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Return of the King

Return of the King

Once known as the 'Rifleman's Rifle,' Winchester's Model 70 is back.

After a two-year hiatus, the Winchester Model 70 rifle will return to the American firearms marketplace in June, when Winchester Repeating Arms begins shipping the first of a new generation of Model 70s manufactured at the FNH USA factory in Columbia, South Carolina. The patience of the Model 70's legion of loyal, long-suffering fans will finally be rewarded.

These new-production, American-made Model 70s embody all of the classic features that made the original Model 70 such a highly regarded product in the first place, plus the best of today's most advanced engineering quality and manufacturing techniques. For the first time in over a generation, the Model 70 will once again be worthy of the sobriquet by which it was once and for so long known: the "Rifleman's Rifle."

This new Model 70 series will initially be available in four versions. The conventionally styled Sporter Deluxe model features a satin-finished walnut stock with cut checkering on fore-end and pistol grip, and a cheekpiece buttstock. The Featherweight Deluxe has the previous Featherweight series' familiar angled-comb satin-finish no-cheekpiece walnut stock with cut checkering and Schnabel fore-end.

The Extreme Weather SS features a stainless-steel, fluted-barrel action with a textured, matte-surface Bell and Carlson composite stock. Chamberings for these three versions range from .243 Winchester to .300 Winchester Magnum (including three WSM chamberings), depending on specific model.

The fourth, top-of-the-line Super Grade version will be offered only in .30-06 Springfield and .300 Winchester Magnum and will feature a fancy-grade, cut-checkered walnut stock with engraved steel stock crossbolt, contrasting black fore-end tip and pistol grip cap, and a sculpted shadow-line cheekpiece.

All versions feature Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pads for all chamberings. Recommended retail prices run from $999 to $1,199 depending on version and chambering.


So why this rifle, and why now? When Winchester Firearms shut down its New Haven, Connecticut, manufacturing facility in March 2006 (after 140 years of continuous operation), it announced no new plans for continued production of the Winchester Model 70, Winchester Model 94 or other classic firearms manufactured there--and so threw a considerable sector of the rifle-shooting world into something of a tizzy.In retrospect, no one should have been so worried. The New Haven factory had been a millstone around the neck of everyone who had owned it since the end of World War II, due to antiquated manufacturing equipment, non-competitive production costs, erratic quality control and a tough local labor union.

This was a primary reason Olin Corporation shut down its Winchester firearms business in 1981 and sold the factory to the U.S. Repeating Arms Company (a consortium of its former New Haven employees), whom it licensed to continue making guns there under the Winchester label. Nothing really improved, so USRAC itself went bankrupt in 1989 and was taken over by FNH (Fabrique Nationale Herstal), which also owns Browning Arms.

Quality problems with the New Haven production continued, the reputation of New Haven-made guns continued to slip, and so, as the date of expiration of FNH's license to use the Winchester label approached, FNH decided to finally shut it down.

It's also clear (now) that FNH already had its plans in place for the next step and was merely making as graceful an exit as possible from the New Haven situation and waiting for the dust to settle. After all, with FNH USA already offering a line of precision long-range tactical rifles based on the classic Model 70 action--made in the USA at its state-of-the-art ISO 9001 firearms factory in South Carolina (see September/October 2007 Rifle Shooter)--it should be no surprise to anybody that barely 18 months later there's a new FNH/Winchester licensing agreement in place and a whole new generation of commercial sporting-configuration Model 70s ready to roll.

The M.O.A. Trigger System's pull weight is user-adjustable from three to five pounds. It exhibits little to no takeup, creep or overtravel.

In fact, this new generation is really a return to the classic pre-64 Model 70 design that made the rifle so famous in the first place--with some much-needed modern refinements and quality standards. The first, and most important refinement, is a completely new M.O.A. Trigger System, which Winchester claims is "the most precise three-lever trigger system ever offered to sportsmen."

Operating on a simple pivoting lever principle, the trigger mechanism has been completely redesigned for zero takeup, virtually zero creep and perceptibly zero overtravel. The pull weight is user-adjustable from three to five pounds and is factory-set at 33„4 pounds. Because of the smooth, wider-than-typical trigger surface and 2:1 mechanical advantage created by the design geometry, it feels substantially less.

The actual trigger, called the "trigger piece" by Winchester, is a lever that bears against a pivoting "actuator" that supports the sear, which in turn retains the firing pin. As the trigger pushes against the actuator, the actuator is moved out of engagement with the sear, which then drops, allowing the firing pin to travel forward.

One benefit of this design is that there is zero takeup (i.e., no slack) in the system. Likewise, while there is a necessary amount of trigger movement (creep) while the actuator is pushed the distance to the point where the sear drops free, it is so slight as to be virtually imperceptible.

The overtravel adjustment screw allows you to control the amount of trigger movement and can be backed off to stop at just the exact point when the sear breaks free from the actuator--thereby eliminating perceptible overtravel.

This is a remarkably efficient and clean design, better than the vast majority of custom aftermarket triggers now available, and it's housed in a solid steel framework that makes tampering with the internal parts' engagement impossible, except for what is accessible via the two external adjustment screws. It's the trigger we all wish the Model 70 had always had.

In addition, we're seeing im-proved fit and finish in these new Model 70s, compared to recent New Haven production, as well as the classic pre-64 controlled-round feeding mechanism and blade-type

ejector to allow full control when ejecting a fired case.

When pulling the bolt back slowly, the empty case pops out gently, which is perfect for target shooters and varminters. Pulling the bolt back rapidly causes the empty case to clear the port with greater force. The blade-type ejector helps to eliminate short-stroking malfunctions.

The classic Model 70 three-position safety has also been improved, eliminating the "sticking point" in the middle of the three-position movement that has afflicted recent-years' Model 70 versions.

With the safety fully engaged, the firing pin is moved out of contact with the sear, as in the previous version. However, in the current refinement, the firing pin needs to travel less to separate from the sear. Because the swing of the three-position safety is the same as it was before, and it is moving the firing pin less, it operates with greater mechanical advantage in its stroke, causing the operation to feel smoother.

Convenient to operate with the thumb of either firing hand, the Model 70 safety lifts the firing pin away from the sear. When the safety selector is in the middle position, the action can still be operated, allowing unfired cartridges to be cycled with the safety on.

The Model 70's standard-setting three-position safety remains, although new refinements make it smoother to operate.

Stock bedding on the new Model 70s barreled actions has also been improved. The barrels are free-floated on all four versions. The synthetic stock Extreme Weather SS version features a full-length skeletal aluminum bedding block that is integrally molded into the stock during its manufacture.

The wood-stocked versions feature solid epoxy-reinforced precise individual bedding for the Model 70's flat-bottomed receiver with integral recoil lug, which has always been one of the Model 70's best features.

Model 70 barrels are cold hammer-forged, a process by which a billet of steel is molded around a mandrel by being stuck by a series of massive hammers. The mandrel has the rifling pattern on it, and during the hammering process the lands and grooves are impressed into the interior surface of the barrel. The barrel is threaded, target crowned and installed on the receiver, and the chamber is reamed and the bolt is headspaced.

The result is a Winchester guarantee of one-m.o.a. accuracy for three-shot groups for the new Model 70s, "using properly managed barrel, quality match ammo and superior optics under ideal weather and range conditions."

Truth be told, I've never before been interested in the Winchester Model 70 all that much because, as legendary firearms authority Col. Townsend Whelen famously put it, "Only accurate rifles are interesting."

Now before you join the mob of outraged Model 70 enthusiasts who are doubtless about to descend on my house with torches and pitchforks, let me explain.

The very first Model 70 I ever handled or laid eyes on was in 1964, new in a local gun shop. I'd just turned 18 and was looking for my first centerfire rifle to buy legally on my own. I didn't know anything about pre-'64 or anything. All I knew was that the Model 70 .30-06 rifle on the rack looked and felt cheap, with pressed-in checkering, a grungy metal finish and a cruddy trigger pull.

The Remington Model 700 ADL .30-06 on the rack beside it had better wood, a better metal finish, a better trigger pull and cost about the same. I bought the Model 700. It shot just fine, and I was a Remington guy from there on.

Later, after I became a professional outdoor writer, I was assigned to review various Winchester Model 70s at various times, particularly in recent years, and nothing I encountered in the final era of New Haven-production Model 70s ever gave me reason to change my mind.

By and large, I never found a Model 70 that had as good a trigger or shot as well as any number of comparably priced bolt-action rifles from competing manufacturers. I confess I never really understood why so many people, particularly older shooters, seemed so passionate about the Model 70.

Well, now I do. If the current new-generation Model 70s are any true indication of what the original pre-64 Model 70s were really like--plus the addition of the new M.O.A. trigger and other refinements--I could easily become a Model 70 enthusiast myself.

I got a call from Winchester asking if I'd like to try one of the new Standard Deluxe .30-06 versions on a late-season Texas whitetail hunt last December, and I thought, well, I'll find out if they've actually done what they say they've done.

It was the "Rifleman's Rifle," revered by generations of American hunters, and its loss was deeply felt by many. Now it's back, but whether it will be successful is anyone's guess.

The gun was waiting at Key Hole Outdoors outfitters near Brady with a Cabela's Premium Alaska Guide 4-12X scope mounted and bore-sighted. On first examination, everything about the rifle was as advertised, particularly the trigger pull, which was as crisp, light, and crawl-free as all the literature claimed, with zero overtravel. Fit and finish were impeccable, and the bolt-action's controlled-feed mechanism was a smooth as silk.

The hunt ammunition was Winchester's new .30-06 Supreme 180-grain lead-free E-Tip load, featuring Nosler's patented solid gilding-metal rapid-expansion bullet, rated at 95 percent weight retention. Sighting in, I verified the factory's preliminary bore-sighting was close to point of aim at 50 yards, then fired three rounds for a group at 100 yards. It measured 0.83 inches--under the one m.o.a. promise.

I made a field adjustment to the Cabela's scope to print one inch high at 100 yards, which would give me about a 150-yard zero, which was what the outfitter recommended for the Texas mesquite-brush terrain we were hunting. I fired another two 100-yard rounds that printed just an inch high, less than a half-inch apart, telling me that the scope's adjustments were true and that the new Model 70 rifle was definitely a minute-of-angle gun.

A 10-point buck made the mistake of standing chest-on facing me at 88 yards for a curious moment the next evening, and he also learned about the performance of the new Model 70 and the Winchester E-Tip ammunition, to his chagrin. He went down on the spot, and we recovered the fully upset and nearly intact bullet from his r

ear ham after 30 inches of full-length penetration.

There are three things required for an accurate rifle: barrel, bedding and trigger. The new, still-American-made Winchester Model 70 has them all, plus all the styling and mystique that made the original Model 70 of 1935 the "Rifleman's Rifle" in the first place. It's about time.

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