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The Cowboy Hunting Rifle By: Lyndon Combs
March- 31, 2006 a date in firearm history that I will not forget anytime soon as it is the day that production of one of the best known Deer rifles of all time came to an end. On this day production stopped on the Winchester Model 94 Lever Action rifle designed by John Browning. This was the best selling rifle ever produced by Winchester, and the first to be marketed for smokeless powder. This is a rifle with a record like no other in the history of gun manufacturing.

The Winchester 94 has been held in high esteem and vilified with writers on both sides of the debate marveling at its many years of production. Many writers have taken a stand on this rifle. They have also used their personal opinions to explain the end of production. I am no different I am using my personal opinions in this article, but everything I have to say is from the heart. I am a fan of the rifle, and I have many good memories of using a Winchester 94.  Many remember taking their first Deer with a Winchester Model 94. I think everyone will agree that a great deal of game has fallen to hunters packing the little rifle. I know many hunters who will not Deer hunt with anything, but a .30-30.

Many of those hunters use only the Winchester Model 94.  Many people not only hunt with these rifles, but also collect the legendary firearm. Winchester 94s made before 1964 are the most desired version of the rifle. Especially the ones made before World War II which were made more by hand than machine. The finish and fit is superior to other era Model 94's. Many of these rifles have been passed down through the generations as cherished heir looms. Many still depend on the gun their fathers owned. In light of the events concerning the closing of the Winchester plant in New Haven - many articles have been written since the press release on January 17th, 2006. I have read many of those articles, and with every word I have sensed a growing feeling of nostalgia. A feeling I am sure many can understand. I am sure I am not alone in remembering watching westerns as a child, and playing with a BB gun that resembled the cowboy rifles in those westerns. Watching;the westerns our young minds would soak up every movement of the cowboys who saved the day with a six-gun, and a trusty Winchester rifle.

Those memories were still strong for many of us as young adults looking for our first hunting rifle. Yes many of the rifles used in those westerns were the model 92 the predecessor to the model 94, but they had quit making the model 92 in 1941. Yes many lucky hunters got to use the model 92 to hunt, but for many of us who came along much later in time, this was not possible, and the model 94 became the heir apparent to the Winchester cowboy hunting rifle crown. They made over six million of these rifles. From 1895 to 2006, and even after the changes made in 1964 the changes in the 1980's that were liked about as well, the ugly wart safety that they slapped on the rifle in the 1990's, and after all this they still kept selling. After all these disastrous changes that caused many devotees of this rifle to think about attacking the factory. We still loved the Winchester 94. Hunters everywhere kept buying, trading, and hunting with the model 94. Why did we keep using the model 94 for so many years? Very simple the little rifle did the job. Filling the freezer with meat year after year. While taking us back to a simpler time. Having used the model 94 I am not amazed at the longevity of this rifle, and it's place in the history of firearms manufacturing. The way it handled in the field, and the way the rifle blended two worlds for many people - like me. It brought out the child in all of us with every round cycled by the lever.  In a way becoming a cowboy for just a brief moment. We all want to experience a little of that nostalgia. Wishing to bring to life this era of American history. A time that has become larger than life due to the westerns we all love.  These feelings have even spurred a sport known as Cowboy Action Shooting.           

The feeling of nostalgia, and the news of the end of production of one of my favorite rifles fueled in me to return to the trouble free days of my youth so when my mind turned to the coming Deer season, and putting meat in the freezer.  I wanted a rifle like I had always seen as a child. A Winchester that looked like the ones the cowboys used in the westerns. Not just go out and buy one of the many replicas, or one of the last Winchesters model 94's made. Like - a Trails End. I wanted a rifle that when you look at it you almost wished it could talk, so you could enjoy the stories it would tell. Worn from the hands of its owner - who relied on it to supply food, and defend his life. I wanted a real cowboy rifle to use for hunting Deer. The problems with this unfortunately is the price of many collectible classic Winchesters is to high for my wallet, and I wouldn't want to take an actual classic Winchester into the mountains of eastern Kentucky to hunt for Deer. To damage one of these treasures would be horrible.  I decided to look around to see what I could find to buy. Maybe I could find an old 94 that would look the part of a cowboy - hunting rifle. Maybe someone had decided to put an old work - horse out to pasture for some fancy bolt action, or upgraded to a fancier, newer model 94. I looked at every lever action rifle I could find for weeks. I searched the shops, and on the web. I found many Marlins, a few Savages, the new Ruger,   But very few Winchesters-that had the look I wanted- few I could afford. I had found many 80's Model 94's that had some wear, and were close, but not perfect. I didn't give up. I knew somewhere I would find a rifle that would fit the bill of a cowboy - hunting rifle, allow me to relive the past, while feeling the freezer with meat, and not break my bank. 

I was right. One week later while browsing at a local gun/pawn shop I found an old model 94. It wasn't perfect but for some reason I just couldn't put it back on the shelf. The stock was perfect just the wood I wanted on my rifle. I checked the serial number, and it was produced in 1970. I had seen many 94's on my search, but only one of this vintage. I really wasn't to keen on the year of production, but this one had something that made me want to buy it. The biggest problem the receiver finish wasn't worn the way I wanted- in fact the finish was more damaged than worn from use. The bore was the best I had seen, and the action was tight, broken in just right. I decided to buy the gun, and see how it shot. I could always trade it later. I drove straight to the house, got some cartridges, and to the range I went. The little rifle shot well.  Shooting groups in the neighborhood of 1" to 1 1/4" at 100 yards with the old open sights. I liked the gun. It was a good, very used Deer rifle. The only problem it didn't have the look I wanted. I thought about what to do? Should I keep the little rifle, or keep searching for my cowboy hunting rifle? I decided I would do some homework and make this little pawnshop find a true cowboy-hunting rifle that had the look I wanted. The look of a well worn, and trusted carbine.

  I disassembled the rifle to find out just what I would have to do to make it match the vision in my head.  First the receiver would have to be refinished in some way to make it look the way I wanted. The stock had a few issues. A crack in the butt stock, the forearm under the barrel was crumbling, and it needed some cleaning. I didn't worry about the crack in the butt stock it wasn't that bad. Besides it added character to the look of the gun. The forearm on the other hand would have to be repaired; it was crumbling at the front and back, but how? It took some head scratching, and some redneck engineering, but I came up with a fix. I took a piece of wood I found in a cigar box. A shaved sheet of cedar, and using wood glue I fixed it to the inside of the forearm. It wouldn't show and it stopped the stock from wobbling due to the crumbling. Next I had to figure out what to do with the metal parts of the gun. I had to finish the receiver, and make sure all the metal of the gun matched. I decided to strip all the metal parts, and refinish them as a whole. This way I could make sure they matched. I chose to use the Birchwood Casey - Perma Blue Kit. I had worked with this before and knew I could polish, or rub it down to match my needs. Since I was going to go to this extreme I needed to find some examples to use as a template. I searched the web and found three examples that combined represented the look I was after for my rifle. Two were vintage Winchester model 94's, the other a modern Winchester 94 Trails End with case hardened receiver.

 I decided on a case hardened look on the receiver because one I always like the look, and it would add a little definition to the overall look of the rifle. I set out to start the metal work by reading the instructions for the kit. I then stripped the old blue from the gun. ;I ran into a surprise when removed the finish from the receiver. It didn't match the other metal parts of the gun. It looked to be nickel - plated? I needed to find out what was going on here. ; I contacted Winchester, and no real help to be found. I didn't know what to do concerning the receiver, I didn't think I could case harden the receiver if it was nickel plated, so I set it aside for later, and refinished the rest of the metal parts. The blue went on a little darker with each application, and I used the steel wool supplied with the kit to blend it after each application. When I got a good even finish I set about wearing it down to look the way I wanted. I used a sponge type-sanding pad to do this. I find they sand without scratching and form to the surface to sand evenly. It really gave the new finish a natural worn look. I now turned my attention back to the receiver. I didn't really know what to do with this part of the project. So I decided to go ahead and try to blue the receiver using the Perma Blue chemical. I used the degreaser from the kit to clean the receiver, and then started to apply the bluing chemical to the receiver. To my surprise and delight the chemicals gave the receiver a worn case hardened look. It literally antiqued the receiver just the way I wanted. I contacted Birchwood Casey to ask how this had happened, but I have never heard back from them. I did find out from a web site that they don't just make chemicals to work on guns; they also make chemicals to refinish and antique other surfaces. I guess this explains the effect of the chemicals on the receiver. With the way things are going I am starting to feel as if I was meant to own this rifle. Magic, or just dumb luck? I don't know. I am just glad the way the project is turning out, and I hope- luck or magic- it holds out until the end of Deer season.

The only place I deviated from the cowboy theme of this rifle was installing a modern Williams’s fiber optic front sight (pictured). The rear sight I used the original sight, but I stripped it and I filed the notch rounding it out to allow a full view of the front sight. I then refinished the rear sight polishing the base, but dipping the rear part in the Perma Blue until it was black as midnight and matte in appearance. This should work great in low light, and have no glare from the edges of the rear sight.   Having finished all the surfaces and rubbed them down with the sponge-sanding block to look, as I wanted. I began the reassembly process. This is a tricky step. These lever actions are meant to go together a certain way.  After getting the gun back together I stepped back and looked at it on the table. Immediately I was reminded of the westerns I fondly remember. I had my cowboy-hunting rifle. Now to see if hunting with the rifle would go as well as this little project. Before I patted myself on the back too much I first needed to take the rifle to the range to make sure everything was in shape after the work I had done. With any project of this nature it is a good idea to make sure all bugs are worked out before hunting season.  I shot three shot groups at 55 yards, as I always do sighting in my 30-30's that have open sights. This gives me a better trajectory for the yardage I will be hunting.

Most shots in the area I will be hunting fall within 100 yards. I have known many who zero at 25yds. to raise the trajectory out to 150yds, but zeroing at 25yds. puts the path of the bullet way too high at 40 to 80yds. I can point and shoot easier at close range zeroing at 55yds.  I adjusted the sights slightly, and the little rifle was hitting as it did before the work 1" to 1 1/4" at 55yds. Things went well. Everything held together, and nothing rattled loose, but the little rifle wasn't ready for the field. The rifle is still a little stiff in the action I need to smooth the action as I did with my much newer Trapper. A little packing in the field scouting would help me to decide just how much work is really needed. I scout year round especially during, and right after hunting season. The Deer population is good for this season.

 The herd for this season was estimated at about 900,000 animals. The mild weather allowed for a boom in herd growth in the state of Kentucky. The fawn season was really good, many twin, and triplets being born. Things are looking very good for a truly great season this year. I will increase my scouting the next three months.  By now it was into the month of October. I needed to get into the field to scout the areas I was thinking about hunting. My first day in the field with the gun as I would be hunting with it this season was October 14th.  It packed as expected. The Deer were starting to move I was seeing tracks in new areas. It is still too early for them to be moving a great deal. I have found two good spots to try. I am going to watch them until the season starts, and see which I am going to set up at on opening day. Hopefully it will be cooling off soon. I decided to go completely modern with one part of this project, and that was with the ammunition I was going to use for hunting. I decided to use factory Federal 170 grain loads with utilizing a Nosler Partition bullet. I have been scouting now for a few months and it is the day before the seasons start, and the temperature has dropped, but still not bad. I scouted a little today and I have seen several bucks in the area I plan on hunting. I have decided to go after a nice big 8 point that is a good mature buck. I knew his daily routine, from the area he bedded to the places he fed, and his water sources. I set out some scents in the area I planned to set up the next morning, and went back home for the agonizing wait until the morning of opening season - 24 painful hours. I know everyone knows the pain I am talking about. Opening day of Deer season I got up at 4:00 in the morning and started getting ready. I just couldn't sleep any longer. I had everything I felt I needed to handle the job at hand, but I still made another check of equipment including making sure the rifle was ready. I headed to the field confident in my planning, and that everything was done on my part.  

The sun had just came up as I pulled reached the top of the mountain, and started down the road to the flat I planned to hunt, but just as I started down the road to my right I could see antlers showing above the tall brush. I stopped my truck, and grabbed my rifle. I loaded as quick as I could without taking my eyes off the antlers. I was down wind and the grass was high enough to cover me from his line of sight. I slowly worked the lever on the 94 as I stepped into the grass slightly bent to try and keep the buck from seeing me. The wind still hitting me in the face I slowly raised the gun. I had him in my sights about 40 yards from me. As he slowly turned broadside I held just behind his shoulder and squeezed the trigger. He shuddered and took off following a doe I had not seen until the gun went off. He leaped clearing the tall grass with ease. I quickly worked the lever, and moved the rifle to the were the sights rested on the back of his neck, and fired - he stopped- turned and took off a little slower this time.

 I knew in my heart I had hit him. This close I couldn't have missed. I had automatically worked the lever after my last shot, but he was gone. I ran to my truck to try and circle around the brush covered flat;fast enough to see where the buck had dropped. I came to the area I had seen the buck last, and started tracking. I couldn't see any blood, but I could see where he had ran through the weeds and brush, and I followed knowing in my heart at any second I would see a large brown mass of meat just a little bit in front of me at any moment. A feeling that slowly fell by the way side with every 10 yards I tracked. No blood nothing. I kept telling myself I couldn't have missed. It was only 40 yards and he was so big, but after walking for over 150 yards without a sign I decided to turn back and start from the beginning- the place I had seen him standing. I went deep into the brush, and found the spot. Nothing, no blood, no tissue- nothing, I followed the tracks in the soft wet ground. I found the spot were he was standing when I took my second shot. Just to my right a few yards away I found a tree with a large chunk taken out of it. I inspected the tree and found one of my bullets. It hadn’t hit anything except the tree. I couldn’t see any blood on the bullet. I had not hit the buck with the second shot, but had I hit him with the first shot. I started tracking through the brush slower this time having caught my breath. I watched for any sign at all that I had hit the buck.  I searched, and even got help searching from one of the owners of the property. Nothing it was getting late in the evening, and we decided to stop for the night and get up bright and early the next morning to search some more. 

 The next morning I drove to the highest point on the mountain hoping that the over look would give me a better picture of the area I was hunting maybe I could glass the carcass up, or see the deer moving going about his daily business. Nothing - I couldn't see the buck anywhere. I began to think that I hadn’t hit the animal at all. I decided to take an old box out of the truck, and put it on the tree near where I had taken my last shot. I fired a couple of rounds at it, and nothing. I missed both times. I decided that I needed to hit the range to see what was going on with the rifle, the ammunition, or me. The conclusion is that I just can’t see like I used to, and part of that is that I have poor depth perception. I used a laser range finder, and discovered that the first shot was in actuality 65 yards that put me shooting just under the animal. The second shot I think I was just to excited to actually hit anything, but at least the only thing that was wounded was my pride.
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