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Classic Winchester Model 54 Bolt-Action Rifle: Historical Review

The Winchester Model 54 was the company's first successful bolt-action rifle and laid the groundwork for the famed Model 70.

Classic Winchester Model 54 Bolt-Action Rifle: Historical Review

Classic Winchester Model 54 Bolt-Action Rifle (RifleShooter photo)

The first bolt-action centerfire repeater introduced by Winchester was the Model 1883 Hotchkiss. A rear-loaded tubular magazine housed in the buttstock held six .45-70 Gov’t or .40-65 Hotchkiss cartridges. Back then, lever-action rifles ruled the roost among hunters, and only a small number of Model 1883 bolt actions were built before production ceased in 1899. Winchester also introduced military and sporting versions of the Lee straight-pull rifle in 6mm Lee, and while the U.S. Navy purchased a few Lee straight-pulls, hunters ignored it like they did the 1883 Hotchkiss, and Winchester ended Lee production during the early 1900s.

Moving forward to World War I, Winchester and Remington built more than 2.25 million 1917 Enfield rifles in .30-06 for the U.S. Government. With the sudden cancellation of contracts in 1918, both companies were stuck with tons of parts in various stages of completion, not to mention acres of idle production machinery. Winchester dumped its inventory on the scrap metal market, but in 1920 Remington utilized existing machinery used previously for building 1917 Enfield rifles to transform the surplus parts into Model 30 bolt-action rifles in .30-06 Springfield.

Winchester 54 bolt action rifle historical
The Model 54 incorporated a two-stage trigger and a Mauser-style safety. The rifle intro- duced the .270 Win. to the world and was chambered to rounds as short as the .22 Hornet. (RifleShooter Photo)

Meanwhile, Winchester was building target rifles in .30-06 on the 1903 Springfield action for the U.S. military rifle team. This is why a number of design details of the Model 54 sporting rifle, introduced by the company in 1925, were the same as or quite similar to those of the 1903 Springfield action. Originally priced at $49.50, the Model 54 was initially in .30-06 and .270 Win., a brand-new cartridge formed by necking down the .30-03 Springfield case and not the shorter .30-06 case as is commonly written. A young college professor by the name of Jack O’Connor was among the first to buy a Model 54 in .270 Win.

New Chamberings

Other chamberings were eventually offered with the .30 W.C.F. (.30-30 Win.) added in 1928. The .30 W.C.F. and the .22 Hornet, introduced in 1933, are of special interest due to the amount of effort required in modifying the Model 54 to handle them. For the .30-30, bolt travel was shortened and the magazine partially blocked. Blunt-nosed bullets in .30-30 ammunition required modification of the feed ramp of the receiver. Like the 1903 Springfield, Model 54 barrels for other cartridges had a cone-shaped breech face, but it was flattened for the .30-30. This resulted in complete support of the cartridge with nothing more than its rim protruding.


Modifying the Model 54 for the .30-30 was a cinch compared to converting an action designed for the .30-06 to handle the tiny .22 Hornet. In addition to dramatically shortening bolt travel, a five-round, top-loaded, double-column magazine sized for the small cartridge was fabricated and then fastened to the inside of the regular internal magazine box. The machined-steel magazine follower has a wire-type spring rather than the usual flat spring.

Here is how it works. The rim of the top .22 Hornet in the magazine does not protrude upward enough to be contacted by a bolt designed to handle much larger cartridges. The problem was solved in a very clever manner by Albert F. Laudensack, who was granted a U.S. patent for his efforts. As the bolt moves forward, a small, hinged lever at the front of the bolt drops down to contact the head of a cartridge and pushes it far enough forward for the front of the bolt to take over and chamber the round. At that point, the pusher retracts back into its slot in the bottom of the bolt where it remains until cycling is repeated.

Winchester 54 bolt action rifle historical
Of the various cartridges for which the Model 54 was chambered, the most popular were (Left to Right): .22 Hornet, .30-30 Win., .270 Win. and .30-06. (RifleShooter Photo)

I have owned my Model 54 in .22 Hornet for many years, and functioning has been flawless for thousands of rounds. That same design was carried over to the Winchester Model 70 in .22 Hornet, when it replaced the Model 54 in 1937. With the exceptions of a Buehler safety and a very good single-stage trigger, the barreled action of my rifle remains factory-original. Sometime during the 1940s, it was restocked by Hart Arms Co. of Cleveland, Ohio. I have owned rifles in .22 Hornet built by Kimber, CZ, Anschutz, BRNO and several others, and not one of them was as accurate as my Model 54.


Later added were the 7x57 Mauser, 7.65x53 Argentine and the 9x57 Mauser, all in 1930. The .250-3000 Savage came in 1931, and it was followed by the .257 Roberts and .220 Swift in 1936. Special-order rifles were available in .25-35 Win., .32 Win. Spl. and .35 Whelen, the latter was a fairly new wildcat cartridge at the time. The top four sellers in order of popularity were the .30-06, .270 Win., .22 Hornet and .30-30 Win. About a dozen variations of the Model 54 became available during its production life. Unlike the Standard rifle with a 20-inch barrel, the stock of my carbine in .30-30 with a barrel of the same length has no checkering on its stock, although its fore-end does have finger grooves. Also missing is the usual pair of steel eyes in the stock for the hook-attachment of a canvas carrying sling. Winchester promoted the two snubnosed rifles as ideal for saddle scabbard carry while hunting from horseback.

The Standard rifle with a 20-inch or 24-inch barrel (26 inches in .220 Swift) was the most popular. And since Winchester stood alone in building rifles for competitive shooting, the Target rifle and the National Match also sold well. Competitors used long, high-positioned scopes made by Stevens, Fecker and others, so both models were drilled and tapped for a rear mount on the receiver ring and the other out on the barrel. While the Model 54 eventually outsold its primary bolt-action competitor, the Remington Model 30, several of its design details left a bit to be desired. Probably the most criticized was a one-piece steel stamping for the trigger guard and magazine cover.




Trigger Time

Winchester 54 bolt action rifle historical
(RifleShooter Photo)

Designing the trigger to also serve as a bolt stop was another poor idea. Target shooters loved the two-stage trigger because they were used to shooting rifles built around the 1903 Springfield action, but hunters and varmint shooters did not like it on the Model 54. Also high on the criticism list was a two-piece firing pin, much like the one used on the 1903 Springfield.

And then there was a three-position, Mauser-style wing safety on the bolt shroud that disengaged when rotated to the right rather than to the left. During the days of open sights, hunters easily adapted to it, but once low-mounted, hunting-style scopes began to catch on, the search began for an easy fix. Maynard P. Buehler, who became well known for his scope mounts, came to the rescue with a low-profile, two-position safety for the Winchester rifle.

Winchester finally got around to making one big improvement, even though it came quite late in the game. The Model 54 action originally had a lock time of 5.2 milliseconds, and it was reduced to 3.1 milliseconds with the introduction of the .22 Hornet in 1933. Called the Speed Lock, it was only a tad slower than the 3.0 milliseconds of today’s Winchester Model 70 action. For a nominal fee, the company would install the new unit in older rifles. Production of the Model 54 ceased in 1936, but after being greatly improved, it was reintroduced as the Model 70 in 1937. If nothing else, the Model 54 showed Winchester technicians what had to be changed in order to produce what many still consider to be the very best bolt-action sporting rifle in America and possibly in the entire world.

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