jack o’con­nor’s per­fect winch­ester Model 70

How one man’s in­sight helped shape the con­cept of the Amer­i­can clas­sic ri­fle and con­tin­ues to in­flu­ence gen­er­a­tions of big-game hunters

Outdoor Life - - CONTENTS - BY GARY LEWIS

To­day, Jack O’con­nor, sheep hunt­ing, and the Model 70 Winch­ester in .270 are linked in our col­lec­tive sub­con­scious. It was not al­ways that way. When he started the quest for his first desert sheep, O’con­nor car­ried a 10 ½-pound ri­fle, a 26-inch-bar­reled .30/06 with a heavy Ger­man scope. In the fur­nace that was Au­gust 1935, he hunted Mex­ico’s Sono­ran coast.

Re­turn­ing home empty-handed, he knew what a sheep ri­fle was not. Later that sum­mer, O’con­nor hiked The­p­opoh Moun­tain in Sonora with a “slen­der lit­tle Mi­nar-stocked 7x57mm Mauser with a 22-inch bar­rel, equipped with a Ly­man 1-A peep sight.”

When he heard hooves strike shale and the crash­ing of rocks, he scram­bled to high ground fast enough to see the back end of a go­ing-away ram, cen­tered the bead, and trig­gered a shot.

The sheep slid out of sight, and O’con­nor walked down to his prize.

In 1939, O’con­nor was ap­pointed new guns ed­i­tor for Out­door Life, and in 1941, he took over the Arms and Ammunition col­umn. In those days, Coues deer and desert sheep were his pas­sions, and a lot of ri­fles came and went through his hands.

By the end of 1946, O’con­nor had hunted enough North Amer­i­can sheep to com­plete three grand slams, al­though the term had not yet been coined.

By 1954, he thought he had his ul­ti­mate ri­fle, a cus­tom Model

70 in .270 Winch­ester that he had taken to Wy­oming for elk, to In­dia for black­buck, and to Iran for red sheep and ibex.

He liked the ri­fle so much, he called it his No. 1 and set out to build a se­cond to give his fa­vorite a break from test­ing new bul­lets and de­vel­op­ing loads.

With to­day’s wealth of ri­fle of­fer­ings, it is easy to for­get that in the 1950s, a hunter who wanted an ac­cu­rate ri­fle that was com­fort­able to carry, easy to han­dle, and ca­pa­ble of pre­cise shoot­ing had to have it built. Many of the guns peo­ple car­ried were sporter­ized ver­sions of the weapons car­ried in com­bat a decade be­fore.

The bolt-ac­tions avail­able on dealer shelves to­day that con­form to what we think of as the Amer­i­can clas­sic were in­formed by O’con­nor’s choice in ri­fles. His prov­ing grounds were the moun­tains of Alaska and the Yukon, and the desert, hunt­ing Coues deer and desert sheep. The look is de­fined by a wal­nut (or syn­thetic) stock with a straight comb to align the eye with a scope, grace­ful curves, per­haps a cheek­piece, and a pis­tol grip that is some­what oval in cross sec­tion and check­ered to give a firm hold.

“A good sport­ing stock should en­able the shooter to get a shot off quickly and ac­cu­rately, and it should also be a thing of beauty,” O’con­nor wrote in his book The Big Game Ri­fle (1952). “Many fine sport­ing stocks are hand­some but of lit­tle aid in ac­cu­rate shoot­ing. Many oth­ers that hold and shoot well are homely and clumsy. The very best sporter stock de­sign re­sults in a stock with hand­some, grace­ful lines and one which also en­ables the man

be­hind it to do his best work.”

But the con­cept of the sheep ri­fle was still be­ing re­fined in O’con­nor’s mind and, for the world to read about, in the pages of Out­door Life.

Sheep Ri­fle No. 2

O’con­nor was 57 years old when he walked into Erb Hard­ware in Lewis­ton, Idaho, and bought a new Feath­er­weight Model 70 in .270. Out-of-the-box ac­cu­racy was rare, and this gun was ex­cep­tional. Sur­prised his new ri­fle was ca­pa­ble of minute-of-an­gle ac­cu­racy, O’con­nor took it to gun­smith Al Biesen to cus­tom­ize it.

Like his No. 1, this ri­fle also was stocked in French wal­nut, with a slim, pear-shaped wrist, and fleurde-lis check­er­ing re­cessed about ¹⁄₃₂ of an inch. The grip cap was en­graved with a moose head. On the butt was a trap-style plate en­graved with a ram. Turn­ing the gun over re­vealed an un­adorned steel floor plate, its re­lease lever in­side the bow of the trig­ger guard.

The jew­eled bolt slid back and forth in the ac­tion, smoothed by a mas­ter ma­chin­ist’s touch. The bolt han­dle was check­ered to give it tex­ture in the heel of the hand. It car­ried a Le­upold Moun­taineer 4X scope fixed in Buehler mounts. The ri­fle weighed 8 pounds and fast be­came his new fa­vorite, dubbed Sheep Ri­fle No. 2.

The No. 2 went to Botswana with O'con­nor in 1966, and he hunted with it in Spain, Iran, and Scot­land. It ac­counted for a north­ern white­tail in Idaho and three Stone's sheep in 1973, and O’con­nor car­ried it on his last big-game hunt, in 1977. It re­mains in the O’con­nor fam­ily and is on dis­play at the mu­seum that bears his name in Lewis­ton, Idaho.

In 2005, I met Brad­ford O’con­nor, Jack’s son, at a Big Bore/ Dou­ble Ri­fle com­pe­ti­tion in eastern Ore­gon. The ri­fle I had planned to shoot, a .458 Win. Mag., broke the scope mount in re­coil, and O’con­nor said I could bor­row one of his dad’s ri­fles. He handed me a .375 H&H that had been to Africa and a se­cond ri­fle padded in green di­a­mond-tuck flan­nel.

“Take th­ese over to the prac­tice range and shoot them as much as you like,” Brad­ford said. “They were made to shoot.”

In­side the soft flan­nel gun case was O’con­nor’s Sheep Ri­fle No. 2. In hand, the gun was light and lively, and the check­er­ing stuck to my palms while the butt locked into my shoul­der and cheek found its weld. My friend, out­door writer and ri­fle ex­pert Chub East­man, was with me, and we both fired the fa­mous Winch­ester. We kept a cou­ple of empty car­tridge cases.

Jack O’con­nor had a rep­u­ta­tion as a prickly in­tel­lec­tual. He held a low opin­ion of his fel­low man in gen­eral, but he was ac­ces­si­ble to his read­ers, an­swer­ing thou­sands of let­ters over the years.

“The wild ram em­bod­ies the mys­tery and magic of the moun­tains, the rocky canyons, the snowy peaks, the fra­grant alpine mead­ows, the gray slide rock, the icy, danc­ing rills fed by snow­bank and glacier, the sweet, clean air of the high places, and the sense of be­ing alone on the top of the world with the ea­gles, the mar­mots, and the wild sheep them­selves.” —JACK O’CON­NOR “The Bighorn,” Out­door Life, March 1960

In De­cem­ber 1957, a cow­boy from Joseph, Ore­gon, wrote to O’con­nor. Verne An­der­son had just ac­quired a Winch­ester Model 70 and wanted to know O’con­nor’s opin­ion on fac­tory loads then avail­able for the 150-grain bul­let.

While An­der­son was fine-tun­ing his new ri­fle, O’con­nor was re­fin­ing the sheep-ri­fle con­cept. O’con­nor went on to pro­vide his fa­vorite hand-load recipe.

Dear Mr. An­der­son,

Ac­cord­ing to the pres­sure data I have the 150-gr. .270 cal­iber Sierra Boat­tail bul­let in front of 58.5 grs. of No. 4831 has a pres­sure of 47,500 p.s.i.

With that load I sight in to put the bul­let 3 inches high at 100 yards. It is about 4 inches high at 200 and on the nose at around 275. I would say that the drop at 500 yards, with the 275-yard sight­ing, is about 24 inches.

I se­ri­ously doubt if you could tell any dif­fer­ence in ac­cu­racy in the field be­tween the .270 Model 70 Feath­er­weight and the stan­dard weight. My own .270 Feath­er­weight ri­fle shoots like a mil­lion bucks. For hunt­ing pur­poses it doesn’t take a real heavy ri­fle to shoot well. My best wishes,

Jack O’con­nor

De­cem­ber 27, 1957

An­der­son’s Winch­ester is still in use, hunt­ing the Amer­i­can West. The cow­boy’s grand­son, Kris Bales, em­ploys O’con­nor’s rec­om­mended load. The gun is sighted 3 inches high at 100 yards, the same as Sheep Ri­fle No. 2.

O’con­nor came to learn that sheep could not be chased down from horse­back, but in­stead were best hunted on foot, with a spot­ting scope on a tri­pod and a care­ful stalk for a close shot.

To­day, when a hunter chooses a sheep ri­fle, it con­forms to the pat­tern O’con­nor pre­scribed— por­ta­ble, handy, and rel­a­tively light. But spe­cific de­sign is left to the man or woman who will carry it up and over the moun­tain.

And this was the ge­nius of the man who gave us the con­cept of the sheep ri­fle.

When go­ing to the top of the world, where the hunt for rams takes us, we say we will carry a sheep ri­fle.

In that mo­ment, when rocks roll down and a ram bounds from its bed, the ri­fle is light in hand, quick to shoul­der, and quick to ac­quire its tar­get. It is a thing of beauty be­cause its ev­ery line aids in ac­cu­rate shoot­ing.

O’con­nor pur­chased a new Feath­er­weight M70 in 1966, which be­came his No. 2.

The steel butt shows a run­ning ram sur­rounded by oak leaves.

The wrap­around check­er­ing con­tains a fine fleur-de-lis.

The grip cap is deeply en­graved with the im­age of a bull moose.

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