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.