My first thirty years of big game hunting was primarily performed while carrying pre-64 Model 70 Winchesters in various calibers. They were and still are the finest affordable rifle that has ever been available to the American hunter.
Somewhere about 20 years ago, I realized a fatherly shadow was ever present smiling down upon his many offsprings. That shadow over the Model 70’s, of course, being the Model 54 Winchester-Winchester’s first successful bolt action centerfire rifle.
One book and a few magazine articles have covered the history of the Model 54 in considerable depth. I will only present the highlights of this background here.
The Model 54 Winchester, after three years of designing, was made available to the public in 1925 with production taking place for only eleven years, 1936 being the last. During this short span, approximately 50,000 rifles were manufactured in ten catalogued calipers. Various references somewhat disagree on actual production figures, one indicating as many as 52,000 rifles were produced. Obviously, the depression our country suffered during this period certainly held new gun sales down considerable. According to some references, a few rifles were assembled with left over parts up until the advent of World War II.
The eleven year production span brought forth the birth of several new calibers and created chambering for some others that were previously not available in American made rifles. The Model 54 Winchester was catalogued in ten calibers: .22 Hornet, .220 Swift, .250 Savage, .257 Roberts, .270 Winchester, .30-30 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, and three metric calibers 7X57 MM, 7.65X53 MM, and 9X57 MM. The two chamberings that first made their appearance in the Model 54 Winchester are the .220 Swift and .270 Winchester. I have always found quite interesting and a bit puzzling why Winchester decided to bring forth the .257 Roberts and .220 Swift during the last year of Model 54 production with the great Model 70 already on the drawing boards and soon to follow.
Chamberings other than the ten listed were available on special order. These include .25-35 Winchester, .32 Winchester Special, .35 Whelen, and possibly a few others. During the hard times in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, buyers of rifles were not prone to paying for special order items. Consequently, very few Model 54’s were produced in other than the ten listed chamberings.
Among the Model 54’s in my own modest collection, I feel very fortunate to own one of the special order rifles in .25-35 Winchester. This rifle was purchased new by a man in Sacramento, California where a blacktail buck fell to one of its bullets. The second owner lived in Oregon and took a nice mule deer with it. After leaving it’s owner in Oregon, a dealer in New York obtained it. I purchased it from him; and, yes, I have taken a whitetail deer with this unusual rifle. This special order chambering was relatively easy for Winchester to provide since there were a fair number of .30-30 rifles produced. The .25-35 Winchester being simply a necked down version of the .30-30 case, functioning was not a problem.
Looking back over the list of calibers available in the Model 54 Winchester, isn’t it quite remarkable that eight of the ten calibers remain in production today in various rifles? A large number of new cartridges have made their appearance since 1936 and a fair number of those have already vanished from production lines.
Produced prior to popularity of telescope sights, the Model 54 Winchester was not factory drilled in the rear receiver bridge. The bolt lift was too high and the safety would also interfere if low scope mounting was attempted. Scope mounts providing high mounting were available from Herters and Stith utilizing the factory drilled and tapped holes on the front receiver ring and left side rear of receiver. The primary purpose of the left rear holes being the mounting of a receiver peep sight. Another method of mounting a scope on a Model 54 was to utilize the dovetail notch for a target scope block after removing the rear sight. A second target scope block was then installed on the front receiver ring. Photograph illustrates this method.
Wishing to use my Model 54 Winchester for deer hunting, I devised my own method of mounting a conventional scope without altering the rifle which would result in lowering its value. An inexpensive receiver sight was used on which a scope base was attached after removing the aperture slide. A scope base was attached to the factory holes in the front receiver ring. A high see-through mount was then installed to provide clearance for bolt lift and safety operation. Although the stability of such an arrangement may be questioned, I experienced no problem keeping groups under 2” at 100 yards, plenty good enough for in the woods deer hunting.
Perhaps there is a strange mystique about deer hunting with a Model 54 Winchester. A whitetail doe with antlers was taken with my Model 54 standard grade in .30-30 caliber. A part-albino buck fell to my Model 54 .270 carbine. Another whitetail buck (8-pointer eastern count) with a split left ear fell to a Model 54 in my collection.
Anyone who wishes to instill a little more challenge in their deer hunting by utilizing open or peep sight would do well to look into using a Model 54 Winchester. They would find the feel of these fine rifles to be very appealing. I thoroughly enjoy hunting with my Model 54’s and feel honored to be carrying Winchester’s first successful bolt action rifle.
My eyes do not permit the use of open or aperture sights any longer. That is why I developed the previously mentioned method of scope installation.
Of all the ten calibers, I have found the 9X57 MM to be the finest, in the woods deer medicine. Quick humane kills without the messy vessel rupturing effect that is evident with higher velocity calibers are normally the case.
A very interesting note concerning the 9X57 MM comes to mind. This caliber requires bullets of .356 diameter, not .358 as does most other 35 caliber rifles. When I decided to develop a load for my 9X57 MM, bullets were obtained from a custom bullet maker. None of the major bullet-manufacturing firms could provide them. The 200 grain semi-spitzers ahead of 49 grains of 3031 developed a chronographed velocity at approximately 15 feet averaging 2,486 F.P.S. This equals velocity attainable in the .358 Winchester, a proven superb deer hunting cartridge itself.
Another of the cartridges for the Model 54 Winchester I would desire to comment upon in regard to handloading is the 7.65X53 MM. My very first case when run through the resizing die resulted in a broken decapping pin. This is where I discovered that most of the 7.65 MM ammo out there is berdan primed. If you intend to reload your brass, make sure boxer primed cases are what you purchase.
I did find the 7.65 MM a very easy cartridge to load for, after obtaining the proper cases. No problems came forth in reaching a good accurate bullet-power combination. Speaking of bullets, here again, the handloader must be aware of the bore diameter. This is not a .30 caliber! Bullets of .311 or .312 diameter must be utilized if any semblance of accuracy is to be obtained. I found a 150 grain Sierra .311 diameter bullet ahead of 49 grains IMR 4350 to work to my satisfaction.
The Model 54 Winchester was presented in several configurations, most of which were carried over into the Model 70’s. Styles included: Standard Grade, Carbine, Super Grade, Target Model, and a few others of very limited production.
The standard grade rifle is of course the most common. It was initially supplied with a schnable forend stock with “Eye” swivel bases and well-executed finish with checkering. About midway through the manufacturing period, the stock was changed to what is termed “NRA Style”, with a fuller forearm and different overall shape with checkering and swivels similar to the later Model 70. Barrel length was 24” except for the late arriving .220 Swift which sported a 26” tube.
The carbine version was very unique with its 20” barrel and uncheckered, finger groove forearm stock and no sling-swivel provisions. Carbines were fairly common in .30-06, .270, and .30-30 calibers. I feel very fortunate to own a carbine in .250 savage caliber, the only one I have ever seen.
Super grades are quite scarce in Model 54 Winchesters, there again too expensive for the time period. My own super grade in .257 Roberts Caliber is a very rare and prized possession. Other than a much slimmer profile, it is very similar to Model 70 Super Grades.
Other versions of the Model 54 include the heavier barreled and stocked target or snipers rifles, both of which were quite limited in numbers and seldom encountered today.
Stainless steel barrels were an option at extra cost. These stainless barrels were provided with a strange black finish that resembles a high quality paint, being entirely different than the finish presented on the later Model 70 stainless barrels.
Various other special order options were available and were listed in early catalogs. One of the most unusual of these was the omission of the rear sight notch on the barrel boss. Why anyone would pay extra for this feature escapes me! Even if the buyer intended to use only a receiver sight, one would think he would desire to retain the choice of open rear sight or receiver sight, especially since it cost more to omit it! The photo of my 7.65X53 MM illustrates this feature.
Even though the majority of readers will not be gun collectors, I desire to touch upon the collecting appeal presented by these fine rifles. As previously mentioned, there are only 50,000 or so Model 54’s out there. After many discussions with other Winchester collectors, the general consensus seems to be that no more than 15,000 exist without some form of alteration performed on them. Many Model 54’s have been altered for scope use over the years. Many others suffered stock shortening for various types of recoil pads. Some were disassembled and the actions used for custom rifles.
Rarity of certain calibers bring high tickets, the 7.65 MM and 9X57 MM at the top of the list. These two calibers are very rarely seen today, most of which are cherished in collections.
It would seem very strange indeed that most Winchester collectors do not hold the Model 54’s in as high regard as the Model 70’s. Production figures on the Pre-64 Model 70 Winchester are nearly 600,000 compared to the 50,000 Model 54’s. Why aren’t the Model 54’s much more valuable and sought after than the Model 70’s for this reason alone? You tell me!
The Model 54’s I have used over the last 20 have all exhibited very fine accuracy. These rifles were essentially all built by hand by craftsmen at Winchester who took pride in their work. Close attention was obviously given to fitting of parts, stock inletting, and all the other little things that were important pertaining to accuracy and appearance. One needs not be a collector to appreciate these rifles.
Hunting with one of these fine old Model 54 Winchesters is an experience I am ever thankful I did not miss out on during my life. Just simply carrying one of these great rifles into the woods will stir ones memory and allow us to remember good hunts from the past.