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The Great Winchester 88 Lever-Action Rifle: Full Review

This classic Winchester had an impressive 20-year run and is still a coveted rifle today.

The Great Winchester 88 Lever-Action Rifle: Full Review

The Great Winchester 88 Lever-Action Rifle: Full Review (Handguns Photo)

Winchester advertisements in 1955 for the new Model 88 described it as the bolt-action rifle with a lever. It was a play on three rotating locking lugs at the front of the bolt that engaged shoulders machined into the steel receiver. The front-locking design virtually eliminated momentary bolt compression and receiver stretch during firing, as rear-locking actions made by Winchester, Marlin and Savage experienced.

Upfront breech locking was a first in Winchester lever-action centerfire rifles, but the idea was not exactly new among modern sporting firearms, as it had appeared on the Model 760 slide action introduced by Remington in 1951. The Model 88 was priced at $136 versus $104 for the Model 760, $69 for the Winchester Model 94 and $112 for the Savage Model 99. At the time, the Remington rifle in .270 Win., .280 Rem. and .30-06 had a huge following among hunters, and Winchester had not offered a quick-shooting rifle capable of handling the .30-06 since production of the Model 1895 ended in 1931. The time had come to catch up with the competition, and since the shorter .308 Win. was almost as good as the .30-06 and a better fit in the plans of Winchester design engineers, it was chosen for the Model 88. The .243 Win. was added in 1956.

Winchester 88 Rifle
As Winchester lever-action rifles go, the Model 88 is quite sleek, and the solid-top receiver allows low mounting of a scope. Spent case ejection is to the right rather than up into the sky. (RifleShooter photo)

The .308 Win. and .243 Win. were excellent choices for the Model 88, but a .308 case necked down for 7mm bullets fell short of .280 Rem. performance. And since the Model 88 could not handle anything longer than the .308 Win., the decision was made to go wider. Giving the new .284 Win. a rebated rim of the same diameter as the .308 simplified rifle production, and designing it with a body diameter only slightly smaller than the .300 Win. Mag. allowed the new cartridge to hold enough powder to match the velocities of the .270 Win. and .280 Rem. The .284 was added to the Model 88 in 1963.

One more gap was ultimately filled. In a hunting world replete with rifles wearing telescopic sights, sales of the grand old Model 71 lever action in .348 Win. had really dropped off. With plans to cease the Model 71’s production in 1957, Winchester necked up the .308 case for 0.358-inch bullets and introduced the .358 Win. in the Model 88 in 1956. Advertised velocities for 250-grain bullets were 2,350 fps for the .348 and 2,250 fps for the .358. They were actually closer because in real life, as the .348 seldom reached 2,300 fps with a bullet of that weight. Moving on to deer bullets weighing 200 grains, claimed velocities were 2,350 fps for the .348 and 2,530 fps for the .358.

Bullets in the .348 have tube-magazine-friendly flat-nose profiles, but the box magazine of the Model 88 made it possible to load the .358 with pointed bullets for delivery of about 20 percent more energy downrange. I have hunted a great deal with the Model 71 and the Model 88, and I still have both. In addition to being a bit more accurate, the Model 88 is better suited to wearing a telescopic sight. The Model 71 has a better trigger, and with a Williams aperture sight attached to its receiver, it is an honest 250-yard deer, elk and moose rifle.


Compared to other Winchester lever-action rifles with open-top receivers, the receiver of the Model 88 does a better job of enclosing internal parts. That, along with a close fit between the body of the bolt and all edges of the ejection port, pretty much eliminates the entry of mud, snow and debris while in the field. And except for the angle-eject version of the Model 94, other Winchesters eject fired cases toward the sky. The Model 88 flings them to the right, allowing the low mounting of a scope. The side of the receiver is also drilled and tapped for aperture-style sights made by Lyman and Williams.

Winchester 88 Rifle Triggerguard
The Model 88 allows the shooter’s finger to remain inside the trigger guard while cycling the action without pinching the finger or snagging a glove. (RifleShooter photo)

The 22-inch barrel of the Model 88 has the same contour as introduced on the Winchester Model 70 Featherweight in 1952, and with a muzzle diameter of 0.560 inch, it is quite thin. Rifling twist rates are 1:10 for the .243 Win. and .284 Win. and 1:12 for the .308 Win. and .358 Win. Sights consist of a folding Lyman No. 16A at the rear and a ramped gold bead with a detachable hood up front. The rear sight is adjustable for elevation, but for windage it has to be drifted in its dovetail in the barrel. Just as most rifles used to be, the barrel is screwed into the receiver. 
The Model 88 was given a one-piece stock of American black walnut. It has a steel grip cap, a hard-rubber buttplate and sling swivels at the front and rear. The stock and curved grip have good coverage of checkering, hand-cut at 20 lines per inch. The barreled action and the stock are held together by a screw that reaches through the fore-end and into a threaded stud dovetailed to the bottom of the barrel. Rather than having a recoil lug at the front, the rear of the receiver rests firmly against a steel part in the stock that’s described by Winchester as a recoil block.

Box Magazine

Winchester 88 Rifle
The Model 88 employed a detachable magazine capable of holding four cartridges for rounds like the .358 Win., which was introduced in the 88. (RifleShooter photo)

The steel detachable box magazine holds four rounds (three in .284), and pressing its latch causes it to spring into the hand. A deeply recessed latch is not likely to be bumped against a metal pack frame or something else during a hunt. The Model 88 has a shortened lever stroke of 60 degrees, and like Winchester lever actions of other designs, the lever remains latched firmly in place as the rifle is carried. On the Model 1873, a rotating latch just behind the lever serves that purpose while the latch on the Model 1894 is internal. 
That cat is skinned a different way in the Model 88. The finger loop section of its operating lever is hinged just behind its trigger guard, and a slight forward movement of the lever disengages an internal latch. The entire assembly including the lever, trigger, trigger guard and safety button is then free to move forward to cycle the bolt. The design allows the shooter’s finger to remain safely inside the trigger guard as the action is being cycled without experiencing a pinched finger or snagged glove. Should the trigger be held back as the lever is closed, an internal disconnect prevents the rifle from firing. Releasing and then pulling the trigger fires the rifle.

Due to the rather elaborate mechanical linkage, the action does not cycle as smoothly as other Winchester lever actions, but eventual wear along with the occasional application of Tetra Gun lubricant keeps it operating smoothly enough to get off a second shot before that whitetail buck of a lifetime disappears into thick brush. 
The effort expended by Winchester engineers in coming up with a design that allowed the shooter to keep his or her finger inside the trigger guard during cycling was wasted on me. I learned at an early age to keep my finger outside the trigger guard when cycling a lever-action rifle. It became an ingrained habit that happens without me thinking about it—even when hunting with a Model 88. A Model 88 carbine with a 19-inch barrel was introduced in 1968. Its stock has no checkering, and for reasons known only to Winchester’s decision-makers, it was given a steel barrel band at the front of its fore-end. The carbine version cost $10 less than the rifle and was a quarter-pound lighter.

Winchester 88 Production

The carbine was never offered in .358, but it was available in .243, .284 and .308. Production numbers for the .243 and .308 were virtually the same while a bit less than 25 percent were in .284 Win. The carbine sold reasonably well, and when it was discontinued in 1972, 28,330 had been built. In 1964, Winchester made the decision to cheapen its line of firearms in both quality and appearance, but the Model 88 escaped with only one change. Cut checkering on its stock was replaced with impressed checkering applied to the walnut by heat and pressure. From a distance, it didn’t look bad, but a close examination revealed diamonds pointing inward rather than outward.

Winchester 88 Rifle

Otherwise, the Model 88 remained pretty much the same during its entire production life. The stocks of rifles in .358 Win. never had impressed checkering because that chambering was dropped in 1962. The only rifles in .284 Win. to receive cut checkering were those built in 1963, the first year of production for that chambering. When the Model 88 was introduced, the Savage Model 99 had already been dropping game for more than a half-century of hunting seasons, and that along with its lower price represented stiff competition. Sako introduced the Finnwolf in .243 Win. and .308 Win. in 1963, but it sold for $236 while a Model 88 could be bought for $92 less—about the cost of a Redfield Bear Cub 4X scope, a Redfield mount and three boxes of ammunition.

The Browning BLR in .243 Win. and .308 Win.—which had rack-and-pinion cycling similar to that of the Sako Finnwolf—was announced around 1967, but it did not begin arriving from Japan until 1971. Unlike the Winchester 88, which was discontinued in 1973, the Browning is still being produced in a variety of calibers. As with all the old Winchester rifles, there is great deal of collector interest in the Model 88, and a must-have book for collectors is Doug Murray’s The Eighty-Eight. While quite scarce today, internet searches will sometimes turn one up. Doug sent a copy to me soon after it was published in 1982, and it has been an invaluable tool when researching various Model 88s I have owned through the years.


According to the book, of approximately 283,879 rifles and carbines built by Winchester from 1955 to 1973, nearly half were in .308 Win., about a third were in .243 Win., 15 percent were in .284 Win. and slightly less were in .358 Win. I have hunted with Model 88s in all of its four calibers, and the .358 I still have was made in 1961.


The loads shown here are safe only in the guns for which they were developed. Neither the author nor Outdoor Sportsman Group assumes any liability for accidents or injury resulting from the use or misuse of this data. Shooting reloads may void any warranty on your firearm. 

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