Winchester .44 Mag. Pack Rifle Good Choice for Long Hunters
Photos & Story
by Glen I. Voorhees Jr.
Western Field Editor
The first commercially successful repeating rifle in America was a lever-action designed by B. Tyler Henry and manufactured by Oliver F. Winchester. Winchester was a shirt manufacturer before he built his firearms empire.
He started by buying the Henry Rifle Co. and parlayed it into the number one rifle company in the country at that time, the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. Many called the Winchester repeating rifle, "The gun that won the West."
The Winchester firm's fame in the 1800s was centered on the company's lever-action guns. Most famous was the 1873 chambered for center-fire cartridges, including the .32 WCF (.32-20), .38 WCF (.38-40), and .44 WCF (.44-40). Col. Samuel Colt was quick to see the popularity of the Winchester repeater and produced their Single Action Army (SAA) in these same calibers as well as in their best-selling .45 Colt. The Colt SAA was the most popular pistol on the frontier, and yet the Winchester company didn't chamber any of their lever guns to shoot the .45. Had they done so they might have possibly doubled the total number of '73s sold.
Like Colt, Winchester was aggressive in the promotion of his first major rifle, the 1866 (Yellow Boy). The Winchesters that followed were reliable and hard hitting for their day, and, due to good marketing management, available not only in the populous East but on the Western Frontier. A gun that could be "loaded on Sunday and shot all week"-a term that was first applied to the Spencer-served trappers, cowboys, hunters, outlaws, lawmen, Indians and Indian fighters.
Winchester Repeating Arms was later sold to the Olin Corporation, and later became the separate US Repeating Arms Co. (USRAC), which manufactured and marketed "Winchesters" under license from Olin. In recent years, USRAC, along with Browning, was acquired by Fabrique Nationale (FN). The lever-action rifles are still made in New Haven, CT, where Oliver Winchester had located his factory.
Winchester, of course, manufactures a number of rifles and shotguns with different action types, but in the last few years, the company has revitalized their lever-action line. Lever guns have always been a mainstay in the market, particularly with deep woods hunters, but other factors have helped reshape the entire firearms industry.
Winchester took note of the proliferation of Cowboy Action matches, and has catered to that rapidly-expanding market and to those of us who otherwise like reliving years gone by. There are also a growing number of new-generation hunters and woodsmen who are recognizing the value of these handy rifles in the field. It has come as quite an epiphany for today's backcountry wanderer to find what the outdoorsmen of yesterday took for granted. The lever gun is quick to the shoulder, compact for easy carry, and follow-up shots can be accomplished rapidly while keeping the rifle sights aligned on the target.
The new lever guns are available in calibers ranging from .22 to .45/70, and many calibers in between. There has even been a .405 Winchester promised on the 1895 action, and that .405 is finally here!
Last year Winchester introduced a specially configured 1894 Short Rifle. Dubbed the "Pack Rifle," it is designed as a special "deep woods" gun. This new addition to an old line of rifles is not a Cowboy Action gun but a bona fide field rifle. Chambered in .44 Mag., it has all of the specific field features one could ask for. First among these is its .44 Mag. Caliber chambering. In my opinion, the .44 Mag. is one of the foremost short-range cartridges available, coupled with the fact that one can accompany it with a revolver of the same caliber.
Over the years I have been working and exploring the wild regions of the Gila National Forest of New Mexico and I have come to appreciate the value of rifle/pistol combinations. For everyday use these combos make sense to me.
The major ammunition manufacturers are producing fine hunting
loads, capable of handling all but the largest of North American
game. If you want a steamroller punch, Randy Garrett's 310-grain
Hammerhead would be your bullet of choice. Garrett's bullets have
the broadest meplat in the industry. If you are not familiar with
the term "meplat," it is a measurement of the flat striking
surface at the front of the bullet. Garrett's .44 Mags. will handle
anything on the North American continent.
Winchester has reached back to an earlier period to produce this new rifle. They went back to 1892 and adapted the best features of their "short rifle," then added a few extras that woodsmen of today will find useful. First, they widened the forend and added a pistol grip for better control, and then they shortened the barrel to 18 inches (standard 94 length is 20 inches), designed a magazine, and installed fore and aft sling studs. Other special features include a steel nose cap and removable front hood sight. When using open sights, the brass bead front sight is easy to see in all light conditions. Voilà-you have the Pack Rifle.
Before I get to the test firing of this rifle I want to sound off about some other products I used while working with this rifle. First, I had the opportunity to assess a new advanced dual-illuminating riflescope. Trijicon Products has developed what might be the best low-light scope on the market today. By the end of next year's hunting season I will have had enough time in the field with it to verify this claim. As it stands now, I have not seen one better.
I mounted the Trijicon scope on the Pack Rifle using Warne alloy steel bases and quick detachable scope rings, arguably the finest detachable scope rings in the country. I am changing all of my rifles to these mounts. They also make fixed rings for those rifles that don't have open sights. When I go into the wilderness, I prefer to have iron sights available in case there is an accident that renders the scope useless. Another advantage is the ability to use one scope for several rifles. I have five Winchesters and three Marlins on which I can move the scope from one to the other with just minor adjustments. The same holds true with quick detachable mounts and rings on my bolt guns. In reality, one scope could be used on all of your rifles, if you use the Warne Quick Detachable Mounts.
The Trijicon AccuPoint illuminated fiber optic system affords fast target acquisition under all light conditions. The illuminated post automatically adjusts the level of light needed for high transitional speed and consistent accuracy. Trijicon uses advanced fiber-optic/tritium for illumination. This combination of lighting implementation affords optimum illumination without the use of failure-prone batteries.
My planned mountain lion hunt was postponed this year because of a horse accident that rendered me unable to ride for several months. In the past two years, my lion hunts have taken us to the shadowy reaches of the Gila Wilderness. This scope has proven itself capable of providing adequate lighting even under the poorest of light conditions. In essence, this scope can extend your shooting hours and improve your accuracy in poor light.
I have detached the scope and put it back on the rifle several times to see if it would hold its zero. Not once did I have to adjust the scope because it didn't go back to where it had been sighted in.
Another accessory that I planned to use on this hunt is designed to help you see through the gloom of the dark recesses in the deep woods. It is Steiner's new Nighthunter 12x56 binoculars. For decades Germany has been famous for its optics, and these glasses represent the best of the best. This binocular is armor-coated with non-slip rubber, and has front and rear lens covers. With individually-adjustable eyepieces, they make the ideal companion for the outdoorsman.
I wasn't aware of their ability to penetrate the gloom of dusk until I was glassing some deer at the edge of a field. The doe were surveying the field before they came out to feed. I became aware of a slight movement behind them, and after a closer look I was able to see a nicely formed buck. I brought the Steiner's down and replaced the binoculars with my riflescope. I could not pick out the buck. Back to the Steiners, and I was able to count eight points on the deer. I found out how these binoculars got their name. There will be more on these remarkable Nighthunter binocs in the future.
Back to the rifle! The wood on my rifle is straight-grain walnut with a deep rich color. The wood-to-metal fit is tight, and the rubber butt-pad has been installed with care. The trigger has a lot of play and lets off at 5 pounds. Compare this to a 94 I have that was built in 1932. It has a trigger that any custom shop would be happy to turn out on a rifle. There is no play and the trigger snaps at a crisp 3 pounds.
There is one other feature I wish Winchester would retrieve from their older rifles, and that is a return to a refined ladder-style semi-buckhorn sight. Those sights were a big improvement over the fold-down sight that they are using today.
At the range, I found the Pack Rifle to be reliable and accurate. I have shot about 300 rounds of Winchester, Federal, Cor-Bon and Garrett ammunition through this rifle and haven't had one malfunction. Accuracy was consistent with all ammo, about 2-2° inches. I did, however, shoot one group with Garrett 310-grain ammunition that measured 1-7/10 inches. This is precision shooting for a lever gun.
The Pack Rifle has a 5-round capacity and weighs 6 pounds. The suggested retail price is $484, but that might vary from market to market. This is a specialized "deep woods" gun that is easy to carry or strap to a backpack, or in my case, slip into a saddle scabbard.
Today's long hunter would do well to look seriously at the Winchester Pack Rifle for those extended trips, working, hunting, or exploring the backcountry.
Winchester Firearms (US Repeating Arms Co. Inc.), 275 Winchester Ave., Dept. GWK, Morgan, UT 84050; phone: 801-876-3440; on-line: www.winchester-guns.com.
Garrett Cartridges Inc., PO Box 178, Dept. GWK, Chehalis, WA 98532: on-line: www.garrettcartridges.com.
Trijicon Products Inc., 49385 Shafer Ave., PO Box 930059, Dept. GWK, Wixom, MI 48393; phone: 800-338-0563; on-line: www.trijicon-inc.com.
Warne Manufacturing Company, 9057 Southeast Jannsen Rd., Dept. GWK, Clackamas, OR 97015; phone: 503-657-5590; on-line: www.warnescopemounts.com.
Steiner Binoculars, 97 Foster Rd., Suite 5, Dept. GWK, Moorestown, NJ 08057; phone: 800-257-7742; on-line: www.pioneer-research.com.