September 25, 2023
It would be belaboring the obvious to refer to Winchester’s Model 70 as a tough act to follow. But it must have been even a tougher act to precede, although this admittedly bass-ackwards observation may be a touch unfair. What came immediately prior to the Model 70, the Model 54, was—and still is—a good rifle in its own right.
Although certainly overshadowed and outproduced by the iconic Model 70, the Model 54 had a lot more going for it than its also-ran status might indicate.
“The Model 54 is a key bolt action, since it was the firm’s first big-bore firing high-velocity cartridges capable of taking big game and for use in so-called big bore matches,” wrote R.L. Wilson in Winchester: An American Legend.
The Model 54’s run lasted from 1925 to 1936. A total of 50,145 were made before the Model 70 hit the market in January 1937. There were several variants of the Model 54 offered during its production run. They included the sporter (24-inch barrel), sporting sniper’s rifle (26-inch heavy barrel) and carbine (20-inch barrel)—plus “improved” versions of the sporter and carbine. Super Grade and National Match versions were offered as well.
The specimen I got my hands on was a standard-grade carbine in .270, courtesy of my shooting buddy and auction-fiend Doug Fee. One of the changes incorporated into the later Model 70 was a bolt handle design that worked better with scopes—as the Model 54 came before the widespread use of optics—but this sample came with a period-perfect setup: a one-inch 2.5X Weaver 330 with Stith mounts.
The walnut stock was bereft of checkering, the only embellishment being the fore-end groove. Unlike its successor, the Model 54 featured a fixed floorplate. The trigger guard was stamped steel, which would become a forged piece on the Model 70.
According to David P. Bichrest’s Winchester Model 54 Bolt Action Rifle 1925-1936, the carbine was offered from 1927 to 1936 in .30-06, .270, .30 WCF, 7x57 Mauser, 7.65 Mauser, 9mm Mauser and .250-3000 Savage.
Although the .270 is reflexively associated with Jack O’Connor and his iconic Model 70, it was also a staple chambering of the Model 54. In fact, the cartridge was introduced in the same year as the rifle.
Since the .270’s major claim to fame was and is velocity, I was curious as to any effect a 20-inch barrel would have. Hornady Custom 130-grain SST InterLock—rated at 3,060 fps from a 24-inch barrel—still managed a respectable 2,945 fps from the 20-inch carbine. That equates to just under 29 fps per lost inch.
The gun has a two-stage trigger with a fairly long take-up on the first half, but the finale was a crisp three-pound break. Accuracy was, well, adequate at 100 yards.
According to the current Blue Book of Gun Values, a standard Model 54 Carbine in 100 percent condition is worth $1,825, with rare chamberings costing more. The improved version commands about $500 over that. Today, the value of the sporter Model 54 rifle in 100 percent condition goes for a couple hundred bucks less than the carbine, but the sporting sniper can sell for more than $3,000 and the super grade nearly $4,000.
Given a choice, most of us would probably opt for a vintage Model 70 over the Model 54. But the Model 54 carbine is a pretty nice item and certainly worth picking up if the price is right.