The Rifleman’s Rifle.
Winchester’s marketing slogan was quite a bold statement, but one that was not braggadocio. When the Model 70 was introduced – way back in 1936 – it represented what I consider to be the ultimate culmination of the American bolt-action hunting rifle. It had all of the necessary appointments: a strong action – closely related to the Mauser Gewehr 98 – with a reliable extractor, capable of handling the highest of cartridge pressures, a well-fitting stock, an excellent trigger and a three-position safety which would (eventually) work perfectly with a rifle scope.
The Model 70 set the bar for American bolt guns for a quarter-century, until the machining that produced the rifles had seen their day, and needed a serious overhaul. Rather than revamp the machinery – as the story goes – Winchester decided to make some serious and little liked, changes in the design of the rifle. The rifle became a push-feed affair, with many features that were cost-effective, yet the post-’64 models – the year the radical changes were made – have always been sort of frowned upon, at least in comparison to the pre-’64 variants, which have been held in the highest regard among hunters, shooters, and collectors.
***Gearing up for hunting season? Check out these tips for tricking out your bolt-action.***
A Long Winding Road
Winchester has gone through its ups and downs, including a closure of the New Haven, Connecticut plant, but there’s good news: the rifle is back, and it’s a good rifle. It is in the vein of the last wave of the New Haven Model 70s – which featured many of the pre-’64 features – and is a smart-looking, sweet-handling and efficient rifle, perfect for hunting around the globe.
Now owned by the Belgian company of FN Herstal, the Winchester Model 70 is now marked as being ‘Made in Portugal.” The lines of the rifle are relatively true to the latest issue from the New Haven plant, with the exception of a redesigned trigger. The same smooth action is there, along with a checkered walnut stock that feels very good in the hands. The checkered bolt handle sits just where it should, if you’re familiar with the Model 70 design, and the trigger feel will be equally familiar. The design is controlled round feed, with the large side band extractor and blade ejector. All the benefits of the original design are there, minus some cosmetics and the modern Model 70 is a worthy heir to the name.
- Weight: 7 lbs, 12 oz.
- Caliber: .338 Winchester Magnum (tested)
- Action: Bolt-action
- Barrel: 26”hammer-forged steel
- Magazine: 3 shot fixed, hinged floorplate
- Sights: None furnished, drilled and tapped for scope mounts
- Stock: Grade I walnut
- Finish: Blued steel
- Overall Length: 46 ¾”
- MSRP: $1,049.99
Paying homage to the original Model 70s, the bolt is very easily disassembled, without tools. Simply cock the rifle (which cocks on the upstroke of the bolt), put the safety in the middle position, remove the bolt via a small spring-loaded tab on the rear left side of the receiver, and depress a tab on the rear of the bolt. The bolt shroud screws out easily via that one small tab, and voila! The firing pin and spring are exposed for both cleaning and lubrication. A hinged floorplate is released by depressing a button on the outside of the trigger guard, toward the muzzle end.
The major revision to the Model 70, as compared to the models from the end of the New Haven-era, has been the M.O.A. trigger. Winchester put quite a bit of time and effort into the development of this trigger design, and in my opin, on it paid off. A trigger can make or break a rifle, and the M.O.A. is an asset to the Model 70. Winchester claims virtually no take up, creep or over travel, and they’re not far off the mark.
The M.O.A. trigger uses a takeup spring in order to keep the trigger in constant contact with the actuator, which is directly in contact with the sear. It’s a rather simple design, yet very effective. I felt the slightest amount of creep – much better than many other factory triggers – and less over travel. My Lyman digital trigger scale showed that the Model 70’s trigger broke at 3 lbs., 5 ounces, but the nice, wide trigger makes things feel much lighter than that.
My test rifle came chambered in .338 Winchester Magnum, one of Winchester’s finer designs, and a perfect complement to the rugged design of the Model 70. If I had to find one complaint with my test rifle, it would be in the barrel dimensions. The 26” length of the hammer-forged barrel posed no problem, but it was a rather thin barrel, reducing the overall weight, and increasing the felt recoil. The satin-finished stock fit was superb, with a comb that was well-suited for use with a riflescope, the barrel was clean, with no iron sights and the checkering on the pistol grip and forend gave a positive grip when bringing the rifle to shoulder. Again, we’re talking a classic Winchester 70, a feel we’re all familiar with (or should be) and the new models are a worthy effort.
The .338 Winchester Magnum was one of the initial trio of magnum cartridges by Winchester in 1958, including the .458 Winchester Magnum and the .264 Winchester Magnum. All three are based on the .375 H&H Magnum, with the case shortened to 2.50”. The bullet diameter itself comes from the earlier .33 Winchester, a rimmed cartridge designed for the Model 1886 lever-action.
The OKH series of cartridges – the efforts of Charles O’Neill, Elmer Keith and Don Hopkins – saw both the .30-’06 case and a shortened .375 H&H case mated with the .333” diameter bullets of the .333 Jeffery cartridges, and the trio of hunters used them with great success. Winchester, already geared up to produce .338” diameter bullets I presume, used that bullet diameter for the new medium cartridge.
It has proved itself as a perfect choice for hunting the big northern bears, as well as the larger ungulates of North America. As an all-around choice for an African plains game, the .338 makes a fine cartridge, especially if zebra, sable or eland are on the menu.
It’ll drive the heavy 250-grain slugs at 2,650 fps, and the lighter 200 and 225-grain bullets even faster. This all results in a useable trajectory, and plenty of horsepower; however, that horsepower comes at the price of increased recoil in comparison to the 7mm and .30 caliber cartridges. Off the bench, the .338 Magnum can be a beast, and I recommend that once your rifle is properly sighted in, you leave the bench and practice in more comfortable field positions.
The scope of things.
For glass, I chose a Leupold VX-3i 3.5-10×40 scope, one-inch tube, set in Talley mounts. I love the Talley’s for their rigidity and simplicity; in rifles from .22-250 to .404 Jeffery, they’ve never let me down, never come loose, and never failed to function perfectly. The VX-3i series of scopes from Leupold have a rather impressive set of lenses; they are a definite improvement over the VX-3 series in both light transmission and clarity.
This particular Leupold could be described as a ‘Plain Jane’, in that it uses a simple duplex crosshair, with no physics equations dangling in the reticle, or other complex appointments. This is a hunting scope, plain and simple, with a fixed parallax setting, and few moving parts. With a highly useable magnification range of 3.5x at the bottom and 10x at the top, there should be no issue making a shot at sane hunting ranges, or of quick target acquisition at close ranges. With ¼ MOA clicks, a matte finish and a weight of 12.6 oz, this scope makes a perfect choice for a worldwide rig like a Model 70 in .338 Winchester Magnum.
At the Bench.
I took the Model 70 out to the range with four different factory loads: Federal Premium’s 250-grain Nosler Partition, the Fusion 225-grain load, Hornady’s Precision Hunter with 230-grain ELD-X bullet and Hornady’s Superformance 185-grain GMX bullet. I zeroed the rifle using the Fusion ammo, as it sat in the middle of the weight/speed spectrum, and immediately noticed a couple of things.
One, the recoil of the .338 Winchester Magnum was just as I had remembered it: sharp, fast, and substantial. In this particular model, weighing in at an even 9 lbs unloaded, but with scope, bases and rings – there was a significant muzzle jump. Again, the barrel is on the thin side; perfect for carrying, but not exactly bench friendly. It wasn’t the worst I’ve ever experienced but was remarkable. Two, that thin barrel heats up quickly, very quickly. It heats up to the point that five shot groups were pretty much out of the question, so I limited it to three shots. Again, a dream to carry, but that lighter weight comes at a price.
This particular Model 70 didn’t demonstrate the finest accuracy I’ve ever seen, but a couple of the loads proved to be acceptable in the hunting world. In reality, any load that will print 1.5 MOA at 100 yards will still suffice out to 300 or so, reliably striking the animal in the center of the vital organs. This rifle was exactly that, a minute-and-a-half gun, and while in this day and age every rifle is supposed to be able to hit the Sea of Tranquility offhand, that isn’t always the case.
The rifle put both the Federal Premium Partition load and the Hornady Superformance GMX load into an average of 1 ½” groups at a hundy, with the other two loads printing between 2” and 2 ½”. Funny thing is, this rifle had a considerable disparity on the point of impact with the differing bullet weights. The lighter (and faster) the bullet, the higher it would print. The total range of impact between the 185-grain GMX and 250-grain Partition was 9” vertically, with things staying relatively close horizontally. Not a truly big deal, but if you want to change loads, a scope adjustment is most definitely in order. The Leupold VX3i tracked very well, moving the center of the group exactly where I wanted it. Like so many other Leupold scopes, the .338 Winchester’s recoil posed no issue.
Is the Portugal a carbon copy of the pre-’64 Winchester Model 70? No, it isn’t, but is it a good rifle? Yes, it is. I’ve shot others in different calibers that were not as finicky in the accuracy department, but the elements of the rifle are all there. If I had to pick some nits, I’d say that the finish of the stock seems a little uneven, and perhaps the checkering a bit rough. That said, the action has the same smooth, buttery feel that the 70 is known for, and the rifle I tested fed perfectly and extracted like a dream.
Cartridges went into the magazine with a positive feel, and loading three in the magazine and slipping a fourth into the chamber was no issue at all. The rifle came to the shoulder nicely, and the stock design allowed for the Leupold scope to be mounted at a good height, allowing for proper cheek positioning; I dislike having my jawline on the comb, especially on a hard-kicking rifle.
While it may be sacrilegious to some to see the Rifleman’s Rifle being made in a foreign country, I’m personally happy that the Winchester 70 is still with us. In a world of rifles based on this or that classic rifle, it’s good to have the original – even in a different incarnation – around and available. Production costs rise, labor costs rise, and the shooting public – especially here in America – wants their rifles cheap. The world saw the pre-’64 mutate into the post-’64 as a result of costs, and that’s not the only model or brand that has had that experience. I’ve used Winchester Model 70s – in various incarnations – all around the world, and they’ve never let me down. I feel the same way about this latest incarnation.
For more information about Winchester Repeating Arms, click here.
***Check out GunsAmerica for an original Winchester Model 70.***