1894 Winchester: America’s Deer Rifle

Considered one of the world’s best hunting rifles since its inception, it’s also been a favorite with cowboys and lawmen.

Whenever riflemen make a list of classic hunting rifles, Winchester’s 1894 lever-action is sure to be at or near the top. Sometimes known as “America’s Deer Rifle,” its lightweight and easy-to-carry design, combined with a smooth, fast-shooting capability, continues to rank the Model 1894 as a favorite short-range hunting rifle, well over a century after its introduction.

Designed along the lines of firearms genius John M. Browning’s 1886 and 1892 models, Winchester introduced his then latest-designed lever action on August 21, 1894. This slick new rifle enjoyed the latest improvements John Browning could dream up. Besides using stronger nickel steel barrels as standard equipment of the Model 1894, the design used a single thick steel locking bolt at the rear of the gun’s breech block, rather than the two vertically sliding locking bolts of its earlier inspirations, thus allowing additional room for the receiver to handle the new, longer smokeless-powder cartridges.

Interestingly, while this rifle was conceived especially to handle the then-new, high pressure smokeless-powder cartridges, the company’s ammunition makers were experiencing unforeseen production problems. Due to the restructuring of commercial ammunition loading, where a few grains of smokeless powder could make a considerable difference in a gun’s performance, the actual introduction of these revolutionary new loads was delayed until the following year, and the first 1894 Winchesters were shipped in the black powder chamberings of .32-40 and .38-55 calibers.


Designed by John M. Browning, the ’94 Winchester became an immediate favorite with hunters and has not had any major changes throughout its 130-year history. This 1894 rifle sports a three-leaf buckhorn rear sight as well as a tang-mounted peep sight and a Lyman globe front sight.
Courtesy Rock Island Auction Company


In the August 1895 catalog, when the powerful new ammunition was finally made available, the ’94 made its smokeless powder debut—as it was originally intended to be introduced—in the newly developed chamberings of .25-35 and .30 Winchester Center Fire (.30 WCF). It was this latter round, also nicknamed .30-30, that through the decades has become synonymous with, and is often the more popular designation for, the 1894 model. In some parts of the USA, that’s pronounced “Thutty Thutty.”

With its more powerful, longer-reaching smokeless-powder loads, the 1894 model quickly gained acceptance with hunters, especially out West where game was becoming scarcer and more wary. The stout new lever gun also garnered a reputation for ease of handling and reliability with lawmen, ranchers, railroaders and others, including some military types. Although the ’94 Winchester was never a standard-issue weapon, it was purchased by several state militia units.


A distinguishing feature of the Model 94 from earlier and later model lever-action rifles is the pivoting flat plate profile at the bottom of the frame, as shown in this 1916 Winchester catalogue illustration, revealing the action in open position. True West Archive


The rifle also made quite a name for itself in the wilds of Alaska during that state’s gold rush of 1898. Its loose, rugged action, which resisted the freezing temperatures of the North Country, coupled with its large trigger guard, favored by those gloved and mitten-wearing adventurers, earned it the moniker of “Klondike Model,” with many who trekked that cold country. During the First World War, the U.S. government purchased 1,800 Model 1894 Winchesters along with 50,000 .30-30 cartridges for the Army’s signal corps serving in the Pacific Northwest. These ’94s were used to protect the harvesting of the Sitka spruce lumber used for framing fighter airplane fuselages.

As testament to its popularity, within a scant half dozen years of its introduction, over 200,000 Model ’94s had been turned out, and as early as 1927, it became the first sporting rifle to pass the one million production mark. This year the ’94 celebrates its 130th anniversary, having sold well over seven million copies to date. Among its many followers were famed cowboy detective Charlie A. Siringo and the Texas Rangers, including young Ranger Frank Hamer, who later put an end to the killing spree of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. The notorious cowboy “regulator,” Tom Horn is said to have used a .30-30 caliber 1894 model while working as an assassin for a group of Wyoming cattlemen.

In this fast-paced and ever-changing world, Winchester’s Model 94 is one of those guns that has seen little change from its late 19th-century beginnings. Perhaps the biggest change was the transition of the original 1894’s top eject system for fired shells, to the angle eject of the more modern Model 94s, as well as the addition of a tang-mounted safety on guns manufactured from 2006 to the present. Generally looking and handling like it did when first introduced, the “Old ’94” is still a popular choice with hunters, and in this writer’s mind, that’s proof positive of a True West classic.


Best Gunleather Artisan

Mernickle Holsters, Pampa, TX

Founded in the 1970s by Bob Mernickle, the Texas-based gun leather company is one of the most respected gun holster companies in the world. Today, U.S. Army veteran Cliff Powers and his family own the firearm leather accessory firm. Mernickle’s products are highly regarded by the Single Action Shooting Society as well as the Cowboy Fast Draw Association. The company is also well-known for its conceal-carry holsters and buscaderos. For Western film fans, they also have a line of Hollywood-style holster sets, including the Wild Bunch series.


Readers’ Choice
Tie: John Bianchi Gunleather/Old West Reproductions


Best Firearm Engraver

Jim Downing The Gun Engraver

For 40 years, Jim Downing has built an international reputation for excellence in handwork with his gravermeister tool on metal blades and firearm metals from his shop in the Commercial Street National Historic District of Springfield, Missouri. Downing’s philosophy of artisanship defines the excellence of the artisan’s work: “The art of gun engraving will take a lifetime to master, but I have time, patience and perseverance, and look forward to being an old-timer among this very elite group of artisans.” While he’s mastered a variety of styles, his forte is that of the late 19th century, recreating the looks of yesteryear.


Readers’ Choice
Altamont Company


These five heavily armed deputy U.S. Marshals served at the behest of federal Judge Isaac Parker of Fort Smith, Arkansas. They are all holding Winchester 1873 rifles.


Best Cowboy Action Pistol

Taylor’s Smokewagon

Taylor’s & Co.’s exclusive second-generation stagecoach-style, single-action revolver, The Smoke Wagon, has a blue finish with a case-hardened frame, and a thin, richly detailed, checkered grip for comfort and improved aim. The Smoke Wagon is an exclusive, trademarked sidearm of the Winchester, Virginia, firearm company. The deluxe Smoke Wagon includes custom tuning, a custom hammer and base pin springs, a trigger pull set at three pounds, jig-cut, positive angles on all triggers and sears for crisp, reliable action, and a wire bolt spring.


Readers’ Choice
Colt Single Action Army


Best Cowboy Action Rifle 

Cimarron 1873 U.S. Marshal IT Carbine

The U.S Marshal IT (Indian Territory) Carbine is a very accurate copy of an 1873 carbine that Judge Isaac Parker gave to one of his serving U.S. Marshals in 1880. While the stock is shortened slightly and the barrel reduced by two inches from the original, the 1873 U.S. Marshal IT carbine is made exclusively by A. Uberti of Italy for Cimarron. Customers can choose between a .44 Special or .45 Colt with an 18-inch barrel, as well as U.S. Marshal markings.


Readers’ Choice
Taylor’s 1873 Rifle


The 1894 model was Winchester’s first lever-action rifle made for smokeless powder, and with well over seven million copies produced, it’s the most successful rifle the company ever turned out. Here’s a typical well-used, but well cared for 20-inch barreled 1894 carbine, by far the most popular configuration of the model. This .30-30 caliber lever action was manufactured in 1897 and is fitted with a silver blade front sight, a three-leaf rear sight and a flip-up aperture tang sight. Courtesy Poulin Antiques & Auctions, Inc.


Best Action Shotgun

EMF Company Hartford SxS Shotgun

This Old West, 12-gauge scattergun looks like it’s ready to hand up to the stagecoach’s shotgun guard, with its classic external sidehammers, pistol-gripped stock, 20-inch twin blued barrels and Schnabble fore-end. Lightweight and easy to swing onto targets, it’s a working smoothbore for Cowboy Action shooters.


Readers’ Choice
Cimarron “Doc Holliday” Double Barrel Shotgun


The Shiloh Sharps 1874 Long Range Express rifle is equally popular with collectors and outdoorsmen. Courtesy Shiloh Sharps


Best Single Shot Rifle 

Shiloh Sharps 1874 Long Range Express

The Sharps was the first choice of the old-time buffalo hunters on the frontier, and Shiloh Sharps continues that tradition of top-quality arms. Like all of Shiloh’s guns, the 1874 Long Range Express can be custom ordered with many choices available to meet the particulars of each owner’s specifications, including caliber, barrel length, sights, wood and metal finishes.


Readers’ Choice
Cimarron Deluxe Model 1885 High Wall Sporting Rifle


Mernickle Holsters are made in the U.S. and are sought after by gun enthusiasts around the world. Courtesy Mernickle Holsters


Best Commemorative Rifle

150th Anniversary 1873 Rifle, Uberti-USA, Accokeek, MD

Uberti pays tribute to the “Gun that Won the West” with this special commemorative 150th anniversary rifle. Each rifle is offered in the handy 20-inch version, with a sturdy all-steel frame. Customers can choose between .45 LC and .357 Magnum/.38 Special chamberings. All are adorned with an original 19th-century engraving.


Readers’ Choice
Henry Texas Rangers Bicentennial Tribute Edition


Best Firearm Kit

The Hawken Shop Hawken Rifle Kit

For the third year in a row, True West’s editors honor The Hawken Shop’s Hawken Rifle Kit as the Best in the West. Invented in St. Louis, Missouri, two centuries ago, the Hawken was the favorite of mountain men Jedediah Smith, Kit Carson, Jim Bridger and others. Craft your own rifle from the Hawken Shop’s Hawken Kit. It’s
95 percent finished and requires minimal hand tools and patience for the final fitting.


Readers’ Choice
Dixie Gunworks Pietta 1851 Navy Brass Frame Revolver Kit


New Colt Engraving Style Guide

Courtesy Mowbray Publishing

Besides being chock full of 480 beautiful photos (mostly in color) of percussion Colts and 19th-century period illustrations, this latest work by respected arms scholar Robert M. Jordan offers a very practical guide that collectors can refer to for years to come. Titled Colt Percussion Engraving Styles, this 184-page, 9-by-12-inch hardcover volume will aid firearms students to identify and recognize the various types of Colt engraving styles and patterns used from the time of Sam Colt’s earliest Paterson revolvers up through the end of the percussion era. Attractively shown are numerous close-up details of the individual characteristics of the various engraving patterns such as the English Style, Donut Style, Early and Late Vine styles and Panel Scenes, along with the works of Gustave Young, Nimschke, Helfricht and other forms of incising found on percussion Colts. Priced at $65 domestic shipping, this is a must-have work for Colt collectors. Available from orders@manatarmsbooks.com


Two centuries ago, Hawken Rifles became the most popular hunting rifle for fur trappers heading to the Rockies to make their fortune in beaver pelts. Courtesy The Hawken Shop


Western enthusiasts can enjoy owning EMF Company’s meticulously designed Hartford side-by-side shotgun and know they are owning a recreated piece of the Old West. Courtesy EMF Company

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