A Heart Attack Rifle:
195 gr Cast Bullets in a Lever Action 30-30

Click thumbnails for full size pop-up photos.

The used gun section of the local pawn and gun shop is one of my favorite places. You never know what some fool will pawn and not redeem. On a recent visit, there on the wall rack leaned an old Winchester Model 94. I like older Winchester lever actions. The ones without the Politically Correct safety. The ones with the two factory drilled and tapped holes for peep sights, the sights God meant for us to use on lever actions. A glance at the price tag hanging from the lever showed:


The stock and forearm were scratched, but not terribly so. The action and the tangs were almost covered with a rusty brown hue, like an old muzzleloader. The barrel surface had a little rust, but not much. Worst thing on the barrel was the spot where a gunsmith's vice had deeply scratched it below the front sight—the sight he installed with a sledge hammer from the looks of the dents in it.

Knowing the rifle's bore surely looked as bad as the rest of the rifle, I pulled it off the rack anyway. Immediately, I noticed its light weight compared to the weight of my Model 94 at home, a well-maintained Buffalo Bill Commemorative which weighed 7 lbs 5 oz. A quick look down the muzzle of this 6 lbs or so rusty relic showed good rifling. I had pulled older Model 94s from that same rack, and the rifling just below their crowns looked like a smoothbore shotgun because of cleaning rod wear.

Click for full size popup photo
The rifle's worst defect was on the left side of the action, as you can see in this photo. Probably the same gunsmith who mangled the front sight had drilled and tapped four holes in the side of the action for a scope mount. All four holes were stripped. I put the ugly rifle back on the rack.

At home, I started thinking. I was at the beginning of a multi-month recovery period from two heart surgeries and emergency abdominal surgery, all within six days. Following that Death's Door experience and three weeks in a hospital, some of it in agony, my thoughts had turned to dreams of extended periods of tent camping with my days spent roaming deep woods in search of deer and wild hogs and my nights spent around a campfire. Oh, for the moon at night and glowing embers rising into the blackness! Oh, for the call of owls and coyotes and the tinkle tinkle tinkle of ice in a sniffer of brandy!

Buffalo Bill Commemorative 30-30 Winchester

Ol' Bill.
But what rifle would my broken down body carry during those idyllic days of roaming deep woods? I could carry my lightweight 45-70 Handi rifle, but I was many months away from tolerating the recoil. The Buffalo Bill Commemorative, which I had fondly christened "Ol' Bill," seemed the obvious answer. With the cast bullets I had loaded for just such a purpose, it would, with moderate recoil, lay low any deer or hog in any deep woods. But, damn, I considered, Ol' Bill gets awful heavy after a while. And all that shiny nickel plate flashed like mirrors.

The ugly, but lightweight—and cheap—Model 94 in the pawnshop started looking better. It was time to take a closer look at the bore. A good bore mattered. Who cares about rust and dings on a woods rifle? I returned to the pawnshop and carried with me a little fold-up 10x magnifying glass, the kind used by jewelers, geologists and secondhand lever action shoppers.

In sunlight and through my little magnifying glass, the rifling at and below the rifle's crown looked fine. Actually, it looked better than fine. It looked new. I had the pawn shop owner run a cleaning patch soaked with solvent through the bore. It came out green with copper fouling. After a few more swipes, he ran an oiled patch back and forth through the bore, then a dry patch. I borrowed his borelight, stuck the lighted end in the chamber, and looked down the muzzle again. The rifling, including at the crown, looked as sharp as the day the rifle left the Winchester factory in the year of God-knows-when. It was un-friggin'-believable, especially considering the way the outside looked. At $159.95, the rifle was priced right.

"What's your lowest price?" I asked the owner anyway.

He knew he had me when I walked in the door and headed to the wall rack and picked up the rifle again. "$150," he answered.

"Where'd you get it? Hell, I come in here all the time, and I ain't seen it."

"Fellow kept it on hock and finally didn't pick it up. It's been in the back for a year."

"You guarantee it'll fire ok and load and eject ok?"

"Yep," he said.

"Sold," I said.

I took it home and test fired several rounds. It worked like a charm.

Click for full size popup photo
Here's a "before" look at the rifle as it came from the pawn shop. (The photo doesn't really show the rust on the action and tangs.) As you see the rifle here, it weighed exactly 6 lbs 1.5 oz, much lighter than Ol' Bill's exactly 7 lbs 5.0 oz. According to the serial number, Winchester made it in 1976.

I decided to make it as lightweight as possible. That meant selecting the lightest available sling and attachments and installing a Ram-Line plastic stock and forearm. As a must, I would replace the factory sights with a Williams Firesight front sight and a Williams peep rear sight containing a .150" diameter non-"Twilight" aperture.

I assumed the aluminum Williams sights would weigh less than the factory iron sights. Wrong. I assumed the nylon Ram-Line stock and forearm would weigh less than the factory wood stock and forearm. Partially wrong.

Here's a table listing the items I bought in order to build a "Heart Attack Rifle":

Winchester Model 94
30-30 Winchester
6 lb 1.5 ozBlade 'n' Barrel
Jena, Louisiana
$150.00Used and abused.
Ram-Line stock and forearm #979400112.9 oz
4.0 oz
MidSouth Shooters Supply33.64The wood stock weighed 15.6 oz. I used the rifle's wood forearm due to its weight of 2.7 oz.
Uncle Mike's magnum split barrel band #6013912203 grsMidSouth Shooters Supply9.67 
Uncle Mike's polymer 1" swivels #6014012230 grsMidSouth Shooters Supply4.49Metal swivels weigh 454 grs. The lighter polymer ones are not quick-detachable.
Allen "Stalker" rifle sling #83009588 grsWal-Mart4.84It was the lightest sling at
receiver sight #583902
455 grsMidwayUSA31.07The factory iron sights weighed 240 grs, so the rifle gained weight here.
R-3/8 x .150 LS
343 M
Williams Gun Sight Company16.95 
Williams slot blankIncluded
Williams Gun Sight Company4.95It's made of lightweight aluminum, not iron.

Total cost of rifle = $260.95

Final weight of rifle with sling = 6 lb 1.4 oz

Note: if you buy a lightweight rifle, carefully select your sling and its accouterments. Even though I selected mine by light weight, they added 2.5 oz to the total weight of the rifle.

Click for full size popup photo Here's the final results. The camo duct tape hides the mismatched wooden forearm and the stripped screw holes in the side of the action. It also disguises the black stock and covers much of the rust on the action.

Ram-Line offers their Model 94 stock in S.W.A.T. team black only. The Model 94 is a woods rifle, not an urban warfare rifle. They would sell many more Model 94 camo stocks than black stocks. In fact, if they decide to start selling them I'm replacing the one on this rifle.

Click for full size popup photo The stock also has no provision for a swivel stud. As seen in this photo, a narrow brace runs the upper and lower lengths of the hollow stock. A hole drilled for a swivel stud cuts the narrow brace in two. I reinforced it with thin strips of aluminum epoxied on each side and centered on the stud location. The green objects are pieces of foam rubber keeping the strips in place while the epoxy dries.

The swivel stud's instructions called for a 5/32" bit. But with that size pilot hole, installing the swivel stud cracked the plastic brace and popped loose one end of an aluminum strip. After saying $#@%^ or something similar, I re-drilled the hole with a larger, 3/16" bit. Then, using a toothpick, I put epoxy in the hole. I then re-installed the stud and smeared a big dollop of epoxy around the aluminum strip. The stud isn't coming out.

By the way: if someone would make a hinged buttplate for Ram-Line stocks, there's all kinds of hidden storage space inside the hollow stock.

Click for full size popup photo The plastic to metal fit of the Ram-Line stock wasn't so great, as this photo shows. I trimmed the stock, but I finally decided the effort was wasted on such an ugly rifle. To prevent rain seepage into the action, I'll caulk the gaps.

Click for full size popup photo This side shot shows the Williams 5D peep sight just after final installation. It also clearly shows three of the ugly, stripped-out holes and the rusty action.

Click for full size popup photo Here's the Firesight going in the ramp from the rifle's right side to left side. The shiny spot on the ramp dovetail is where I polished it with a triangular file. The procedure is try the sight, and if it doesn't fit, file a little on the sight, not the ramp. Then repeat. Then repeat again and again until the sight fits tightly into the ramp's dovetail. I repeated a lot because the previously-mentioned sledge hammer gunsmith had deformed the ramp.

Click for full size popup photo After I removed the stock, the forearm, and the magazine tube from the rifle, I spent a couple of hours cleaning crud and oiling moving parts. The action was dirty, as expected, but beneath the two barrel bands and the forearm lurked gobs of what looked like rusty dried mud. Also, a rusty area on the magazine spring would have broken sooner or later. I cleaned and oiled it, so it will last many more years.

There's two things I want the reader to notice about this photo:

  • First, the dirty paper towels show part, not all, of the crud removed from inside the magazine tube. Some of it could have easily gotten on a case and caused a jam. If you own an older Model 94, you should remove the magazine tube and clean it, especially if it's been hauled around in a pickup like this rifle surely was.

    NOTICE: I put a NAPA # 727-2015 O-ring between the swivel band and the barrel band. It acts as a buffer and keeps the bands from smashing together during recoil.

  • Second, notice the position of the "Magnum Band" sling swivel mount. It is butted against the front barrel band. In such a position, it will prevent the magazine tube from sliding during recoil. There's an alignment notch in the top of the magazine tube and placed there so the barrel band screw can pass between the barrel and magazine tube. It shows wear on the rear portion caused by the barrel moving backward under recoil while Newton's First Law of Motion kept the tube at rest. Now, the tube will move backwards with the barrel. I could have bent the front barrel band so that it held the tube tightly, but a slightly loose magazine tube makes for a free-floating barrel.

The rifle ready for the woods, the time came to work up a load for it. I knew three facts about the load before I started:

  • I would use the cast RCBS 180 gr FP bullet. On hand, I had about 50 bullets from that mold cast in 1986 from 100% wheelweights. With lube and gas check applied, they would weigh 195 grs.

    You should belong to the Cast Bullet Association. Click the link for membership information. The bi-monthly journal is my favorite magazine.

  • I would use Hodgdon's Varget powder. The back of each Fouling Shot, the journal of the Cast Bullet Association, lists the load data of all the shooters in CBA matches across the country. Many of those shooters utilizing cases with capacities similar to the 30-30 Winchester used Varget. Their bullet weights averaged around 200 grs; their velocities averaged around 2,000 fps; their charges of Varget averaged around 30 grs.

  • My goal was 1950 to 2000 fps muzzle velocity from the 195 gr cast bullet and Varget in my woods 30-30, i.e., my "Heart Attack Rifle."
Non-clickable photo As the photo on the right shows, with the RCBS 180 FP bullet seated to the crimping groove, only the gas check protrudes below the case neck.

In 1986, using H4895 and the 195 gr bullet, I achieved 1800 fps muzzle velocity and 100 yard groups of around 4" from Ol' Bill. With today's Varget in the heart attack rifle, 2000 fps seemed possible. Groups of around 2" at 50 yards would be fine from a woods rifle.

Since there's no published data for a 195 gr cast bullet with Varget for a Model 94 30-30 (and Hodgdon didn't answer an email query for data), I decided to deduce a load from the Fouling Shot data for other calibers. I would begin with 28.0 grs of Varget.

I started at 28.0 grs of Varget for two reasons: (1) it was less than the average weight of Varget used by the CBA target shooters, and so was the weight of my 195 gr bullet; and (2) Hodgdon lists a maximum of 33.0 grs Varget with a 170 gr jacketed bullet, so 28.0 grs seemed reasonable for a 195 gr cast bullet.

First, the other load data:

  • Cases = new Winchester. All cases full length sized, then fully prepped, i.e., trimmed, mouths chamfered, primer pockets uniformed, flash holes deburred, necks outside turned. Average case weight = 135.07 grs.

  • Primers = CCI BR-2

  • Bullets = 180 RCBS FP cast in 1986 from 100% wheelweights. As-cast diameter = .309" on front driving band and .310" on rear bands. Nose diameter = .301". Lubed with Lee Liquid Alox and gas checks seated in a Lee .311" sizing die, then re-lubed.

NOTE: The following load data is safe only with the above, exact components and in my Model 94.

Click for full size popup photo I used case head expansion as a comparative method of checking pressures. I began by marking a black dot just above the rims of several Remington factory 170 gr loads I had on hand. When chambering these and all following rounds, I orientated the black dots up; therefore I eliminated random chamber variances.

With a micrometer, I then measured the before and after firing diameters of the cases. As shown in the photo, I orientated the black dots up when measuring. I also placed the micrometer's jaws in the exact same position for each measurement.

The Remington 170 gr factory rounds averaged a case head increase in diameter of .00395". So my goal then became 1950 to 2000 fps muzzle velocity with the 195 gr bullet and with less than .00395" case head expansion—with decent accuracy, of course.

My starting load of 28.0 grs of Varget gave 1903 fps average muzzle velocity and an average case head expansion of .0018". I'm sure I had a big smile on my face because my goal of 1950 to 2000 fps at moderate pressure was obviously reachable.

I increased the load in .1 gr increments. At 28.4 grs Varget, velocity averaged 1973 fps and case head expansion averaged .00311". And there I stopped. Pressures were several thousand psi less than factory loads, and, as a bonus, my Lee 2.1cc dipper threw almost that exact weight of Varget. It don't get no better than that. . . .

Here's two interesting facts about my Varget load of 28.4 grs:

  • It leaves not a single kernel of unburned powder in the bore.

  • Previously, I had measured the usable case capacity of my (500) new Winchester cases after a once-firing in Ol' Bill. They averaged 2.381 cc in volume to the base of the case neck. 28.4 grs of Varget occupy 2.1 cc. That's a circa 97 % load density in my full length resized cases. More than likely, we now know why the CBA target shooters use Varget in 30-30-size cases.

Here's the Chrony data for the 28.4 gr Varget & 195 gr cast bullet final load:

Average Velocity 6 feet from the muzzle = 1973 fps
Extreme Spread = 64 fps
Standard Deviation = 19 fps

Click for full size popup photo I began loading the remaining bullets. This close up shows a round coming out of a Lee Factory Crimp die. I use that die in a Lee press mounted beside my RCBS press. The RCBS press contains a Lyman seating die adjusted for zero crimp. I seat the bullet with the RCBS press, then move it to the Lee press and crimp it.

Note the shiny case neck showing evidence of where my Forster outside neck turner did its job. I adjust the cutter depth so that it turns an area of about 60 % of an average case neck. This photo shows a neck's turned side. In all my years of turning case necks, I've never met a case neck the same thickness all the way around.

Click for full size popup photo The bullets loaded, I spent a few rounds adjusting the rifle's sights.

Here's a 3 shot, 50 yard group with 1 3/8" vertical spread and 3/8" horizontal spread. The group is about 1" high at 50 yards. It also shows better accuracy from the rifle than I had hoped. I tweaked the point of impact a little to the left and called the rifle zeroed.

Below, see the ballistic data:

Bullet weight = 195 grs;   BC = .242
muzzle-.75"1973 fps1685 fp
50 yards.95"1825 fps1442 fp
100 yards0.00"1687 fps1232 fp
150 yards-4.00"1556 fps1048 fp

My woods rifle/heart attack rifle is a sure killer out to 150 yards. However, I doubt I ever shoot game at that distance. I averaged the distance of shots at the deer I killed and the ones I missed, and the average is 66 yards. Most were 30 yards or so. The longest was 140 yards, a kill. The closest was 20 yards . . . a miss.

Click for full size popup photo All my 195 gr cast bullets loaded, the rifle zeroed, ballistics computed, the next and last step = waterproof the cases.

The bullet lube sealed the necks. I used a daub of red fingernail polish on the case heads. The fingernail polish oozes around the primers, sealing them nicely. It also oozes into the stamped letters on the case heads and marks the 30-30 rounds as belonging to the heart attack rifle and not to Ol' Bill. If I drop the woods/heart attack rifle in a creek or get caught in a downpour, the rounds will shoot after I sling the water out of the rifle.

Don't do as I did in this photo. I daubed polish on all the heads so the photo would look cool. It dried. I had hell removing it from those case heads. Daub a case head, then wipe it while the polish is still wet.

This heart attack/woods rifle project taught me one thing for sure: beauty truly is only skin deep. With a little work, money, and research, a pawn shop's ugly duckling became a thing of beauty perfectly suited for its new function—a lightweight, hard-hitting, lever action cast bullet rifle with moderate recoil.

Copyright 2003 by Junior Doughty

Home     Back to the Shooting section