After a long search, I finally found a nice “Pre 64” Model 94 Winchester, chambered in the interesting cartridge, the .32 Winchester Special, or .32 WS. The model 94 has been on my “want” list for quite a while, but I’d been putting off purchasing one because they’ve always been available in good numbers and at decent prices. The last few years has seen greatly increased prices, and dwindling numbers of clean specimens so I began focusing my efforts to own one. I had been outbid on many online auctions, and had inspected several in person who’s asking price was far out of reach of this average working man. As luck would have it, during a routine visit to a local gun shop with no special purpose in mind I walked in the door and found this nice Winchester at a very fair price. After a thorough check of the bore, chamber, and crown I decided to make my offer and took the old rifle home. Sitting in the family room, holding and admiring the old rifle, I thought back to my very first lever action, and first center fire rifle which was an old Marlin model 336 chambered in .35 Remington. As I cleaned the bore and lubricated the action I began to ponder about just how special, and how undeniably “American” lever action rifles really are.
Growing up in the 70’s, our action heroes on TV and in movies were cowboys like John Wayne and Chuck Connors. Those men, always the “good guys”, carried lever action rifles through their adventures and thus planted the seed of interest in all the young and impressionable minds of youth to someday desire a rifle similar to theirs. Even though most Hollywood heroes carried Winchester 1892’s (even if their western story was to take place in the 1860’s through 1880’s), is there a more iconic rifle than the Winchester 1894? Since it’s design by none other than John M Browning, the most influential firearms genius of all time, the old Model 94 has truly earned it’s place in American history. Browning and Winchester designed the model 1894 to be the “working man’s” rifle. Not originally a military arm, it’s intended use was in the consumer market to be used as game rifles by American hunters. With over 6 million produced and sold across the United States and abroad, the number of deer the Model 94 has harvested is immeasurable.
From my research, Winchester commissioned John Browning to build a consumer hunting rifle based on the model 1892, only to be chambered in longer hunting rifle cartridges. Browning extended the receiver and modified the action on the 92 and produced a lever action rifle to become known as the 1894, which Winchester began selling chambered in two black powder offerings, the .38-55 and the .32-40. This was an important time in firearms and ballistics history because this is when smokeless powder became available. It’s safe to say that we probably all love the smell of black powder, but it’s corrosive nature and cleaning effort leave something to be desired so the invention of smokeless powder was ground breaking. Soon after, in 1895 Winchester offered a new cartridge in the Model 1894, the .30 WCF. In 1901 Winchester offered another new cartridge based on the .30 WCF yet necked up to use a 32 caliber bullet (the .32 Winchester Special). Interestingly, the .30 WCF (later to be called the .30-30) was always considered a smokeless powder cartridge yet Winchester engineers slowed the twist rate in the .32 Win Special barrels to deal with black powder fouling just in case hunters began reloading their 32 brass with black powder. Because of the ease of cleaning over black powder and the increased velocity gained from smokeless powder, I’m sure most people used up their black powder inventories in favor of the new cutting edge smokeless powder. It’s rumored Winchester introduced the .32 Winchester Special as a slightly more powerful alternative to the .30 WCF, with less recoil than the readily available military surplus .30-40 Krag chambered Springfield rifles. Personally, I think shot placement more than bullet diameter plays a larger role in performance between these two cartridges making the difference between the .30-30 and the .32 negligible, but the larger case capacity of the .30-40 Krag surely lends to increased recoil over the .32 Winchester Special.
A .30-40 Krag case on the left next to a .32 Winchester Special case on the right.
1964 has some significance as far as Winchester is concerned. The company was forced to take some cost cutting measures in their production methods, and so forged receivers were replaced with cast and alloy parts. Feed and action parts were swapped for cheaper to produce stamped steel parts. The post 1964 firearms typically shot as well as their older relatives but didn’t hold a finish nearly as well, and stamped parts began to fail with repeated use. In a manner to save money, Winchester made their pre 1964 models of several firearms sought after by collectors.
It’s no secret the .30-30 won the popularity contest in Model 94 offerings, most likely due to the wider range of available bullets in factory loads and as components for reloaders. For years, factory ammunition for the .32 WS came loaded with 170 grain round nose bullets. These days, 170 grain and 165 grain bullets are available. For today’s reloader, round nose bullets as well as flexible polymer tip bullets from Hornady are readily available as are hard cast bullets from several sources. Brass for the .32 WS can be purchased from several manufacturers or made out of .30-30 cases by running them through a .32 WS sizing die. Tailored reloads can really wake up the accuracy of any rifle, and a .32 WS Model 94 is no different. Different combinations of powder type, bullet seating depth, and crimp pressure can serve to wring out some very respectable accuracy from an old lever gun.
Reloading the .32 Winchester Special.
After cleaning the barrel of the old 94 I grabbed a box of factory ammo and walked out to the range. I moved a target frame to the 50 yard line from my shooting bench, stapled a target up, and proceeded to shoot a nice 3 shot group from the bench. Admittedly, in the lighting my eyes had a hard time with the sights and being able to see the target clearly but I still managed this wonderful group. It’s more than sufficient for hunting, and I will most certainly take it to the woods this fall, as well as enjoy on my range.
I used up the rest of the box of Hornady LEVERevolution 165 grain ammunition making a few cans jump and hitting an 8″ steel plate out at 100 yards. I know I was smiling the whole time. It’s a wonderful old rifle, in a wonderful old cartridge which I’m now thrilled to call my own.