Sunday, February 16, 2014

Winchester Model 94 Rifles

The Winchester model 1894 (or '94 as it is now known) had a hand in the death of more deer than probably any other gun. With over 7 million sold it is the most popular sporting rifle of all time.
Designed in the days of black powder by none other than the great John Moses Browning, the model 94 was designed to be the larger framed version of the model 1892, which was too short for the then new necked rifle cartridges.

The '94 went through a few changes during its 112 years of production in New Haven.  
Many people try to break the model 94's production into just two groups, pre '64 and post '64, but there were other changes made that we should consider.

In 1894 black powder was still the predominant propellant. Smokeless powder was just coming on to the scene. As a result the Winchester had to re-engineer the steel alloy used in the receivers due to the new smokeless powder cartridges having more power than the original .32-40 & .38-55 black powder cartridges that the 94 was originally chambered for.
This nickel steel didn't hold bluing well and most of those older guns have no bluing on the receiver but still wear it on their barrels and other parts.

Around 1930, the heat treating of carbon steels had improved dramatically and Winchester again re-engineered their steel alloy. Then came the dreaded changes in 1964.

You may have heard that the pre-1964 guns are the best to have. That may be true, but why?
There is a lot of misinformation out there about the changes that were made to the gun that year, so I set about to find the truth.

In 1964 Olin (the owners of Winchester Repeating Arms at the time) made a decision to change the way in which Winchester Rifles were manufactured. The folks at the helm of the company were forced into a corner. The labor costs involved in the intricate machining needed to manufacture the gun continued to rise. At the same time Winchester hoped to maintain a "working man's" price point and then of course there is that pesky requirement known as profit. Something had to be done.

The changes made that year were not limited to the model 94. The model 70 bolt action received a make-over as well. We'll cover the model 70 another day.
The changes to the model 94 included:
  • The receivers were no longer made from forged steel, they changed to a sintered metal casting process using an alloy that included graphite, nickel or chromium (actual recipes are not known, nor available from any source that I could find).
  • Some of the screws were replaced with pins
  • Many of the solid steel internal pins were replaced with hollow roll pins
  • The final machining was changed, perhaps this was because the sintering molds produced a part that was "close enough"
  • Some of the internal forged steel parts were replaced with stamped steel ones, of particular concern was the cartridge lifter/elevator
While most of the changes did not in any way affect the performance of the gun, or the strength of the receiver. 
The testimony of its strength can be found with a lack of stories of post '64 Winchesters blowing apart.

Just prior to 1964 Bill Ruger had begun using investment castings for his gun frames, this process saved machining time and time is money. Perhaps his success was the inspiration for the change at Winchester?

We can surmise that the durability of the stamped steel parts may have suffered. It must have been a problem as they made a change a few years later to a cast steel cartridge lifter/elevator. This picture shows the differences:

Many gun owners noticed the obvious changes, what may not have been noticeable at the time was that the new receivers would not take traditional bluing. 
As a firearms restorer, this is important information to know. In researching the reasons why, I read a lot of misinformation. As always there is no shortage of "experts" on the interwebs. 

Whenever trying to get to the truth, it always helps to go to the source.
Winchester had, for a long time, used the DuLite company for their bluing salts. A quick search of the DuLite website uncovered the real story.
The 1964 thru 1968 receivers were indeed made of a mystery alloy that required a special formula to get  them to take bluing, DuLite called this the "3.0 Process".

Here is a picture of a pre and post 64 finishes

In 1968 the alloy was changed again, why it was changed I don't know. DuLite developed yet another formula called "Black Chrome Plate", it actually looks like the name implies, black chrome.
Here is a 1968 vintage model 94:

in 1972 the sintering alloy was changed once more, this time the amount of steel was low enough that the receivers needed to be iron plated in order to accept bluing, the DuLite formula used was the original WinBlue/Oxiblack.
Here is a picture of a 1974 vintage model 94 that had lost some of its finish:

The guns from the '72 to '81 era could be reblued with traditional methods, if the iron plating is not removed. They can also be cold blued, although the results are not as pleasing and also not as permanent. Here is the gun above after cold bluing:

In 1982 Winchester made another change. Machining costs had been reduced by technology and robotics (CNC Machines). So the Winchester model 94 was once again machined from of forged steel.
Winchester also had a new owner, United States Repeating Arms Company had taken over the previous year. 

Here is a time line of the changes to the model 94:

1895: Winchester re-engineers the alloy using additional nickel in the steel to make the guns capable of withstanding the higher pressures of the then new smokeless powder cartridges. The .30 WCF (30-30) is introduced and chambered in the 1894.

1930-33: Around this time, Winchester removed the excess nickel from the receivers steel alloy and employed new hardening processes.

1964: The receivers changed to sintered metal alloy and the screws and pins changed along with stamped steel parts replacing the forged steel ones.

1967: The .44 Mag chambering is introduced

1968: The formula in the sintered alloy changes again

1971: The cartridge lifter/elevator is changed from stamped steel to a cast steel one.

1972: The formula in the sintered alloy changes again, this time requiring iron plating before the receivers could be blued.

1978: The model 94 XTR is introduced

1981: U.S. Repeating Arms takes ownership of the company

1982: The receivers are again made from high carbon forged steel, also they add an angle ejection, allowing the use of scopes.

1983: .307 & .356 Winchester chamberings are introduced.

1984: A hammer block system is added and the Trapper model is introduced (replacing the Saddle Ring Carbine)

1985: The 45 Colt chambering is added

1989: U.S. Repeating Arms files for bankruptcy, the company is purchased by FN Herstal.

1992: A cross bolt safety is added along with the .357 Magnum chambering.

2003: The safety was moved to the tang.

March 31, 2006: after 112 years in New Haven, Connecticut, the old Winchester plant closes its doors.

Winchester rifles are again available, now built by Miroku in Japan.

A lot of people ask the question: What is the best vintage model 94 to own?
From a collectors stand point the pre-64 is by far the best investment. 
For a hunter/shooter that cannot find an affordable pre-64 model, look for a model made between '82 and '91. These have the angle eject, forged steel receivers, but have not yet had the cross bolt safety cut into the receivers, this is purely from a value standpoint, I personally have no problem with the cross bolt safety.

Here is a breakdown of the serial numbers for the various changes:

Post '64 models start with serial # 2,700,000

Post 1982 models start with serial # 5,103,248

1992 serial numbers start somewhere in the low 6 millions, the data is not easy to come by, ('91 production started with 6,008,296)

That still leaves the question of how to restore the finish on a model 94 made between '64 and '82. While you could attempt to blue it using the process invented by Dulite, or you could try one of the painted on coatings. I have reviewed many of the painted coatings and most of them show "orange peel" on the surface. Which I guess is OK for a hunting/utility gun, which is what the '94s made in those years are probably destined for anyway, due to their lower value. Another option could be to polish the metal and keep it coated in oil or wax.

A great pictorial showing the changes made in 1964 can be found here:

Shooting with Hobie

Winchester History by Chuck Hawks

Winchester's Timeless Classic by Doc O'Meara

Winchester History/FAQ page

Winchester serial number history

Gun Digest