintage and compare them. The 70’s trigger could be adjusted to be quite light, and it could be honed to be exceedingly crisp, without lots of fiddling and effort. The “barn door” safety was excellent, and the third position was a welcome improvement over the Mauser or any battle rifle. The 70’s safety is, like the Mauser or 1903, a “direct acting” safety – ie, it retains the firing pin. You can drop those rifles off a cliff, and they will never fire- because the firing pins are captured and held in place by the safety. The trigger can do whatever it wants – those bolts are stuck.

    Unlike the competition, the Model 70 has a bolt handle that, like the Mauser’s, is part of the forging. Most people don’t know or appreciate that the Model 700 Remington’s bolt handle is soldered on – as are many lower-cost rifles. Dakota rifles take a fairly unique and snazzy solution to the issue of bolt handles – Dakota mounts the main part of the bolt in a lathe, spins it up to a couple thousand RPM, and then crashes it into the bolt handle forging, friction-welding the two together. It’s a wonderful process that works exceptionally well. Mausers and pre-64 70’s use bolts made from one drop forging.

    The pre-64 70 was one of the last sporting rifles to carry the Mauser idea of a backup lug into production, making them very safe in the event of a bolt head or lug failure.

    One of the only downsides of the Mode 70 (IMO) was the two-piece bottom metal; there was a trigger guard and there was the magazine. It took three screws to hold all of this into the bottom of the action. The way the Mauser 98 worked was, IMO, much better. The magazine floorplate release was also rather goofy, but then so was the 98’s.

    The post-64 Model 70 suffered from such things as bolt binding, crappy aluminum bottom metal (the magazine/trigger guard) and an action that was a bit longer than it really needed to be for the cartridges involved. That said, the length issue isn’t much of an issue, it’s a gunmaker gripe. The bottom metal being made out of aluminum was hideous, and this, probably more than most other issues, was what made Winchester buyers howl with indignation. The push feed issue? For most hunters, it isn’t as much of an issue as they make it out to be. For dangerous game hunters? OK, sure. For deer hunters in the west? Pffft.

    That said, the post-68 Model 70 cured the binding issue, and these are pretty slick actions. OK, they’re not CRF, but they’re a hell of a lot better than the Model 700 Remington, where the extractor is a cheesy bit of spring metal clipped inside the bolt nose. I keep my eyes out for long post-68 actions all the time – they often go cheap – because I can make good rifles out of these at a reasonable cost. Finding a pre-64 action on which to build a custom rifle? I might as well hand over the cost of a whole rifle for the action…

    The pre-64 Winchester Model 70 is, without doubt in my mind, the single best sporting bolt action made for the North American sportsman out there. It had lots of features the sportsman wanted, it was well made, out of good steel, using no stupid of goofy marketing gimmicks. Everything on that action serves an actual purpose. In addition to having function, it also has form, and it is a very attractive action, with excellent, clean lines. It has cleaner lines than a Mauser 98 or 1903, IMO.

    It is a shame that there isn’t a good source of pre-64-style Model 70 actions out there for custom gunbuilding. There are several very good custom actions; sadly, too many of them take the easy/cheap road and follow the Model 700 Remington’s footprint.


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