January 30, 2023
By Layne Simpson
Arthur W. Savage is best known as the originator of one of our finest lever-action sporting rifles. Virtually forgotten today was his burning desire to become a supplier of rifles to the United States military. His efforts began in 1890 with the submission of two .30 caliber rifles of lever-action, rotary-magazine design for testing at the U.S. Army military base on Governors Island, New York.
They were described as “revolving cylinder” weapons with a cartridge capacity of nine rounds and weighing 10.25 pounds. The musket-style stock was of two-piece design with the fore-end extending almost to the muzzle of a 28-inch barrel. Unfortunately for Savage, his rifle was rejected in favor of the Model 1892 Krag-Jorgensen. While it failed as a military rifle, the Savage design went on to great success among American hunters, first as the Model 1895 and later as the Model 1899.
The second opportunity for Savage to submit a rifle for testing by the U.S. military came around 1916, a couple of years after Germany declared war on Russia and France and invaded Belgium. Even though the U.S. government had declared a policy of neutrality, U.S. military leaders saw a different handwriting on the wall as the stockpile of 1903 Springfield rifles was uncomfortably low. When the first U.S expeditionary force led by Gen. John J. Pershing arrived on the Western Front during summer of 1918, it became obvious that the production of Springfield rifles at the Rock Island Armory and the Springfield Armory could not meet the demand of an extended involvement in the war. And so the search was on for a supplementary supplier of rifles.
Bolt-action rifles submitted by Savage for testing were chambered for the .30-06 cartridge, and from a distance they appeared to be slightly modified versions of the 1903 Springfield. Closer examination revealed an action more like that of the 1898 Mauser. Poor old Arthur struck out again when the U.S. military ignored his entry and adopted the 1917 Enfield instead. Undaunted, Savage shortened the action 1.25 inches for his .250-3000 and .300 Savage cartridges and during 1920 introduced the Model 1920 rifle in an advertisement in Arms and the Man (forerunner of American Rifleman) as “The rifle you have always wanted.”
Lightweight for the Day
Considerably lighter than the Model 30 bolt action introduced by Remington during the same year, its future seemed bright. Firearms writer Townsend Whelen opined that the Model 1920 would easily become the most popular rifle in America for medium-game shooting. Jack O’Connor, who was a fan of the .250 Savage cartridge, wrote that the light weight, handiness and accuracy of the little rifle more than made up for its few faults.
Designed by Charles Nelson, who was the chief engineer at Savage, the Model 1920 was America’s first lightweight mountain rifle. The action weighs 39.5 ounces—about 10 ounces less than the action of the Remington Model 30. Additional weight was removed by giving the rifle a thin, 22-inch barrel (24 inches in .300 Savage) and a trim yet man-size, oil-finished stock of English walnut. The stock was given nicely executed yet rather coarse 16-line checkering and an extremely thin Schnabel fore-end. The front sling swivel reaches through the bottom of the fore-end and attaches to a steel barrel band. The original steel buttplate on my rifle was replaced with a thin Pachmayr rubber pad by a previous owner.
My Model 20 in .250-3000 Savage weighs six pounds, and its four-digit serial number indicates it was built in 1921. Like all early Savage rifles chambered for that cartridge, its barrel has a 1:14 rifling twist rate. In those days, Savage was in the ammunition business and initially loaded an 87-grain spitzer in the .250 Savage. A 100-grain bullet at 2,820 fps was added around 1925, and due to its roundnose profile, it was adequately stabilized by the 1:14 twist. The company ceased offering ammunition at the beginning of World War II, leaving owners of Savage rifles chambered for the .250 cartridge with no 100-grain option. Winchester, Remington and other companies eventually started loading the ammunition with 87- and 100-grain bullets, but the pointed shape of the latter made them longer than the bullet of the same weight once offered by Savage, and accuracy in Savage rifles was often poor.
The Model 20 action is basically a modified version of the 1898 Mauser action. A bracket-style recoil lug sandwiched between the front of the receiver and a shoulder on the barrel is similar to the one used many years later by Remington on the Model 721/722 and Model 700 rifles, but it was machined rather than blanked, and a large pin held it firmly against the face of the receiver. Its bottom was drilled and tapped for the front action bolt. An uncommonly large-diameter receiver ring encloses the front of the bolt with a thick layer of steel. The swing-over safety of the Mauser was replaced by a two-position, shotgun-style sliding safety attached to an extension of the receiver tang. Pulling the safety to the rear blocks sear movement and prevents bolt rotation. In lieu of a safety lug as on the Mauser bolt, an L-shaped slot was machined through the top of the receiver ring for both the passage of and the rotation of the bolt handle. A wall of metal left standing behind the bolt handle serves as a safety shoulder. The fact that the Model 20 was introduced during the days of iron sights made that a satisfactory arrangement, but it would have been quite unpopular if telescopic sights had been in common use.
As was typical of most rifles designed in those days, the bolt is a one-piece forging with the bolt handle integral with the body of the bolt rather than attached. Dual-opposed locking lugs at the front are actually a bit larger than on the 1898 Mauser. The left lug is slotted for passage of an impact-style pivoting ejector blade located in the left-hand side of the receiver bridge. Except for reaching only about halfway back on the body of the bolt, the non-rotating, claw-style extractor is pure Mauser.
The firing pin is of one-piece design, and it has a cocking knob much like that on the 1903 Springfield. Factory ammunition in those days could be unreliable, and in the event of a misfire a quick tug on the knob cocked the firing pin for a second strike on the primer. Two vertical shoulders formed into the side walls of the five-round steel magazine box make for smooth upward movement of cartridges, with the front shoulder also preventing cartridges from moving forward enough during recoil to strike the soft noses of their bullets against the front of the magazine. A long piece of sheet steel was machine-stamped to form the trigger guard and to serve as a magazine cover. This was long before the appearance of the hinged magazine floorplate on sporting rifles, and it is basically the same as on the Remington Model 30 and the later Winchester Model 54 rifles.
The trigger is quite poor when compared to the trigger of my Remington Model 30. First comes a mushy first stage followed by an extremely heavy second stage just prior to the break. Even so, group sizes fired with the rifle are about the same as for the Remington. Holding down the trigger while retracting the bolt allows it to be removed from the receiver. The Model 20 came with an elevator-adjustable rear sight and a Marble’s Sheard blade with a brass insert up front. A Lyman No. 54 aperture sight attached to the bolt sleeve was an extra-cost option. When that sight was installed, the slot dovetailed in the barrel for an open sight was filled with a steel blank. The Lyman sight has micrometer-style windage and elevation adjustments with a large aperture used when hunting and a smaller aperture that can be hinged upward for target shooting. Through the decades I have used the rifle to take several deer and numerous feral pigs, and I give the sights on the rifle an excellent rating.
As pointed bullets go, my rifle delivers its best accuracy with those weighing no heavier than 87 grains, with the Speer bullet of that weight being quite deadly on deer. The rifle also likes the Hornady 75-grain V-Max, although it is best used on varmints. Back when Remington sold reloading components, I squirreled away a box of 100-grain roundnose Core-Lokt bullets made for the .257 Roberts. When pushed from the Model 20 rifle at 2,800 fps, it is my favorite when hunting woods-dwelling whitetails. That bullet is 0.870 inch long, or only slightly longer than 87-grain spitzers. In 1925, the barrel of the Model 20 was given a heavier contour and the stock was also beefed up. Savage described it as “an improved version,” and it was about a half-pound heavier. I owned one in .300 Savage for several years and eventually sold it because I much prefer the original version. I’ll conclude with one of my favorite rifle stories. During the late 1960s and on into the ’70s, I searched for a Model 1920 in .250 Savage to add to my modest collection of classic sporting rifles. Several were located, but not a single one was in the condition I desired.
My wonderful wife, Phyllis, who is a good shot and has long had a fondness for firearms, was aware of that fruitless search. A long search ended finally in October 1979 when I spotted just the rifle I was looking for in Shotgun News. A couple of weeks later it had a new home. Anxious for Phyllis to see it, I invited her to assist me in ripping open the package. After a short examination, she turned to me and said, “This is exactly like the rifle I bought for you back in the summer for a surprise Christmas present.” Even though I spoiled the Christmas of 1979, this story had a happy ending, and I was able to return the rifle I had purchased for a full refund. The rifle I kept is featured in this report.