Among the handsomest hunting rifles of the modern era—at least in this gun writer’s humble opinion—is Winchester’s Model 71 lever action rifle. The rifle’s Old West-style smooth, clean lines, along with its traditional wood and blued steel, make this handsome lever gun a true modern-day classic!
Whoa, wait a minute! You say this is not a modern gun because it began life almost 80 years ago? Furthermore, you say the Model 71 was a revamping of the old Model 1886 and the 71 was dropped from production by Winchester over a half-century ago? Well friends, I say it is indeed a modern gun because this rifle has seen continued use by big-game lever gun hunters since its inception, and the best news is that it’s back—as a finely made replica—and it’s as beautiful as ever!
Thanks to Cimarron Firearms, the company responsible for bringing shooters the Model 71 replica, this spitting-image copy of the original Winchester is being manufactured in Italy by the highly respected firm of Davide Pedersoli & Company, which also produces such fine firearms as the .45-70 Kodiak Mark IV double rifle, 1874 Sharps replicas and a number of fine muzzle-loading long arms and pistols. As with other replica firearms Cimarron has introduced to today’s shooters, an original Winchester Model 71 from the company’s extensive collection of historic arms was sent to Pedersoli in order to get every detail right, and that’s just what the company did! Unlike the original, though, Cimarron’s Model 71 is currently offered in the powerful .45-70; however, Cimarron does plan to offer the Model 71 in the original .348 Win chambering in the near future.
Production of the original Winchester Model 71 started in the latter part of 1935, and it made its public debut on New Year’s Day of the following year. When Winchester decided to cease manufacturing its frontier favorite, the Model 1886, in 1932, the company had produced 159,994 of them. Within three years, however, the New Haven, Connecticut, firm made a decision to bring back a refined, lightened and upgraded version of the old 1886, but in a newer, more modern loading for 20th century hunters.
Designated as the Model 71, the new lever action was strengthened and featured a few refinements, such as a more comfortable shotgun-style buttplate, a half-magazine-type configuration (which lightened the rifle), and Winchester chambered the new model for the powerful .348 Winchester cartridge, which had been designed solely for this top-ejecting arm. Interestingly, with the exception of some experimental models, this was the only round ever chambered for the original Model 71, and no other production rifle was ever made for this load.
Produced over the next couple of decades, 47,254 Model 71s left the factory and became a new favorite with big-game hunters, and since the cessation of its manufacture, despite its being a relatively modern rifle, original specimens have gained status as attractive, highly desirable and valuable collectible firearms.
Cimarron offers three different versions of its Model 71 replica: the “Classic” model with a 24-inch, polished, blued, round barrel, lever, receiver, trigger, hammer, forend cap and pistol grip cap, all mounted on a straight-grained, European walnut pistol-grip stock and forearm (complete with hand checkering) that holds five cartridges in the tubular, under-barrel, half-length magazine; the “Boarbuster,” with its round, 19-inch barrel (the magazine holds four rounds); and the “Premium” model. All Cimarron Model 71s are fitted with thick rubber buttpads and sling swivel attachments.
I’ve had the opportunity to play with a Cimarron Model 71 Premium for the past several months, and I have to say it certainly has the look of a premium-quality rifle in every way. Weighing in at 8.7 pounds unloaded, it boasts a very colorful and tastefully done color-casehardened receiver and pistol grip cap; a highly polished, blued, round, 24-inch barrel, lever, trigger, hammer and forend cap; and a handsomely figured, select-grade, well-executed, hand-checkered walnut stock and forearm. Like the Classic model, the 24-inch-barreled Premium also holds five rounds in the tubular half magazine. Its fit and finish is exactly what one would expect of a firearm bearing the “Premium” moniker.
When I first pulled this Cimarron lever gun out of the shipping container I was immediately taken aback by its beauty. It has the appearance of a finely crafted, traditional hunting rifle in every sense of the word! As a matter of fact, everyone I showed the rifle to was impressed with its looks and feel. Cimarron’s Model 71 Premium is truly one heck of a handsome, classically styled lever action rifle.
Of course, a good-looking rifle does not a shooter make; however, I’m pleased to say that this lever gun functions as smoothly and shoots every bit as well as its looks imply! At the range the rifle performed flawlessly—cycling the lever fed fresh rounds and ejected spent casings every time—and the trigger broke crisply at a comfortable 3.75 pounds. Like the original arm this replica emulates, I found it to hold comfortably and steady. In shooting, regardless of what loading I used, the Cimarron Model 71’s thick rubber buttpad goes a long way in absorbing felt recoil—even with some pretty stout loads.
Besides being eager to try out this new replica, I was invited to take part in an African safari in September of 2013, so, with my passion for hunting with traditional rifles, I felt that Cimarron’s new Model 71 Premium rifle would be an ideal choice for this hunt. As it turned out, I was able to take a 38-inch-horned gemsbok (oryx) with this rifle while hunting in the Namibian bush of southwestern Africa with Byseewah Safaris. I can attest to the comfortable heft of this Model 71, as I carried it comfortably (fitted with a rifle sling borrowed from my Pedersoli-made Kodiak Mark IV .45-70 double rifle I had hunted Africa with previously) for several days, tracking and hunting in the thorny bush.
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However, before heading to the Dark Continent, I ventured to my favorite shooting range with shooting buddy Michael Cooper for some trigger time with this lever action. Michael is a top-notch computer technician who also shares a love of firearms with me, so when asked to lend a hand in sighting in this replica of a 20th century classic, this gun-savvy shooter eagerly signed on. Pleased with our initial results, I headed out on safari for gemsbok.
After my return from Namibia, Michael and I settled down to some extensive shooting in order to thoroughly wring out the Cimarron. Arming ourselves with a variety of ammunition to see how this rifle fared with different loads, we put the rifle through its paces during a couple of shooting sessions at A Place To Shoot, located in nearby San Francisquito Canyon in Saugus, California. Wanting to know how this .45-70 would handle both reduced-recoil cowboy loads as well as standard-velocity ammo, I selected two loads from each category, shooting five-shot groups with each. The cowboy loadings we fired were Black Hills’ 405-grain lead bullets with a muzzle velocity of 1,250 fps, and a 405-grain lead loading from Ultramax with a muzzle velocity of 1,050 fps. My standard-velocity loads consisted of Remington’s 405-grain, jacketed soft point (JSP) round that leaves the muzzle at 1,330 fps and Garrett’s Super Hard-Cast Hammerhead, a new 420-grain “Springfield” (custom lead alloy) load that travels at 1,350 fps (my African load).
I have to say that both Michael and I have been impressed with the accuracy obtained by this rifle. The adjustable, semi-buckhorn rear sight and the hooded front sight bead allow for quick sight alignment, even with my aging eyes. Incidentally, the receiver is drilled for an optional receiver sight, and the barrel is also drilled for mounting a scope, if desired.
Shooting from a benchrest at 100 yards and holding at the top of the black target circle, all groups stayed within the acceptable hunting accuracy of around 5 inches, with most hovering around 3.25 to 4 inches. While the rifle digested and cycled all loads comfortably, the tightest grouping of our testing was obtained with the Black Hills 405-grain cowboy load, which measured just 3.13 inches center to center, in the 10 ring and bullseye! Our best score with the standard-velocity ammunition was garnered with Garrett’s Springfield load with its 420-grain bullet, which measured 3.31 inches center to center. These hits clustered in the 9, 10 and bullseye rings of the target. In fact, all of our groups were well within the center areas of each target.
Besides some “just for fun” casual plinking at various ranges out to a couple hundred yards—with very pleasing results I might add—Michael and I also ran some 420-grain Garrett Super Hard-Cast Hammerhead ammo with a velocity of 1,650 fps. Here’s where the rifle’s thick rubber buttpad really came in handy. Firing a couple of benched three-shot groups to see just how the gun would take to this stouter load, we obtained a neat 4.88 inches in the 10-ring and bullseye at 100 yards. On the 50-yard target, we scored a 2.25-inch group bordering on the 9 and 10 rings, with two shots touching!
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After several shooting sessions at the range and an African hunt with this rifle, I have to say that as a working replica of a much-revered 20th century hunting arm, I feel this Pedersoli-made Cimarron Model 71 Premium is worthy of its namesake. I am also confident in giving a hearty “thumbs-up” recommendation of this replica—especially in the gorgeous Premium finish—to anyone looking for a modern-day classic, lever-action hunter. It’s one of the best-performing rifles I’ve had the pleasure of testing and hunting with in quite some time. For more information, visit cimarron-firearms.com or call 877-749-4861. ✪
This article originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.