What Drove the Popularity of the Winchester 94?

What Drove the Popularity of the Winchester 94?

When observing the totals of the most produced firearms ever made, it’s fairly easy to figure out how most of those guns managed to get there. Wartime production and military purchases are the reason that many of these weapons make the top of the list. However, there is one that stands out among the top twenty firearms ever manufactured that wasn’t a military rifle, or at least not in any real capacity. It’s a cowboy gun, but one that was introduced after the old west was pretty much settled and most of the cowboys had begun to disappear. So it is interesting to find the Winchester 94 still holding a solid position near the top of the list with 7.5 million rifles produced. It beckons the question, what has kept the Winchester 94 lever-action rifle so popular?  

Many would probably say that the Winchester 94 was such a huge success because it was partnered with the centerfire .30-30 Winchester (.30 WCF) round back in 1895, creating one of the best deer rifles ever. This is probably a fair answer considering the .30-30 is still one of the top ammunition produced each year, and no doubt a great game caliber for thick brush and wooded areas. However, other than initial purchases of the 94, it is reasonable to assume that this is not the sole driving force behind the rifle’s success. Not when there are so many other great rifles that have been chambered in the same caliber. Marlin for instance wasted no time in chambering their Model 93 in .30-30 Winchester when its popularity grew, and in fact they were the first to call the caliber 30-30. Currently the Marlin 336 lever-action rifle - a direct descendant of the 93 model - is Marlin’s most successful rifle ever and lands behind the Winchester 94 on the all time production list by about a 1.5 million rifles. Coincidentally their best selling caliber pairing on the 336 is also the .30-30 Winchester.

Still there are many firearms that offered the .30-30 that don’t even come close to the Winchester’s production. The Savage Model 99 lever-action and Remington 788 bolt-action rifles both chambered the popular caliber, but produced only a fraction of the 94. Single shots such as the Savage Model 219 and Remington Rolling Block offered chambering in the .30-30 as well. Granted that the production run was much shorter on some models like the 788, but the Savage 99 was rolling off the production line for ninety-nine years.

In 1986, Sam Fadala, a well known author of outdoor and firearm related topics, published the book Winchester 30-30 Model 94 – The Rifle America Loves. In his book he devotes entire chapters to discussing the .30-30 round and its evolution as a premier hunting caliber. He definitely makes a good case for its continued use among modern hunters, but he never directly poses a comparison of the 94 against other rifles chambered in the same caliber. He is biased towards the Winchester, which can be expected given the title of his book, but because of this it didn’t really help explain why the 94 was often chosen over so many other rifles. He does say that he believes that the Winchester 94 has held its popularity because it’s a lightweight carbine that handles well, and when paired with the .30-30, will offer great bullet penetration and sufficient power for deer and elk. Clear and simple, the rifle excels on its own merit, but couldn’t other rifles also meet this definition? Or was this enough of an explanation and the rifle was just so darn good that people couldn’t wait to run out and buy one? He shows some real passion for the 94, and after reading his book you’ll probably want to go out and buy your own. With that being said, we can even assume he may have encouraged a few additional sales himself.

Fadala also makes reference to another book published back in 1952 by Harold F. Williamson entitled Winchester: The Gun That Won the West. Mr. Williamson makes the claim that Winchester had already manufactured 700,000 Model 94’s by 1914. These sales can certainly be attributed to the type of reasoning that Fadala provided; given the lack of competition at the time for a quality-repeating rifle combined with the still fairly new and popular smokeless powder game caliber. Although, it is the other 6.8 million rifles manufactured that would suggest other factors were involved in making the old 94 so successful.

Buried deep in a late chapter of Fadala’s book, he makes a statement that may unintentionally help answer our question. He describes the 94 as “An American tradition of getting things done”. Maybe that is the key to the Winchester 94 being the most popular deer rifle ever. It has become an iconic American figure. If we think about it, there is probably no firearm style that is more American than the lever-action. It was invented here and perfected here. Many other guns' actions may have been produced in America or have even been completed and popularized here, but many ideas originated elsewhere. Not saying for certain it’s the only one, but it's one that has been embedded in our society for generations through our popular culture.

A quick Internet search would reveal data showing American consumers purchase and own more guns than anyone else. Even historical data will prove that this has been the case for a long time and that could easily be a contributing factor in the Winchester 94’s success. Given our culture and the way our purchases are often influenced by advertising, we could assume Winchester just simply did a better job than the competition; or perhaps it's because they got a lot of help with product placement and promotion from the entertainment industry.

Anyone that grew up here (at least pre-millennial) spent weekends watching old westerns on television. The generations before us would flock to movie theaters to see the latest John Wayne film, or tune in to see Chuck Connors in The Rifleman. It was apparent that in Hollywood the Winchester lever-action was the epitome of the essential western long gun. Sure they weren’t always 94’s. Connors carried a large loop Model 92 and John Wayne carried a variety of Winchester models, but the 94 credits on the silver screen are quite extensive. So wouldn’t it at least seem feasible that our pop culture has played a part in making the Winchester 94 one of the best selling rifles?

We are a society driven by consumerism, and the fodder provided to us unquestionably contributes to the products that we buy. This is nothing new and companies have always targeted audiences to sell their merchandise. A firearms company would be no exception to this, and Winchester was probably one of the best at doing so.  It was part of who they were from the beginning; Oliver Winchester was already a successful businessman before venturing into the firearms industry and he knew how to market and take advantage of an opportunity. It wouldn’t be a far stretch to think the company continued to follow their founders lead well into the 20th century.

It was surely no coincidence that Oliver Winchester made his career move just as the country was building the Transcontinental Railroad and opening up the western territories to settlers. He saw the potential for growth in the firearms industry and seized it. He capitalized on the supply and demand with a quality product that people needed and wanted, and when that initial surge for his repeating rifles lagged, he found new ways to draw attention to his guns.

An example of this would be when the company prepared to launch the heavier framed Model 1876, a rifle geared towards big game hunting. The rifle was launched as a Centennial model to celebrate our nation’s anniversary, but engineering issues prevented it from chambering the more popular big game cartridges of the day, such as the .45-70. This limitation would prevent it from achieving the same demand that his previous rifles had encountered when the rush west was in full swing. So Oliver Winchester created a gimmick to promote both his new rifle and his most popular 1873. He had every rifle test fired as it came off the production line. The rifles that could produce exceptional groupings were branded as “One of One Thousand” and sold at a premium. The rifles that fell short of this mark, but still proved to be very accurate would be marketed as “One of One Hundred” and sold at twenty dollars over the standard price. This tactic was enlisted with both the 1873 and 1876 models, but only resulted in a dismal one hundred and eighty-nine of the "One of One Thousand" rifles sold. So even though it was a creative idea, it didn’t produce the sales he was hoping for, and may have even made folks feel that the rifles that were unable to achieve this status were inferior. Yet he managed to keep the Winchester name in the minds of potential consumers because he gave them something to talk about.

He also began catering to his customers by customizing rifles any way they wanted. Building them with a variety of barrel sizes, finishes and with custom engraving. He continued to set his company apart from the competition through innovative practices.

In 1919, long after Oliver Winchester's death, the company took out a full-page magazine ad where they first coined the attention-grabbing phrase “The Gun that Won the West”. Although a very presumptuous claim, because no single firearm could have possibly been responsible for settling the entire western territory, Winchester was once again able to draw attention to their firearms. As time went on they continued to be adept at marketing themselves, creating eye catching and creative slogans, and with the help of the film industry, remained a household name.

No film created more buzz for Winchester than the 1950 movie Winchester 73, starring Jimmy Stewart. The plot of the film was driven around the possession of a rare "One of One Thousand" Winchester 73 rifle. In a joint effort between Universal Studios and Winchester they launched yet another gimmick. This time they promoted the film by launching a search for the long lost "One of One Thousand" rifles. Promising a brand new Model 94 Carbine to the first twenty people that could produce one. The idea worked and they had the nation scrambling through attics and basements searching for the long forgotten rifles. The promotion was ultimately successful in uncovering more than two dozen of the "One of One Thousand" rifles, and in true Winchester fashion made their guns a popular topic of discussion.

How does any of this help the point of the 94’s popularity? Well consumers that were inspired by the film to obtain a lever-action rifle could no longer run out and buy a Model 73, or even a Model 92 because production for those ended five years earlier, but they could still buy the Model 94.

If all this hasn’t convinced you yet that the Winchester 94 had a lot of help reaching those astounding numbers, consider for a moment the Daisy Red Ryder BB gun. First introduced in 1940, it remains the most popular BB gun ever made. Can you guess what this gun was patterned after? That’s right, the Winchester lever action rifle. It was the children’s version of their cowboy hero’s rifle, and just like the real Winchesters, it too had cinematic help remaining popular. Each holiday season you can still find the film A Christmas Story being played repeatedly on TV. Families around the country watch adoringly as the main character Ralphie dreams of receiving the Red Ryder for Christmas, so when our own children decide that they would like a BB gun for Christmas, which one do you think they will write down on their list?  If that isn’t product placement at its finest, not really sure what is!

Now, to be clear there is no intention to lessen the reputation of the Winchester 94. Not at all, because it is a quality firearm and the .30-30 Winchester is a terrific caliber. The rifle does actually possess some great attributes; it offers quick handling for target acquisition and its a fast repeater with a large capacity magazine.  It just seems that the reason this rifle stands out, and the reason consumers have opted to purchase the Winchester 94 over the Marlin 336, Savage 99, or even the Browning BLR, is that it has been more prominent in our popular culture. The 94 has been portrayed as America’s rifle, and Winchester is the first brand most of us will think of when considering a lever-action.

How long it will remain near the top of the list of all firearms ever produced is anyone’s guess?  However, if the assumption made here is correct and our pop culture has shouldered its continued success, there will be several reasons to believe that it may begin to slide down the list in future decades. First, although the 94 returned to production in 2011, it is no longer made in America. So can a cowboy gun built in Japan really continue to draw the same loyalty? Also, the Western genre film has faded away and we are lucky to see one in the theaters every few years or so. Besides, today’s audiences seem far more fascinated by fictional laser guns than cowboy lever-actions. Then there is the absence of the attention-grabbing gimmick; we are now a society of people over-stimulated by information on the Internet. Can one gun still claim the lion's share of customers with flashy advertising? It is pretty doubtful that the 94 can continue to out-sell a current production rifle like the Marlin, and even if it could it seems that eventually the mass-produced military weapons will continue to fill in the top of the list. But who knows? Maybe a resurgence in western movies and a growing interest in commemorative additions will keep the Winchester 94’s number growing. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.