April 29, 2022
I don’t use lever actions all the time, but I love them dearly. My all-time favorite is the Winchester Model 1886. Big but beautiful, with clean, elegant lines and a smooth action. The ’86 was the first lever action designed for Winchester by John Moses Browning, and it was intended to house powerful, large-cased blackpowder cartridges.
But by the 1930s Winchester had a problem. Its Model 54 bolt action was successful, but at its heart, Winchester was a lever-action company when it came to rifles. The box-magazine Savage 99 offered serious competition for the ’86, as did Marlin’s side-eject rifles. In this pre-scope era, Winchester’s ’94 was still doing fine, but the ’86 was costly, and sales were down.
Engineers created manufacturing accommodations to reduce costs. They also went to work on a new cartridge that would max out the big action and be the most powerful and versatile round that could possibly be housed in a tubular-magazine lever action. The rifle was the Winchester Model 71, introduced in 1935, replacing the ’86. Stock style and barrels differed, but cosmetically and almost mechanically, it is an ’86, although few parts are interchangeable. With it came the .348 Win. cartridge.
The success of Winchester’s effort to revive the large-caliber lever action is questionable, primarily as a matter of timing. Scopes came into common use after World War II, and it’s a challenge to scope a top-eject rifle like the 71. Also, rifle shooters were starting to understand the importance of bullet aerodynamics, and like all tubular-magazine rifles, the 71 was restricted to blunt-nose bullets for safety reasons.
Even with simplified manufacturing, the Model 71 was expensive. It was also a big rifle, with a cartridge that offered more power than most deer hunters needed. It was manufactured until 1958, and about 70,000 were produced. This is not a big number for Winchester, but it was not a small run, either.
In order to max out the action and wring out maximum performance, for its .348 Winchester took a step back in time, using the big .50-110 blackpowder case, which has a diameter of 0.553 inch and a massive 0.610-inch rim. The parent cartridge makes sense, but why Winchester chose the oddball 0.348-inch bullet diameter isn’t known. Winchester had history with 0.358-inch cartridges, with the .35 Win. introduced in 1903, and later in 1955 it would bring out the .358 Win.
It was not unheard of for Winchester to use an odd bullet diameter. A decade earlier it used the unknown 0.277-inch bullet for the .270 Win.. That worked out okay, so perhaps the company expected the same success for the .348 Win. Reality, however, was that neither Marlin nor Savage had a lever action big enough for the .348, and neither the Marlin 336 nor the Savage 99 required a rimmed cartridge.
So this created a rarity in the history of sporting rifles and self-contained metallic cartridges: The Model 71 was never chambered to any cartridge except .348, and the .348 was never factory-chambered to any rifle other than the 71. Also, no other factory cartridge ever used the 0.348-inch bullet.
Winchester’s loadings were a 150-grain bullet at 2,890 fps, a 200-grain bullet at 2,530 fps and a 250-grain bullet at 2,350 fps. The 150-grain bullet, though incredibly fast, was too light for caliber and didn’t last long. I got my first Model 71 about 20 years after the rifle was discontinued, and it came with some component 150-grain bullets. I worked up loads and shot ground squirrels with them (devastating!), but I’ve never even seen a factory 150-grain .348 load.
The 250-grain bullet was a real powerhouse. Back in the 1980s and ’90s, when I was shooting the .348 quite a lot, 250-grain bullets were already scarce. I handloaded Barnes Original 250-grain bullets, using them for bison, black bear and nilgai. On larger game, performance was awesome, but that applied on both ends. Though slower, the heavier bullet is a hard kicker.
The 200-grain bullet was always the most popular. It was—and is—a thumper on deer-size game, and it’s adequate for black bear, elk and moose, but it’s probably marginal for big bears.
Today, the 200-grain bullet is the primary remaining choice. Winchester does periodic runs of 200-grain .348, and in 2019 Hornady added a 200-grain .348 to its LeverEvolution line. The latter features a spitzer FTX bullet at 2,560 fps, and it’s a game-changer—offering better downrange performance than ever before possible with a .348.
Hornady offers the 200-grain FTX and a 200-grain roundnose InterLock as component bullets, but few other mainstream choices remain. Recently, I wanted to use the .348 for California feral hogs. Unleaded bullets are required for hunting, so this was a problem.
Who made a homogeneous alloy .348? Friend Kyler Hamman, also a Model 71 fan, suggested Hammer Bullets and Cutting Edge. Hammer had in stock its 162-grain Shock Hammer copper-alloy .348, flat-pointed with a large nose cavity. I ordered a box.
That 162 grains is light for caliber, but lever actions are limited to finite cartridge overall length, and copper-alloy bullets are longer than lead-core bullets. You’re probably not going to get a 200-grain homogeneous alloy bullet that will function. Cutting Edge makes a 175-grain bullet, which is probably the limit for length in an unleaded bullet.
Unfortunately, light .348 bullets have been gone for so long that there are little data. I reduced an old 150-grain load using RL15 powder, which seemed to make sense. The initial result scared me, producing more than 3,000 fps and flattened primers. I reduced the charge again and worked back up.
At 54.7 grains, accuracy was excellent, there were no pressure signs in my rifle, and velocity was 2,830 fps. I can’t speak to larger game, but this bullet is awesome on hogs.
I have long believed Winchester brought out its three loads together, but this may not be true. In Big Game Rifles and Cartridges (1936), Elmer Keith wrote glowingly of the Model 71, but he had only 200-grain loads. Always a heavy-bullet guy, Keith commented that the cartridge really needed a 250-grain bullet. Keith got his wish because apparently the 250-grain load came along shortly. Keith loved the Model 71 and, aside from wanting a heavier bullet, was enthusiastic about the .348.
In his landmark work, Cartridges of the World, Frank Barnes described the 71 as “the smoothest lever action ever built.” Others have described it as “the finest big-bore lever-gun.” I’m not sure about such superlatives, but the point is the rifle/cartridge combo had its fans.
Although not a lever-action guy, Jack O’Connor wrote kindly of the 71 and, in the late 1930s he used the .348 to take one of his desert bighorns. At that time, he was still using apertures for most of his big game hunting, so the Model 71’s sights weren’t a handicap.
No known photos exist of O’Connor with this ram and the 71, and he mentioned it only briefly in his writing. He probably considered it overpowered, but I’d love to know the circumstances and which bullet he used. John Batten—lifelong friend to O’Connor, a mentor to me, and another serious sheep hunter—never took his Model 71 sheep hunting, but he described it as the very best for big woods whitetail hunting like that found in his home state of Wisconsin
I didn’t grow up hunting in thick stuff, and I was an early child of the scope era. Even so, I knew about and admired the Model 71 and its cartridge. In the mid-70s a Kansas City friend had a Deluxe with aperture for sale, and I bought it, along with dies and bullets. I worked up loads, and I’ve had one or another 71 ever since.
In those days, I could shoot apertures well, being accustomed to them from military shooting. I used Model 71s for a lot of wild hog hunting, for black bears and for this and that. If the light was good, I could shoot to a couple of hundred yards. Today, this window has shrunk. I had a really good early Deluxe, long-tang with bolt-mounted aperture, but a gent offered me a Standard with Pachmayr side mount, vintage Weaver K2.5 and a treasure trove of ammo. I couldn’t resist.
Because of top-ejection, there are two primary ways to mount a scope on the 71: a long-eye-relief scope on the barrel or an offset side mount on the left side of the receiver. This particular Model 71 Standard is a 1936 rifle, and the Pachmayr mount and scope are probably additions from the 1950s. Mounting a scope does nothing for the looks of a classic lever action, and while the vintage Weaver is trim and light, the mount is heavy and adds weight to a not-so-light rifle. However, if I wanted to continue to hunt with a .348, my older eyes needed a scope.
The old Weaver is surprisingly clear, and the adjustments still track. Even though it’s only 2.5X, I can shoot it better, farther and in poorer light than I can with an aperture. Today, there’s no point in my attempting meaningful 100-yard groups with either setup, but the Weaver tightened even my 50-yard groups.
I knew Frank Pachmayr, a great gun guy, and his mount is a clever arrangement. A strong spring keeps the scope down against the receiver, offset to the left to allow ejection. It swings off to allow unimpeded use of open sights.
In practice, ejected cases hit the scope, then bounce off to the right. As a lefty, there’s little interference with fit and feel. To get a proper field of view, I just grind my cheek a little harder into the comb. One thing I quickly learned is that the setup works perfectly with 200-grain and lighter bullets. With the heavier recoil of 250-grain bullets, the scope bounces away from the receiver, so I get one shot, then I must either clamp the scope back down or switch to open sights.
This isn’t a big deal to me because 250-grain .348 bullets are almost non-existent, and for the hunting purposes I have for this rig, I don’t need them. I’m back in business with the .348 as a favorite hog rifle.
Hunting for a Model 71 Today
Although escalating in value, original Model 71s are readily available on the used market. Both Browning and Winchester have offered modern versions over the past few decades. Italian Firearms Group has also imported some good-looking 71 reproductions.
There were options and upgrades, but the Model 71 was produced in only two primary variants: Standard and Deluxe, both in rifle versions with 24-inch barrels and carbines with 20-inch barrels and pistol grip stocks. Mine have all been rifles. I prefer the look and feel of the longer barrel, which invariably had a four-round half-magazine.
The Deluxe had a checkered pistol grip and fore-end and detachable sling-swivel studs. The Standard had smooth wood and no factory sling swivel studs.
The Deluxe came standard with an aperture sight; the Standard had a buckhorn rear sight. I’ve seen many Standards with apertures, so this must have been a common option or a quick addition by local gun shops. In the first years of manufacture, the receiver sight was mounted on the rear of the bolt.
Later, Winchester supplied both Lyman and Williams receiver sights, the more common L-shaped sight, with the elevation slide mounted on the left side of the receiver. Today Skinner Sights makes a receiver sight for the 71/86.
Early 71s also had a long tang, shortened in post-war production. “Long-tang” Model 71s are more desirable, but there’s little difference in utility.—CB