Memories of the .30-30 – The “Appalachian Assault Rifle”
A favorite of lawmen and deer slayers alike, .30-30 lever-guns defended our Home Front in two World Wars, fed a then-mostly rural nation and still have utility for sport and home protection.
© 2014 - Ed Harris
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My childhood wasn’t different from others of the Baby Boomer generation. Northern Virginia after World War II was an odd mix of The Walton’s and American Graffiti. The rural south still existed where we now call it “outside the beltway.” When Dad bought our Annandale house in 1954, State Route 236, aka “Little River Turnpike” was a 2-lane country road between Alexandria and Fairfax Courthouse, which wasn’t yet a city. Our neighborhood was surrounded by dairy farms, hardwood forests were full of game, and we shot my brother’s open-sighted .22 bolt-action out the upstairs bedroom window to kill woodchucks raiding Dad’s garden. Our neighbor was an avid hunter who let us watch him butcher deer and feed scraps to his two German shorthaired pointers. When I turned 12, he showed me his deer rifle, a Winchester Model 94 in.30-30. Like any kid who watched TV cowboys of that era, I was enthralled!
The opening, in 1963, of Interstate 495, the now-infamous “Beltway,” put “my world” on a fast track towards destruction. By the time I became old enough for Dad to allow me to have a rifle of my own, fields and woods around us were rapidly falling victim to the developers’ bulldozers. Within a few years we were immersed in suburbia, strip malls, and the Cold War. Our shooting activity moved indoors to Fort Belvoir. This meant that my first rifle would be a target .22, the targets paper, and life would never be the same.
Summer visits to our uncle’s West Virginia farm prolonged our sanity. There was no TV, so instead we learned that meat doesn’t grow from a seed planted under cellophane-covered meat trays in the grocery. Veggies don’t grow in the can. “If you eat, thank a Farmer.” Outdoor recreation is a celebration of God’s Creation which rewards you with peace, solitude, time for contemplation and rest after completing a day’s cheerful labor.
Uncle Bill told us the truth about guns. His stories were different from what we saw on TV. His .30-30 Winchester Model 94 guarded coal trains from Nazi saboteurs, kept order during mine labor disputes, ended the suffering of sick or injured farm animals, and helped feed starving neighbors during the Great Depression. This rather plain rifle was carried by a humble farmer who never expected to see armed combat again after returning from the Pacific after WWII. But, when deputized to serve on a sheriff’s posse he had to fire it in anger once more to take out a “bad man who tried to kill my friend.”
Recalling the event invoked no pride, but imparted to us a simple wisdom explaining “grown ups” acknowledge that both good and evil forces exist in our world, which sometimes compel honorable men to make difficult choices which are necessary to protect our country and those whom we love. The slight tremor in his voice reflected deep conviction as he explained that our Second Amendment isn’t just about hunting, gun collecting and target shooting. Guns aren’t adult toys, but serious tools. Too many shooters today have forgotten that simple fact.
While my older brother, Rick and I had .22s and knew fundamentals, firing our first center-fire, watching that .30-30 explode a pumpkin, accompanied by the smack of steel butt-plate against T-shirted shoulder and ringing in our adolescent ears made a lasting impression. Sadly, a .30-30 lever-gun would not find a spot in my closet until I reached age 60. A few years ago an old Winchester Model 1894 carbine appeared at an estate sale, which brought back memories as if it were yesterday. So, I had to have it.
As a young man growing up the lever-gun versus bolt action discussion was a favorite deer camp after-dinner subject among the older adults. We boys would just sit back and listen. Salient arguments I remember are summarized:
The .30-30 is ubiquitous. Guns and ammo are sold everywhere. A rural lawman, farmer or forester could find .30-30s at any crossroads grocery. (A federal special agent friend still advises his field agents not to carry any gun of a caliber they cannot buy ammo for at Wal-Mart). Lever guns remain popular in rural areas because they are cheap, plentiful, and familiar, handy to carry, accurate enough and they work. In remote regions a .30-30 may be the only high-power rifle many people have heard of.
Practical Hunting Accuracy. Grouping of the average lever-action .30-30 is not spectacular, but adequate for the utilitarian. Five-shot groups of 3” to 4” at 100 yards are normal with the factory open sights. Peep sights might knock an inch off of that. A peep sight is a useful improvement over traditional open sights, because it is faster in snap shooting and obstructs less of the target than open buckhorns. Use a threaded target aperture in bright light and simply unscrew the disk at twilight.
Winchester 94 100 Yard Target
A .30-30 is for “short range” (meaning less than 200 yards in the Infantry sense). Factory open sights set on the bottom step elevator usually zero the rifle to strike point of aim at 50 yards using factory loads. Each step you raise the rear sight increases the zero range about 50 yards when using a “fine bead” (drawn down into the notch). When set on the third, middle step, most of the time a rifle will put factory loads about 3-4 inches above the bead at 100 yards. This gives a 150-yard, “point-blank” range, which is a realistic practical limit for a typical 3 minute-of-angle carbine and is a good field zero for most hunting. So zeroed, if you to take a 6:00 hold on the brisket of a deer, you will make a good hit if you have hair under the bead and no daylight above the bead sight.
Winchester 94 200 Yard Target
A 1/16 inch bead subtends about 5 minutes of angle when out on the end of a 20-inch carbine. If the deer is far enough away that the bead covers the animal from shoulder to brisket, then hold right there and shoot carefully, from a rest if you have one. If you zeroed your rifle to strike 3-4 inches high at 100 yards, covering the forequarters with the bead should give a solid hit on a deer if you do your part out to about 150 yards, That is the maximum effective range of a .30-30. If the animal is far enough out that you cannot see enough of the animal around the bead to clearly identify the head and hindquarters, it is over 200 yards and too far to shoot at and be sure of a humane kill.
A .30-30 is a 150-yard deer rifle, because typical lever-guns won't shoot much better than 6 inches at 150 yards. That 1/16 front sight bead is a useful range estimator. Sight your rifle in to strike 3-4 inches high at 100, adjust windage carefully until it absolutely perfect and then leave the sights alone. Old timers who used only iron sights prior to WWII brought lots of venison home.
Combat Accurate, If You’re a Cowboy. My boyhood mentor LTC Ellis Lea (USA, Ret.) was a West Virginia State Trooper before entering the Army during WWII. Later as a firearms instructor for the Office of Public Safety of the U.S. Agency for International Development, he referred to the Winchester 94 as the “Appalachian Assault Rifle” and compared its combat utility to the SKS or US Carbine cal. .30 M1
Then as now, lever guns have the advantage of non-threatening, familiar appearance which “doesn’t scare the natives. In 19th Century close quarter battle, lever actions had tactical advantages, offering a large magazine capacity and rapidity of fire compared to single-shot breechloaders and early bolt-guns. The Ottoman cavalry and Pancho Villa agreed. Most bolt-rifles other than the Krag, cannot be topped off without taking them momentarily out of the fight, whereas you can shove more rounds through a lever-action loading gate whenever you need to. Against bandits in dusty border towns a lever gun was as simple as it ever got. It still works.