Petzal: Winchester's Wonderful Model 71

Last week, while rooting through the used guns in a sporting-goods store upstate, I chanced upon a Winchester Model 71 in very nice shape. "That rifle," said the store owner, "belonged to Floyd Patterson." Patterson, who died in 2006, was heavyweight boxing champion from 1956 to 1962. He was one of the best men, and one of the worst fighters, ever to hold that title. In any event, he had fine taste in guns.

The Model 71 was a modification of Winchester's Model 1886, which has my nomination as the finest rifle ever built in America. Technically, the 71 was ...

... a failure--it was built only from 1935 to 1957, and only 47, 254 were made. It was not a cheap rifle--in its last year of production a 71 cost $130, about twice the price of a Model 94--and it was chambered only for the .348 Winchester, a thumping big round that was too much for deer.

But it was a lovely piece of machinery, and it pointed better than any lever gun I've ever handled, and them as had them treasured them. I owned a nice one in the 1980s but of course I let it go. Posterity has been kind to the 71. A standard model in 90 percent condition is worth $2,000, and the deluxe version will bring twice that. The 71 is not particularly accurate, and you can't mount a scope on it, but if you're willing to accept its limitations and its recoil, there is still nothing better for deer and elk and bear. Floyd Patterson could tell you that.