The Hobby Gunsmith

Project -

Smoothing the action of a Winchester 94

The 1894 Winchester lever action rifle was specifically designed by John Moses Browning as the first lever action rifle to be marketed for use with the new smokeless powders. The Winchester 94 has been in nearly continuous production since 1894, which makes it one of the most successful products in history. This gun makes a fine entry-level Cowboy Action lever gun and new owners of these successful rifles will want to know how to slick them up so they shoot well. Unfortunately, the current design of this rifle does not lend itself to being turned into a finely tuned shooter without some major modifications that are beyond the scope of this article.

The classic lines of the Winchester 94 make this an attractive first gun for the cowboy action shooter.

   The Winchester was originally designed for the longer casings of more traditional rifle ammunition and many argue its linage prevents the action from being optimal for the shorter cartridges of the newer models. The design and manufacturing methods have evolved to make it more attractive in a competitive market, a cross-bolt safety was added that can cause problems, and the trigger and hammer assembly were modified from the original design. The Winchester model 94 in this project is a nine-shot Trapper in .44 Magnum caliber. It has been used in Cowboy Action Shooting with mixed results and improvements were warranted. The trigger was a little heavy and the action was somewhat stiff.

   Although the Winchester 94 has been in production since 1894, they made significant changes to the gun at serial number 4,580,000, which appears to be the point when they changed from a leaf hammer spring to a coil hammer spring. I understand that additional changes were made at around serial number 6,000,000, which appears to be the change to a rebounding hammer and the addition of the cross-bolt safety.

   Before doing any work on your gun, please check and verify that there are no cartridges in the chamber or magazine.  Never work on a loaded gun.  The place to begin modifying or thoroughly cleaning the Winchester 94 is to take the gun completely apart, which is necessary for either cleaning or modifying the weapon.  Compared to the Winchester model 92, the 94 are very easy to take apart and clean.  It's also very easy to reassemble.  We began taking the gun apart by removing the tang screw and sliding the rear stock to the rear and away from the tang.  This reveals the trigger and hammer and hammer spring assembly.  Remove the hammer pivot screw from the left side of the receiver.  The hammer pivot screw is located at the rear of the receiver just behind and slightly below the saddle running screw and the below the cross-bolt safety.

   Before removing the tang and trigger assembly, use a small finishing nail to lock the hammer spring with tension.  This is done by cocking the hammer and looking at the rear of the hammer coil spring guide bar until you find a small hole that has revealed itself from up inside the spring.  Place the nail through the hole and carefully with lower the hammer by pulling the trigger.  The nail should now be holding the spring tension of the main spring.

The lower tang comes down and to the rear as a complete assembly.

   After removing the hammer pivot screw you should be able to remove the entire trigger and lower tang assembly by sliding down and to the rear of the receiver.  There's a bushing in the hammer pivot so the parts should not come apart unless the bushing slides out.  I like to place the screw back into the bushing just to make sure everything stays in place.  Set that assembly aside.

The hammer pivot screw hole is illustrated in this photo.  It is on the right side of the receiver and is the lower empty hole.  The top hole is the cross-bolt safety hole and the smaller one is for the saddle ring.

   With the lower tang and trigger assembly removed from the receiver, the next step is to release the bolt from the lever assembly.  Removing a screw onto the left side of receiver, just below the top of the frame and just slightly behind the barrel, will reveal a drift pin that holds the lever assembly to the bolt.  You should see a small hole on the right side of frame opposite the screw you removed, which is where you should insert a drift punch to push the pin out through the screw hole.    Set the pin aside for safekeeping.

This photo shows the screw hole that exposes the drift pin that is also the lever pivot pin.  It must be drifted out through this hole.


   The bolt should still not slide out because the action of the lever is still restricted by the carrier.  There is another screw on the left side of frame about an inch or so forward of the hammer pivot screw.  This screw is used to hold the carrier in place, which is restricting the lever from coming out.  Remove this screw from the left side and the lever should swing down enough to allow the carrier to be moved out of the way.  Looking up inside the receiver you should see the carrier coming loose and the bolt should slide out the rear of receiver for easy removal.

This photo shows the drift punch being used through the frame to remove the drift pin that serves as the lever pivot.

   The final step in removing the lever assembly is to remove a cross-sliding pin at the lower front of the receiver.  This is a drift and but it's held in place by a screw is located on the underside of the lever assembly.  Remove this screw and you should be able to very easily drift the pivot pin out either side of the receiver.  The lever assembly should now be easily removed out through the bottom of the receiver.

   On each side of frame you'll see two this very small screws.  These are the guide bar retaining screws.  Carefully remove the small screw on the left side of receiver and remove the left guide bar from inside the receiver.  I like to put the screw right back into the receiver so it does not get lost.  Remove the right guide bar also in the same way.  Behind the loading gate you'll see another screw on the right side of frame remove this screw and remove the loading gate.  Look through the loading gate and you'll see another small screw hold retaining a spring.  Remove this screw and lift the spring out of its recess inside the receiver.

   Turning your attention to the front of the gun, remove the screws from the two barrel-bands.  The front band should slide off the front and I like to put the screws right back in place in the bands so they do not get lost.  Remove the screw from the magazine end plug, but be careful the spring tension does not launch the plug across the room.  I like to hold the magazine cap with my hand I remove the screw.  With the screw removed, relax pressure on the magazine plug and let the spring push it out.  Remove the spring and the magazine to follower.  This wood stock and the magazine tube should now be loose so you can remove it and the rear barrel band.

   With the exception in of the trigger and lower tang assembly, the Winchester 94 is now taken about as far apart is it can and is now ready for cleaning.  If the gun has been used extensively since the last cleaning, it will be quite dirty inside and little gun scrubber or mineral spirits should allow you to float most of the fouling out of the receiver.  Thoroughly cleaning inside the receiver and use a bore brush up through the rear of the receiver.  This should allow thorough cleaning of the model 94.

Simply simply reversing the order of disassembly can reassemble the gun.  We will be illustrating the modifications to this gun along with the assembly instructions next month.  In the meantime, we need to have an understanding of how this gun works in order to appreciate the changes to be made.

Understanding this Gun

   There are many people who claim the 94 cannot be cleaned up and turned into a good rifle. I feel this is an inappropriate argument, because the most common use for this rifle is Cowboy Action Shooting (CAS) and hunting. Let's face some CAS facts. The 94 does have design limits that prevent it from being a premier action rifle, however, most CAS shooters are not top contenders. Most people are in the sport for fun and can benefit from having a reasonably priced and reliable gun that is also very strong.


The lower tang, trigger, and hammer assembly showing the orientation of the various parts.


   To better understand the trigger and hammer function of the modern 94, study the photo of the lower tang assembly. Note the hammer spring guide rod with a two-prong fork on the forward end (left) retains the coil mainspring. Note the two indentations on the rear of the hammer. The two prongs of the hammer spring guide rod ride in those two indentations. When the hammer is cocked, the pivoting action of the hammer causes only the top prong of the hammer spring guide rod to engage the hammer. The distance (leverage) from the hinge pin to drive the hammer forward is sufficient to drive the hammer forward and strike the firing pin. When the hammer is cocked, the pressure on the upper part of the hammer is much like that of any hammer and spring combination. Cocking the hammer also engages the sear, which holds the hammer in the full cock position until the trigger is pulled. There is no half-cock notch on this rifle and there is no need for one as long as we do not modify the design of the trigger and hammer.

   It is important to understand that the hammer and trigger sears do not come in contact with each other on the New Model 94. There is a lever safety that protrudes through the lower tang and must be depressed by the lever in order to release the hammer. Essentially, the trigger engages the lever safety and the lever safety engages the hammer sear. This is the cause of one of the biggest problems with the New Model 94, which causes the trigger to have over a half inch of travel before engaging anything. Do not tamper with this safety feature because it prevents the gun from firing before the bolt is securely locked in place.

   I think of the New Model 94 as having three hammer positions: resting, striking, and cocked. In the resting position, both the upper and lower prongs of the hammer spring guide rod are in contact with the appropriate recesses in the hammer. A balance between the two causes the hammer to remain centered and away from the firing pin. This is needed to allow the cross-bolt safety to be engaged without being obstructed by the hammer.

   When the hammer has been pushed or pulled to the rear and is engaging the sear, it is in the cocked position. Pulling the trigger moves the hammer forward to momentarily strike the firing pin. I call this the striking position. When the hammer is cocked and the trigger pulled, the hammer is released and pushed forward by the energy of the coil spring exerting pressure on the upper part of the hammer through the upper prong of the hammer spring guide rod. The hammer accelerates forward until it reaches the rest position and the lower prong of the hammer spring guide rod engages the lower notch in the hammer. The lower notch is slightly below the hammer pivot bushing so it exerts a slight force to slow the hammer as the hammer moves forward. As the lower prong engages the lower slot, the upper prong of the hammer spring guide rod disengages and stops providing any more forward energy.

   Between the resting and striking positions, the hammer is moving forward only from its own forward inertia and there is a very slight slowing action from the lower prong in its notch. The hammer strikes the firing pin and the cartridge is fired. What does this mean? It means there are a lot of parts moving around in that trigger assembly and a lot of mass and inertia needed. It means that the Winchester New Model 94 will shoot safely and reliably in a variety of weather conditions for hunting. It also means it is not the most suitable design for CAS, but it is certainly good enough for most cowboy action shooters.

   Is this simply not the right gun for CAS competition? That depends on your point of view. The top shooters will use expensive toggle-bolt rifles that have been slicked by the best smiths in the country and this is not a gun for them. I think this is a good gun for the rest of us who are content with having a fun day. For us, the difference between a Winchester 94 and a perfect rifle will be only a second or two in total stage time, which does not matter to us.

   The good news is that this gun can be improved a little in just a few hours. I have determined that it is possible to custom build a new trigger and hammer for the gun, but the effort would be so great that it's probably better to simply buy a different gun and use the 94 as a backup if the perfect trigger is needed. I may create a project to illustrate how to make these changes, but they are probably not warranted.

   Next month we will make several modifications to the Winchester 94 that will make it a better shooter.  These will include the lightening of several springs that will smooth the action of this rifle.