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Testfire: Winchester Lever Action 1894 Deluxe Short Rifle

By Luke Dixon

Diversity. Suffice to say it’s a loaded word in today’s world, but the in the context of what I’m referring to here, it’s perfect. Since Jacinda and her cohort went for a no holds barred assault on our sport, it should surprise no one that pickings for something other than a stock bolt action rifle are few and far between. 

 

And if you’re someone like me, losing that new Troy PAR in the 2020 legislation after being burnt in 2019, you’re more than a little jaded.

 

I’m on a quest of sorts, to find something different and exciting to create a more diverse collection in that safe of mine and maybe yours too if you’ll indulge me. 

 

Now don’t get me wrong, I love bolt actions I have plenty, but there’s a void in my safe left by a dearly beloved AR, and this hole must be filled, and I’d love you to join me in that search, starting with the perfection of the Winchester Lever Action designs, the 1894 Deluxe Short Rifle in .30-30 Winchester.

 

FIRST IMPRESSIONS ARE THE ONES THAT LAST…

To be upfront I have never owned a lever action, but I’ve fired plenty, hunted with a few and as a matter of fact the first goat I ever took down was with a Winchester 1894 Trapper in .30-30 Win. 

 

So that being said, opening the box on the latest Winchester 1894 Deluxe was more than a treat. Its striking once you grasp it just how much ‘gun’ you get for the package size, balanced nicely in the front of the receiver the rifle weighs only 3kg.

 

A 20” barrel combined with the 38” (96.52cm) overall length, referring to the rifle as ‘light and handy’ not a trite thing to say, if anything, how this rifle has always been advertised over the decades is bang on the money. 

 

The beauty of Colour Case hardening.

 

Wanting a Winchester lever gun regardless of the date of design I want at least a taste of that western aesthetic, and to be frank I don’t care how cliché and pedestrian that may come across. 

  

Without doubt the first thing that jumps right out at you, prepared for it or not, is the colour case hardening, not everyone’s cup of tea, granted, but if colour case does ‘float your boat’ you’ll be pleased to know that this is not one of those imitation finishes, it’s the real deal.

 

Deep and vibrant colours covering the entire receiver, lever, floor plate and stock cap, it’s noticeably more desirable than others I’d seen. The satin bluing on the barrel, magazine tube, loading gate and bolt, is a top-notch blue as you’d expect, while it has some sheen to it, it’s not so polished as to be obnoxious or blinding if you catch the wrong angle in the mid-day sun.

 

FURNITURE

The stock is made of American Black Walnut (Juglans Nigra) and has a grade of V/VI. To demonstrate where that sits the grade line up:

 

Grading
Class Grade Description
Utility Economy Plain, minor imperfections and blemishes, grain somewhat undiscernible 
Standard Grade I Straight Grain, Sturdy, grain discernible
Select Grade II Good discernible grain flow, no visible blemishes
Semi-Fancy Grade III Good grain flow, colour, starting to see depth
Moderate-Fancy Grade IV Good grain flow with figure and depth, good colour.
Fancy Grade V Great colour, 25% fancy figure, depth very discernible flow
Extra-Fancy Grade VI Great Colour, 50% fancy figure, great depth
Premium / Presentation Grade VII Extraordinary Colour, vibrant figure of at least 75%, exceedingly over and above all other classes, and made up of less than 5% of overall harvest.  

 

Wood grading is of great importance to some people and I can understand why, myself however, I tend judge each rifle in my hands based on my personal tastes. 

 

In saying that though, if you’re buying this rifle in particular, you want to know that you really are getting a premium wood for the furniture.  

  

The stock and fore-end have a matte oil finish, which I prefer as dealing to scratches with this type of finish is remedied with a good rub of finishing oil, try doing that with the delicate lacquer finishes sometimes found on other lever action rifles.  

 

Of course, if you like a bit of sheen, the matte finish provides a good starting point to achieve the level of shine you want, if you’re so incline. The checkering on the stock is strong, and aggressive which is what I like, without leaving an impression on your palm. 

 

The American Black Walnut Stock features clean and crisp checkering.

 

As you’d expect the checkering is cut rather than pressed. It’s handsomely done at 18 lines per inch. Furnishing the butt is a shotgun style polymer non-slip buttplate, it’s great for keeping the rifle on your shoulder while working the action, and discrete enough that it doesn’t take away from the traditional look. 

 

The fit between the receiver and wooden stock are incredibly tight, with not even a hint of a gap. But as you’ll notice the wood is raised up somewhat rather than flush with the tang, the purpose of this is to allow for some wood shrinkage over time, because let’s face it, this is a rifle you’re going to keep.  

 

THE HEART OF THE RIFLE

The latest 94’ has some marked improvements, the like that I’m sure would warrant a tip of the hat from John Browning. 

 

It dawned on my pretty quickly that the design team at Miroku and Winchester had a pretty clear goals that lay in three distinct areas: fit, finish and in particular, attention was paid to creating a smooth lever throw. 

 

In the initial stages of the lever stroke the hammer is bobbed into position with the sliding of the bolt, this has been improved by cutting a smooth relief in the base of the bolt carrier. 

 

The cycling of the action improved after a few initial dry cycling runs and range time.

 

It prevents the stacking of resistance in the end pivot of the lever throw, it’s been perfectly radiused for a decent glide. The trunnion for the locking block has also been rounded rather than original square cut. 

 

The lever slot too has returned somewhat to the pre-64 cut, with a minor reshaping. These modifications combined have certainly removed some friction that is notably present in some post 64 model 94s.

 

Out of the box, the lever throw was smooth but there was still a bit of friction between the staging, and as I expected this was remedied with some dry runs on the lever and a few rounds down range. 

 

Hammer lowered, screw hole for hammer extension when scope attached; hammer cocked with locking block and firing pin transfer bar.

 

It didn’t take long, and the action really started to come together into a very pleasant, lickety-split cycle. I’m certainly not getting the fumbling lock ups I’ve had with my uncle’s lever action or the 1990’s 94’ I used as a teenager. 

 

The edges of the lever itself are rounded just right, when comparing it to a 1970's 94’ I saw last week. The other significant difference I noted was the coming together of the lockup, there was some slack in this mildly used 70's rifle. 

 

It felt like the internals were working against each other a little, whereas this Miroku made rifle opens and closes up like Swiss clockwork. 

 

PARTS & FEATURES

The 94 is fitted with a semi buckhorn rear sight, tightly nestled in its dovetail, it would take some force with a punch to move, unlikely to ever move once set, it's nicely machined, but of standard fare. 

 

The front sight is a departure from the original rifles in that it has no hood protector and has completely new shape with a serrated face towards the shooter, adorned with a brass bead atop. It's certainly a more handsome design that the ones that came before it as well as being more pronounced.

  

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The receiver is drilled for mounting of scope, following in the lines of the 94AE, this rifle also has the angled eject feature too. A hole has been drilled in the hammer of the rifle for the included spur extension for cocking of the hammer when a scope is mounted.

 

For me personally, bearing in mind that I see this as a bush rifle, a Skinner rear aperture sights would not go a miss. They are available for the 1894 out of the States for around $121.88 plus shipping at the time of writing.

 

The ironsights combine a Semi-Buckhorn rear sight with a Marble Arms front Sight and brass bead.

  

The benefits of such sighting arrangements would be most noticeable in the increased sight radius and quick and easy adjustment.

 

Also available from Marble Arms is a rear tang peep sight of the traditional type, that will cover the tang safety, but you may have to drill holes for it yourself. Whereas the skinner will not make any permanent modifications to your rifle. 

 

“Winchester have supplied this rifle with the perfect solution already with the hammer, it's a visual representation of the firearms status, coupled with the fact that in later models like this rifle it’s also rebounding as opposed to half cock.”

  

Gone are the days thank goodness, of that ugly cross bolt safety bought in during the 90’s, these latest rifles have at least become more discrete, in the form of a tang switch. It’s seemingly unobtrusive and doesn't detract from the otherwise gorgeous looks of the rifle. 

 

But I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that it probably doesn't even need to be there. Winchester have supplied this rifle with the perfect solution already with the hammer, it's a visual representation of the firearms status, coupled with the fact that in later models like this rifle it’s also rebounding as opposed to half cock. 

 

The receiver is drilled and tapped for the fitting of a scope.

 

As with all 94’s the rifle has an unobtrusive grip safety. The grip safety protrudes a small block behind the trigger that prevents it being pulled and is disengaged via a small pin that is depressed when the lever is clasped against the stock. Pleasantly it requires very little effort to disengage.

 

Trigger pull on the rifle is short, and perhaps a little on the heavy side coming in a 4½ pounds according to the Wheeler trigger scale. There is little in the way of take-up, so expect a quite sudden snap with a little bit of travel. If I hadn’t made a point of looking into the trigger, I question whether I would have noticed the weight too much. 

 

Sliding rounds into the magazine tube was a little finicky at first, I had always loaded a .30-30 by partially loading rounds through the gate with the rear of the case hanging out for the tip of the next round to push on. This method didn’t work so well with this rifle, and I put that down to the weight on the gate spring of this brand-new rifle. 

 

The Winchester utilises a discrete tang safety - an added safety feature that Luke questions as to it even being required at all.

 

Loading each round completely seemed to be the order of the day. You can load the seven-round tube at some speed doing it this way, but as I mentioned, the spring tension on the gate is pretty tough, nothing a bit of time and use won’t fix, however.  

 

A good mate of mine questioned the lack of barrel bands on either the barrel/magazine or fore-stock, and he wasn’t the only one to mention it. 

 

While that might seem like a miss on Winchester’s behalf, this configuration is actually correct for 94’s designated as rifles, the prevalence of carbines out there, for whom the bands are standard has given rise to that impression no doubt.

 

A traditional 94' grip safety.

 

On this latest 94’ there is a connection seam just forward of the fore-stock, and a dovetailed block connection between the magazine tube and barrel. 

 

And for what it’s worth, from an accuracy standpoint, you may be better off, the consistency of the block connection is likely to be far better than bands.

 

ON THE RANGE

Arriving at the farm on what must have been one of the most gorgeous days I’d seen in a long time, and fired a couple of quick sighters at 40m to make sure I'd be on paper and got to work at 100m. 

 

The sights were more less on right out of the gate, being perfectly aligned down the centreline of the barrel which is nice as I cannot stand a lot of offset. 

 

A very respectable group from the Winchester Power-Point 150gr factory ammo at a distance of 75m. The inner white square measures 1.

 

Winchester Power-Point 150gr JSN was first out of the gate with five-round groups coming in at 3-1/2”, I did achieve one group coming in just under 3” too, that I was very pleased with. 

  

Coming to the end of the Winchester packet I decided to do a group at 75m, the reason being, this is the engagement range I’m often coming up on goats. 

 

A combination of being closer in and my eyes being able to focus better I shot a tidy group (pictured) perfect for the goat hunting trip ahead. 

 

Next was the Federal Premium 170gr Power•Shok jacketed soft point round nose. Pleasingly the point of impact did not change significantly from the Power-Point and shot pretty much to the point of aim. Groups with Federal averaged around 3-1/2”. 

  

The quality of a rifle for me is to see how a given firearm will perform with the stock standard affordable ammo out there. There's no doubt that you can take just about anything out there and put premium target loads through it and achieve stunning results.

 

100m group with the Federal Power•Shok factory ammunition.

 

Sellier and Bellot 150gr soft point is in my opinion a decent round for its price point, it's sold everywhere and generally performs well considering. 

 

A put a box through its paces both on paper sheets (100m) and some paper dinner plates (120’ish metres). On sheets it tended to raise the point of impact up some 2-1/2” and grouped at 3-3/4”. Tightening up groups would obviously be very attainable with a scope. 

 

On another range trip, I tried my hand at some longer distance shots on 12” steel plates. After a good belling ringing warm up at 100 meters, I felt confident enough to start stretching it out to 250m from the sitting position. 

 

I fired a couple of sighters that were coming in well high, I was overestimating the drop and that came at some surprise to me. The hold for 250m was barely above the 100m mark, a mere fraction. 

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Having readjusted I confidently belted that plate round after round, I got confident (cocky) enough to try 350m, and with again a couple of sighters, I was smacking steel consistently at that range too. 

  

For a me that’s pretty good, and if there was anything to take away from that experience, it was that despite whatever theoretical draw backs a lever action may inherently have, with a bit of confidence and a good barrel, they’re very damn capable.

 

What could be more badass than off hand shooting a lever action through iron sights!

 

As always, I must stress that I’m an average shooter, and I think with time, I could certainly tighten those groups up, I’ve not had the rifle long, and I’m still adjusting to using a lever from the bench. 

 

I just really wanted to give the factory sights a good thrashing before considering other sighting arrangements. Regardless, I’m very happy with the results.

 

IN THE FIELD

After a call to the old man, I was invited by two stand out blokes, Garry and Cohan to hunt across farmland in Paparoa. The town is situated about an hour and a half north of Auckland, it’s a small country town, that has been featured in the news recently for the possum bagging competition run by the local school. 

 

The folks up that way are a true representation of what Kiwi culture is all about. I had crossed a large open span at get to a large mob of goats that were milling around at the crest of a hill, but with the time it had taken me they had slowly wandered into the thick scrub, and somewhat foolishly I went in after them. 

 

Creeping slowly through the thicket trying not make much sound, I would occasionally stop to listen out them. Identifying their origin, I crept slowly towards them, but I could not see for more than 2 or 3m in front of me. 

 

A young billy goat harvested with the Winchester 94’ and destined for the pot.

 

Suddenly I heard a grunt, I froze and listened intently, the noises now were not coming from one direction but in fact were all around me, and not more than 2m away, that dark patch was actually a goat. 

 

In complete unison they bolted, now that had all taken place in less than a few seconds. A little disheartened, I spent the next few hours combing the ridgelines, until Cohan called out movement across the ridge. 

 

Carefully moving around the ridge, keeping low to the ground I crossed to the tree line and two white Goats casually walked between the heavy scrub. 

 

Moving down to get a clean shot, a young male about 60m away, turned to me, by which stage the brass bead was now nestled in the buckhorn sight. A 150gr Hornady LEVERevolution round struck him in the lung, and he was down for the count. 

 

A hasty photo was acquired, before the dogs who I could hear barking excitedly in the distance would be upon us and trying to fight them off to get a snap is damn near impossible. This young goat would become their dinner for the next couple of days, nothing goes to waste around here. 

 

HOW WE GOT HERE

Subject of many Winchester centric discussions is that of the 1964 revamp of Winchester production methods, which took place after the exit of John Olin and the new executive board that replaced him sought to cut costs. 

 

Up until Olin left, Winchester rifles were made to a very high standard incorporating solid steel billet receivers, quality screws and solid steel pins. These would be supplanted by Sintered Steel receivers, roll pins and stampings where possible. 

 

Changes were also made to minor aspects of the design to speed up production. While the rifles were still functional and accurate, these changes were a bit to taken in for Winchester’s loyal customers and to make matters worse, the new production rifles were easily identified by a distinctly different finish on the receivers. 

 

The Winchester Lever Action 1894 Deluxe Short Rifle in all its glory.

 

During the 1980’s changes were made to the model 94 again, holes were drilled for the mounting of a scope. The extractor was moved from the top of the bolt to right with a new slot in the receiver for angled ejection of cases. 

 

Later in the 90’s Winchester was purchased by Browning and a serious overhaul of the rifle would again take place. This time with CNC machining, gone were the roll pins and production returned to an overall higher quality rifle until 2006 when production in the New Haven plant ceased. 

 

In 2010, Browning who has long made rifles in Japan, licensed production to Miroku.  That is where this fine rifle we are examining comes in. 

 

“Every production run of the rifle has had differences of varying magnitude, but the genius of John Browning’s action and those beautiful lines that have created many a fan, have not faded throughout the passage of time, but rather, always remain. ”

 

While there will always be some detractors, there is a good argument to be made that with Japanese steel combined with Miroku’s world-renowned manufacturing tolerances this latest iteration of Winchester rifles, are made to a higher standard than the originals.

 

I wanted to get a decent sample of 94’s to get a good feel for just how this latest iteration stacks up with its forebears. If there is ever a place to answer your questions about historical firearms in Auckland, it’s S.A.I. Guns. 

 

I’ve got a lot of time for Greg Carvell, the man is wealth of knowledge, besides being a great guy. He kindly gave up some time to walk me through the range of historical Winchesters that he had in stock for the upcoming auction. 

 

The 94’s on display were of various vintages and I was pleased to see such a rare specimen, the sweet little French Contract 94’ carbine from World War One. 

 

What really stood out of note having gone through each of these rifles and carbines, was that in many respects was that the latest 94’ is a much tighter rifle in terms of fit and has a far smoother lever throw to cycle. 

  

And while that might be expected due to progress, every one of those Winchester rifles were unique and beautiful in their own right, and this new iteration fits nicely into that heritage. 

 

“I wanted to get a decent sample of 94’s to get a good feel for just how this latest iteration stacks up with its forebears. If there is ever a place to answer your questions about historical firearms in Auckland, it’s S.A.I. Guns.”

 

As I sit here at my desk this evening, I glanced across at this beautiful piece trying to think how to tie a bow on this write-up that translates everything I feel about it, and I think this sums it up nicely: Everything that makes a 94’, a 94’, is there without a shadow of a doubt, but to a standard this old girl hasn’t been made in for a long time, if ever. 

 

Every production run of the rifle has had differences of varying magnitude, but the genius of John Browning’s action and those beautiful lines that have created many a fan, have not faded throughout the passage of time, but rather, always remain. 

 

Luke

 

Check out Luke's video review here:

 

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