Senior correspondent John Dunn
When asked to contribute to the ‘favourite rifle/scope/calibre’ series of articles which ran in Australian Shooter in 2020, I must admit I was torn between two choices. Though my No.1 Ruger in 7×57 won the day it only just pipped another favourite of mine, mostly because it was a centrefire and therefore more useful than my second choice. That other option was a little Winchester Low Wall in .22LR which I’ve written about it before but that was a long time ago. So I felt it was time to revisit that one, if only to encourage others to have a go at building the dream rifle they always thought they’d like to own.
In the beginning
When it came to me the Winchester was a battered, commercial version of a Third Model Winder musket in .22 Long Rifle. Though built on an 1885 Low Wall action, this rifle was known as the Model 87, its serial number indicating a late production date. As a collector’s piece it had little going for it – the stock had been butchered, the original Lyman No.41 receiver sight was missing and at best the barrel was in ordinary condition.
Apart from some damaged screws the action was still in good, useable shape and it subsequently became the basis for a custom rimfire rifle I’d been planning to have built for years. By the time the rifle was finished, five different gun craftsmen had contributed to its construction.
Building a custom rimfire
To set the ball rolling I stripped the rifle and took the action to Lee Davidson at Howlong, on the Murray River below Albury. Over many years Lee has made a highly respected name for himself as an engraver but is also an experienced gun tinkerer and his first job was to strip, then refurbish the action to near-new condition. That included filling the holes in the right side of the receiver which originally housed screws for the receiver sight.
While he was doing that I ordered a chrome moly barrel from Robert Tobler of RDT Products at Robertson in the NSW Southern Highlands and also talked to the late Geoff Slee about a pistol grip stock like those used on the better-quality Winchester single-shots of yore. He subsequently supplied me with a couple of lovely pieces of New Zealand walnut along with a request that I ensure the wood would only be worked on by a competent stock craftsman.
The action and barrel then went to Albury gunsmith Ian McGeoch, widely regarded as one of the best shotgun gunsmiths in Australia. At the time he was still doing some rifle work though that’s no longer the case. When he finished with the Winchester he told me it was the last rifle he’d be doing and to this day I’m not sure why.
Ian profiled, screwed and match chambered the barrel in .22 Long Rifle before fitting it to the action. He then made and fitted a solid steel, dovetailed quarter rib designed to accept Warne QD lever mounts and also deep blued the barrel and rib, a finish that’s as good now as the day it was applied.
With the metal work finished the rifle and stock pieces went to Julian Sojkowski in Wodonga to be married together. He fitted a steel buttplate to the buttstock as well as shaping a beautiful pancake cheekpiece into the left-hand side and also chequered the pistol grip and forearm before completing the stock with a subdued semi-gloss finish.
From there the almost completed rifle went back to Lee Davidson for engraving. When I dropped it off he told me he’d call when it was finished, his quiet and polite way of telling me he didn’t want harassed, sentiments I could understand and appreciate. After polishing the external surfaces of the receiver he engraved a high relief fox on the left and a pair of rabbits on the right. The remaining surface on each side was covered with an intricate pattern of fine scroll work, as was the top of the action grip and tang. On top of the receiver he engraved a high relief crow.
Lee applied more scroll work to either side of the finger lever and outside bow of the triggerguard where he also engraved and inlaid my initials in gold. On top of the barrel forward of the quarter rib he cut the inscription: ‘Made expressly for J.V. Dunn by I. McGeoch, Wilson St, Albury’ and if it took a little longer than I thought, I have to say the wait was more than worthwhile.
The Winchester goes to work
My original concept for the Winchester was a rifle I could use for either target or hunting work. At one stage I enjoyed shooting rimfire Metallic Silhouette and always thought one of these days I might go back to it, though I knew the rifle would probably be most used as a bunny buster.
Rightly or wrongly I reckoned a QD dovetail rail on the barrel would allow me to do both, all I needed was two different scopes, each sighted-in for the ammunition best suited to the activity of choice which would allow me to change things around as required. It hasn’t quite worked out that way – I haven’t shot silhouette for years and as I grow older the chances of me doing so are declining. Anyway, I never did manage to buy that target scope and extra set of mounts I knew I’d need for range work.
Poking around the paddock shooting a bunny here and there is much more my style and for some years now the Winchester has worn an old 6x Pecar Champion scope with duplex reticule. It’s all the magnification I need, it sits well on the little rifle and if my life depended on it I couldn’t tell you how many rabbits I’ve shot with the combination. ‘Lots’ is as close as I can reckon along with numerous hares, foxes and feral cats, the latter two mostly suckered into rimfire range with a fox whistle or predator call.
For hunting, the ammunition this rifle prefers is Winchester subsonic hollow-points and while point of impact may change from one batch to another, this ammo will consistently shoot 12-15mm groups off the bench at 50m. That’s all the accuracy I need and out to about 70m any rabbit which sits and sticks its head up is in serious trouble, though I must admit most of those I shoot are taken much closer than that.
When the rifle was first built I tried a variety of target ammunition, Eley and RWS the brands the rifle preferred and both capable of producing 6-10mm groups at 50m. With a straight 6x scope I can’t hold any closer than that so potential for the Winchester to be useful on the range is real should the need or inclination ever arise.
For all of that, as long as I own it the Winchester will probably never be anything other than a rabbit rifle, a role it has filled with aplomb for the past 15 years or so. With its olde-worlde workmanship, grace and style it’s undoubtedly the most expensive rabbit rifle I’ve ever owned and I’m sure there are factory-built rifles which would perform every bit as well or perhaps even better.
I can live with that but the Winchester as it stands has my marque on it, built the way I wanted it to be and routinely delivering the level of performance I expect from it. It fits me and I shoot it well, it comes to the shoulder like an old friend and I know it will do what I ask of it provided I do my bit. If it was a centrefire it would undoubtedly be my favourite – the fly in the ointment is the fact it’s not suitable for the larger game I prefer to hunt these days which means it’ll never be any more than my other favourite rifle. But who’s complaining?