(DG Rifles Part 2): The Pre-64 Winchester

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

We know it is the bullet that kills the Cape buffalo and not the rifle - but that rifle used by the PH, or the wilderness guide taking hikers through big 6 country, or the game ranger against a charging buffalo or elephant or lion or hippo must be abundantly over-engineered to be passed down through generations of users.

I shot my first Cape buffalo with a .375 H&H and I remember that at the time the unusually large cartridge interested me more than did the rifle. I was a school kid of 17, in my last year in high school and was visiting family that owned a ranch bordering the Kruger National Park during the winter holiday. This is warm country being at about 1,000 ft. elevation and only 100 miles from the warm Indian Ocean. Hippo and buffalo and elephant were around almost every day damaging the sugar cane that was irrigated with water from the Crocodile River, which forms the southern border of the KNP.

My uncle Pieter who had no sons (one beautiful daughter two years younger than me) had been scanning his sugar cane fields from where we sat on the verandah overlooking the stretch of river, enjoying cold, homemade pineapple beer my pretty cousin had brought us. Picking up his binoculars he said to me after a few moments: “Do you want to shoot a buffalo?”. It was more a statement than a question. “Get the Winchester in the lounge and come with me”. The year was 1963, so it must have been the iconic “Pre-64”.

The hunt turned out to be a no-brainer in one sense and a “brainer” in another. There was no pep talk about “dangerous game” - in fact that term flew here over the Atlantic with PanAm many years later.

We met the bull head on at about 30 yards in dense bush and my uncle just whispered in Afrikaans, our home language: “Don’t waste time, boy!”, so I shot it between the eyes with the express sights on the Winchester and that was it. The previous day he had made me shoot one shot offhand from about 50 meter with the .375 at a 6” diameter blaze he cut with a machete into a marula tree trunk. The bullet hole was by some good fortune acceptably centered and he just blew out an “mphh” through his nose and said nothing.

Once we had made certain that the bullet had not missed the buffalo’s brain, he smiled and said: “Now I can call the game ranger and tell him we had to shoot a buffalo in self defense - which in fact it was, you being so slow”. Had it been a side-on heart shot I would have needed to do some explaining. Keep the Winchester here in case there were lion following him”, he said and went to get a tractor and front loader to load the buffalo.

To be honest, I full well knew that that big cartridge was not the reason the buffalo was dead - if I had my .303 Lee Enfield with me the outcome would have been the same for that particular shot. The instinctive immediate reload action using the bolt was slick and fast - and that was my introduction to the pre-64 Winchester Model 70.

(All image credits: Winchester website and "The Survivalist")

Twenty six years later I shot a 2,000 lb eland in then Rhodesia, again with a .375 H&H Pre-64 Winchester Model 70 and this time took more time to study the rifle - particularly the action. It was in some ways similar to my Musgrave .308W which was also based on the Mauser 98 design.

The post WW II Winchester M70 is a true hunter’s rifle, and the DG version had all the reliability you needed. It had impeccable ancestry - but Winchester themselves interfered into that good lineage with varying obscene levels of adulterating the gene pool. Their initial post 1964 model, in order to save production costs was called an “improved” version by them - which is what I learned to be the ultimate employment of the USA term “spin”.

Those first post 1964 rifles put a negative tick on the Winchester name for a long time - maybe forever. To be honest, it did not stay “the ugliest rifle". The final rendering of the “post 1964” M70s are appealing, and a pleasure to shoot. I can attest to this as I have shot and examined a late model in 6.5x55 in Colorado and can not fault it for non dangerous game hunting.

This thread is about rifles to hunt Cape buffalo, and not kudu or blesbok or impala, so back to the .375 H&H and .458 Win Mag Winchester M70 pre-64:

Not all pre-64 Winchesters were created equal, and few USA shooters know that the initial Winchester .375 H&H and .458 Win Mag rifles had a similiar problem of cracking their stocks behind the tang as the Ruger African. History does not distinctly list the reasons, save for third parties to vaguely suggest that the “double radiused” tang design of the old Model 54 that remained in the initial Model 70 receivers was the cause of it.

The bulk of the discussion in the previous blog about the Ruger African centered about its .375 cracking stocks at the tang. The American hunter who takes his new rifle on maybe a once-off hunt to Africa after dangerous game would not like a small possibility of a cracked stock to be at the back of his mind before or during his trip. For the Africa PH or game ranger who spends his life around lion, elephant, hippo and buffalo his rifle needs to have an abundance of over-engineered strength to last for at least three generations with lots of shooting without any possibility whatsoever of a breakdown.

Those Pre-64 Winchesters from 1936 to 1946 were not suitable for hunting any game, let alone anything that is of a mind to kill the hunter. Who knows if the "double radius" tang spin was true or not? In a litiguous society like the USA no rifle manufacturer will publicly acknowledge a known design flaw. It took Winchester all of ten years before they did the re-design and build changes to resolve this serious issue.

The double radius tang from the Model 54, and used on the pre-war "pre-64" Winchester Model 70.

Examining the fixes that Winchester made to the stock cracking issue the reader may see some obvious pointers by which to address the original Ruger African stock cracking issue as well. These are basic mechanics of force application and stress concentrations which if adhered to will prevent stock cracking to occur. These simple basics were applied to all the Mausers of Western Europe, the Mauser derivatives from Eastern Europe, as well as by the commercial and custom dangerous game rifle builders in England and South Africa:

1. Design a maximum size flat surface recoil lug at exactly 90 degrees to the recoil shock impulse direction that the design can accommodate in order to face the maximum effective area of wood that can accept and absorb that recoil impulse.

2. Do not design this recoil lug to also accept the main hold-down screw but have a screw that directly pulls the flat surface of the receiver exactly 90 degrees onto the bedding area.

3. For hard recoiling big bores assist the recoil absorbing wood surface by increasing its bearing surface by using a horisontal flat surfaced crossbar against which the main recoil lug will bear.

4. If necessary add a second horisontal crossbar at another suitable position - but still in front of the pistol grip and the tang screw.

5. Do not allow any hard mating between the tang radius and the pistol grip wood - but do so without an ugly wood to metal gap. (To achieve this entails time consuming individual inletting by expert craftsmen which adds to the cost).

Because Winchester was geared for bulk mechanical production processes and not employing custom inletting experts, with the post WW II Pre-64 Winchester Model 70 the design engineers worked around this last issue in a rather clever way as will be seen.

Below is a sketch of a post World War II M70 action. It had no crossbar recoil supports for even the Magnums except for the .375 H&H, the .416 Remington Magnum and the .458 Win Mag. I inserted drawings of the flat faced crossbar recoil arresters in red, as well as indicating that the rear radius of the tang should have no direct contact with the pistol grip wood.

Stock cracking from recoil impulse typically happens behind the tang into the pistol grip due to insufficient support at the main recoil lug.This causes the recoil impulse to be partially absorbed by the small radius of wood that surrounds the tang radius. If this happens, the stress concentration into that small part of wood is severe, so all the recoil force needs to be absorbed fully by the main recoil lug arrangement. There should be no hard interfacing between the tang radius and the wood around it that can transfer any impulse into the wood at that point.

A close inspection of European and locally designed and built rifles will show that the inletting is such that there is no chafing marks between metal and wood behind the tang - but even so, no ugly gap between metal and wood must show.

That is a hard act to accomplish in mass produced rifles. How did Winchester solve this problem? AND have it done by a machine mass producing the inlet work? Elegantly, to say the least: by hiding the a required gap behind the tang under an elegant looking flange:

This false tang flange hides the interfacing radius between the tang proper and the wood

The actual tang has a safe, and visually unacceptable gap behind it so as to not touch the wood hidden underneath the covering tang flange.

Time went by and the post 1964 Model 70s removed Winchester as a name in supplying good enough dangerous game rifles, and the excellent "pre-64" Model 70s became relics of a bygone area. And then the "New pre-64" Winchester saw he light of day, and even more add-ons to prevent stock cracking were incorporated:

A second full recoil lug was added under the barrel, together with crossbars (not cross bolts) at the main recoil lug and another one behind the magazine. The rifle was now called the "Safari Express".

Time will tell whether American hunters will forget the post 1964 Model 70 and trust the new millenium "pre-1964" Winchester to bring it in numbers on a Cape buffalo hunt to Southern Africa.

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