John Browning Favorites: The Winchester Models of 1885 and 1894

To review the history and performance of the .30 WCF, more commonly known as the .30-30 Winchester, one has to consider the arms that were produced for it.  John Moses Browning (1855-1926) figured most prominently in this aspect of the story.
John M. Browning was born in Ogden, Utah.  His father, Jonathan Browning, had come west with the Mormon movement in the early 1850s.  Jonathan was a gunsmith of some ability and imagination.  He made a couple of repeating caplock designs that apparently worked, but he could not make enough of them to produce any wealth.  His position as a general fix-it man and leader in the developing Mormon community also took time and inhibited his progress in making his own fortune.

Jonathan’s shop was in a shack he built close to the family house.  Young “John Mose,” as his father called him, had the run of the shop from an early age.  His toys were the tools and supplies, including junk gun parts, in the shop.  It is not surprising that John quickly learned how the guns of the day worked and that he could help his father with the business as he grew older.  In fact, John, helped by his brothers, handled most of the business of the shop at an early age when his father would be occupied with other things.  It seems natural that a familiarity with firearm strengths and weaknesses, gained through gunsmithing, would lead a curious and imaginative person like John Browning into a lifelong career with successful gun design.  He eventually recorded 128 patents and was the virtual father of semi-automatic rifles, shotguns, and pistols.  He was also the sole inventor of several, extremely effective military machine guns.

John M. Browning had no training in mechanical design.  In fact, he had little formal education and what he did have was completed by the age of fifteen.  More important was the knowledge he gained through experience in the shop and his powerful ability of mental visualization.  It is reported that he did not make many plans or blueprints.  I believe that a good part of his success in design can be attributed to an ability to generate a mental picture of a mechanism and its function.  Using this image he could eliminate a lot of trial and error difficulties with new ideas for gun function.    When he knew he had it right in his mind, he would build a working model.  Whatever his actual ability, it was genius that allowed him to produce a new gun design in an amazingly short amount of time.

Choosing the best of John M. Browning’s many and varied designs would be difficult.  On the sporting scene we could choose from a variety of rifles and shotguns falling in the lever, pump, and semi-auto action categories. Then, there are the machine guns. The best here is probably “Ma Deuce,” the M2 .50 caliber machine gun, introduced around 1920 and still working for the U. S. military.  Best, at least, if maintenance of America’s security is a factor in the choice. Then, there is the M1911 semi-auto .45 acp. You see it could go on and on.

The Model 1878/1885

One of my favorite JMB designs is his falling-block single shot rifle, patented in 1878, when John was 23 years old.  I like this gun because of its looks, its strength, and its performance, which are all admirable.  I like it because of its historical position as Browning’s first, patented design and as the first in a succession of varied rifle designs that became successful commercial ventures.

It is important that John was encouraged in this pursuit by Jonathan, his father, who was an elderly man at this time.  I like to think that Jonathan knew that his son’s talents would be stymied by a lifetime of mere gun repair, and that he wanted to encourage him to get into the more challenging and lucrative area of designing new guns.  The result was the production of a very strong and effective rifle.

When word of Browning’s single-shot rifle and its superior performance reached Winchester, they wasted no time in sending no less a personage than Thomas G. Bennett, Winchester’s General Manager, to the Browning shop in Utah.  Browning was happy to sell the rights to his invention.  He and his brothers had labored to manufacture the gun in their shop, but it was a slow process, and not interesting to John M., an inventor who mainly wanted to generate new designs for which he had many ideas.  The daily drudgery of turning out identical units of a production model was not his forte. Winchester eventually produced the gun in two different sizes, known as High-Wall and Low-Wall, with many different combinations of stock and barrel design.  As the Model 1885, it lasted until 1920, with production of nearly 140,000 units in a wide variety of calibers, ranging from .22 rimfire to .50-110.  It gained a strong reputation for strength and accuracy. It is a superb rifle for the admirer of the .30 WCF cartridge. It was a good rifle for shooting targets, and a “Schuetzen” version could be had, special order, I think.

Finally, I like the Model 1885 Single Shot because there have been several, excellent, modern replicas produced in recent years. Hunting and target shooting with an 1885, and evaluating the qualities of its design, are activities within reach of the modern sportsman, and not just with antique cartridges. I posted detailed reviews of a modern Browning version of the single shot and its shooting performance some time ago (1).

The Model 1894

The other of my “two favorite” choices is the Winchester Model 94 Lever Action.  Following his work with the single shot, Browning got really active with repeating arms, starting with lever actions before the nineteenth century expired, and later proceeding to semi-autos as time passed.  Still to be allied with Winchester, his first lever project was the Model 1886, which became the smoothest and most powerful lever action rifle to that date.  In fact, he had the ’86 well in mind even before Winchester got the single shot on the market.  The 1886 was followed by the Model 1892, a smaller, pistol-cartridge version of the ’86.

The Model 1894 Winchester actually appeared before the complete demise of the black powder era.  It was originally chambered for the .32-40 Winchester and the .38-55 Winchester, two black powder cartridges of long standing.  Then the Model 1894 greeted the smokeless powder era with better steel in its barrel.  It is interesting to note that the original 1894 action was strong enough for smokeless powder pressures and needed no strengthening modification, as long as the improved barrel steel was used.  This is generally true of Browning’s designs.  They were somewhat “overbuilt.”  Neither the Model 1885 Single Shot nor any of the lever actions needed any modification, other than stronger barrel steel, to move into the smokeless powder era.  Interest in the ’94 as a hunting arm, and in the lever action as an icon of disappearing frontier America, propelled it through the twentieth century with several million editions produced and sold.

I like the 1894 because of its looks and its handling, and because of its historical position as a totally American arm in origin and application.  It had an important place in the succession of accessible tools for those who built America and survived while doing so.  The .30 WCF has been the common cartridge for this arm. Some detailed remarks on the Model 1894 may also be found in an earlier post at this site (2).

At the present time it is the case that the Model 94, like the Model 1885, is only available as a replica rifle.  There is a company still called “Winchester Repeating Arms” and a Model 94 rifle is still offered by them in several configurations, but it is manufactured in Japan.  Quality and performance should not be a problem if you would like one of these, but production of the original 1894 was so prodigious that many are found on the used market.  I warn you, though, the price has been going up since Winchester ceased production on American soil.

Real Guns and Real Shooting

The picture shows a late example of each of the costars of this piece, both .30-30s, along with a couple of typical targets for each that show four-shot groups fired at a distance of fifty yards.  The two groups on the left target were fired with a Model 94, a modern, American version known as the “Angle Eject” model.  The two on the right were fired with

Browning 1885 Traditional Hunter (Top) and Winchester Model 94 (Bottom) with typical groups

Browning 1885 Traditional Hunter (Top) and Winchester Model 94 (Bottom) with typical groups

a Model 1885 Traditional Hunter made by Miroku in Japan and marketed by Browning Arms in the 1990s. The groups were fired with factory ammunition and they are representative of what is normally found with these arms, namely, the single shot is more accurate than the lever action.

The picture is a bit misleading because the groups were actually shot with scopes mounted on the rifles.  Browning has excellent bases and rings for the 1885 and the rifle is entirely worthy of the Weaver KT-15 that was used for the shooting.  I used Weaver bases and rings for the 94 which, being an Angle Eject model, can have the scope mounted directly over the action. Additional groups fired with scope in place are shown in the pictures.

Browning 1885 with Lyman KT15 scope

Browning 1885 with Lyman KT15 scope

Using Aperture Sights

For appearance and handling ease, I definitely like the aperture sights, but only if I don’t have to give up too much in the accuracy department. The way to insure this is to have a proper target for peep shooting. In brief, a proper target for a bead front sight is a circle of light color, which allows the bead to be easily centered in the sight picture.

The human eye is very good at centering objects in a sighting situation.  The eye easily centers the front bead of a rifle sight in the circular field created by the rear aperture of a peep sight.  With such a sight picture, it is then easy to center the front bead on a circular field at the target.  You then have two apertures, one being the rear sight and the other at the target plane, with the eye centering the front bead in both.  This is a precise and repeatable sighting system which gives very good results when shooting groups.

Sight picture for method described above. Bead centered in circular yellow target

Sight picture for method described above. Bead centered in circular yellow target

Examples of appropriate targets are shown in the pictures. One way of doing it is to cut circles from yellow construction paper and glue them to a larger piece of black paper.

Circular yellow targets on  black background

Circular yellow targets on black background

A second, convenient, method is to use a drawing program on a computer to compose a circular target with a wide black band.  This target may then be copied on white or yellow paper. The diameter of the circle should be in the range of 5-1/2 to 6-1/2 inches for a 1/16 inch front bead and for firing at fifty yards. The best diameter depends to some extent on sight radius, so a bit of experimentation may be in order for folks wishing to try this kind

Model 94 with printable circular target

Model 94 with printable circular target

of target.  I give a slight nod to the yellow color, because I feel it gives me better contrast in the sight picture. Either way, best results are obtained on sunny days because bright sun improves resolution of the sight picture.  The following groups were fired with the tang peep of the Model 1885 Traditional Hunter at 100 yards. The five-shot groups, top to bottom, measure 1.21,” 0.98,” and 1.76.”

Three 5-Shot Groups at 100 Yards Using the Peep Sight

Three 5-Shot Groups at 100 Yards Using the Peep Sight

Factory load performance

In tests of factory ammo, four-shot groups were fired with each rifle at a distance of fifty yards, with scopes in place.  A set of eight shots was chronographed for each load.  The Win Model 94 averaged 2351 fps with seven, name brand 150-gr loads.  The highest velocity of 2414 fps was given by Winchester Supreme Power Point Plus.  The Browning 1885 averaged 2396 fps for the same loads with the champ at 2459 fps, also given by the Winchester Supremes.  With six, 170-gr loads, the Win Model 94 averaged 2170 fps and the Browning 1885, 2185 fps.  Hornady Custom was the winner here, at 2223 fps and 2231 fps for the 94 and 1885, respectively.

The factory load groups of the Winchester Model 94 fell in the range of 2.0 to 3.5 Minutes of Angle.  The best groups for that rifle were given by Winchester 170-gr Silvertips, with two groups averaging 1.48 MOA.  Now that would make any lever action fan very proud.  The groups of the Browning Traditional Hunter fell in the range of 0.9 to 2.5 MOA.  The best with this gun were the Hornady Custom 170-grainers, two groups averaging 0.94 MOA.

The Winchester Model 94 turned in a fine, maybe even surprising, performance with a couple of 150-gr loads using bonded bullets.  The Winchester 150-gr Power-Max gave 2392 fps while the Federal Fusion 150-gr gave 2450 fps.  The average accuracy of three-shot groups with these loads was 3.1 MOA.

Hornady’s amazing LEVERevolution ammunition uses a 160-gr spitzer bullet called the FTX pushed by an innovative, progressive ball powder.  The FTXs smoked out of the Winchester Model 94 at 2375 fps and out of the Browning 1885 at 2437 fps.  With the Model 94 the first three shots usually fell in about 2 MOA.  The smallest four-shot group measured 2.72.”  With the 1885 a series of 5 consecutive groups averaged 1.1 MOA.  Great velocity and accuracy for a .30-30 load, and the spitzer bullet holds energy quite well downrange.

Two groups, 50 yards, Browning 1885 with Hornady LEVERevolution 160-gr

Two groups, 50 yards, Browning 1885 with Hornady LEVERevolution 160-grain

The velocity honors, however, go to Hornady’s 140-gr Monoflex load which uses a copper bullet.  The Winchester Model 94 spit it out  at 2499 fps and the Browning 1885 at 2519 fps.  This load was less accurate than the 160-grainers, with the 1885 and 94 giving about 2 MOA and 3 MOA, respectively.

A Little Handloading

The Hodgdon LEVERevolution powder and the Hornady 160-gr FTX bullets have been available to handloaders for some time.  Factory loading data recommends 35.2 gr of the LVR powder, but I wanted to moderate that a bit.  My load of 34.1 gr resulted in 2376 fps for the Winchester 94 and 2421 fps for the Browning 1885.  Handload accuracy was very good with both rifles, but maybe a bit less impressive than the factory, 160-gr LVR loads.  I had an interesting eight-shot group with the Browning 1885 with seven going into 0.86 MOA and the eighth opening it to 1.90 MOA.

Eight-shot group, 50 yards, with Browning 1885, LEVERevolution handload

Eight-shot group, 50 yards, with Browning 1885, LEVERevolution handload

There is no question about it.  Two of John M. Browning’s best designs can demonstrate excellent performance, even by modern standards.  It is no wonder that so many factory loads are still offered for this 118-year-old cartridge.

1.  a.  The Browning 1885 Traditional Hunter, Posted December 6, 2010.

  1. Shooting the Browning 1885 Traditional Hunter, Posted March 24, 2011.

2.  Article:  Thoughts on the Winchester Model 94