The Great Winchester Model 62 Rifle
Or a Brief History of a Survivor
By Hamilton Bowen
When I was a kid my family lived on an old farm a good ways from town. Most of our neighbors were either full-time farmers or they farmed a bit on the side. My dad was a physician who practiced in the small local hospital. He was a sociable sort who enjoyed visiting neighbors, and, weather permitting, he would drag my brother and me along on Saturday afternoon promenades that often ranged for miles down country roads through the pastoral East Tennessee countryside. The usual topics of conversation were crops, weather, politics and any ailments these folks might have. Many a medical consultation took place on their front porches, which beat the hell out of wasting the day in the waiting room of some quack in town.
On one such excursion when I was six or seven years old we stopped at a neighbor’s place just when he happened to be blasting away with a .22 rifle at walnuts in the top of a walnut tree. In those halcyon days there was no danger in such shooting because the high angle of fire meant the bullets would land in the man’s woods directly behind his house. My father wasn’t exactly a gun enthusiast, but he gamely took a few shots at the nuts when offered the gun. I was adjudged too small to participate in the harvest but was allowed to hold the gun and examine it. I had seen and handled a few .22s before that day, but I knew at first glance this one was special.
It bore the battle scars of decades of country life and had doubtless been the bane of stray cats, groundhogs and, of course, walnuts. Even by my lights it was a tidy little gun that had some substantial heft to it. Once it was empty, the kindly neighbor showed me how to load it and how it operated. He told me it was a Winchester, which was one of the few firearm names I was familiar with, along with Colt and Enfield. I’d heard the Enfield name because my mother had a Mark 1 No. 4 rifle, but she and the Enfield are a story for another day. At the time I thought any gun was cool, but with its slick, busy action and exposed hammer, the little Winchester was really cool. Plus, it was about my size. I never knew whether it was a Model 1890, a Model 1906 or a Model 62, but from then on, I was a slave to Winchester .22s and kept a watchful eye out for them. I never forgot that little gun and was determined to someday have one of my own. When I did eventually acquire a nice Model 62, I was as excited to get my grubby paws on it as I had been under the neighbor’s walnut tree so many years before.
It’s little wonder the Model 62 was every small boy’s dream. Light, compact and fast-firing with plenty of magazine capacity, it was the coolest thing imaginable to operate. All manner of activity occurred with each pull on the fore-end. The bolt popped up out of the locking notches on top of the receiver and slid back to cock the hammer. The lifter rose up with a round nicely captured and ready for chambering. A forward push on the fore-end rammed the cartridge into the chamber and dropped the bolt back into place, ready for firing. And so it went. Even now I can’t think of a more charming action to see at work. Each time you cycle it, you get the feeling you’re accomplishing something. As much as I love the much sleeker Model 61, not much really seems to happen with it when you pump the fore-end. The sophisticated Model 63 autoloader is positively boring in comparison because nothing much visible occurs when you pull the trigger. It just goes bang again and again without any evident motion other than the empty hulls squirting out.
My infatuation with the Model 62 goes back fifty years, but the story of Winchester’s exposed- hammer, pump-action rifle began seventy-five years before that. Even then development of the little gun was dependent on an innovation that occurred before the American Civil War – the rimfire cartridge. Perfected in the late 1850s by Daniel Wesson of Smith & Wesson fame, the .22 rimfire cartridge went on to become the most popular and beloved cartridge ever produced in these United States. Countless millions of new shooters cut their teeth on .22s. Countless millions more spent countless hours hunting rabbits and squirrels, beer cans and pine cones with them. At the time of the Civil War, most major firearms manufacturers in America concentrated on building guns needed to stop the war (in which there were no winners), pacify the Indians, settle the frontiers and achieve and maintain military parity on the international scene. By the late 19th century the work of Manifest Destiny was largely accomplished and the New World – or at least our corner of it – was relatively calm. As the nation’s industrial power grew, Americans finally had a little more leisure time and a little extra money to spend. Not surprisingly, given their recent experience in nation building, they spent a lot of their extra money on firearms and ammunition, but for a change, their shooting was for fun. Not surprisingly, the .22 rimfire became increasingly popular.
Winchester was the country’s preeminent long gun manufacturer, but there wasn’t much in its catalog to satisfy the new demand for recreational shooting. A few Model 1873 lever guns were made in .22 rimfire, along with some of the John Browning-designed Model 1885 single-shot rifles, but these were guns intended for much larger cartridges. With some impetus coming from Colt and its admirable Lightning rifle, Winchester finally entered the market place with the fabled Model 1890, granddad to the Model 62. We’ll skip over the story of Browning’s association with Winchester since so many others already have told it so well, but the Model 1890 pump-action rimfire was yet another Browning triumph. It exhibited the usual simplicity, elegance and sheer genius that marked all of Browning’s designs.
Great engineering is exemplified, not by making a contraption that does a job well, but rather by making it do the job well on simple mechanical principles with the fewest possible parts. The Model 1890 design succeeds on both counts. The open-top receiver has locking notches at the front cut into the top of the side panels of the action body. The bolt has corresponding lugs that engage these cuts and contain the firing pressure. But what makes you admire Browning’s genius all the more is the cam slot on the bolt that lifts the block up out of the notches, runs it to the rear to cycle the lifter and cock the hammer when acted upon by a pin in the action slide. It is a beautifully choreographed dance that one never tires of watching. Three parts do all of the work; the rest just attend to details.
The Model 1890 initially came in three chamberings: the .22 Short, the .22 Long and the .22 WRF cartridges, and none of the three were interchangeable. It wasn’t until 1919 that Winchester added the .22 Long Rifle. Winchester engineers reconfigured the Model 1890 into a take-down design, like most of the great .22 repeaters that would follow from both Winchester and Remington. By loosening a knurled screw on the left side of the receiver, the gun broke down easily and quickly into two self-contained parts for easy transport or cleaning. This was an important feature in an era when .22 rimfire ammo was usually loaded with black powder and corrosively primed. By the time of World War I, black-powder ammunition was largely out of production, but corrosive priming persisted until the mid-1920s and damaged millions of rifle barrels. Thorough cleaning was critical to preventing bore damage, so a take-down design providing ready access to the barrel’s breech end and the gun’s inner workings was not just a silly affectation for travelers.
Like most Winchester firearms of the time, the Model 1890 was available with a variety of special-order options including upgraded sights, fancier wood, pistol-grip stocks, engraving and the like. Few such guns were produced, but they were of top-drawer quality. While .22 rimfire rifles have often been regarded as ‘starter guns’ for young shooters, there was nothing juvenile or cheap about Winchester’s pump-action .22s. They were premium-quality sporting arms that exhibited just as much care and craftsmanship as the company’s larger, big-game rifles such as the Model 1885 single-shot or the Model 1886 lever-gun chambered for huge cartridges like the .50-100 and .50-110. The fit and finish of the small guns was just as good as the big ones. Even a cursory examination of a vintage Winchester .22 reveals fantastic polishing quality that’s largely missing on premium-quality, mass-production sporting arms today. Such bluing is a mute testimonial to the ability of the highly skilled craftsmen who produced the guns. The quality of the gun parts is astonishing when you consider the primitive machinery and tooling of the day. There were no computer-driven milling centers or carbide cutters. While production tolerances were good, many parts still required hand-fitting for best appearance and function.
Unfortunately the Model 1890 was expensive to produce, so Winchester introduced the Model 1906 that could be more competitively priced. The 1906 was really nothing more than an 1890 without options and frills. You could get the 1906 any way you wanted it as long as you wanted it blued with a round, 20-inch barrel and a small, plain fore-end. That was fine with farmers, ranchers and a 10-year-old Selous-in-training. However, one important change appeared shortly after the 1906’s introduction: it would handle short, long and long-rifle cartridges interchangeably, which made it even more practical. The Model 1890 remained in production until the late 1930s, but it didn’t get the interchangeability feature until 1919.
The Model 62 came along in 1932, and it was little more than a slightly tarted up Model 1906. It could be argued that the Model 62 was a waste of time since the sleek, new, hammerless Model 61 pump appeared that same year, and the Model 63 self-loader debuted just one year later. But Winchester had traveled that trail before with its iconic Model 1873 lever gun, which was supposedly outmoded by the more compact and mechanically superior Model 1892. But demand for the old ’73 persisted, and it wasn’t dropped from the line until 1923 after a production run of more than 700,000 units turned out over the span of half a century. Winchester knew its customers pretty well and understood that old designs die hard, especially when they’re good ones. But here’s something to ponder: The Model 62 went out of production in 1959 after a run of more than 400,000 rifles. Add to that some 800,000 Model 1890s and around 600,000 Model 1906s and you have a total of 1,800,000 pump-action hammer rifles sold to American shooters. In 1959, the year the 62 was dropped, the population of the United States was 177,000,000 people. Winchester .22s don’t go bad, so if you do the math, you can figure that about one percent of the people in this country owned or could have owned one of these rifles. One percent may not sound like much, but in reality, for a durable good sold in such a competitive field, it’s a staggering statistic.
A firearm sales boom followed World War II, but the boom didn’t last and inadequate sales brought production of the Model 62 to a halt in 1959. The Model 61 wasn’t saved by the introduction of a .22WMR version, and by 1963 it too was gone. Dying along with two of the greatest American rimfire rifles were one of the finest shotguns, the Model 12, and the original form of the storied Model 70 bolt-action rifle. A much-revised rendition of the bolt rifle bore the Model 70 name but dispensed with its most valued features. Production costs were too high to justify the continued existence of such guns, so they followed countless other great sporting arms into history. Their cheapened and modernized replacements were not howling successes, but they sold well enough for Winchester to remain in the marketplace for quite a few more years. The new iterations were, however, reminders that the best costs more. Perhaps, too, shooters were changing. With increasing urbanization, guns became less like cherished personal possessions and more like mere tools. Happily, all is not lost for True Believers. With over 400,000 Model 62s having been produced, many survivors are still kicking around. It isn’t hard to find a respectable example, and the fact that they often cost less than new guns is just one of life’s happy little ironies.
My particular Model 62 was made in 1940 shortly before production was halted by World War II. The gun now carries the patina of age, but its general condition proves I was not the first person to cherish it. The bore is perfectly bright. The action is slick from use but still as tight as new. Loading and shooting a Model 62 is a process familiar to anyone who has loaded and fired a .22 rifle with the magazine tube beneath the barrel. Like many hammer repeaters of the day, there is no safety per se, but from the Model 1890 on down, the design features a simple hammer safety arrangement. When the hammer is set in its ‘safety’ notch, the slide can’t be worked and the trigger can’t be pulled. Much like the Colt Single-Action Army, best handling practices require that you don’t drop the gun lest the notch break and the gun fires. An additional safety factor is the fact that the slide can’t be operated when the hammer is cocked. My particular gun is equipped with a Marble peep sight at the rear and a Sheard brass-bead sight at the front. Aperture sights are the berries and provide surprising accuracy, especially for someone with a lot of mileage on the ol’ eyeballs. Nobody will ever accuse the old girl of target-rifle accuracy, but as the Rolls Royce salesman so famously opined on a query about the car’s acceleration, it is adequate. Once the sights are dialed in to suit, the gun will give a good account of itself with ammo it favors, which usually is whatever variety is at hand.
There’s nothing childish or childlike about my old Model 62. Even though I was an adult before I ever had one, few guns that I own can transport me back to my youth the way this one does. Our neighbor of the walnut tree is long gone, but I pass his old place every time I go to town. The walnut tree is gone as well, and so is Doc, but not the sound of his voice or the crack of that glorious old .22.
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