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October 10, 2019

The Birth of the Winchester Model 70

By Danielle Hollembaek

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Here at Rock Island Auction Company, we often talk about our rare and historic Winchester antiques, but not all extraordinary Winchesters were made in the 19th century. One of the company’s best-selling “modern” guns is the Winchester Model 70. The gun now proclaimed as the “Rifleman's Rifle,” has gained great fame and popularity with sporting and hunting gun enthusiasts. It is one of the most renowned bolt action sporting rifles in the entire world.

A documented U.S. property marked Winchester Model 70 "Van Orden Sniper" chambered in thirty-aught-six. Available this August.

The Start of the Winchester Model 70

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 Model 70 is Born

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.

A rare .30-06 rifle for sale, a U.S. property marked Winchester Model 70 "Van Orden Sniper" Special with a U.S.M.C. property marked Lyman Scope. Available this August.

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.

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.

Winchester Model 70 Rifles Available at RIAC

Every auction we hold at Rock Island Auction Company features at least a handful of Winchester Model 70 rifles. Our Premier and Regional Auctions have more pre-64 variations with our Online Only Auctions offering newer versions of the gun. Since the rifle has been popular for decades, there are plenty of them produced and currently in the market today. Our upcoming December Premier Auction has over two dozen Winchester Model 70 rifles available. Let’s take a look at a couple of the highlights.

Exceptional Pre-64 Winchester Model 70 Bolt Action Rifle in Rare and Desirable .35 Remington Caliber with Factory Box

Exceptional Pre-64 Winchester Model 70 Bolt Action Rifle in Rare and Desirable .35 Remington Caliber with Factory Box. Available this December.

The first highly anticipated Winchester Model 70 coming up for sale this December was manufactured in 1948. The rifle is chambered in a rare variation for Model 70, the scarcely seen .35 Remington. The gun has the traditional hooded ramp front sight, as well as the proper elevation adjustable rear sight and a receiver tapped for sight mounting. The rifle has matching correct numbers on all major parts even after over 70 years.

The original box accompanies the lot and is in very excellent condition. The rifle itself shows 99% of its original blue finish and retains a few streaks of gray patina around the muzzle. The gun is in complete working order. She’s a beauty and functional. What more could you ask for in a high condition pre-64 Model 70 rifle?

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

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

Another transitional-era Winchester Model 70 rifle available this December features marvelous embellishments in an African Big Game theme. Perhaps the most stunning of the engravings are displayed on the underside of the rifle with a detailed gold relief engraved lion’s head on the gun’s grip cap, a rhino deeply engraved on the trigger guard and a gorgeous cape buffalo displayed on the floor plate.

The relief-engraving is continued throughout the gun with touches of fine floral scrollwork detail on the bolt, handle, trigger guard, and floorplate. Smooth gold inlaid borders highlight the engravings on many parts of the gun. This rifle’s details are well-planned and executed masterfully. A jeweled extractor and follower accent the beautiful checkering on the pistol grip and skeletonized buttplate.

The gun itself shows limited handling and still retains 99% of its blue finish. Chambered in the desirable .458 Winchester magnum, the firearm is mechanically excellent if you feel so inclined to fire it. This is a Winchester that any hunter would be thrilled to add to their collection.

Exceptional, Signed Factory Engraved Gold Inlaid Winchester Model 70XTR Featherlight Bolt Action Rifle 1987 Show Gun, First 280 Remington Produced

Exceptional, Signed Factory Engraved Gold Inlaid Winchester Model 70XTR Featherlight Bolt Action Rifle 1987 Show Gun, First 280 Remington Produced. Avaliable this December.

Rounding off this list of highlights is a post-64 Model 70 Winchester rifle chambered in the high velocity and dependable .280 Remington. In fact, this is the first ever Winchester Model 70 to receive the popular chambering and it was revealed at a gun show in 1987. The gun shows nearly perfect condition with minor handling marks.

An elegant matte background floral pattern engraving is displayed on the receiver, upper tang, rear bolt, bolt handle, and grip cap. Making the rifle even more exceptional is the left side of the front receiver ring featuring two frolicking deer among the floral design and tall grass. Two deer and a bear are also found on the trigger guard and floor plate. American walnut is the wood used for the pistol grip stock adorned with decorative checkering. Hearing the description of this gun is great, but seeing the intricate artwork in person is breathtaking.

The Current Era of The Model 70

Winchester Repeating Arms, as any Winchester fan knows, has been contracting out production of their firearms to different countries over the last few decades. In the 1980s, Belgian company Fabrique Nationale (FN) took over production of the Model 70 and to this day, the gun is still in high demand and produced at a FN-owned plant in Portugal. You can find a new Model 70 gun at any reliable firearms retailer in the United States.

The Winchester Model 70 featured on the Walking Dead series.

At Rock Island Auction Company, we offer all versions of Winchester Model 70 rifles year round. If you are in the market for a prime condition pre-war Model 70, keep your eyes out during our Premier and Regional Auctions, and if you want to purchase a newer Model 70 our Online Auction may have what you are looking for. Make sure you always have an eye on our catalogs, you never know what treasures you may find.

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