This wildly popular bolt-action rifle is considered an icon among collectors and American sportsmen alike. First introduced in 1936, the Model 70 was escalated to an elite status by the great outdoorsman and writer Jack O’Connor, who documented countless adventures with his trusty bolt gun. Anyone familiar with Jack knows his favorite chambering for his Model 70 was the .270 Winchester, which coincidentally debuted in 1925 as a chambering for the Model 54, the direct predecessor of the Model 70.
The Model 70 rifle featured a sturdy control round feed action, which was based on the earlier Mauser 98 design. Its receiver was machined from a solid block of steel, and the bolt featured the Mauser-like non-rotating claw extractor that securely guided the cartridge from the magazine to the chamber. The barrel rifling was hand cut and the trigger guard and floorplate were machined from steel.
For 28 years the Winchester Model 70 had built its reputation by performing better than any hunting rifle before it, which helped earn it the moniker “The Rifleman’s Rifle”. However, that quality and performance came at a cost, manufacturing cost to be specific. This greatly limited Winchester’s ability to compete on price against any would be competitors. So, when a popular new and more affordable model known as the Remington 700 began to take up a large chunk of the sporting rifle market share, Winchester decided it was time to make some changes.
The Winchester's designers went to work on lowering the cost of producing their prize rifle. By 1964 the redesigned Winchester 70 was ready for store shelves, but all of the sportsmen and gun writers that offered nothing but praise for the previous Model 70, were now very critical of Winchester’s choices.
The receiver on all Post-64 models would be forged into shape and then machined. The bolt face was enclosed, similar to the push-feed Remington. It provided the locked up action with added element of safety, which was great, but this made it impossible for the Model 70 to remain the control round feed that many Winchester owners had grown to favor. The new extractor was small and wedged-shaped, and it clipped over the cartridge only after it was inserted into the chamber. The barrel rifling was hammer forged to cut cost and the trigger guard and floorplate were now produced from a stamped aluminum alloy.
Jack O’Connor was likely the most well respected critic of the new rifle and had no issue voicing his concerns to the Winchester brass. He found the redesigned Winchester to be ugly, and didn’t believe that it would appeal to its previously loyal consumer base. Winchester took some of his critique into serious consideration, and before the release of the Post-64 Model 70, they did actually change the trigger guard and floorplate. They incorporated another aluminum version that had been used on a previous Model 70 Featherweight model. They also decided to add some checkering and clean up the lines of the stock. However, Jack was right and the new version did not initially sell very well.
The future would hold many more changes for Winchester and their guns, which even included changes in ownership. Over time, the Model 70 would slowly regain its fan base as Winchester managed to make it a much more attractive rifle, and the newer generations of shooters became farther removed from the Winchester debacles of the 1960’s. But among gun collectors and older sportsmen the quality and character of the Pre-64 models will remain unmatched.
FYI: FN Herstal now oversees all manufacturing of current production Winchester Model 70 rifles in Columbia, South Carolina.