This article describes two early bolt action rifles, the Winchester Model 54 and the Savage Model 40, both in caliber .30 WCF.
This is for you, Old Rifle Fans. Bolt action sporting rifles from American manufacturers really did not come into their own until the appearance of the Winchester Model 70 in 1936, when the Great Depression was moderating. There were, however, some notable, earlier attempts to attract turnbolt fans and I describe two of them in this post: The Savage Model 40 Super Sporter and the Winchester Model 54.
More than one million American soldiers were shipped to France in 1917 -1918 to aid in the defeat of the axis armies in World War I. More than half of these saw action in battle and the main infantry rifles were bolt actions, the Enfield Model 1917 and the Springfield Model 1903 (both in caliber .30-06 Springfield). The Enfield was in the majority but both were used in large numbers. It has been said that this use in battle later contributed to an interest in and a desire for bolt action arms for sporting purposes. Perhaps. But, I think, that after I witnessed the carnage while charging machine guns in the trenches (110,000 Americans and countless Europeans cut in half) I might never want to see a firearm again.
But, I digress. After the war, say about 1920, hunters had several options in the bolt action category. There were surplus Enfields and Springfields and also the earlier Krag-Jorgensen, the first U.S. bolt action, that had been around since 1892, used in the Spanish-American War, and turned loose as surplus in large numbers at low prices. The Krag used the .30 Government cartridge, now known as the .30-40 Krag, a fine hunting round. The other two both used the .30-06 Springfield cartridge, an even more powerful round. All of the surplus types could be converted to attractive sporting rifles by quality gunsmithing (or into cobbled beaters by ham-fisted home gunsmiths)(it happened a lot).
Eventually the American arms manufacturers saw the potential market for bolt action rifles made entirely as sporting arms. Two of such will be described here. The Winchester Model 54 appeared in 1925, and the Savage Model 40, called the “Super Sporter,” appeared in 1928. They were offered in a variety of chamberings for various types of hunting. The two that I will describe both fire the .30 WCF, that is, our good ol’ 30-30. More about the choice later. Both models were gone before World War II, having the bad luck to appear just before the stock market crash that created the Great Depression in 1929. That national trial, with unemployment as high as 30%, depressed consumer spending and strangled American business throughout the 1930s.
The Winchester Model 54
Winchester had produced a couple of bolts for military applications at the end of the 19th century, namely, the Winchester-Hotchkiss .45-70 of 1878 and the Winchester-Lee Navy, a 6 mm arm, of 1895. The Model 54, however, is generally considered to be Winchester’s first swing at making a sporting bolt action in a big way, and it appeared in 1925.
It is not surprising that the first actions of bolt sporting rifles were adaptations of military precursors. The military rifles were strong, reliable designs that could be produced in high quality. Thus the Winchester Model 54 design is rooted in the design of the Springfield Model of 1903, and that, in turn, is rooted in the design of the Mauser Model of 1898. The Mauser/Springfield action is very strong and its salient feature is the bolt design, seen in the bolt at left in Fig. 3. There are two opposed locking lugs at the front and a long, non-
rotating extractor with a large claw that captured the cartridge as it came up from the magazine. This prevented a jam if the bolt were withdrawn before the cartridge was fully seated. This became known as “controlled round feeding” and soon was considered a necessity for the safe hunting of dangerous game.
My Winchester Model 54 came to me as the result of a successful internet transaction. A fairly early iteration of the model, it was made in 1929. You may examine it in Fig. 1 and in Fig. 2, which focuses on the action. You can see the extractor lying along the side of the bolt. Overall, the rifle has a slender configuration reminiscent of the slightly earlier Savage Model of 1920. The stock is straight-grain walnut with nice, bordered checkering, a steel butt plate with no logo, and no grip cap. The barrel is 24 inches and is chambered for the .30 WCF. The bore is excellent. The front sight is a bead on a blade that is pinned in a boss on the barrel. The rear sight is a deep “V”, adjustable for elevation, mounted to the
receiver. The sturdy, stamped bottom metal has the trigger guard and the box magazine cover in a single unit. Removing the action shows that the inletting of the stock wood, and therefore the fit of metal to wood, is of very high quality. A large flat area on the bottom of the action has good contact with the wood just behind the recoil lug. This no doubt contributes to the 54’s reputation for high accuracy.
There is a boss in the barrel that held the original blade rear sight. This boss is held by a screw though the forearm. Thus, with screws through the bottom metal at each end and in the middle behind the magazine box, there are a total of four screws that hold the metal to the stock. The metal finish on this rifle is in very good condition. The wood has most of its original finish with a few minor scratches.
There were several grades of the 54 offered and mine is the standard grade. It is an earlier model that had a Schnabel tip. This was later changed and the rifle was given a thicker forearm, similar to the Model 70 that followed in 1936. Something over 50,000 rifles were produced over the 54’s lifetime.
My 54 has a couple other idiosyncracies that can be seen in Fig. 2. The barrel boss has had the rear sight removed and replaced with a narrow, dovetail scope base. This is because the 54 was not drilled and tapped for a scope base in the receiver bridge. There were taps only in the receiver ring (just behind the barrel junction). Remember, this was the early days of bolt action sporters. In order to have two bases, the front base was attached to the barrel boss dovetail and the rear to the receiver ring using the taps that were supplied with the rifle. This must have been unsatisfactory but it was necessary for the scope to be forward in order for the bolt handle to clear the scope on opening. I have no clue what the previous owner must have used for a scope.
The other anomaly is the tacky-looking leather cover on the end of the forearm. Removal showed that the tip had a longitudinal crack and the original Schnabel tip had been crudely sanded off. I repaired the crack with brown epoxy, smoothed the tip, and finished it to match the stock. Best I could do, but not good for the collector value of the piece. However, there appear to be no other alterations of the rifle, making it a good example of the type. It is an honest gun with pleasing appearance.
The Model 54 was offered in ten chamberings. The .270 Winchester made its debut in this rifle. In the thirty size, you could have the .30-06 or the 7.65 X 53 (a Mauser item that appeared in the Model 1889 Belgian Mauser), in addition to the .30-30. One wonders, “Why the .30-30?” Well, as the first smokeless powder sporting thirty, the .30 WCF had created quite a following in the time since the intro of the Winchester Model 94 and its Marlin counterpart. Granted, it made its name in lever action rifles, but successful marketing dictated that the popular cartridge be included in the bolt action lineup.
A range visit with the Model 54 was very enjoyable, although that deep V rear sight put my old eyes at a disadvantage. Using a 5.5 inch circle target to center the front bead I was able to get 50-yard groups of 1 to 1.5 inches with several factory loads. A couple of the groups were less than one inch. The rifle functioned perfectly. Trigger action was just OK having a two-stage, military type of pull.
The Savage Model 40 Super Sporter
Designed by Arthur W. Savage, the famous Model 1899 lever action rifle put the Savage company on the map. It was a well-designed rifle and a worthy competitor to the other lever actions of the day. It would seem normal for this innovative company to offer a bolt action rifle as the sporting world looked in that direction. An early attempt was the Savage Model of 1920, later updated in 1926. The Model 1920/1926, being rather difficult to manufacture, had limited success. The action was also too short to work with the .30-06. So the Super Sporter appeared in 1928, and this clunky-looking bolt action joined the sleek, hammerless Model 99 in the Savage lineup.
Model designations are a bit confusing. I believe all guns of this action were called “Super Sporters,” but there were two trim levels designated Model 40 and Model 45. The Model 45 was a bit spiffier with checkered grip and forearm, a different magazine release, and a receiver sight. The action is the same in the two models, which were offered in .30 WCF, .30-06 Springfield, .300 Savage, and .250 Savage.
In my experience, the term “Super Sporter” appears on the metal of all rifles, but the 40 or 45 designation does not. But then, I have not seen a great many of these items. Only about 18,000 editions were produced between 1928 and 1940, and only about 6,000 of these were Model 45s.
My Savage Model 40 This rifle also came to me via an internet transaction. It arrived in condition as described in the ad. A good finish on walnut and steel but with the patina of age. Mechanically sound and with a very good bore, also chambered for the .30 WCF. Now with two early rifles in one of my favorite old cartridges, how could I not be supremely happy?
The barrel is 22 inches in length with a square notch rear blade sight in a dovetail and a dovetail bead in a ramp forged at the front of the barrel. The box magazine is removed by pressing a lever at its right side. The bottom metal unitizes the trigger guard and magazine surround, is sturdy, and has rounded edges. There is no grip cap, but there are sling swivel fixtures. The steel butt plate carries the Savage logo, “SVG” in a circle. The safety tab, located behind the bolt is pushed up for safe and down for fire. When safe, the bolt is locked.
The action is interesting and quite a contrast with the Winchester Model 54. The receiver is a large, long steel tube with minimal cutouts for magazine and ejection port. It carries a three-piece bolt with dual, opposed locking lugs in its midsection, just ahead of the bolt handle (See Fig. 3). The bolt handle bears on its receiver cutout for a third locking lug. If you want a military precedent for this kind of action, take a look at the Lee-Enfield, for instance, the SMLE No. 1 Mk III. It has a similar arrangement of locking lugs but is different in other respects. Whether this military contemporary really inspired the design of the Savage Super Sporter bolt I do not know.
The pictures will show that the receiver bridge is quite long, and the long slot in the receiver behind the bolt guides the bolt handle and the right rear locking lug. An opposite
groove in the receiver also guides the left locking lug. This long, well supported and guided bolt therefore operates very smoothly. Some gun writers will question the strength and rigidity of a rear-locking bolt. I do not. It is plenty strong and rigid, witness the fact that the same action is offered in .30-06 Springfield. I also have one of those, and it works well.
A range visit with the Model 40 was also very enjoyable. As with the Win 54, the function of the rifle was perfect. Again, the open sights were a problem for me. I filed the rear notch to greater width and used an open ring target to frame the bead. With this setup I was able to get groups about as good as I got with the Win 54, that is, about 1 to 1.5 inches at 50 yards. The two-stage trigger was heavy but crisp enough for good shooting.
Pick a Winner? Nope. You are going to be disappointed if you want me to pick a winner. I cannot do it at this point. The two rifles are in about the same condition, they function equally well, and they exhibit comparable accuracy. Both would shoot better with better sights. I will work on that without drilling extra holes or changing configurations. Both are factory-drilled and -tapped for receiver sights. I know what will fit and if I can find them I will be able to do better work with factory loads and will be able to investigate some handloads. In the end, however, I expect there will be not much difference in the accuracy of the two rifles.
Collecting, anyone? If you are a collector who occasionally likes to hunt, or, if you are a hunter with historical sensibility you would enjoy either of these rifles. Don’t care for the .30-30? Fine, there are other choices with both rifles.
Savage bolt action rifles have not attracted much collector attention. Prices are low even though the guns were not made in large numbers. You would have the chance of finding a good Model 40 or 45 for less, maybe considerably less, than $500. A collection of Model 45s, say, one in each caliber produced, would be a worthy goal.
Everyone knows that the Winchester brand has been a hotbed of collecting activity for many years, to the point at which even single-shot .22s will now relieve you of several hundred dollars, at least. We get a break here, however, in that the Model 54 has been generally undervalued in the collector market. In fact, the average 54 may often be found for less money that the pre-1964 version of its successor, the Model 70. As this is written, a good example of a Model 54 in .30-06 can be found for less than $1000. Calibers produced in smaller numbers will bring more, of course. I caution that this may not continue, so if you want a Model 54, do not wait! They will not come down.
The problem in each case, in view of low production numbers, is to find a good example. Do not wait for a Savage Super Sporter to appear on the shelf at your Friendly Local Gun Shop. It will not happen. You have to go on line, and then they are still scarce. Don’t like internet purchases? Then you must choose to collect models of brands produced in amounts of at least several hundred thousand in order to find them locally at shops and gun shows.
A good Winchester Model 54, however, might be found on the used racks of a large store like Cabela’s. Here, also, the listings for Cabela’s Gun Library are found on most internet gun sites. This is a very safe company to deal with on line, if you can accept that dickering activity will be limited.
When you find one you will, like me, be ready for some great shooting!