The Winchester model 54 rarely receives credit for the great rifle it is. The 54 was first introduced by the Winchester Firearms Company in 1925 after 3 years of development. It was the first successful production run bolt action for the Winchester Firearms company and the start of legacy that is carried on today. The Model 54 was released to public at the peak of run in the stock market. Investing confidence was high and disposable income was plentiful. The new rifle was sleek and beautiful and was soon taken to heart by many sportsmen.
The Roaring 20's showed great sales and interest for the new rifle, however, the party was soon over as America slipped into the Great Depression and the Roaring 20's came to a screeching halt. Money no longer easily flowed, unemployment was rampant, and the sales for the 54 soon dropped. Winchester continued to produce the 54 through 1936 when it was replaced by the enduring model 70. During its 11 year run, a little more than 50,000 rifles were produced although the specific number is not known. Even with the passing of the 54, the mold had been cast and the model 70 would soon take its predecessor's reputation to new heights.
The 54 was catalogued in 10 calibers; 22 Hornet, 220 Swift, .250 Savage, .257 Roberts, .270 Winchester , 30-30 Winchester , .
30-06, and 3 metric calibers of 7x57 MM, 7.65X53 MM, and 9X57 MM. Besides being the first bolt action for Winchester , it also pioneered in two new production chamberings in the 220 Swift and .270.
Of the 10 original calibers 8 are still in modern production. As I was starting into my gun collection after college, I was in the mode of purchase everything and give it a whirl. I had been lamenting for years about being unable to spend money on guns rather than books and it was time to make up some lost ground. This resulted in a sometimes irritated wife and a rapidly growing gun collection. Some of my purchases, I did not care for and sold, others I kept as safe queens, and others I fell in love with.
I would scour the weekly nickel adds and papers with the dedication of a man possessed looking for the next purchase to add to my collection. One day, I came across an add for a Winchester Model 54 for a meager $250.00. I quickly jumped to the phone, made my call, and was on the way to the owner's house in a matter of about 20 minutes. The gun was in overall great shape and chambered in the legendary 30 Government 06 (30-06). It had seen many years of service and had suffered someone mounting a side mount scope to the breach.
The threaded mounting holes were still present and glaringly pronounced the firearm as "non-collector grade". The stock had been treated with linseed oil, but the gouges and scratches from years of use could still be seen. The buckhorn sites had been removed and a Redfield adjustable peep site now adorned the receiver. Other than that, the gun looked like it was in original condition, complete with factory steel butt pad. This gun had a history and for the life of me I wish it could tell all the stories it has seen. Always in the market for a new "shooter" I took the gun, called my buddy Joe, and headed for the range.
Once at the range, Joe and I gave it another once over and found the bore and internal mechanisms to be in almost pristine condition. Someone had definitely taken the time to clean and oil the finer working parts. This was my first 30-06 so I had to use factory ammo for the first shoots. As I loaded up the magazine for the first time, I caught Joe grinning, "You know, that's gonna kick the hell out of you" as his smile got bigger. I knew what he meant as the original steel butt pad wasn't exactly a Pachmeyer Decelerator.
I wasn't too worried though as I had suffering through several of my own "magnum eyebrows", but the thought was definitely present as I squeezed the trigger. The first shot yielded several surprises. Foremost, the felt recoil was actually quite mild and easily manageable even with the steel butt pad. The second was the fine trigger release.
Joe owns a Sporterized 54 which has a trigger sear which rivals the lever release on a medieval catapult. I had no reason to expect anything different with mine. The first ½" of trigger pull was light with no-resistance but came to quick and solid stop when it reached the sear release. There it became a fine, crisp break with a pull of 2.5 pounds.
The "slack" in the trigger was easily manageable soI quickly sent 5 more rounds down range. Minus the first shot where I flinched, the gun shot a 100 yard grouping of 1.5" MOA. Not too shabby for a peep site on its first run.
I had already decided the gun was part of the "permanent members club" in my safe and would be with me for quite awhile. As I shot the gun, I began to like it more and more. I was able to keep groups in the 2" ring at 100 yards consistently from prone, kneeling, or standing and able to reduce it to 1.5" when shooting from the bench.
I have only used the 54 in bear hunting, tending to favor my old 270 for deer and a magnum caliber for elk, however, the 54 is my faithful saddle companion accompanying me on horse rides and hikes into the back woods. The slender profile combined with the quick target acquisition makes it one of the more functional rifles I have used for scabbard applications. It fits really nice on my pack as well. As a note of interest, the 54 does not seem to carry the prestige or collection significance of say the Pre-64 model 70. This baffles me. The model 54 was produced for 11 years with a number of around 50,000.
Out of those, only a fraction remains in their unaltered state. Many fell prey to mounting of optics although the high opening bolt made it difficult. Some suffered shortened stocks, refinishing, and other modifications.
Still others have fallen by roadside, suffering from the worst fate a gun can endure, neglect. By comparison, the Pre-64 model 70 was produced for 27 years with production numbers in the 600,000 range. You can find a pre 64 Winchester 70 just about anywhere, but when was the last time you saw a model 54 on your dealer's rack? Hmmmmmmmm.
Kelsey Hilderbrand is a life-long hunter and outdoorsman. Born and raised in rural eastern Washington State and a graduate of Washington State University. Kelsey is both a veteran hunter and the founder of High Mountain Hunting Supplies