Friday, April 18, 2003

An Ingenious solution to a nonexistent problem for a hostile market at the wrong time

Kim du Toit recently posted the Winchester Model 88 as a Gratuitous Gun Pic.

In many respects it may have been the finest lever action ever designed and yet it was discontinued in 1973 after less than twenty years of production. It is one of those puzzles: a good gun which never found traction in the market. Among the reasons shooters never took to it:

Caliber choice-- There were no old favorites (like the 30-30) to appeal to traditionalists. The 284 was a new, breakthrough design that did not look like a big game cartridge. (In truth, the 284 never won wide appeal on its own and its fame really rests on the many wildcats it spawned). Plus, it was 7mm and that was not a popular size here in America before the Remington 7mm Mag came out in 1962. The 308 in the 60s and early 70s was seen as the 30-06's weaker little brother. Traditional lever guys preferred bigger, slower bullets (like the 35 Remington's 200 grain) and so were leery of the 243's fast 85 grain as a deer round. And except for the 243, there was no beginner whitetail cartridge-- the 284, 308, and 358 were thumpers when shot by a 90 pound twelve year old.

Tradition-- A lot of the appeal of the Winchester and Marlin models rests on their heritage (real and cinematic). They are cowboy guns. The sleek modern Win 88 did not tap into that.

Wrong differentiator-- The 88 was a lever that was supposed to possess bolt-action accuracy. No one denies that it was more accurate that a Marlin 336 or Winchester 1894. The action and one-piece stock helped as did the box magazine (permitting the use of spitzers) and the caliber choice. HOWEVER, levergun guys are not accuracy freaks. They are more concerned with handling characteristics for quick shots. For that type of shooting the 88 was a little lighter at the muzzle than traditional tubular magazine models. For me, that translates into a less handy rifle.

On the other hand, the 88 usually disappointed accuracy freaks, because they tended to compare it to their hot bolt-actions. No matter what the inherent accuracy of the Winchester, the rounded stock makes it harder to shoot consistently off sandbags. So you almost always got tighter groups with the bolt actions of that era which tended to have wide flat-bottomed stocks. Further, while the 308 was flatter-shooting than a 30-30, it still came up short compared to the 270 or 30-06 out of a 24" barrel of a Remington 700 or Winchester 70.

Timing-- Fashion plays a role in the gun biz. And the 60s and early 70s were the high tide of Roy Weatherby. The ultimate in rifle fashion used exotic wood inlays, ebony and rosewood caps on the fore-end, rakish Monte Carlo stocks and white spacers. The Model 88 looked boring in comparison.