On May 29, 1942, eager to do their part in the war effort, Winchester shipped 373 model 70 standard .30-06 rifles to the US Marine Corps. Winchester requested the Marines evaluate the rifles generally for suitability of use in combat, and specifically for use as sniper rifles. Two months later the Marine Corps replied to Winchester in a memo which stated:
Subject: Rifles, Winchester, Model 70, .30 Government 06.
The subject rifles are not considered suitable for general service use for the following reasons:
- Not sufficiently sturdy
- Parts are not interchangeable with M1903 and M1 parts
- Replacement parts will be difficult to procure
- Not fitted with sling swivels.
These rifles are not considered suitable for use as sniper rifles. The 1,047 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.”
Based on the Marine Corps response, the door appeared closed to the Model 70 ever seeing use by the US military during WWII. However, where the USMC procurement brass failed to see the merits of the Model 70, the Marine Corps marksmen did not. These relatively few Model 70 rifles soon became favored for their lighter weight, refined handling, and superior accuracy compared to the Springfield rifle. The Model 70s also drew the attention of USMC snipers and their chief sponsor – Brigadier General George Van Orden. Van Orden would go on to author a report recommending adoption of the Model 70 for sniper use. This effort was ultimately unsuccessful from a military procurement standpoint, but cemented the Model 70’s place in USMC sniper history. An unknown number of additional Model 70s were eventually purchased for military use – both standard rifles and the marksman style target rifles. Their official role was for use in marksmanship training, but that’s not where they would all end up.
At the direction of Van Orden, USMC armorers began modifying some of the sporter weight rifles, fitting them with heavy Douglas target barrels and Unertl 8X scopes. Van Orden had envisioned the Model 70 as the ultimate platform for a highly accurate sniper rifle, but which was light enough to be carried into battle. And it was as a sniper rifle the Model 70 ultimately earned its stripes. The rifle excelled in USMC sniper trials and target competitions, making it the preferred rifle of most USMC snipers.
Although the model 70 was never officially approved for combat service during WWII, a number of Model 70s made their way into combat with USMC snipers. These marines were unwilling to leave their preferred rifle at home and carry the approved, but less accurate Springfield M1903 into battle. It was in this way the Winchester model 70 found its way into unauthorized sniper duty during the WWII, primarily in the Pacific Theater.
Following WWII, popularity of the model 70 with Marine Corps snipers grew, eventually drawing the attention of other snipers from other branches of the military as well. The precision and reliability of the model 70’s controlled-round-feed action meant a cartridge could be slowly and quietly chambered with a single hand – something which was more difficult with a push-feed action. Additionally, the simplicity of the model 70 action permitted it to be completely field stripped in a matter of minutes, and the unmatched adjustability of the model 70 trigger also contributed to the model 70’s popularity.
The US government eventually purchased additional model 70s and officially sanctioned them for combat duty. And they did see duty. Model 70 sniper rifles were used by US Marine snipers continuously from WWII, through the Vietnam War.
Carlos Hathcock, the most celebrated US sniper in history, preferred the model 70 over a host of other rifles at his disposal, using it extensively in combat during the Vietnam war, and in Wimbledon matches at Camp Perry in the years that followed.
Carlos Hathcock, in Vietnam (left) and receiving the Silver Star (right).
While most early model 70 sniper rifles were standard rifles, modified by the Marines for sniper use, this would not be the case for subsequent Winchester rifles coming into US military service. These later rifles were delivered to the US military already modified to be sniper rifles, including a heavy barrel and accurized stock. These later rifles only added to the popularity of the model 70 among US snipers.
Known as Van Orden rifles, these model 70 sniper rifles were at last procured under the watchful eye of Brigadier General George Van Orden. The rifles were a special order spec sent from Winchester to Evaluators Limited of Triangle, VA, where they were fully accurized to meet Van Orden’s detailed sniper specification.
A Van Orden sniper rifle
Eventually, there were likely thousands of model 70s in military service, with the exact number unknown. In addition to sniper rifles, model 70s were used extensively in marksmanship training and in match team shooting. Remarkably, a few remain in service to this day. In 2016, an armorer with the Pennsylvania National Guard contacted us regarding a .308 target rifle used by their competitive match shooters. It was missing a bolt part and the National Guard had designated it for “decommissioning” (a.k.a destruction). Not only were we pleased to help supply them with the correct part, but we were more pleased to see this aging model 70 remain in active service, rather than face an inglorious ending as scrap metal.
A marksman model 70 still in active use with the PA National Guard
A handful of the original USMC model 70 rifles survive to this day, and 76 years later hold enormous collector interest. The scarcity of these rifles mean few of us will ever get a chance to own one. The value of these rifles mean that even if we did own one, we’d probably be reluctant to shoot it. For these reasons, we regularly get inquiries about building “tribute” and “replica” USMC Sniper rifles. Tribute rifles have the general appearance and build spec of the original Marine rifles, where replica rifles attempt to be correct to the original rifles in every way, including a serial number which falls into the correct date range. To avoid contributing to the prolific problem of counterfeit rare model 70s, we decline to build replica model 70s of any kind. However, we are happy to build tribute rifles and were very pleased to recently complete a USMC sniper tribute rifle.
This rifle came to us as a standard sporter rifle, with a Douglas barrel blank. Douglas still produces the same barrel they supplied to the Marines in the early 1940s, which makes easy work of getting one key aspect of this build exactly right. The owner had provided us with the stock already featuring a nicely aged appearance, which we maintained in the build. The machine work, barrel channel and bedding were completed in our shop. The metal finishes were done by Ken Pederson of Pederson Arms in Arlington, WA.
Enjoy the photos and let us know if there’s a special model 70 project we can take on for you!