The Incomparable Savage Model 99




Arthur W. Savage was a man of the world and a dilettante, in the best sense of the word.  The son of a British commissioner in the West Indies, he spent his early years in Kingston, Jamaica.  After college, he spent eleven years in Australia managing a cattle ranch.  He later returned to the West Indies and managed a coffee plantation.  Then, he moved to New York where he successfully managed a railroad line.  His penchant for inventing was expressed and eventually showed up in firearms design. He invented a lever action rifle and began the Savage Arms Company in Utica, NY, in 1894. He moved to California and started the Savage Tire Company in 1911.  He is credited with inventing radial-ply automobile tires, but sold the company in 1919.  It seems that Savage was a brilliant man who was always looking for new challenges.  He was involved in various business and manufacturing enterprises until his death in 1938.

The Savage Lever Action

Arthur W. Savage applied for a patent for a hammerless, lever-action rifle with a rotary magazine in 1889.  We know that guns were produced by 1892, because two Savage lever actions were included in the list of 52 arms that the U.S. Army considered when it chose a rifle to replace the Trap Door Springfield.  Being chosen for army duty would have been a great and lucrative achievement for Savage’s rifle, but it was not to be.  Levers never really impressed army ordnance people.  The Army followed the European lead and chose a bolt action rifle, the Krag-Jorgensen, firing a rimmed, thirty-caliber cartridge that we know today as the .30-40 Krag.

Savage’s rifle got some finishing touches and was introduced to the sporting public as the Model 1895.  As a hunting rifle, it had some advantages and attracted admiring attention.  Keep in mind that the main lever action rifle in existence when Savage made his design and applied for his patent was the Winchester Model 1886.  With its hammer action and tubular magazine, the ’86 was a considerably different design.  By the time of the Savage Model 1895, Winchester had come up with its Model 1892 and Model 1894, but these were also tubular magazine arms with hammers.  The Model 1895 presented a clearly different choice.

The outstanding feature of the 1895, and its main difference in comparison with Winchesters, was the rotary magazine, a good illustration of Savage’s genius as a rifle designer.  The practical result was that the rotary magazine allowed the safe use of spitzer (pointed) bullets, impossible with the Winchesters because of the danger of detonation of aligned cartridges in the tubular magazine.  The main chambering of the Model 1895 was for the .303 Savage, which is NOT the same as the .303 British.  It is a rimmed cartridge with appearance and performance similar to the .30-30 Winchester, although it used, at 190 grains, a bit heavier bullet.  It became a popular hunting round and was available for many years.

The Savage Model 1899 resulted from a few improvements that did not affect the rifle’s basic design or appearance.  Early chamberings of the 1899 included the .303 Savage, .30-30 Winchester, .32-40 Winchester, and .38-55 Winchester, illustrating some overlap with the black powder era.  Early in the 20th century a couple of smokeless, high-velocity cartridges were offered, the .22 Savage Hi-Power and the famous .250-3000 (aka .250 Savage), the first commercial rifle to offer a velocity of 3000 feet per second. After that a new thirty was marketed, the .300 Savage, which had greater power than the .30-30 and served as a short-action alternative to the .30-06 Springfield.  The .300 Savage became a very popular hunting round because it worked great for deer and the .308 Winchester was still 30 years in the future.  Production of the Model 1899, eventually known simply as the Model 99, extended through nearly all of the 20th century, with more than a million pieces produced.  Its action strength allowed it to be produced in .308 Winchester and .243 Winchester in its later years.

My Savage Model 99 EG

The Savage Model 1899 was produced in a wide variety of models identifiable by serial number and alphabetical designations.  The model variety results from differences in barrel length and configuration, wood design, and whether the rifle uses a rotary magazine or the removable box magazine that was introduced at a later date.   Early on the rifle simply became known as the “Model 99” so you might find one to be a 99A, 99B, or 99C, and etc. through a host of others designated by single and double letters..  Serial numbers can be found for models made up to about 500,000 or so (about 1950), but after that serial number info is unavailable or confusing.  Models made after 1950 have something called a “lever boss code,” that includes a letter and a number in a small oval field on the receiver bracket to which the lever is joined  The letter indicates the year of manufacture for rifles made up into the 1970s.

A Savage Model 99EG circa 1951

A Savage Model 99EG circa 1951

A survey of letter models and their features would be very, nay, incredibly boring and suitable only for folks who want to earn their master’s degree in Savageology.  I will describe just the one I acquired, a Model 99EG.  This is one of the most common of the 99s and is usually found chambered for the .300 Savage.  It has a serial number in the 600 thousands and the “C” in the lever boss code indicates manufacture in 1951, now ready for its 64th birthday in 2015.  Common it may be, but it has all the features of a classic Model 99 and was bought for less money than some older, less common ones would have demanded.  Yes, the Model 99 has collector interest because its production ended some time ago.

This rifle has a 24” barrel of medium taper with a ramp front sight.  The rear buckhorn sight has been replaced with a filler wedge in the dovetail and a nice, old Redfield aperture sight  is mounted on the tang.  The receiver is not drilled and tapped for scope bases.

Lever down, action open

Lever down, action open

Savage did not do that until the late 1950s.The rather wide receiver has the rounded bottom of the rotary magazine models and it has the little window on the left side that shows the number of shells remaining in the magazine.  A little cylindrical peg that protrudes when the bolt is in battery and ready to fire is located between the bolt and the rear sight.  The square bolt is in the white and it locks at the rear in a notch in the frame when the lever is closed.  The bolt is thus completely supported by the frame of the action. The substantial lever is case hardened and has a small channel for a sliding safety

Sliding safety located at top of lever behind trigger

Sliding safety located at top of lever behind trigger

Butt grain

A bit of figure in the walnut

that also locks the lever closed when engaged.  The lever uses a curved blade of very strong appearance, also case hardened, which connects the lever to the innards and allows it to actuate the bolt. The wood is straight-grain walnut with a bit of curvy figure in the butt.  The front wood, which is rather long, has the schnifty little Schnabel tip that Savage put on so many of its rifles.  The forend and wrist carry rather coarse checkering of no particular distinction.  The pistol grip carries a metal grip cap and the butt has a grooved metal plate.  No name on the plate.  Workmanship and fit of parts is very good. The present state of the finish is about as expected for a rifle from the middle of the 20th century, one that has been cared for.  There is no rust and blue on the barrel is complete.  The receiver has a faded patina.  The wood has the look of 60-year-old walnut with an original oil finish.  It is a look that I like – vintage –showing that been around the block, but still in very good shape.

Action open.  Top view

Action open. Top view

If you would like a Savage Model 99……..

Then you should probably do a little research to find a letter model that you would like.  In any case, I would suggest that you get one with the classic 99 features:  Rotary magazine with cartridge counter window, Schnabel forend, cocking indicator, and sliding safety in

Note cartridge counter window at lower front of receiver

Note cartridge counter window at lower front of receiver

the lever behind the trigger.  I would pass on any that have had receivers drilled and tapped after manufacture.  After that, get a piece in the best condition you can afford. Many of the older 99s were worked pretty hard by their owners.  Their finish will be gone, with perhaps cracks in the wood, and there may be significant wear in the action parts.  What you don’t want is a lever that sags after the action is closed.  This indicates significant wear and may mean that the bolt is not completely locked when the action is closed.  When working the action, the lever should snap closed smartly and stay snug with

Bolt locked and even with receiver at rear.  Note cocking indicator peg in front of sight

Bolt locked and even with receiver at rear. Note cocking indicator peg in front of sight

the grip.  The bolt should rise and lock so that the rear of the bolt is at the same level as the top of the receiver behind it.

Then, you want the bore to be good, but you know how to look for that, right?  Don’t ever, ever go to buy a rifle without your own bore light.  If you forget yours, you may ask the folks behind the counter to borrow theirs, but usually, theirs has just been lost or pinched by a customer earlier in the morning. All this said, there are a lot Model 99s in the used racks that are in very good condition and that would have many years of hunting left in them.  Their numbers will diminish as time goes on.  The earlier models and less common calibers are already expensive.

The .300 Savage Cartridge

Charles Newton designed a new cartridge using a quarter-inch bore for the Model 99 in the year 1915.  The .250-3000 was so called because it offered the phenomenal velocity (for 1915) of 3000 feet per second with an 87-grain bullet.  There were high expectations for its success as a hunting round, but the bullet proved to be a bit light for best killing of game.  A bullet of 100 grains sacrificed some velocity, but the higher weight proved superior for hunting midsized animals.  The .250 Savage, as it is now called, is still a good hunting round, and P. O. Ackley designed an improved case that gives outstanding performance with bullets up to 120 grains.

Still, Savage wanted to offer a cartridge with more poop for hunting than their .303.  A thirty is always easier to pump up than any smaller caliber.  The big dog in the thirty camp at the time was the military .30-06 Springfield, which was (and is) a stellar performer on game with appropriate bullets.  This round, however, has a case length of 2.49” and a loaded length of 3.34”, much too long to work in the Model 99’s action.  The answer turned out to be the .300 Savage, a cartridge apparently designed by Arthur Savage himself, with an overall loaded length of 2.60” when using a spitzer bullet.  The target velocity of 2700 fps would have compared well with the .30-06 150-gr load of the time, but the standard load was more comfortable for the rifle when reduced to 2630 fps.  That has been the standard level for umpty years.  A 180-gr bullet has also been a long-term, factory offering with a velocity of 2350 fps.

The short case had to have good powder capacity to get good performance.  This was achieved by using straight case sides, a sharp shoulder angle, and a short neck.  The 1.87” length of the .300 Savage tapers only 0.024” from base to shoulder, has a 30 deg. shoulder angle, and a neck length of only 0.22.”

These case properties are typical of a much more recent trend, namely, the growing preference of rifle shooters for short action rifles shooting short (and fat?) cartridges.  For several reasons, folks like compact actions and cartridges. The 7.62 NATO (.308 Winchester sporting round) was the vanguard of the current trend, and I hasten to add that it appeared a full generation after the .300 Savage.  More recently,  destiny has observed the introduction of the .300 Winchester Short Magnum, the Remington .300 Short Action Ultra Magnum, and the .300 Ruger Compact Magnum, all of which follow a body taper, shoulder angle, neck length philosophy that first appeared in the .300 Savage.  For instance, the .300 Winchester Short Mag has a body taper of only 0.017”, a shoulder angle of 35 deg., and a neck length of 0.30.”  Being a bit longer and wider than the Savage, these new rounds have the powder capacity for magnum performance.  Nevertheless, the .300 Savage, appearing in 1921, was our first modern, short-action thirty.

.300 Savage flanked by the .30-06 Springfield (left) and .308 Winchester (right).  Which one looks most modern?

.300 Savage flanked by the .30-06 Springfield (left) and .308 Winchester (right). Which one looks most modern?

Reloading dies for the .300 Savage are available from all major reloading companies.  The case will hold up to 45 grains or so of dense rifle powder of medium burning speed.  Loads quoted by various reloading manuals show very good performance.  For example, Hornady’s Handbook of Cartridge Reloading, 8th Edn. Shows that 44.0 grains of IMR 4064 will push a 150-grain bullet at 2800 fps (!!).  An interesting bullet choice in The Hornady manual is their #30396 FTX, a 160-grain boattail meant for the .308 Marlin Express.  This one, and all of their 165-gr bullets can be booted up to 2600 fps with charges in the 42-43 grain range.  With a 180-grain bullet the max is about 2400 fps.

The main knock on the Savage for reloading is the very short case neck, which means that heavier bullets will protrude into the powder space.  Bullets heavier than 150 grains should be of the flat-based variety to minimize this. I have experienced little difficulty with loading operations due to the short neck.  If the expander button of the resizing die is too large, the short neck will not put enough tension on the bullet.   This is easily corrected by taking a thousandth or two off the button with abrasive paper.

Shooting the Model 99EG .300 Savage

Handling a Model 99EG gives the impression that you are hefting plenty of rifle.  The rather wide receiver and 24-inch barrel contribute to this feeling.  Not the weight, however.  The rifle seems to weigh about what it should, and handling is very good.  Take a look at the receiver and you will see that it has a slight taper, narrowing toward the front.  This taper is picked up by the front wood and is continued in the barrel after the wood quits.  Combined with the smooth tang of the hammerless action, the result is a very attractive, streamlined appearance.

My trips to the range with the 99EG went without a glitch and were very enjoyable.  I followed my usual practice of firing 3- or 4-shot groups at 50 yards, using three factory loads and three handloads, about 70 shots total. One of the first questions addressed was how to rest the rifle at the bench.  Most levers shoot best when the front rest is at the rear of the forend, perhaps even under the front of the action.  The Savage, however, seemed to do its best with the front rest right under the middle of the forend.  Deciding that fairly early, I felt that subsequent groups gave a true indication of the gun’s accuracy potential.

Velocities of Various Loads

Factory Winchester 150-grain Power Point:

Average:  2632 fps;  Extreme Spread:  92 fps;  Standard Deviation:  27 fps

Factory Remington 150-grain Core Lokt:

Average:  2623 fps;  Extreme Spread:  94 fps;  Standard Deviation:  32 fps

Factory Hornady Superformance 150-grain SST:

Average:  2739 fps;  Extreme Spread:  28 fps;  Standard Deviation:  13 fps

Handload, 43 grains Varget with Speer 150-grain Grand Slam:

Average:  2530 fps;  Extreme Spread:  24 fps;  Standard Deviation:  6 fps

Handload, 43.5 grains LEVERevolution with Sierra 150-grain FBSP:

Average:  2677 fps;  Extreme Spread:  91 fps;  Standard Deviation:  38 fps

Handload, 42.9 grains LEVERevolution with Hornady 160-grain FTX:

Average:  2606 fps;  Extreme Spread:  57 fps;  Standard Deviation:  16 fps

The velocity results show that Winchester and Remington factory loads are quite similar, both delivering the advertised, nominal velocity for the cartridge through a 24-inch barrel.  The Hornady Superformance load makes good on its claim of at least 100 fps higher velocity and it shows very good uniformity.  I must also report that extraction was just a bit sticky with this load.  Not difficult, just a bit sticky.  This is a common occurrence with lever action rifles as pressure increases. The best uniformity was observed with the Varget handload.  I believe this load could be bumped up a bit.  Sierra’s reloading manual (5th Edn) lists a max load of 44.5 grains Varget for a velocity of 2800 fps with their 150-grain bullets squirted from a 26-inch barrel. My most interesting velocity results were obtained using LEVERevolution (LE) powder.

CAUTION!  Neither Hodgdon’s nor Hornady’s publish recommended data for LEVERevolution powder in the .300 Savage.  I have shown my results with this powder.  I believe they were safely obtained, but I make no recommendation for others to use LE powder in the .300 Savage.

One of the most innovative ammo developments of recent history has been the development of Hornady’s LE cartridges for lever action rifles.  Hodgdon’s LE powder gets the credit for the velocity performance of these cartridges.  It is a spherical, progressive powder that is apparently able to maintain pressure for increased velocity without exceeding the SAAMI maximum specifications for the cartridge. Hodgdon’s has made the powder available to handloaders.

My work with it in the .30-30 Winchester and now the .300 Savage has shown that it is an excellent powder that makes good on its promises. Note that I got almost 2700 fps using LE powder to push a Sierra 150-grain bullet.  More interesting, however, is the load that scooted a Hornady 160-grain FTX bullet out at over 2600 fps.  Neither of these loads exhibited sticky extraction and case examination showed no signs of worrisome pressure.

Please note that Hornady sells two versions of the 160-grain FTX bullet.  Number 30395 is intended for the .30-30.  Number 30396 has the cannelure at a lower point and is intended for the .308 Marlin Express.  Both of these bullets have the flexible tip that makes them safe in tubular magazines.  They cost about 42 cents @.  I use the 30396 for the .300 Savage, but, even the lower cannelure will be above the short case neck if the OAL is set at 2.60.”  If the bullet is set for crimping in the cannelure, the OAL will be about 2.375.”

Accuracy of Various Loads

I believe the Savage Model 99 has always been considered to be among the most accurate of lever action rifles, and its design would lead you to believe that that could be true. To me, that means that the rifle would be capable of groups better than 2 minutes-of-angle, perhaps considerably better.  In general, that is what I found with the factory loads and handloads that I fired.

Group shooting was accomplished using the Redfield aperture sight with an aperture of 0.090.”  I will say that, with my mature eyes, I need very good light, bright sun, especially on the target, for best results with this kind of sight.  I did not always have it.  Groups would shrink a bit with the use of a good scope.

The factory loads, Winchester, Remington, and Hornady Superformance, were consistent in returning 50-yard groups of about 1.0” (2 MOA).  The Winchester may have been best because it generally kept four-shot groups in that range or a smidge less.  The point of impact of the faster Hornady’s was about 2 inches above that of the Wins and Rems.  All of these loads would be accurate enough for hunting at appropriate .300 Savage ranges.

The handload with Varget powder did about the same, but did produce one three-shot group of 0.74.”  The really surprising load used the 160-grain FTX bullet with 42.9 grains of LEVERevolution powder.  The average of five, 4-shot groups was 0.71 inches (1.42 MOA).  The two smallest groups at fifty yards measured 0.57” and 0.42.” (!!)  With its velocity of 2600+ fps, this would certainly be a very effective load for big game.  The FTX bullets get good marks from users for their performance on game animals.

Fifty yard group for handload, 42.9 grains LEVERevolution powder with Hornady 160-gr FTX bullet

Fifty yard group for handload, 42.9 grains LEVERevolution powder with Hornady 160-gr FTX bullet

Examining Fired Cases

Safe operation of a used rifle, new in your stable, requires a close examination of fired cases. I emphasize that this should be done with the very first fired case from a used rifle, especially if there was no preliminary examination of the piece by a gunsmith.  And all cases produced by the first trip to the range should be closely examined. Of most interest is the length of the fired case.  Lever action rifles, including the Model 99, have been accused of having “springy” actions because they lock up at the rear of the bolt instead of at the front like Mauser-imitating bolt actions do.  It is said that this lever kind of bolt will compress upon firing, thus allowing the case to stretch to an undesirable degree.  At the very least, this will bring the need for frequent case trimming, and worse, may lead to case separation after a few firings.

I believe this is incorrect.  Metal objects do not compress, and I have never seen any reliable evidence to support these claims.  If the headspace of the rifle is out of specs, cases will stretch, but if headspace is correct, there is no reason to think that anything but normal fired cases will be produced. You may use your dial or digital caliper to measure the length of fired cases.  I also like to use a case gage made by L. E. Wilson, Inc.  These handy little fixin’s have a chamber for your chosen cartridge cut with precision in the center of a small steel tube.  A shallow steel

Wilson Case Gage with factory load and two empties

Wilson Case Gage with factory load and two empties

groove is then milled across each end.  A cartridge inserted in the gage will show proper headspace if the head level falls between the upper and lower levels of the groove.  The length of the case body from case head to the shoulder reference point is in spec.  If the case head is higher than the upper level of the groove, the case has lengthened.   Checking the other end of the case shows the need for trimming when the case mouth is above the upper level of the groove at that end. The head of a case fired in my 99EG usually showed level with or a tiny bit below the upper level of the gage groove.  This means that the case lengthened just a bit upon firing, but

Fired cartridge inserted in case gage

Fired cartridge inserted in case gage

that the rifle shows no headspace problem.  The overall length of fired cases averaged 1.869 inches, indicating some stretching but no need (yet) for trimming.  I believe I can be assured that my 99 has a good chamber and I can merrily fire away with loads of correct pressure. The Wilson Gage is also very useful in reloading because it allows one to set the resizing die so as to provide proper headspace while avoiding excessive shortening of the case by the resizing process.

Conclusions

Here is a rifle about 64 years old, bought from the used rack. I have no idea of the previous life that it lived, except that it was not abused.  It was found to function perfectly and to show very good performance with factory ammo and even more potential for accuracy using handloads with modern components.

Then, here is a cartridge, the .300 Savage, that looks very modern in spite of its birth date in 1921.  No, it is not among the most powerful thirties.  It is shaded in velocity and energy by the .308 and the .30-06 that it originally wished to emulate, and by all of the thirty magnums.  Nevertheless, 2600-2700 fps with 150 and 160-grain bullets is nothing to sneeze at, and the Savage gets this job done in a case only 1.87” long, and not exceeding the SAAMI maximum pressure of 46,000 copper units.  Note that the more powerful thirties operate in the 50-60,000 cup range.

The main question is not how much the .300 Savage falls short of the .30-06, but how much it exceeds the moxie of that iconic deer harvester, the .30-30 Winchester.  At 200 yards the 150-grain bullet of the Hornady Superformance load is humming along at 2271 fps and will transfer 1718 ft lbs of kinetic energy to the body of any game animal that gets in the way.  That is 355 fps faster and 414 ft lbs punchier than the .30-30 LE at 200 yards.  The advantage over standard .30-30 loads is even more pronounced.

The .300 Savage in the Savage Model 99EG is a combo that is fun to shoot and to reload for.  I like it a whole bunch!

Cartridges held in rotary magazine of Model 99EG

Cartridges held in rotary magazine of Model 99EG

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