I know it is close to groundhog hunting time, and I should be writing about varmint rifles, but I have always been a hunter and a target shooter. Because of that, I was interested in the accuracy offered by bolt-action rifles and questioned the sanity of those who paid big bucks for the older lever-action or pump rifles.
I remember when a knowledgable shooter showed up with an old ’92 Winchester, happy with its acquisition. It was an old ’94 Winchester that got me started in deer hunting.
I had always hunted but that meant rabbits and ever-present pheasants. Occasionally, I could be found watching oak and beech trees for squirrels. My common hunting tool was a shotgun.
That changed when a friend borrowed money from me for a car payment. Later, he was still short of cash and offered me his 94 in .32 Special in lieu of cash. Even at that age, I liked guns and was happy to acquire the deer rifle.
Now, I owned a rifle and had recently spotted a big buck near Eileen’s house. I had to go deer hunting.
Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, I downed the big nine-point and was hooked.
Jack O’Conner was the dean of writers at the time, and it was inevitable that I ended up trading that carbine for a bolt-action .270, topping it off with a 4X scope sight. From then on, it was a love affair with good bolt-action rifles, though there were those who ridiculed my use of a scope.
After that period and many big bucks later, I wouldn’t be caught dead hunting with a .30-30 or .32 Special. Give me a bolt-action rifle in a long-range cartridge, and I would bring home the venison.
Then, seemingly overnight, old age kicked in and I looked back on the long-gone days with fondness and decided I needed another ’94, which became the most popular and most manufactured sporting rifle of all time.
The problem was that I insisted I wanted one made before 1964 but didn’t want to pay the price they demanded. While working at a local gun shop, many of them passed through my hands, but at that time, I had no interest in lever-action rifles.
Over the years, I met those who collected Winchester ’92s and, when they could be found, the big 1886. There were those who wanted the 1894, which was the original name of the ’94. The ’92 was a small, lever-action rifle chambered in the 25-20 and 32-20.
Neither round was a powerhouse and were really made for varmints. The ’86, however, was designed by John Browning and was meant to compete with the single-shot buffalo rifles, although by 1886, most of the buffalo were gone.
The most popular round was the 45-70, which could also be shot from an ’86 in the 45-90. I have handled just a few ’86s, but they are one of the smoothest ever made. All three were designed by the greatest gun designer of all-time, John Browning.
Winchester lever-action rifles are highly collectible. There is one other rifle that should be mentioned here, and it is the second-most popular Winchester lever-action. This rifle has the distinction of having its name used in the title of the popular movie, “Winchester 73.”
In it, the star, Jimmy Stewart, wins what is prized today, a one of 1,000 ’73 rifle. He has it stolen and spends the entire movie trying to get it back.
The ’73 was, as I said, made in high numbers, but the company picked out a handful with special barrels and stamped them, “One of one thousand.” Anyone owning one of these has a valuable collector’s item.
The Winchester ’73 was truly the rifle that won the West but all of the previously mentioned Winchester rifles are ones who won the hearts of collectors. Today, all of the above-mentioned will, if in good condition, bring top dollar.
Note that I said good condition.
If I were a young man starting a gun collection, I would concentrate on Winchester rifles and Colt handguns. There is something about both names that attracts collectors.
George H. Block writes a Sunday Outdoors column for the Observer-Reporter.