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The Evolution of the Winchester Model 70

Better with age? Considering Winchester's Model 70 evolution, and why today's rifles may be the best yet.

The Evolution of the Winchester Model 70

(Mark Fingar photo)

Winchester’s Model 70 bolt-­action rifle is an icon of American sporting arms, even after 85 years of production. The design continues to garner the trust and respect of several generations, both hunters and shooters. Although introduced in 1936, its story really begins at the end of World War I. Before then, bolt-­action rifles saw limited sporting use throughout the United States. We were still a nation of lever-­action shooters, but World War I became the war of standard-­issue bolt-­actions. American servicemen fielded the M1917 and M1903 Springfield in large numbers, while German soldiers fought with the Mauser Model 98. When those servicemen returned home, their impressions and experiences using bolt-­action rifles came home with them. They learned that such a rifle was robust and capable of enduring the rigors of military service. To add, then-­new cartridge developments and smokeless-­powder loads allowed the bolt actions to outperform the blackpowder-­fueled lever guns.

The veterans’ return home was followed by an explosion of bolt–action interest. Surplus rifles became widely available, and a cottage industry for rifle sporterizations sprung up. With inexpensive surplus guns easily available, new–gun makers had to modernize the bolt–action to remain relevant.

A few manufacturers tried to thread the needle with new models constructed of technology leftover from wartime production. In 1920, Savage introduced the Model 1920 Hi–Power, which was based on the Mauser Model 98. The Model 20 was the first bolt–action sporting rifle offered by a major American arms company. In 1921, Remington released its Model 30, which was a commercialized version of the cock–on–close Model 1917, a rifle the company built during the war. These two examples took advantage of existing manufacturing infrastructure, but they suffered from the shortcomings of their military templates. Their service–grade triggers had lots of take–up, creep and sometimes heavy pull weights. The receivers were also bulky, and the ignition systems were designed to set off hard military primers. The actions had a lot of firing–pin fall and slow lock times.

(Mark Fingar photo)

Winchester knew they had to develop a superior product to maintain their reputation as America’s premium rifle manufacturer. Designing the Model 54 took three years, becoming commercially available in 1925. The Model 54 was designed around the .30–’­06 Springfield cartridge, as well as a new proprietary cartridge: the .270 Winchester Center Fire (WCF). The design received several patents, but it also borrowed some features from wartime bolt ­actions. The Model 54’s receiver was similar to the Springfield Model 1903, for example. Its bolt, extractor and safety were modeled after the Model 98 Mauser, and the ejector was replicated from the Newton rifles. The Newton rifle functioned without needing the inboard bolt lug to be slotted.

Designed by Thomas C. Johnson and Frank Burton, the repeating prototype was made in April 1919 and evaluated by Lt. Col. Townsend Whelen. This 1920 patent drawing illustrates their revised magazine-­fed action designed for the Winchester Model 52 rifle. (Mark Fingar photo)

The Model 54 sold well, and sales continued to climb year–over–year until the Great Depression in 1929. As rifle sales collapsed nationwide, Winchester went into receivership in 1931 and was acquired at a bankruptcy auction by the Olin family’s Western Cartridge Company later that year.

New Beginnings

Winchester, under new management, began designing its flagship rifle in 1933. The company learned a lot from the Model 54 regarding what the market wanted. A short list of goals was developed for the rifle that became the Model 70.

(Mark Fingar photo)

The first design objective was to improve the accuracy of the Model 54. Winchester quickly realized the best way to do this was to design a new trigger. Customers made it clear that they wanted a light and crisp trigger, and knew that a good trigger could improve the rifle’s functional accuracy. Winchester’s solution was to take the override trigger from their highly successful rimfire rifle, the Model 52, and fit the design concept to the Model 70. The resulting mechanism better isolated the sear from the trigger and the cocking piece while simultaneously removing the bolt–stop function from the trigger assembly. Winchester also made the new trigger adjustable for weight and overtravel. The outcome was a lighter, crisper trigger than that of the Model 54.

Today’s Model 70 bolts provide strength and control. From the massive extractor and dual-opposed lugs, to the oversize, knurled bolt handle knob and three-­position wing safety. (Mark Fingar photo)

Another accuracy improvement was the relocation of the front action screw. The Model 54’s front action screw threads up from the bottom and into the recoil lug. The combination of tension from the action screw and the focused beating during recoil could be too much for the lug, and could cause accuracy to deteriorate. As a fix, engineers moved the location of the front action screw rearward and had it thread into the flat bedding area behind the recoil lug on the Model 70’s receiver. Instead of pulling the front of the action down into the recoil lug pocket (as on the Model 54, which put uneven and isolated stress on the very front of the action), the Model 70’s front action screw pulled the entire action into the stock’s bedding area and relieved the stress on the recoil lug.

A good trigger is essential for wringing best accuracy out of any firearm. Unlike other cassette-­style trigger assemblies, the modern Model 70’s is still field-­serviceable with a little know-­how. (Mark Fingar photo)

Additional improvements on the Model 70 included a couple mechanical changes that made the rifles scope friendly. First, the profile of the bolt handle was changed to help it stay clear the scope’s ocular lens housing when cycling the action. The second change flattened the safety lever on the bolt shroud so that it, too, would avoid the ocular housing. Winchester also redesigned the stocks available at the time. Since the Model 70 was intended to out–perform sporterized surplus guns — while offering the full complement of target-rifle features — the forend was made wider and flatter on the bottom to stabilize the rifle when laid across the open palm of the shooter’s support hand.

(Mark Fingar photo)

Pre-’64 vs. Post-’64

The changes in the Model 70 from pre–’64 to post–’64 were significant emotional events for many riflemen. While shooters bemoaned the loss of controlled–round feed and the poorer fit and finish that followed in the mid–1960s, rising labor costs and the market’s unwillingness to shoulder some of that burden through increased prices made these changes almost unavoidable. Though poorly received, initially, Winchester still sold more post–’64 rifles in the 1970s and ’80s than pre–’64 rifles. As it turns out, price mattered.

(Mark Fingar photo)
The barreled action of the Model 70 Extreme Weather SS is precisely mated to the Bell and Carlson stock’s internal aluminum bedding block. The system is strong, and accuracy is improved by the firm and consistent engagement. (Mark Fingar photo)

As mentioned, the post–’64 Model 70 had no controlled–round feed, and gone was the massive external extractor that many loved, myself included. Instead, Winchester made the post–’64 Model 70 into a push–feed action with a flat bolt face that required no fitting or additional machining of the barrel’s breech face. The argument between controlled–round feed and push feed is never ending. The advantages of push feed actions include the solid ring of steel around the cartridge’s case head, and tighter fit between the bolt face and barrel breech face. The post–’64 bolt also cost less for Winchester to make.

The Model 70’s receiver underwent other manufacturing changes that saved the company money, some of which resulted in a better receiver. The pre–’64 receiver was machined from barstock that needed 75 machining steps to reduce an 8.9–pound block of steel down to a 21/2–pound receiver. The post–’64 receiver was created from a stronger forging that weighed 3.6 pounds and only took 30 machining steps to yield a finished product. Of course, new manufacturing introduced new problems, but Winchester has continued to address the platform’s shortcomings, while responding to its customers’ demands.

Modern Times Today’s Winchester Model 70 takes the best of both the pre–’64 and post–’64 rifles. While the post–’64 Model 70 is still considered inferior among some collectors and shooters, manufacturing processes are superior and more consistent than the hand–fitting required to build pre–’64 rifles. Winchester continues to improve the quality and consistency of those processes, though many decry that Model 70s made since 2013 are assembled in Portugal and imported by Browning in Morgan, Utah.

As expected of a sporting rifle, sling attachment studs, fore and aft, were included in the design of the stock. (Mark Fingar photo)

Depending on model, modern Model 70s can be had with either machined–from–barstock or forged receivers. Both types are cut on CNC machines that hold tighter tolerances than any Model 70 built in the last century. The receivers are square and stress–free, and barrels are concentric. These features give the Model 70s their best accuracy to date.

All of today’s Model 70 receivers feature controlled–round–feed actions. Arguing the merits of controlled–round feed versus push ­feed is mostly useless, but the one certainty of controlled–round–feed actions is that they use large, robust extractors, which makes stuck cases a rare and unlikely occurrence. Controlled–round–feed actions also operate smoothly and feel wonderful.

Lengthwise fluting on the stainless steel barrel not only looks great, it also saves a few ounces and aids cooling. (Mark Fingar photo)

One of the Model 70’s longstanding points of pride was the trigger. From 1936 to 2006, it remained largely unchanged and was reliable, adjustable and safe. In 2008, Winchester changed from the exposed trigger–and–sear combination to an easily serviced cassette–type trigger. The new trigger, sear actuator and sear are all assembled in a thick aluminum housing. Cassette–type triggers are widely used among bolt–action rifles, but they are frequently difficult to maintain. Not so with the Model 70’s trigger; it retains the serviceability of the previous–generation trigger. Unlike most cassette–type triggers, a small hammer and punch are all that’s needed to completely disassemble the unit. It is an easy process that only takes minutes to learn, and can be done in hunting camp with just a pair of willing hands and a couple of common tools. The most common reason triggers fail in the field is debris or ice build up in the trigger housing. Even a layman can work around such an issue with today’s Model 70 trigger.


Still Relevant

For 2021, 12 variations of the Model 70 are offered. These range from a Sporter to the big–bore Safari Express, and the rifles are available in nearly two dozen chamberings. While blued steel barrels and fine maple and walnut stocks remain a staple, another rendition demonstrates thoughtful evolution for fieldwork and incorporates advanced materials and features. For my money, the Model 70 Extreme Weather SS (for stainless steel) is the modern definition of a handy, hard–use, bolt–action hunting rifle.

The safety’s three positions are (above, top to bottom): Safe, bolt locked; safe, bolt unlocked; and fire, bolt unlocked. (Mark Fingar photo)

I took a Model 70 Extreme Weather SS afield last winter to harvest a year’s worth of Colorado elk meat. The hunt was brutal at times, with weather shifting between pleasant and sunny to ice, snow and temperatures below zero.

The Extreme Weather has a barreled action fabricated from stainless steel. The rifle’s floorplate is also made from resilient stainless steel. To complement the stainless steel’s weather resistance quality, I ordered my latest Model 70 fitted with an equally tough composite fiberglass stock. The Bell and Carlson stock ( also features an internal aluminum bedding block that prevented any shift in zero during its transport or while hunting. Such a concern was a real worry for hunters just years ago. This rifle was made for tough conditions.

Guns & Ammo editors Joe Kurtenbach (above, left) and the author (above, right) get their hands on a snowy Colorado bull elk after an exciting hunt. Beckstrand notched his tag using the Winchester Model 70 Extreme Weather SS in .270 Win. (Mark Fingar photo)

I spent the better part of a week hunting in the vicinity of Colorado’s Spanish Peaks with the Extreme Weather SS in .270 Winchester. I partnered with Guns & Ammo Editor Joe Kurtenbach, who also brought an Extreme Weather Model 70, but chambered in .300 Winchester Magnum. (“Great minds,” right?) During that hunt, I found success after we were ambushed by a herd that appeared just a stone’s throw away on an adjacent hillside. Quick reflexes and a 140–grain Accubond bullet anchored my bull before he knew what hit him. The ammunition was Winchester’s new Expedition Big Game line, too, the same that Kurtenbach used to fill his tag following a cross–canyon shot into tight window. It was –4 degrees and gusty, and he could have cried when he took off his glove for better trigger control. The Model 70 Extreme Weather lived up to its name.

Experiences like ours have endeared the Winchester Model 70 to the hearts of American sportsmen. Winchester’s commitment to quality and innovation will keep the legend alive in the hands of hunters for generations to come. 


Winchester Model 70 Extreme Weather SS Specs

Type: Bolt action
Cartridge: .270 Winchester (tested)
Capacity: 5+1 rds.
Barrel: 22 in.; 1:10-­in twist
Overall Length: 42.75 in.
Weight: 7 lbs., 2 oz.
Stock: Bell and Carlson, sporter
Length of Pull: 13.75 in.
Finish: Matte stainless steel
Sights: None
Trigger: Adj., 3 lbs., 8 oz., to 4 lbs.
Safety: Three-­position lever
MSRP: $1,340
Importer: Winchester Repeating Arms,

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