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AK-47 Lever Action Rifles

Winchester Model 1894 vs. AK47

by James Tarr   |  July 8th, 2016 0
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Jeff Cooper once pitted a Winchester ’94 with ghost ring sights against an AK-47…and the Winchester won. Sound like hogwash? James Tarr takes on the challenge.

John Dean “Jeff” Cooper is an iconic figure in the gun world. He is perhaps best known for promoting “The Modern Technique of the Pistol,” i.e. the idea that holding it with two hands will allow for faster more accurate defensive shooting. He is also well known for loving the 1911, hating the 9mm cartridge and developing the scout rifle concept.

One fact about him which may not be as well known is that he is the main reason most tactical shotguns on the market are equipped with ghost ring sights. Cooper used them on dangerous game rifles in Africa, put them on his scout rifles, and transferred the concept to shotguns intended for anti-personnel use.

He also promoted the use of ghost ring sights on other platforms as well. I remember reading years ago how he pitted a Winchester 1894 .30-30 lever-action rifle against an AK47. According to Cooper, out to 25 yards, the AK47 was faster (one round per target), but beyond that, the Winchester ’94 lever-action with ghost ring sights held its own.

Suppressive fire? Ability to reload quickly? That’s not what we’re talking about here. This is all about putting rounds on target. Of course, the Winchester is much slower to reload than an AK and holds fewer rounds, but this exercise was all about shooting.

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Tarr didn’t have to look far for a Winchester ’94. Apart from a Williams Gun Sight rear ghost ring and Galco side saddle, his personal rifle is factory stock.

How could an AK47 possibly be beat by a lever-action rifle? The common sense answer lies in both the sights and realistic target engagement scenarios. Let’s talk scenarios first. In an actual gunfight where you need a rifle (and we’re talking private citizens in defensive shooting situations here, not military engagements), you will not have eight bad guys lining up in a row like you see in 3-Gun competition.

If there is even more than one bad actor (unlikely), they will be spread apart, probably moving fast or hiding behind cover, and you may only get one shot at them at a time. Therefore, the rapid follow-up shots provided by a semi-auto rifle aren’t nearly as important as you might think when it comes to getting hits on target.

Then there are the sights. The main complaint about the AK47 has always been its rather crude sights. Not the design specifically, because the rifle has a functional rear notch and post front, but rather the sight radius. The distance between the front and rear sights is so short as to make engaging targets at distance much more difficult than would be the case if you were wielding just about any other rifle in the field at the time the AK47 was introduced.

I never had any reason not to take Cooper at his word, and his brief comment on the subject is the main reason why, 20 years ago, I found myself the proud new owner of a Winchester 1894 in .30-30. I promptly took it to the well-known Williams Gun Sight in Davison, Mich., where the company installed its adjustable rear receiver sight. This rear receiver sight has interchangeable screw-in peep inserts…but if you don’t put in an insert, the rear sight housing itself becomes a ghost ring.

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The AK used was a loaner, a Chinese Poly Tech AK with spike bayonet. It had an excellent trigger, but like all AKs was a bit handicapped by its sights.

That rifle is still in my possession, and I’ll probably pass it down to my children. It should be no surprise that I’ve taken it deer hunting in northwestern Michigan. What might be surprising is that, for 10 years, it was my truck gun, for those situations where a pistol just wouldn’t be enough.

Sound crazy? How many of you are carrying either a .380 Auto or a revolver for self-defense? One is an underpowered cartridge, the other an antiquated design even older than the Winchester. Do you feel undergunned?

Like I said, I never had any reason to doubt Cooper’s findings, even though the idea of a lever-action gun beating the world’s most famous assault rifle at any distance might seem counterintuitive. But why take someone’s word when testing it for yourself gives you an excuse to head to the range and shoot one of your favorite rifles?

The Winchester 1894 was designed in that year by none other than John M. Browning. Like just about every other firearm he designed, it is very ergonomic and size efficient, and points very naturally.

It was originally designed to fire metallic blackpowder cartridges, then the smokeless .30 WCF (Winchester Center Fire) which was later renamed the .30-30 by Marlin because they didn’t want to give Winchester any free publicity. The .30-30 name stuck.

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The rear receiver sight on the Winchester 1894 is from Williams Gun Sight and accepts interchangeable peep inserts. If you leave them out, the end result is a ghost-ring type aperture.

This rifle has been chambered in numerous calibers, but in .30-30 the tubular magazine holds six cartridges. With a 20-inch barrel, it is 38 inches long overall and weighs 6.8 lbs. It is very narrow; the buttstock is wider than the receiver.

My Winchester 1894 is a Centennial Edition put out in 1994. The receiver is marked 1894–1994. It unfortunately sports the completely unnecessary crossbolt safety in the receiver (not part of Browning’s original design), which came about in 1992 when then owners FN Herstal wanted a rifle that could be sold internationally.

Luckily, the body of the rear receiver sight not just protects the ugly safety sticking out the left side of the gun, but does a good job of blocking it from view. The wood on my specimen is a bit plain. Apart from replacing the rear sight, the only thing I’ve done to customize this rifle is attach a leather side-saddle made by Galco. It holds five cartridges and looks very cowboy tactical.

Ironically, the standard rear sight on a Winchester 1894 is a forward-mounted notch, on the barrel, not unlike what you see with the AK47. Sight radius with the factory rear sight is about 17 inches. The Williams receiver sight increases the sight radius to 23.5 inches, and replaces the cruder open sight with a peep sight adjustable for windage and elevation. With the smaller apertures unscrewed, the body of the peep makes a perfect ghost ring, and has an aperture .22 of an inch wide, according to my calipers.

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The “barleycorn” front sight on the Winchester is narrower than the front sight on the AK. It worked very well in combination with the rear ghost ring.

The front sight on my Winchester 1894 is a one-piece blued steel post that narrows at the top, tipped with a ball. Apparently, this is called a “barleycorn” type front sight. The post is .085 of an inch wide just below the ball, and the ball is .1 of an inch wide, and the top of the front sight is .5 of an inch above the barrel.

A ghost ring sighting system works just like a standard rear peep sight, but because the rear aperture is larger, it is quicker to use, albeit less precise at distance. The larger aperture tends to blur or ghost out as you look through it and focus on the front sight.

How big is the rear aperture? While looking through it with a proper sight picture not only can I see the entire front sight post, I can see the entire barrel leading up to the front sight.

You never burn through thousands of rounds in a lever-action, and I probably didn’t have much more than 100–150 rounds through the rifle all told before I pulled it out of the safe for this article. Trigger pull on my specimen was two-stage—a very light takeup with a crisp break, with a total weight of 7 lbs. Not exactly target grade, but perfectly acceptable for the design.

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Tarr’s Winchester is a Centennial Model produced in 1994. He regards it unfortunate that it sports a crossbolt receiver safety, not found in the original ’94.

The AK47 hardly needs any introduction to any Firearms News reader. According to the Soviet propaganda machine, it was designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov, a World War II tank hero with no firearms design or engineering experience. Chambered in the 7.62x39mm cartridge, the original AK47 was a select-fire gas piston operated rifle. It is the most widely produced military rifle in the world.

Semi-auto versions of the AK47 have been available in the U.S. for more than 30 years, in many different configurations. For this article, I wanted to use a rifle that would be similar to what Jeff Cooper had available in the mid-80s.

I own a Norinco AK47, but it was out of consideration because I replaced the rear sight with a rear peep sight made by Tech-Sights mounted at the rear of the receiver, nearly doubling the sight radius and making it much easier to shoot the rifle accurately.

I ended up borrowing a Chinese-made Poly Tech AK47 imported by KFS. It sports a folding spike bayonet, plain muzzle at the end of a 16.3-inch barrel and nicely varnished wood. Just as factory triggers on AR-15s generally suck, factory triggers on AKs tend to be very nice. The trigger on the Poly Tech AK was a single stage, with a long smooth pull, total weight 3.75 pounds—much lighter than my Winchester 1894.

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The ’94 was completely reliable, and one look here should tell you why—controlled feeding. When the nose of the next round pops up it is almost inside the chamber.

This AK47 ran close to 9 pounds empty, and was shorter than the Winchester 1894 at 34.25 inches. The factory rear sight was the standard notch adjustable for elevation out to 800 meters. The front sight is a post about .11 of an inch wide. Distance between the front and rear sight is a mere 15 inches.

While it is possible with these sights to ring steel silhouettes out to 300 meters with regularity from a steady rest…it is not easy. Personally I would class the sights on an AK47 more appropriate for use on an SMG than a front-line assault rifle, but the Soviets have a much different philosophy with regards to their soldiers than, say, the U.S. Marine Corps.

A distance of 23.5 inches on the Winchester 1894 versus 15 inches on the AK47 means that the sight radius of the Winchester 1894 is 57 percent longer. Add to that the fact that the Winchester’s front sight is narrower and it is not hard to see that simply from looking at the numbers, it would seem that the Winchester 1894 would be capable of more precise aimed fire, all else being equal.

Let’s talk cartridges. The original Soviet 7.62x39mm load features a 123-grain bullet that exits the muzzle of an AK at about 2350 fps. Most commercial loads available today are very similar to that, and for this test I chose to use Wolf Military Classic ammunition. This steel-cased ammunition features a 124-grain hollow-point bullet, and out of the Poly Tech AK47, it chronographed at 2314 fps.

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The AK’s rear notch sight is adjustable out to 800 meters but tends to block a lot of the view downrange, especially when shooting at distant targets.

There are two common bullet weights for the .30-30 Winchester 1894: 150 and 170 grains. For this article, Winchester very graciously supplied me with ammunition in both bullet weights. Heck, it only seemed right to use Winchester ammunition in a Winchester rifle. This was Winchester Super-X ammo loaded with Power-Point bullets (jacketed soft points). Untold tens of thousands of deer have been killed with this and functionally identical ammunition over the last hundred years.

I chronographed both loads. Out of the Winchester’s 20-inch barrel, the 170-grain Power-Point averaged 2152 fps. The 150-grain load averaged 2336 fps, almost the exact same velocity as the 7.62x39mm Wolf ammo exiting the AK, so I decided to use that bullet weight in my testing. Both loads had about the same felt recoil in the Winchester 1894.

When it came time to test the rifles, I had some decisions to make. I elected to use standard cardboard silhouettes, and to engage them from 25, 50, and 100 yards. One round per target, and any hit on paper counted.

As for how many targets to shoot at each time….I decided on four. I varied their heights off the ground by several feet and spaced them irregularly so I would be required to actually acquire each target and not just time my trigger pulls with my swing.

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The numbers say it all—the AK is more handicapped by its short sight radius than it is by the sights themselves. Functional for combat, and that’s about it.

Each run began with the rifle at low ready, and I recorded the times using a Competition Electronics Pocket Pro shot timer. Shooting at 25 and 50 yards was done offhand, while I rested my forearm on a wooden support (the kind of expedient rest you might find and use in the field) when shooting at 100 yards.

Felt recoil was stiffer on the Winchester 1894, and the trigger pull was heavier, but as soon as I raised both rifles at the 25-yard line I could see how much superior the sights were on the Winchester 1894.

The initial runs were done with the four targets placed rather close together in a 5-yard spread. At 25 yards, the AK47 was noticeably quicker, an average 3.2 seconds per run versus 3.75 for the Winchester 1894. The softer recoil and smooth trigger really helped.

At 50 yards I had to spend more time on target acquisition, sight alignment, and trigger control for both rifles, but the AK47 was still faster with an average 4.25 seconds per run versus 4.5 for the Winchester.

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Tarr deliberately chose to use an AK without a muzzle device, just to keep things fair. The spike bayonet is always useful to have if beset by imperialist hordes.

In case you’re wondering, working the lever of the Winchester 1894 is actually very instinctual. Even though it had been years since I last fired the rifle, it only took me a few runs to get up to speed. Many cowboy action shooters use customized lever-action rifles, where the throw of the lever has been shortened so much their hand barely has to come off the wood to jack the next round in, but the action of my rifle is bone stock.

The lever has to go past the vertical for full travel, and yet it can be worked surprisingly quickly—at silhouette targets 10 yards away, it’s easy to fire one aimed round every three-quarters of a second once you get in the groove. Keep the rifle up to the shoulder and use vigor when working the lever, much like you would when utilizing a pump shotgun (another antiquated weapon).

Shooting at 100 yards, the light trigger on the AK47 was very valuable, but not as valuable as the improved sights on the Winchester 1894. My runs with the Winchester were consistently .1 second faster than the AK47.

At 100 yards with the Winchester 1894, my main concern was a controlled squeeze of the trigger. With the AK47 at that distance…to be honest that wide rear notch really obscures a lot of the target area, and slowed me down, whereas with the ghost ring-equipped Winchester I had no problem seeing everything. I found the ghost ring rear sight just allowed for quicker target engagement at 50 yards and beyond.

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Tarr chose common ammunition—Wolf Classic steel cased 124-grain HPs, and Winchester 150-grain JSP Power-Points. Both loads had nearly identical velocities.

But…those first runs were with the four targets placed rather close together, which is a lot more like a shooting exercise than what you’d see in real life (unless like someone I know who witnessed human wave attacks while fighting in Korea). Instead of a 5-yard spread, for my next test I dragged the targets farther apart, so they were 15 yards from end-to-end.

With the targets farther apart, even at 25 yards, there was barely any time wasted working the lever of the Winchester 1894, as it was done while transitioning between targets. The better trigger and lower recoil of the AK47 kept it in the lead at 25 yards, but just barely, and that lead vanished when I moved out to 50 yards and beyond.

So, yes, in my limited testing, I reproduced Jeff Cooper’s results—when engaging individual targets with one round each, at 50 yards and beyond, a Winchester 1894 with a ghost ring rear sight cannot just keep up with an AK47 but beat it.

This was definitely a fun exercise and illuminating. As far as reliability, the vaunted AK47 actually jammed a couple of times on one of my steel Chinese magazines. The only problem I had with the Winchester 1894 was me short-stroking the lever once and not chambering
a round.

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With targets close together, the AK had an advantage out to 50 yards. With the targets spread, the Winchester beat the AK at both 50 and 100 yards.

I felt a little like a cowboy, getting the barrel of a Winchester 1894 too hot to touch, working the lever so much a healed cut on my hand started to bleed. I’m sure if any ladies had been in the area, they would have remarked at how manly I looked…maybe swooned.

Out of curiosity, I ran through the same shooting exercises with a red dot-equipped AR15. I found that I was at least 30 percent faster with the lower recoiling optically sighted black rifle. I’m not sure how fair the comparison is, considering the AR is a .223, not a .30, and as a design is 20 years younger than the AK47 (and 70 years younger than the Winchester 1894.).

Am I saying the Winchester 1894 is as useful in combat as an AK47? No. Nothing of the sort. But, cowboy, someday you may find yourself trapped inside or behind your fallen steed (Bronco, Mustang, etc.). If you have time to get to a rifle, that means the circling Indians aren’t right on top of you.

If that’s the case, my limited testing showed me that a Winchester 1894 probably won’t be a handicap when compared to an AK47, either in the accuracy or speed department, at distances of 50 yards and more.

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