Rifles: Taking It Personally

Granted that shooters are an odd lot (although no more weird than birders, who are really odd, or golfers, who are pretty much beyond description) but sometimes they really baffle me. A while back I wrote that through much of the 1950s, and into the early 1960s, Winchester turned out a lot of really crummy Model 70 rifles. As a result I got an e-mail from a pre-64 Model 70 enthusiast who was beyond livid. How dare I say that the Rifleman's Rifle was ever less than perfect? Who the hell did I think I was? It was as if I had just whacked his old mom in the spleen with a grub hoe handle.

My opinion was based on a number of facts: First, quality varies in product lines, as witness Cadillac, which for decades was a synonym for quality, but which, in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, turned out truly rotten automobiles at high prices. Now, the company seems to have found its way again.

So it was with Winchester. All their pre-64 designs, including the Model 70, were complex, and required considerable effort on the part of the people who made them if they were to be any good. However, the Winchester machinery was worn out and the labor situation in New Haven was best described as poisonous. I got this not from hearsay, but from a shop foreman who was there and from several people in Winchester management.

I was, at the time, hanging out with gunsmiths in search of Greater Wisdom, and one of the things I heard over and over was that Winchester was turning out some truly wretched guns. Bad bedding, rotten triggers, and poor accuracy were the most common complaints. Among two of the lousier Model 70s that I recall were a Featherweight .308 that grouped like a shotgun and couldn't be cured and a .338 Alaskan model that wouldn't feed. How you make a claw-extractor rifle that can't pick up rounds from the magazine I don't know, but they managed.

The pre-64 Model 70 made its reputation between its introduction in 1936 and probably the mid-1950s, with time out for World War II. In those years it was a true marvel; everything that legend made it out to be. Probably, Jack O'Connor did more to popularize the rifle than anyone else, although he never used a factory Model 70. He'd get one, throw away the stock, and send the barreled action to a custom gun builder such as Al Biesen who would transform it into a rifle that New Haven could not possibly equal.

My point is that if I disparage a rifle, I'm talking about the rifle, not the persons who buy it or their intelligence, or patriotism, or marksmanship. I'm talking about a gun. And to put a cheerful coda on this, the new Model 70s coming out of South Carolina are infinitely superior to anything that Winchester ever turned out in New Haven. They're so good that even the Late, Great, Jack would hunt with them as is.