by Bruce Canfield - Monday, March 21, 2011
One of the perennially popular Winchester firearms of the 20th century is the Model 70 bolt-action rifle. Introduced in 1936 as an improvement on the Model 54, the Model 70 soon set the standard for commercial bolt-action rifles. Manufactured in a wide variety of configurations and calibers, it was a favorite of many hunters, shooters and gun enthusiasts. Although never adopted for combat use by the U.S. military, some Model 70 rifles were used as sniping rifles during World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Soon after Pearl Harbor, two members of the U.S. Marine Corps Equipment Board, Capt. George Van Orden and Chief Gunnery Sgt. Calvin Lloyd, wrote a 72-page report titled “Equipment for the American Sniper,” which discussed the various types of rifles and telescopic sights available at the time. The report concluded that the best rifle/scope combination for use by U.S. Marine snipers was the Winchester Model 70 topped with an 8X target scope made by the Unertl Co.
This recommendation made its way up the chain of command. Before any official action was taken, the Marine Corps ordered 373 Model 70s chambered in .30-’06 Sprg. According to Winchester documents, these rifles were shipped to the Marine Corps on May 29, 1942. Serial numbers were in the approximate 41,000 to 50,000 range, and the rifles had 24-inch sporter barrels with leaf sights, sporter-checkered stocks with steel buttplates, 1-inch sling swivels and leather slings.
Shortly after the government acquired these rifles, Winchester reported that “all .30 Government 06 Rifles are now frozen under War Production Board Limitation Orders.” The company obviously wanted to sell as many of the Model 70s remaining in its inventory as possible. To this end, Winchester sent a letter to the U.S. Marine Corps Quartermaster on July 20, 1942, indicating it had 1,944 “Model 70 .30 Government 06 Rifles on hand, which we can offer you subject to prior sale.” Most of these rifles had 24-inch barrels, but there were 105 with 20-inch barrels. The letter, signed by Winchester’s Edwin Pugsley, concluded: “It occurs to us that the Marine Corps may be interested in an additional quantity of [these] rifles at this time and shall be glad to submit quotation if you will advise us what styles and quantities you may be interested in.”
About a week after this letter, the Marine Corps firmly closed the door on the acquisition of any additional Model 70 rifles. A memo dated July 29, 1942, stated in part: “Subject: Rifles, Winchester, Model 70, .30 Government 06. The subject rifles are not considered suitable for general service use for the following reasons: (a) Not sufficiently sturdy;(b) Parts are not interchangeable with M1903 and M1 parts; (c) Replacement parts will be difficult to procure; (d) Not fitted with sling swivels. These rifles are not considered suitable for use as sniper rifles. The 1047 rifles, U.S., caliber .30, M1903, ‘Snipers Equipment’ on hand at this Depot … are believed to be superior to the subject rifle both in accuracy and durability … .”
The Marine Corps clearly believed that the existing Model 1903, “tuned” to match grade, was a superior sniping rifle as compared to the Model 70. This is debatable. Regardless, the fact that there were a number of Model 1903 Marine Corps match rifles, along with spare parts, already on-hand resulted in the idea of a standardized Model 70 sniping rifle being doomed from the start.
Despite the Marine Corps’ firm rejection of the Model 70, some of these rifles did, in fact, serve overseas in combat, albeit on an unofficial basis. Sniper historian Peter R. Senich reported: “[A]ccording to firsthand accounts, a fair number of unauthorized telescope-equipped ‘personal and Marine Corps property’ Model 70s brought the reality of war to Japanese combat personnel during the early stages of World War II in the South Pacific.” The U.S. Army also procured a limited number of Model 70 rifles during World War II, but little is known about their subsequent utilization, and it appears they saw virtually no actual use.
The end of World War II essentially spelled the end of the bolt-action as a front-line U.S. military service rifle, but its inherent accuracy was too important an attribute to totally abandon, and bolt guns enjoyed a new lease on life as sniping rifles. The Korean War was the last conflict in which the World War II-vintage bolt-action M1903A1/Unertl sniper rifle was employed. During the closing stages of the war, the M1903A1/Unertl was replaced by the semi-automatic Garand M1C sniper rifle, which was soon followed by the M1D. These two Garand sniper rifles were the mainstay of the U.S. military’s sniper rifle inventory until the early 1960s when the United States became increasingly involved in the conflict in Southeast Asia.
The Springfield M1903A1 rifle fitted with an 8X Unertl scope was the only bolt-action sniping rifle to see any substantive use in the hands of U.S. Marines during the Korean War. The U.S. Army fielded some World War II-vintage M1903A4 bolt-actions but relied primarily on the semi-automatic M1C Garand. As was the case during World War II, the Marine Corps considered procuring some Winchester Model 70 rifles for sniping use in Korea, but these results were the same as before. A 1951 U.S. Marine Corps report on the subject categorically rejected the procurement of any new Model 70 sniper rifles: “There is no Marine Corps requirement for a special rifle for use by snipers in the Marine Corps. It is undesirable to inject another rifle into the supply system, and if another rifle is injected into the supply system, it is necessary to inject non-standard ammunition for this rifle into the supply system in order to exploit fully any gain in accuracy. The U.S. Rifle, Caliber .30, M1C is sufficiently accurate for use by snipers in the Marine Corps.”
Despite this rebuff, the Marine Corps report went on to state that “[the] Model 70 Winchester is the most accurate American made, Caliber .30 on the market.”
During this same period, the U.S. Army also considered procurement of a modified Model 70 for sniping use as reflected in a memo from the chief of ordnance dated Oct. 30, 1951, which states in part:
Any further consideration of the Model 70 by the Army was rejected. “It has been determined that the increased accuracy of the Model 70 Winchester is insufficient to justify its introduction into an already overburdened supply system.”
Although adoption of the Model 70 as a sniping arm by the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army remained elusive, the rifle did enjoy some measure of quasi-military popularity throughout the mid- to late-1950s. After World War II, George Van Orden, who had authored the Marine Corps Equipment Board report in 1941 recommending adoption of the Model 70 as a sniper rifle, started a firearms business named Evaluators, Ltd. Van Orden (who had subsequently been promoted to colonel and, later, brigadier general), eventually concentrated on marketing the “Van Orden Sniper,” which was a Winchester Model 70 customized to the specifications of his customers.
Van Orden was successful in selling the arms to many clients, including the U.S. Coast Guard, which purchased 10 of the rifles in June 1954. Van Orden’s rifles also enjoyed some measure of success on the target range, as Marine Col. Walter Walsh won the 1952 National Rifle Matches at Camp Perry, Ohio, with one of the “Van Orden Snipers.”
The success of the Model 70 on the rifle range attracted renewed interest from the U.S. Army as evidenced by a Feb. 2, 1955, memo from the Office of the Chief of Ordnance to the Chief of Army Field Forces, which stated: “It is requested that this office be furnished [with] your comments and recommendations relative to procurement of cal. .30-06 Winchester Model 70 National Match Rifles equipped with a medium heavy barrel for use during the 1955 National Matches.” The recipient of the memo replied on Feb. 7, 1955: “The total number of weapons required for the 1955 Matches is 204.” It has been confirmed that the U.S. Army purchased in excess of 200 Model 70 rifles between 1954 and 1959, mainly from Van Orden’s firm. They were intended primarily as match rifles and were not procured for use as sniper rifles.
Likewise, many of the 300-plus Model 70 rifles purchased by the Marine Corps during World War II remained in inventory and, except for the handful diverted for unofficial sniping use, continued to be used by Marine marksmen for match use throughout the 1950s. Many of these were subsequently rebuilt between circa 1956 and 1963, primarily at the Marine Corps’ “Match Rebuild Shop” in Albany, Ga. This rebuild work varied but generally consisted of replacing the original “sporter” barrels with heavier 24- or 26-inch barrels and replacing the stocks as necessary, often with new target stocks procured from Winchester. The metal was reblued as required. Thus, the Model 70 remained in the military’s inventory, albeit as a match rifle, until the escalation of the war in Vietnam, which resulted in a renewed emphasis on accurate sniper rifles.
A July 1967 American Rifleman article by Frank G. McGuire, “Snipers—Specialists in Warfare,” reported: “The 8X telescopic sight was chosen in World War II when it was teamed with the ’03 rifle. These scopes now used in Vietnam are the same scopes on newer rifles. Some of the snipers now in Vietnam were not yet born when the telescopic sights they use were employed in a different war. ‘In the early 1940’s,’ says a Marine Corps spokesman, ‘we were advised that a Unertl 8X scope on the Winchester Model 70 was the best sniping combination, but the ’03 was available in quantity, so we used it.’”
The Model 70 rifles sent to Vietnam for use as sniping arms were from the stocks originally procured for Marine Corps match use, chiefly from George Van Orden. This was confirmed in McGuire’s article: “The rifle team of the 3rd Marine Division had been using the Model 70 with the heavy barrel and the heavy Marksman stock. … When the need arose for more Model 70s the rifles procured by Brig. Gen. Van Orden, including Smith’s championship-winning rifle, were shipped to Vietnam as supplemental equipment.”
Peter Senich gave additional details regarding the use of the Model 70 sniper rifle in Vietnam in his excellent book “The One-Round War.” “Glass-bedded and accurized by Marine Corps Rifle Team Equipment Armorers (RTE), the Model 70s fired .30-06 M72 match ammunition having a 173-grain, boat-tailed bullet. In some cases, Douglas barrels were fitted to the Winchester actions to attain optimum accuracy. A limited number of 3X to 9X variable power ‘Marine Scopes’ of Japanese manufacture saw early use, but target mount, 8 power Unertl telescopes, unchanged basically from those first adopted in 1941, were fitted to the Model 70s as were many of the original World War II Unertl contract scopes, which had survived official obsolescence and the post-Korean War surplus sell-off. … While the USMC used the Model 70 to greatest advantage during this period, a limited number were also employed by Army personnel for sniping, and Model 70s with silencers mounted on them were utilized for covert operations in Southeast Asia.”
James O. E. Norell’s article “A Century Of USMC Sniper Rifles” related some interesting information by retired USMC Maj. Edward J.“Jim” Land, Jr., regarding the Model 70 rifles that were used by the Marines in Vietnam circa 1966: “Land first scrounged 12 Model 70 sporting rifles that had been procured by Special Services for deer hunting at Camp Pendleton. Through the PX system in Okinawa, Land’s NCOs bought mounts, rings and scopes. The second lot of rifles used by Land and his teams in Vietnam were also Winchester Model 70 target guns in .30-’06 Sprg. that had been originally purchased [as] ‘across-the course’ bolt guns for the National Matches. They were mothballed after NRA changed match rules to limit service personnel to shooting service rifles. … ”
Despite its excellence as a precision rifle, the Model 70 was never fully embraced by the U.S. military as a standardized sniper arm. Nevertheless, Winchester Model 70s teamed with the Unertl scopes were superb sniping arms, certainly better than anything else in the military’s inventory at the time. The Model 70s began to be replaced by Remington Model 700 rifles, which were later standardized by the Marine Corps as the “M40.” The Model 70’s suitability as a sniping rifle during the Vietnam War should be unquestioned, as the most famous and revered sniper of the war, Carlos Hathcock, used the rifle with remarkable effectiveness.
The Winchester Model 70 represented perhaps the epitome of the bolt-action sporting rifle. The rifle’s inherent accuracy was ideally suited as a sniping rifle. For those wondering why the military did not continue using the Model 70 and abandoned it in favor of the Remington Model 700, McGuire gave a cogent synopsis of the reasoning behind this decision: “[For Vietnam], the Marines wanted a bolt-action rifle with a medium-heavy barrel and a sporter stock. There was no real reason to stay with Winchester because the Model 70s used by the Marines were not the latest production models anyway, and no advantage would be gained as far as standardization of equipment was concerned.” By the late 1960s, the Winchester Model 70 sniper rifles were in the process of being phased out by the new Remington Model 700s.
As events transpired, the Model 70s pressed into service as sniping arms, especially during the Vietnam War, were really never meant to be more than a stop-gap or interim measure until a standardized sniper rifle could be procured. This is yet another example of the truism that a great civilian firearm does not always equate to a great military rifle.
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