In 1936, Winchester Repeating Arms brought forth a rifle that was as close to a masterpiece as a firearm can be: the Model 70. Boasting the best trigger ever put on a sporting rifle, it was handsome, dead reliable and, for its time, accurate. It was a complex gun to make, but since labor was cheap at the time this was not a factor, and the Model 70s that were produced before World War II were beautifully made.
But by the end of World War II, Winchester’s factory was a mausoleum, its machinery worn out and its labor force hostile. As a result, the quality of the Model 70 declined steadily. Concerned about the cost of manufacturing the rifle, in 1964 Winchester debuted a new Model 70 that was cheaper to build.
The new “push-feed” rifle was more accurate than its “controlled-feed” predecessor, but it was so ugly that it had shooters contemplating suicide. People didn’t buy it in droves. After a while Winchester (by now called U.S. Repeating Arms) brought back the old-style Model 70, but the quality was no longer there, and the company itself was in deep trouble. The end came in 2006 when the New Haven, Conn., plant that made the Model 70 was shut down.
A Southern-Made 70
Early in 2008, Herstal of Belgium, which owns FN, Winchester, and Browning, announced that it intended to bring back the old-style Model 70. It would be made in the FN plant in Columbia, S.C., that produces small arms for the U.S. military. But by late summer no guns had appeared. The problem, it turned out, was that Winchester wanted to do it right this time, and there’s a considerable difference between turning out a good machine gun and producing a fine sporting rifle.
I finally got my hands on an all-Columbia Model 70 in September of last year. It was a Featherweight Deluxe, a faithful duplicate of the old Featherweight. The slender beauty had a 22-inch barrel, a slim fore-end with a Schnabel tip, and a ribbon-checkering pattern.
The M.O.A. Trigger
The old Model 70 trigger came to glory because of its extreme simplicity; once tuned up, it stayed set forever. Considerable skill was required to do this, however, and an untuned Model 70 trigger was a horror. So Winchester replaced it with the M.O.A. Trigger, which can be adjusted simply by turning screws. It’s set for 33⁄4 pounds at the factory; the one I had measured 4 pounds and had a dead clean pull. Although it’s not as simple or rugged as the old design, for a production rifle it makes worlds of sense.
Its reputation notwithstanding, the Model 70 has never been a notably accurate rifle. Some do shoot well, and if you want to put in a lot of work on one of the old ones it will shoot just fine. But straight out of the box? No. Until now. The Featherweight I shot will group with anything. The barrel is free-floated, and the recoil lug and tang are bedded in what appears to be steel-based epoxy.
I tried the gun out with factory ammo and handloads, bullet weights of 150 to 200 grains. For whatever perverse reason, the only load it did not shoot well was Federal factory loaded with Nosler 165-grain Ballistic Tips. These veered into 2.24 inches. However, handloads with 150-grain Sierra Pro Hunter bullets averaged .581 inch overall. HSM ammo, which is a bargain brand sold by Cabela’s, put 165-grain softpoints into .873 inch. Winchester Supreme ammo with Nosler 180-grain E-Tips grouped at .943. Handloads using 200-grain Swift A-Frames turned in .99 inch. This is very good accuracy by today’s exacting standards, and it’s far, far better than any other Model 70 I’ve shot.
Worth the Wait?
Right now, versions of the reborn Model 70 include the Ultimate Shadow, the Extreme Weather SS (which is all-stainless and synthetic), the Featherweight Deluxe, the Sporter Deluxe, and the Super Grade. They range from $739 to $1,169.
Are they worth it? If the rifle I tested is any indication, the answer is yes. My Featherweight Deluxe had eye-popping wood, flawless checkering, a fine trigger, excellent fit and finish, and superior accuracy. And, of course, the slick, certain cycling that made the gun famous in the first place. What more could you ask?