June 10, 2020
Back in the day, store-brand guns were pretty common. They were essentially an established model by an established maker—say Winchester, Stevens or Marlin —marketed by a large appliance chain store like Sears, Montgomery Ward or Western Auto Supply. My old shooting buddy Jeff John has a Western Auto Supply “Revelation” lever-action .30-30, which happens to be a re-branded Marlin 336. He’ll never sell it (and he’s had crazy offers). I think he just enjoys the reverse-snobbery appeal of the brand name.
But I’ve got one that’s a real sleeper. It was my dad’s old deer rifle, a J.C. Higgins Model 50 in .270 Win. He got it in the early 1950s through the simple expedient of going to the local Sears, Roebuck. At the time it was nearly $100 cheaper than the “gold standard” Winchester Model 70. And as much as my dad loved the idea of a Winchester, that difference represented tall dollars for a World War II Marine vet starting a family yet trying to sneak in a bit of deer hunting on weekends.
As to the rifle itself, it’s a no-frills item built on a Belgian FN Model 98 Mauser action with a 22-inch chrome-lined barrel courtesy of High Standard. The unscoped weight is around eight pounds. The only other caliber it was ever offered in besides .270 was, naturally, .30-06.
When I became older and more brand snobby, I asked Dad about the rifle. He seemed kind of apologetic about it at first, then not so much at all. At first he may have been intimidated by the competition, but that was until he’d actually shot what he had. And in that respect, the J.C. Higgins Model 50—no sexy brand name, no checkering, no fancy anything—had proven itself on paper and on mule deer.
I’d used it to take my first buck in 1966—a running shot at less than 100 yards, which really didn’t give me a chance to appreciate the long-range virtues of the .270. A day or so later, I saw my dad take his buck at just over 250 yards, which pretty much sold me on the rifle and cartridge.
Dad had originally bought the rifle unscoped, then stuck a 4X Weaver in Weaver mounts on it. Sometime in the mid-1980s, I decided to tart the old rifle up a bit for Dad’s Christmas present. I replaced the now-battered K4 with a sleek Bausch & Lomb 1.5-6X variable in two-piece Redfield mounts. The variable factor was a nice touch, but unnecessary. Dad would never crank the thing above or below 4X anyway.
The major selling point on the new scope was a duplex reticle, which was a lot easier for him to pick up than the Weaver’s original semi-fine crosshair. To go with the scope, I got him a set of Butler Creek Flip-Up lens covers. Prior to that, he’d used strips of old tire inner tubes that could be flipped off (and lost) like a large rubber band. Finally, I replaced the petrified original recoil pad with a nice new Pachmayr.
In 1999, a year or so after Dad passed, I took the Model 50 out to the range along with a box of the only ammo we ever used in it: Remington 130-grain Bronze Points. There I managed to pull off the best three-shot, 100-yard group I ever got with a “serious” caliber sporter—just under half an inch, three inches high and dead-on windage-wise.
Twenty years later I took the rifle out to the range again for the first time since then. I hadn’t shot it or fiddled with the scope settings in 20 years. Superstitious about the rifle’s apparent Remington-ammo bias, I took along a box of Nosler Ballistic Tips in addition to the Bronze Points.
Both loads were on the nose at 100 yards (not a couple inches high), so things had changed a bit, but not enough to make much of a real-world difference at real-world ranges. The Ballistic Tips shot tighter than the Bronze Points, just a hair under an inch. Any difference, of course, was likely due to the fact that my eyeballs were two decades older.
The trigger was as I remembered, about 3.5 pounds with a slight bit of creep. One embarrassing moment: For the last couple decades my bolt-action adventures have been primarily with push-feed guns—Remingtons, first-generation Ruger 77s, Savages and so on. Forgetting I was dealing with an honest-to-God, claw-extractor, controlled-round-feed Model 98 action once more, I tried single loading it and wound up having to use a cleaning rod to knock the round out from the muzzle. “From the magazine…from the magazine,” I had to tell myself from then on.
Naturally, like all of a traditionalist’s favorite firearms, the Model 50 wasn’t made forever. It was replaced by the Model 51, built on both Husqvarna and FN actions, and the Model 52 on the Sako action.
Sears’ J.C. Higgins line began in 1908 and ended in 1962, giving way to the Ted Williams line. Any baseball fan worthy of the name can tell you who Ted was, but relatively few know much about J.C. Higgins, a previously obscure Sears employee. Why his elevation to sporting-goods immortality? Some sharp Sears marketing guy thought the guy’s name sounded “outdoorsy.”
What with inflation—not to mention a plethora of various super-accurate budget rifles at big-box chain stores today—it’s easy to dismiss the Model 50’s modest-at-the-time price tag: around $90 bucks near the end of its run. But by anyone’s reckoning, this economical store-brand rifle would cost a lot to build today.
The old cliché “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” fits the J.C. Higgins Model 50 to a T.