In 1992, U.S. Repeating Arms, the manufacturer of Winchester rifles and shotguns since 1981, set a plan in place for an entirely new production facility located near the original plant in New Haven, Connecticut. With the new facility, USRA replaced its old manufacturing equipment with modern machinery capable of producing with cost-efficiency the receivers and bolts for an improved version of the Pre-‘64 action.
Although available on a limited basis in 1992, the official return of the Pre-‘64 type action Model 70 was 1994. Dubbed the “Classic”, this action was a return to the things that made the Model 70 famous. Featuring a full-length claw extractor, receiver mounted ejector, coned breech and controlled round feeding (CRF), the Classic had the look, feel, and function of its revered forefather. It wasn’t an exact copy, however, and actually offered several improvements over the Pre-’64 action.
While it remains a measuring stick for all bolt-action rifles, the Pre-’64 Model 70 action wasn’t perfect. Many expert rifleman agree one of the weak points of the original action was a lack of shooter protection against gas in the event of a ruptured case. The Classic action offers a significant improvement. Unlike the Pre-’64 action, the bolt body of the Classic Model 70 is drilled in two places to divert gases safely down into the magazine and has a gas block mounted to the extractor collar to prevent gas from entering the left lug raceway. This system is widely considered the best gas system of any Model 70, and offers the shooter unparalleled protection.
The Classic action also retained the anti-bind slot added to the right lug of all Model 70’s made after 1968. Obviously not found on the Pre-’64, this anti-bind slot assisted in reliable function and feeding and was considered an improvement over the original action. Combine this with the coned breech, massive claw extractor, and controlled round feeding, the Classic Model 70 action ensures smooth and reliable feeding a shooter can count on. As a testament to this, the Classic Model 70 was recently the only American made rifle to be recommended for the Zimbabwe Professional Hunter Proficiency Exam.
It is important to note here that during the infancy of the Winchester Short Magnums (WSM) and the Winchester Super Short Magnums (WSSM) there were some reported issues of feeding with these cartridges only. It’s my understanding that this issue was an easy fix for the factory or local gunsmith, and was remedied after the first production runs.
In addition to the above, another significant change was made with the new Classic. For the first time, a short-action CRF version designed for the .308 family of cartridges appeared. While the Pre-’64 Model 70 came in only one receiver length and used a bolt stop extension and magazine partition for smaller cartridges, the Classic offered a true short-action receiver reducing weight and length. Coupled with the Featherweight stock and 22″ barrel, these short-actions made a wonderful mountain rifle which proved easy to carry and handle.
The ultra-reliable trigger and often copied 3-position safety that helped make the Pre-’64 Model 70 famous remained on the Classic Model 70. Like most production rifles manufactured in today’s litigious society, the Classic was known for terribly heavy triggers out of the box. Fortunately, the simplicity of the Classic Model 70 trigger enabled owners to tweak and adjust their Model 70 to suit their needs.
During the 14 years of production, Winchester offered the Classic action in numerous variations ranging from the Safari Express to the stainless, synthetic-stocked Shadow Elite. Three versions, however, stood the test of time and deserve mention above the rest.
At the top of the Classic line was the Super Grade. Featuring a trim, sporter-style select walnut stock with black fore-end tip and cut checkering, the Super Grade was also fitted with an etched steel stock crossbolt and inletted swivel studs for a custom look. The Super Grade was available in a short or long action, and was fitted with a 24″ barrel except for magnum chamberings, which wore a 26″ barrel. Surprisingly, the Super Grade was priced within the reach of most riflemen. With an MSRP of $1036, the Super Grade could be found at most large retailers for prices in the $800 range depending on caliber.
For the traditionalist, Winchester offered the Sporter. Featuring a satin finished walnut stock with cut checkering and pistol grip, the Sporter had the classic lines that made the Model 70 famous. Like the Super Grade, the Sporter was offered in a short or long action and fitted with a 24″ or 26″ barrel depending on chambering. Finally, the Sporter was offered in right and left-hand versions.
At the heart of the Classic line was the Featherweight. Named “Bolt Action of the Century” by Shooting Times, the Featherweight is arguably one of the most attractive rifles ever manufactured. Featuring a light and trim satin finished walnut stock with a Schnable fore-end and cut checkering, the Featherweight was offered in either a short or long action. Until the introduction of the WSM calibers (which wore a 24″ barrel), all Featherweights were fitted with a heavily-tapered 22″ barrel. At the end of production, the Featherweight was also offered in a walnut-stocked stainless version.
In 2006, the Model 70 was set to celebrate its 70th anniversary. Unfortunately, the party never got started. On January 17th of 2006, USRA announced it would be closing the doors on the New Haven facility, ending production of the legendary Model 70 and Model 94 rifles (the Model 1300 shotgun was also discontinued).
After the announcement, many articles were written about the Model 70. Many gun writers, in retrospect, indicated they had seen the writing on the wall for the Model 70. In the later years of production, they had noticed a lack of fit and finish, accuracy issues, as well as other quality control problems. While I don’t doubt their experiences, I can only speak from my own.
I own five Classic Model 70’s; two are Sporters and three are Featherweights. All but one of these rifles was manufactured in the final years of New Haven production, with the lone exception being manufactured in the mid-1990s. Each of these rifles is wonderfully accurate with factory ammunition and has good fit and finish. The least accurate of the five is a Featherweight in .243 Winchester that averages 1.25″ 3-shot groups at 100 yards. The most accurate is a late-model Featherweight in .270 Winchester which consistently puts 3 shots into 0.5″ to 0.75″ groups with 150 grain Winchester Power Points and 130 grain Sierra Pro Hunter handloads. The other three rifles put three shots into 1″ groups all day long. Needless to say, I’m sold on the USRA Classic Model 70.
In October 2007, Fabrique Nationale of Belguim (FN), owner of Winchester Repeating Arms (WRA), announced that the Winchester Model 70 would be back. Using their U.S. military machine gun manufacturing facility in Columbia, South Carolina, FN began production on the new Model 70. While maintaining the Classic action, FN redesigned the trigger mechanism. According to many reports, the new trigger mechanism is an improvement over the original design and is actually easier to adjust. Since I haven’t adjusted one of these new triggers, I can’t comment on their ease of use.
Initially offered in Super Grade, Featherweight Deluxe, and Sporter Deluxe models, the new Model 70 started arriving in stores in September of 2008 and carried a premium price tag. I’ve handled several and can say they are beautiful rifles, nearly indistinguishable from those made in New Haven. According to Winchesters 2009 catalog, the Classic Model 70 will again be offered in non-deluxe Sporter and Featherweight versions, bringing the price down to what shooters were accustomed to prior to the announcement of the closure of the New Haven facility.
Regardless of where the Classic Model 70 is being manufactured, it’s sure to be a classic.
© Copyright 2009 by the Western Rifleman. All rights reserved.