Cleaning up the action of a

Winchester New Model 94 Trapper


The Mohave Gambler

Disclaimer:  This is written as a guideline for those who are skilled enough to complete this work. These modifications are advisory in nature and I assume no liability for the outcome on your guns.  Make sure that any gun you work on is unloaded and check it each time you work with it. Nobody ever planned an accident.   You have the last word on any modifications, especially the removal of any safety devices that might be a part of your firearm.

 Background on the Winchester 1894 Trapper

The 1894 Winchester lever action rifle was specifically designed by John Moses Browning as the first lever action rifle to be marketed for use with the new smokeless powders.  The 94 has been in nearly continuous production since 1894, which makes it one of the most successful products in history.  This gun makes a fine entry level Cowboy Action lever gun and new owners of these successful rifles will want to know how to slick them up so they shoot better.  Unfortunately, the current design of this stout rifle does not lend itself to being turned into a finely tuned shooter without some major modifications that are beyond the scope of this article.

Figure 1.  Here is a picture of the Winchester New Model 94 Trapper that I use for competition.  This was taken after the modifications were complete.

The Winchester was originally designed for the longer casings of more traditional rifle ammunition and many argue that its linage prevents the action from being optimal for the shorter cartridges of the newer models.  The design and manufacturing methods have have evolved to make it more attractive in a competitive market, a cross-bolt safety was added that can cause problems, and the trigger and hammer assembly were modified from the original design.  The Winchester model 94 in this tutorial is a nine-shot Trapper in .44 Magnum caliber.  It has been used in Cowboy Action Shooting with mixed results and improvements were warranted.  The trigger was a little heavy and the action was somewhat stiff. 

I selected the Winchester 94 Trapper because the price was attractive, it had a long history, and there was no significant advantage to buying a longer gun in the state of California.  I looked at other models, but California law defined any rifle with a magazine in front of the trigger and a capacity of more than nine rounds as an illegal assault weapon.  With a felony of putting more than nine in the tube, I went with the Trapper.  That law was changed in 2002 to allow tube feed magazines to exceed the nine round limit.  The change in the law allows me to increase the capacity of the Trapper if it is possible. 

Although the Winchester 94 has been in production since 1896, they made significant changes to the gun at serial number 4,580,000, which appears to be the point when they changed from a leaf hammer spring to a coil hammer spring.  I understand that additional changes were made at around serial number 6,000,000, which appears to be the change to a rebounding hammer and the the addition of the cross-bolt safety.

 Winchester 1894 Trapper Project Statement

To clean up the action on a modern 94 Trapper so it shoots better for Cowboy Action Shooting.  This will be done using simple tools and techniques.  I will also see if it is possible to correct the overall problem of the basic design of the hammer and trigger assembly and will see if it is possible to modify the magazine to allow the storage of ten rounds.

Figure 2. The Winchester 94 trigger and hammer assembly.  Note the coiled mainspring and the fork with its two hammer contact points that create a cradling effect that forces the hammer back away from the firing pin when it is at rest.  Click on the picture to enlarge it.

 Understanding this Gun

There are many people who claim the 94 cannot be cleaned up and turned into a good rifle.  I feel this is an inappropriate argument, because the most common use for this rifle is Cowboy Action Shooting (CAS) and hunting.  Let's face some CAS facts.  The 94 does have design limits that prevent it from being a premier action rifle, however, most CAS shooters are not top contenders.  Most people are in the sport for fun and can benefit from having a reasonably priced and reliable gun that is also very strong. 

To better understand the trigger and hammer function of the modern 94, please click on the thumbnail in figure 2.  Study the lower tang assembly.  Note the hammer spring guide rod with a two prong fork on the forward end (left) retains the coil mainspring.  Note the two indentations on the rear of the hammer.  The two prongs of the hammer spring guide rod ride in those two indentations.  When the hammer is cocked, the pivoting action of the hammer causes only the top prong of the hammer spring guide rod to engage the hammer.  The distance (leverage) from the hinge pin to drive the hammer forward is sufficient to drive the hammer forward and strike the firing pin.  When the hammer is cocked, the pressure on the upper part of the hammer is much like that of any hammer and spring combination.  Cocking the hammer also engages the sear, which holds the hammer in the full cock position until the trigger is pulled.  There is no half-cock notch on this rifle and there is no need for one as long as we do not modify the design of the trigger and hammer.

It is important to understand that the hammer and trigger sears do not come in contact with each other on the New Model 94.  There is a lever safety that protrudes through the lower tang and must be depressed by the lever in order to release the hammer.  Essentially, the trigger engages the lever safety and the lever safety engages the hammer sear.  This is the cause of one of the biggest problems with the New Model 94, which causes the trigger to have over a half inch of travel before engaging anything.   Do not tamper with this safety feature because it prevents the gun from firing before the bolt is securely locked in place.
I think of the New Model 94 as having three hammer positions: resting, striking, and cocked.  In the resting position, both the upper and lower prongs of the hammer spring guide rod are in contact with the appropriate recesses in the hammer.  A balance between the two cause the hammer to remain centered and away from the firing pin.  This is needed to allow the cross-bolt safety to be engaged without being obstructed by the hammer.  When the hammer has been pushed or pulled to the rear and is engaging the sear, it is in the cocked position.  Pulling the trigger moves the hammer forward to momentarily strike the firing pin.  I call  this the striking position.
When the hammer is cocked and the trigger pulled, the hammer is released and pushed forward by the energy of the coil spring exerting pressure on the upper part of the hammer through the upper prong of the hammer spring guide rod.  The hammer accelerates forward until it reaches the rest position and the lower prong of the hammer spring guide rod engages the lower notch in the hammer.  The lower notch is slightly below the hammer pivot bushing so it exerts a slight force to slow the hammer as the hammer moves forward.  As the lower prong engages the lower slot, the upper prong of the hammer spring guide rod disengages and stops providing any more forward energy.  Between the resting and striking positions, the hammer is moving forward only from its own forward inertia and there is a very slight slowing action from the lower prong in its notch.  The hammer strikes the firing pin and the cartridge is fired.
What does all of this mean?  It means there are a lot of parts moving around in that trigger assembly and a lot of mass and inertia needed.  It means that the Winchester New Model 94 will shoot safely and reliably in a variety of weather conditions for hunting.  It also means it is not the most suitable design for CAS, but it is certainly good enough for most cowboy action shooters. 
Is this simply not the right gun for CAS competition?  That depends on your point of view.  The top shooters will use expensive toggle-bolt rifles that have been slicked by the best smiths in the country, so this is not a gun for them.  I think this is a good gun for the rest of us who are content with having a fun day.  For us, the difference between a Winchester 94 and a perfect rifle will be only a second or two in total stage time, which does not matter to most of us.  The good news is that this gun can be improved a little in just a few hours.  I have determined that it is possible to custom build a new trigger and hammer for the gun, but the effort would be so great that it's probably better to simply buy a different gun and use the 94 as a backup if the perfect trigger is needed.  I may create a project to illustrate how to make these changes, but they are probably not warranted.

 Making the modifications

There are several places where the Winchester 94 can be improved. Improvements are simple and can be made in the sear, the hammer spring, the magazine spring, and the cross-bolt safety.  Begin by removing the stock from the tang.  This is done by removing the tang screw from the upper tang and pulling the stock to the rear to remove it.  This will expose the upper and lower tangs and you will note the lower tang is loose and held only by the hammer pivot screw.  Remove the hammer pivot screw from the left side of the receiver and the entire lower tang assembly can be removed out the bottom by carefully lowering the assembly to the rear.  It may take a little experimentation with the hammer position to remove it, but it will come out.
The hammer is held in position by the bushing that runs through the hammer pivot hole.  Cock the hammer back to expose a hole in the hammer spring guide rod and place a small pin or nail into the hole.  This will hold the spring in place until you need to remove it.  Drift the hammer pivot bushing out with a drift punch, but it should only require a little pressure since it is not a press fit.  Remove the hammer and you will find the sear and ramp on the bottom.  Using a stone or some 600 grit wet or dry sandpaper on a flat surface, polish any machine marks down to reduce friction.  It is not necessary to create a mirror finish, but removing rough spots will help.  It may also help to lightly polish the sides of the hammer where they contact the receiver.  Don't forget to lightly polish any roughness on the receiver where the hammer is in contact.


Figure 3. The hammer sear after it has been polished.  This improves the feel of the hammer as it is pulled with the thumb or the bolt. 
Take some wet or dry sandpaper and gently polish the outside surface of the hammer pivot bushing and the inside of the hammer pivot hole.  I wrap the 600 grit paper around a drift punch and use the drift punch to polish the inside of the hole.  It only takes a few strokes to remove the rough spots, but you do not want to remove enough material to increase the play of the bushing. 
It's now time to make a decision.  You can stop and coat all of the friction surfaces with action grease, or you can take the parts further apart and do more polishing.   I took mine completely apart and polished each part where they contact another part, but there is so little movement in the parts that I would probably just use grease and move on if I had it to do again.  It is up to you.
Now for an important step.  Carefully compress the hammer spring, remove the retaining pin, and remove the hammer spring guide rod and the hammer spring.  Note the orientation of the hammer spring guide rod  because it's easy to reassemble it upside down.  I am not aware of any spring kits for the 94 so I removed four coils from the coil mainspring on the advice of some people who have done it.  I also polished the hammer spring guide rod so the spring would not tend to bind on any rough spots.  There were some rough points on the prongs that contact the hammer so I lightly polished those with 600 grit sandpaper.  Reassemble the parts back into the lower tang assembly and lube with an appropriate low-drag grease.  I used Brownell's Action Magic Lube Plus. 

After installing the lower tang assembly and reinstalling the buttstock, I lubricated the gun as I normally would and cycled the action.  Reducing the spring tension reduced the force needed to cock the hammer on the down stroke of the lever.  The grease and slight polishing seemed to make the trigger feel better and smoother.  Testing the gun with empty, but primed cases, told me that there was still enough mainspring force to reliably detonate the primers.  We will now turn our attention to the magazine.


Figure 4.  The magazine spring, the follower, the magazine tube cap, and a cartridge in the proper orientation. 

I find the Winchester 94 to be a bit difficult to load, because there is simply too much tension on the magazine spring to get the last cartridges to feed easily.  I removed some of the tension by removing the magazine plug from the end of the barrel by removing the small screw under the magazine tube about a quarter of an inch from the muzzle end of the tube.  Be sure to apply some inward pressure to  the magazine plug, because the magazine plug is under tension from the magazine spring and it may damage the threads or cause the magazine plug and spring to be launched across the room.  I cut four coils off the magazine spring and reinstalled it.

My last modification was to remove the cross-bolt safety.  It was not difficult, but it is a personal decision that must be made by each owner.  I resisted this change for the first year I owned the gun, but finally decided to remove it after loosing four shots in a match because the safety was on.  Laying a 94 on its side at the loading table often activates the safety, which may not be noticed until it fails to shoot while on the clock. 
Figure 5.  The view looking down into the area between the firing pin and the hammer while the hammer is in the cocked position.  That flat platform with the little hole is the safety bar.
I finally removed the safety from the gun to prevent any future problems.  Click on the photo in figure 5 to see a close-up view of the cross-bolt safety and the release hole.  The bright metal on the left of the image is the breech bolt with the firing pin.  The flat piece of steel in the middle with a tiny hole is the safety.  The large hole just above the small hole is the access hole for getting the special tool into the small hole in the safety so you can depress the spring loaded detent and remove the safety bar.
If you are going to remove the safety, push the safety into the safe position.  This should align the little access hole with the larger hole that gives you access to the access hole.  You will need a special tool that will fit into the access hole.  I found a standard paper clip to be a good fit.  Using the paper clip, or any suitable tool, press down into the hole and depress the detent and the detent spring.  While holding the detent down a little, push the safety on through from the left side of the frame (from shooting position) and out the right side.   Once the safety bar moves about an eighth of an inch, it may hit a machining mark and need a slightly more aggressive drifting out. Proceed carefully!  Remove the spring and detent, and save them for installation at a later date.
Some people advocate modifying the safety so it does not work and then putting it back into the frame to plug the holes .  I feel it is dangerous to use the rifle outside of CAS without the safety installed and it might be carried with a round in the chamber.  Cowboy Action Shooting does not allow cartridges in the chamber except when the gun is ready to fire.  I feel it is worse to have a safety in place that does not work. 
The Winchester New Model 94 has a reputation for parts failures and for actions that jam during shooting stages.  I have had quite a few problems, but most of them have been of my own doing or something other than the gun.  A common problem that has led to the reputation of this gun is the fact that many people do not cycle the lever forcefully enough.  This action was designed to be worked with deliberation and a timid operation of the action can cause problems.  Treat it with respect and don't abuse it, but operate the action with some authority and it will be more reliable.
These modifications to my Winchester 94 Trapper have smoothed the action on the gun and made it a lot easier to shoot in competition.  There are a lot more things that can be done, but this represents the total amount of work I have done to mine.  I am planning to make and install a brass buckhorn rear sight.  I am also planning to make a filler for the hole left by the removal of the safety.  I will add any additional modifications to this article as they are completed.

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