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Return of the Big Medicine Rifle

Return of the Big Medicine Rifle

Winchester and Hornady revive the 1895 rifle and the legendary .405 WCF Cartridge.

President Theodore Roosevelt did more to promote hunting and the outdoors than perhaps any other elected leader. His use of the Winchester '95 in .405 has reverberated in the minds of American hunters for nearly a century.

Few guns hold more mystique for American hunters than the 1895 Winchester rifle chambered for the .405 Winchester cartridge. That's what you get when the President of the United States calls his '95 rifle "Big Medicine" for lions and other dangerous beasts. Theodore Roosevelt used his '95 .405 on an African hunt with great success. The president hunted America's biggest game, such as moose, elk and bears, with his .405, too. At the time of its introduction, it was the most powerful commercially loaded round and rifle in the United States and remained so until Winchester chambered the Model 70 rifle for the .375 H&H in the late 1930s. Sure, the British made more powerful cartridges and rifles, but American makers did not, and Brit rifles were beyond the reach of all but the wealthy.

The 1895 rifle was the last and most powerful lever-action rifle designed by John Browning for Winchester. It would take the new rimmed and rimless smokeless powder ammunition and sharp-pointed bullets in a fixed box magazine. The magazine protruded below the receiver and gave the '95 its distinctive look. The magazine configuration also earned the rifle a reputation for being ungainly. Actually, few Model 95s were sold. Less than 133,000 were made for the commercial market during its 35-year production run. By comparison, Winchester had already made more than one million Model 94s during the same period. The vast majority of the Model 1895s--293,000-odd--were made for the Imperial Russian army during World War I and chambered for its 7.62x54R round. After World War I, returning servicemen were sold on the bolt action, and the 1895's sales, never particularly strong, drooped. The rifle lingered on but grew an undeserved reputation for catastrophic failure (many .30-06 '95s as well as '03 Springfields blew up when 8mm Mauser ammo was accidentally substituted). That, combined with the Depression and slumping sales, caused the '95 to be discontinued in 1931.

The .405 WCF round itself is similar dimensionally to the earlier black-powder .40-72 WCF that was also a '95 chambering. Winchester engineers enlarged the .40-72's 330-grain .406-inch lead bullet to a jacketed .411-inch bullet of 300 grains and poured in plenty of the new smokeless powder. The new round delivered its 300-grain bullet at an impressive 2,250 fps and generated 3,320 ft-lbs of energy. Not many hunters wanted this kind of horsepower, and the vicious recoil of the original '95 with a standard stock that featured considerable drop ending in a crescent buttplate brought tears to many grown men. Oddly, the round was considered too big for North American game unless grizzly bears or moose were in front of the sights. It was a time when there was such a thing as "too much gun."

Still, ammo makers cataloged ammo for it well into the middle 1950s. By the middle 1960s it was all but dead. It took serious scrounging for dedicated .405 fans to acquire components, and they were always at a premium. Although the head size is the same as the .30-40 Krag, the .405's 2.58-inch case length meant it was impossible to make suitable cases from any other cartridge. And so matters stayed for the next 25 years or so.

In the interest of safety, Winchester has fitted a tang safety to the Model 95 and modified the lockwork to feature a rebounding hammer. The rear sight is a semibuckhorn sight that is ladder adjustable for elevation and drift adjustable for windage. The front sight is a gold bead pinned to a base that is sweated onto the barrel.

America's interest in 19th century firearms has been growing since the late 1950s, though interest back then was focused on the centennial of the Civil War. This fascination with our past has led to many resurrections of 19th century firearms. Browning's recreation of the 1895 chambered for either the .30-40 Krag or .30-06 in the mid-1980s was quite successful, although its biggest hit would be the 1886 rifle chambered for the .45-70. When Browning acquired Winchester several years ago, this led to a variety of '86 iterations. The '86's popularity has led Winchester to reintroduce the 1895 rifle, albeit with a few twists.

In the interest of safety, the new Winchester '95 has a rebounding hammer and a tang safety. When applied, the tang safety allows the hammer to be lowered safely even if the shooter's hands are cold or wet. The rebounding hammer ensures that the hammer is never resting on the firing pin when a cartridge is chambered. Although this may make traditionalists wince, gun accidents have been declining steadily in the last 80 years or so, so perhaps there is a silver lining to this modification.


Winchester 1895 24-inch barrel
Hornady .405 300-grain JSP
Screens 15 feet from the muzzle
(Competition Electronics Pro Chrono)

High: 2,237 fps
Low: 2,185 fps
Average: 2,216 fps
Extreme Spread: 52 fps
Standard Deviation: 21 fps

Browning 1895 25 3/8-inch barrel
Hornady .405 300-grain JSP
Screens 15 feet from the muzzle
(Competition Electronics Pro Chrono)

High: 2,222 fps
Low: 2,182 fps
Average: 2,197 fps
Extreme Spread: 40 fps
Standard Deviation: 15 fps

Notes: Groove diameter of the Winchester barrel is .411 inch. Most published accounts list the groove diameter as .413 to .414 inch, and the author's Douglas-barreled Browning is .413 inch. That no doubt accounts for the Browning's longer barrel length delivering slower velocity than the Winchester with the same lot of Hornady ammunition. Original Winchester ammunition uses .411-inch bullets. Ken Waters, in his book "Pet Loads," lists the groove diameter of his original Winchester .405 '95 as being .414 inch. The larger-diameter bore allows greater velocity with less chamber pressure without sacrificing accuracy.


The rifle s

ports a smooth, flat, shotgun-style buttplate, and, although the .405 is not uncomfortable to shoot from a standing position, the butt can be a little slippery during shouldering. Many will no doubt replace it with a recoil pad of some nature, if only to ensure the proper indexing of the butt to the shoulder. This isn't a rifle you want slipping off your shoulder when you squeeze the trigger. For the bench test I used a Kick-Eez pad that fits under the shirt, and it made shooting quite comfortable. The rifle weighs seven pounds, 15 ounces and is pleasantly hefty. Much of the weight is forward, not enough to move the balance point ahead of the magazine, but enough to steady the sights during an off-hand hold.

New with the rifle is the Hornady .405 ammunition, the first U.S.-made commercial ammo since the 1950s. The load is topped with a newly designed .411-inch 300-grain Hornady Interlock bullet (that is also available to handloaders) that travels at 2,225 fps. From our Winchester test rifle's 24-inch barrel, the loads chronographed an average of 2,216 fps, which is pretty darn close. Although early literature lists the .405 as having a .413-inch groove diameter, the new rifle's grooves measured .411 inch. And, although the Winchester catalog lists the twist as 1-turn-in-10 inches, ours measured 1-turn-in-14, which is the twist originally specified and the twist that Winchester has chosen for the production barrels.

The wood is American walnut, and it is coarsely checkered. The checkering is even, sharp and quite an aid in controlling the rifle. No sling swivels are provided. If a sling were desired, I'd recommend putting a barrelband swivel out in front of the fore-end. Otherwise, you might just get your left hand hammered by the swivel stud under recoil.

The sights are a buckhorn rear with a bead front. My aging eyes would benefit mightily from an aperture sight, but I would have been loath to drill and tap a loaner gun for a receiver sight. The tang, upon which the safety is mounted, precludes the use of a tang sight. Tang sights are of marginal use on a Model 95 anyway because the bolt travels so far to the rear that it'll tip over a tang sight during cycling. Since the 1895 is a top-eject rifle, a scope is nearly out of the question.

A custom rifle should be appropriately marked or it'll look just plain naked. The barrel address "Browning Bros. Ogden, Utah" could have appeared on a Browning rifle when the Winchester 1895 .405 originally debuted. The caliber marking is a copy of the way Winchester marked its .405s, and the tang's "Browning Model 95" paraphrases the way Winchester marked its tangs.

The good news is that as you read this, the first Model 38 Lyman receiver sights should be shipping from Buffalo Arms. The Model 38 is the windage-adjustable version of the Model 21 sight that the custom 1895 Browning sports later in this article.

Nonetheless, using the as-issued bead and buckhorn sights, I shot a respectable 3 1/4-inch three-shot group at 100 yards. Two of the three shots went into 1 1/8 inches. That was the pattern for several groups--two close and one wide. The trigger pull was 63⁄4 pounds and broke fairly crisply. There was a random amount of creepiness because the '95's trigger is mounted to the lever rather than the frame, but it's nonetheless a shootable trigger that shoots as well as any of the original Winchesters I've used. There were no malfunctions of any kind during the test. The Winchester fed the big roundnose straight cases well and flung the empties three feet behind the shooter. Out of the box, this rifle was ready to go hunting. Although a 3 1/4-inch group is nothing to brag about, this rifle would make meat every time if used within its practical range of about 150 yards.

Teddy Roosevelt's son, Kermit, drops a 70-pound leopard with his 1895 .405 Winchester in this sketch by Phillip Goodwin in TR's book, African Game Trails.

Despite the rebounding hammer and tang safety (which really only limits sighting options), Winchester's 1895 is a faithful, good-looking version of President Roosevelt's "Big Medicine" rifle. There's no game on this continent that would make a "retro" hunter feel undergunned. It should be just fine for the woods deer hunter, too. That big, .411-inch bullet should provide quite a blood trail--but I doubt that you'd have to track any well-hit animal very far.

I always wanted a '95 chambered in .405, but the originals are scarce and well beyond my means if in good shooting condition. The only way I was going to get one was to just make one. I considered rebarreling an original Winchester, but the ones that were cheap enough to warrant pulling apart usually weren't good candidates because of other flaws. When I found a great deal on a little-used secondhand Browning '95 in .30-40 Krag, I had my candidate. Here was the perfect rifle. It was made from good, modern steel and would require none of the extra metal work that some of the scabbier Winchesters would've needed. I was the buyer for a sporting goods store at the time and managed to talk a rookie in the Browning parts department into selling me a high-grade wood set (Browning does not sell wood upgrades for its commemorative rifles, so I lucked out). That gave me the idea to make the rifle into the model that I felt Browning should've made in the first place. I would add a few custom touches to it that would, hopefully, help make the gun one that the firm would be proud to have its name on.

The Lyman Model 21 receiver sight was a standard upgrade during the Winchester '95's original run. The Model 21 sight is drift adjustable for windage. Buffalo Arms is reproducing the Model 38 sight, which is a windage-adjustable version of the Model 21. It should be available in the spring of 2003. (Inset) The Browning front-sight base was retained and fitted with a .080-inch-thick steel Patridge blade in place of the factory bead.

Another big cherry was finding enough parts to put together a Model 21 Lyman receiver sight. The '95 doesn't lend itself well to many sighting systems, and that big, long Lyman sight just looks right on the '95. The last needed item was a barrel. The Douglas Barrel Co. offers long-chambered barrels in .405 Winchester, and that solved the chamber reamer problem, too. The parts were delivered to Kevin McCullough, who fitted them together and installed the Silvers recoil pad on the Browning wood as well. The original front-sight base was retained, but its bead-topped blade was replaced with a .080-inch steel Patridge blade.

Specifications: Winchester Model

Specifications: Winchester Model 1895 Maker:
Model: Lightning BLR
Action Type: Lever action
Caliber: .405 WCF
Barrel Length: 24 inches
Overall Length: 42 1/2 inches
Weight: 7 pounds, 15 ounces
Stock: American walnut, checkered
Finish: Blue
Sights: Buckhorn rear on barrel, bead front
Price: $1,045


After fitting the wood and hand-polishing the metal to 1,200 grit, the barreled action was sent to Dennis McDonald, who engraved the tang and barrel legends. I chose Browning Bros., Ogden, Utah for the barrel address, which is where the Browning firm was located at the time of the .405's introduction. The caliber was engraved on the barrel in Winchester's period style. The legend Browning Model 1895 was engraved on the tang. The barreled action was given to Jim Hoag of Hoag Gun Works, in Canoga Park, California, for a Browning-style black-oxide bluing. The sight was sent to Dan Cullity for charcoal bluing along with the screws, trigger and extractor for nitre bluing. I was advised against case-hardening the hammer by Don Menk of the Color Case Co., and that part was nitre blued as well. Menk felt that the steel in the Browning rifle was too good and that case-hardening that part would make it brittle. While the parts were off being blued, the stock's finish was removed with Brownells' CertiStrip, and I refinished it with Phil Pilkington's Oil Finish.

The one big mistake I made with this gun was in not glass-bedding the receiver and fore-end before finishing the wood and metal. I wanted it to appear to be a factory-type gun, and I've lived with it shooting 3 1/4-inch groups until recently. That was dumb. A custom rifle should shoot. When I read M.L. McPherson's book Tuning the Factory Rifle, I decided to give glass-bedding a try. I've done bolt-actions before, but lever guns are a different kettle of fish. In the future, I'll not try to glass-bed both tangs at once. I nearly glued the darn thing together, but it was worth it. Bedding the action and fore-end cut the average group size of 3 1/4 inches with my reloads to an average of 1 1/2 to two inches with the Kodiak and DKT bullets. The best group I've gotten is 1 1/8 inches at 100 yards. The Hornady ammo delivers 2 1/8-inch groups. Oddly, the Hornady ammo delivers the same type of group with my Browning as it did with the new Winchester--two close and one wide. Go figure. Still, that's about as well as I can shoot with iron sights and far better than the rifle has to shoot. But I'm glad that it does so.

Back when I built the Browning .405 the only brass available was from Bertram Brass, and the only bullets were made by DKT, although A-Square began making a .405 31⁄4-inch basic case soon after. Reloading data could be found in 1950s-era Lyman manuals, but the best work was--and still is, to my mind--by Ken Waters in his Pet Loads series for "Handloader" magazine. After trying several of his recommendations, I've settled on Reloder 7 as my favorite powder for reloading my .405. My goal was to achieve 2,250 fps in the Browning, and I did so quite handily with a load of 50.5 grains of Aliant Reloder 7 over a Winchester Large Rifle primer and a 300-grain DKT bullet. Reloading dies are offered by Hornady, RCBS and Redding.
There is a variety of good bullets in addition to the new .411-inch Hornady bullets, too. The DKT bullets, which measure .4115 inch, are now made and marketed by Buffalo Arms. Kodiak Bullets, measuring .412 inch, are a bonded-core bullet that should be the cat's meow for dangerous game and situations where deep penetration is required. All three brands weigh 300 grains and are roundnose style. The Hornady bullets are the most consistent, weighing an average of 299.75 grains, +or- .15 grain. Kodiak Bullets were next, averaging 302.14 grains, +or- 1.3 grains. DKT bullets weighed an average of 301.92 grains, +or- 1.45 grains. All averages were of five bullets weighed with a Hornady electronic scale. The brass used in the Hornady factory ammo has the necks annealed, and the average weight of a fired case is 211.2 grains dry and 290.8 grains filled with water. These new cases are a little heavier than the Bertram cases by about 7 percent. Because of the slightly thicker brass, the expander of my Redding dies wouldn't open up the necks enough to seat the DKT or Alaskan bullets, and I lost several precious cases trying to seat those bullets. The smaller .411-inch Hornady bullets seated fine, but I didn't have time to fix that expander button problem and returned to the Bertram Brass for the Kodiak loads.
Use caution when working up loads for the new Winchester. The groove diameter of the new Winchester barrel is .411 inch. My Douglas barrel's groove diameter is the .413 inch that is considered the norm. Hornady factory ammo chronographs slower out of my Browning with its 1 3/8-inch-longer barrel than from the Winchester. Since the majority of data out there is for older .413-inch barrels, you'll likely reach maximum pressure much sooner in the new rifles than you would in the older guns. The operating pressure of the .405 is around 44,000 CUP, so you can't use the primer as an indication of high pressure. Work up your loads slowly and carefully. This would be a good excuse to get a chronograph, if you don't have one. Don't work up your load with .411-inch Hornady and switch to the Kodiak or DKT bullets.
From the Dutch uncle department: If you're serious about the .405, buy yourself 200 or so cases and lay in a good stock of bullets. Because this big cartridge uses brass and bullets that aren't used for anything else, my gut feeling is that you'll need to hone your scrounging skills within the next few years if you don't stock up soon.


Although I've carried the Browning on a couple of hunting trips, I've yet to blood it. It's a situation I plan on remedying. It's proven it's an accurate bigbore rifle, and it's about time it put some meat on the table rather than just sitting around and looking pretty.

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