This story has been a long time in the making. More than twenty years ago, my best friend walked into a local gun shop looking for a Big Bore 94 XTR chambered in .375 Winchester. I’ll spare you the details about why he was looking for that specific rifle, but he was surprised to find they still had one back on the shelf, still new in its original box. Perhaps more importantly with the original price tag on it as well.
He brought the rifle home, and it would soon become part of the random collection of guns that we would shoot every weekend we could. I made him promise that he would never sell the rifle unless it was to me, but with the closing of the Winchester facility in the early two-thousands, the value and demand for rifles like that one went up significantly. And much like other 90’s fads, the old Winchester fell from favor. At the time I couldn’t pay what it was worth on the market, so despite my broken heart, it left with brown Santa for the state of Wisconsin. I never forgot that rifle, and have longed for one like it since.
I recently made the find of another Big Bore 94 nearly identical to that one. And I knew that the universe had brought it back to me, so out came the credit card.
The Model 1894
The iconic Winchester Model 1894 has long been revered as a game changer. Over the long century that it has been manufactured, countless game animals have been taken. Chambered in a great many differing cartridges, but very commonly seen in 30-30 WCF. The gun feels fresh out of the old cowboy movies most of us watched growing up.
The Big Bore line of 94’s has a much shorter lifespan, they were made back in the 70’s and 80’s timeframe, before Winchester’s demise. The rifle uses the same lever action as other model 94’s but uses typically larger cartridges like this .375 Win, or something like a .44 Magnum.
The rifle I bought is like new, but almost the same age as me. And much like me, there are certain advantages of being manufactured back in the seventies. The rifle is simple, no safety or locking devices are built into it. It uses the old half-cock safety, and the cartridges are fed through the feeding ramp on the right side of the receiver.
It has a fine set of iron sights, but this rifle also came with an offset scope mount and a similar vintage Bushnell 2-8 power scope mounted. Something I wasn’t sure I would like, but I was certainly willing to give it a try.
The .375 Winchester
The .375 Winchester is a rimmed straight-wall cartridge. It’s derived from the old 38-55 cartridge from back in the late nineteenth century. The more modern .375 Winchester running on smokeless powder can push two-hundred-grain bullets around the 2400 FPS mark, which isn’t an insignificant thing. I always dreamed about using this rifle for a sneaky deer hunt, putting the moves on a nice buck deep in the forest. This year instead, I plan on using the Winchesters big 200 grain bullets on a bull elk. The deep and dark woods where we pursue elk in the fall are ideal for a rifle and cartridge like this.
The Ammunition situation
A quick look at the ammunition market gave me the too familiar discomfort that you have likely experienced in recent years. Boxed ammunition for this rifle was outrageous, topping six dollars a round. Even unloaded brass was more expensive than I would allow myself to spend, so I decided to roll some of my own loads. As it happens, I had a set of RCBS dies in my inventory, and a few boxes of Sierra 200 grain flat-point bullets. I could fashion the brass from the large volume of 30-30 cartridge cases I had accumulated over the years. With some sizing grease, some trimming and cleanup, I was quickly manufacturing my own .375 ammo.
To the field
It had been more than twenty years since I’d shot a .375 Win, so I couldn’t wait to see how this dream gun from the past would perform. After testing a few of my handloads for safety, I started shooting at the fifty-yard-line. I was quickly reminded of why I liked this gun all those years ago, its small size and easy handling characteristics make it a piece of cake to shoot. And yet when the hammer drops, there is a deep thunderous roar that lets you know this isn’t a 30-30.
I made some scope adjustments, to correct the zero of the rifle with my loads. I decided to zero it at about seventy-five yards, for the following reasons which may or may not be mistaken; This is certainly not a long-range rifle, the flat-nosed bullets are nowhere near as efficient in flight as our more modern bullets. And despite their muzzle velocity of near 2400 FPS, much of that velocity is spent by the time it reaches two-hundred yards. I figured that though I could shoot beyond three hundred yards, I probably wouldn’t with this rifle. And even more likely it would be used inside a hundred yards, the thick forests where our elk hide can get you into archery range if you are sneaky enough.
After zeroing my rifle, I set to getting good with it. Chances are I was going to have to use it quickly, so I spent a lot of time drawing the rifle, shooting at a pie-plate-sized target before reloading and repeating the shot. I did this until I felt comfortable enough to bet my hunt on it.
If you also like to occasionally dabble in more traditional guns, the way I chose to go is not a bad one at all. I love the classic design and smooth operation of this old Winchester. There just seems to be something alluring about the old straight-wall cartridges and these classic levers.
The positive control of the lever-action gives great reliability and finesse to the shooter, which is probably why these rifles are still going strong more than 100 years after their release. I cannot wait to get back into the silent forests this fall, silently skulking on soft black dirt with my palms clutching the hand-checkered walnut from the old New Haven plant. Look for me there.