Winchester Model 94 Ranger Compact .357 Magnum


by Jeff Quinn

photography by Jeff Quinn & Boge Quinn

October 5th, 2004




Here at, I receive hundreds of emails every week from readers who want information on various gun-related subjects. We welcome questions and input from our readers, and try to answer each one carefully.  One question that I get asked pretty often, both by email and in person goes something like this:

"What would be the best rifle to get my son (or daughter or grandkid) for his first deer gun?"

That is a very good question, and one that could have many possible, and correct, answers.  That is also a question to which I have lately given much thought, as I have a new grandson. A first deer rifle is a big deal to a kid, and should be carefully considered. I have seen some well-meaning but otherwise misinformed Dads start their young sons out with full-sized rifles that are too powerful. Not too powerful in the sense that it kills the deer too dead, but in that it is too much gun for the novice shooter. Starting a twelve year old out with a .300 Weatherby magnum is foolish. The gun is just fine for a seasoned expert, but the weight, recoil, and muzzle blast are intimidating for a new hunter, and that level of power is unnecessary for deer hunting. The big three hundred magnums are fine for long range deer hunting, but shooting at game at long range should be discouraged  for all but the expert hunter. Even if it weren’t for the recoil and blast, most big game rifles today are just too bulky and awkward for a young shooter to handle.

Traditionally, many hunters start out with a lever action .30-30 carbine, and with good reason. The Winchester and Marlin carbines are very handy rifles, and the .30-30 Winchester has been the personification of a deer cartridge for almost 110 years. The rifles are as much a part of the thirty-thirty’s popularity as is the cartridge. The lever action carbines are, in a word, handy.  I like the little guns, and I have a few that are chambered for the excellent little cartridge.

However, after much careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that there is a better cartridge for the young deer hunter: the .357 Magnum. The .357 Magnum has been with us since 1935 as a handgun cartridge, and to a lesser extent has been used in a few long guns. In a handy little carbine, the .357 Magnum takes on a whole new personality, offering much more power than from a revolver, along with low recoil and muzzle blast. There are a few good lever action .357 carbines available, and all are pretty good, but the Winchester 94 Ranger Compact has a few features that make it better than most for a young shooter.

The 94 Ranger Compact is basically the same action that John Browning invented back in 1894, with a few minor changes. The new action now has a rebounding hammer and a top tang safety that blocks the hammer from contacting the firing pin when in the "on safe" position.  This is much better than the crossbolt safety that was incorporated into the design a few years ago. The tang safety is relatively unobtrusive, and really only bothers old timers like myself who have been accustomed to the original design. Still, as I stated, it is much better than the ugly crossbolt safety previously used.

The Ranger Compact also has Winchester’s "Angle Eject" action that allows a scope sight to be mounted in the normal, above the action position.  Being left-handed, I really appreciated this change when it came along. I was never able to use a scope on a 94 with the original straight-out-the-top ejection, as they mounted aside the action to clear the top for ejection. I also think that a young deer hunter deserves a good scope sight on his rifle. It is good for any shooter to learn to use open sights, but a good scope makes hitting in low light easier, and a new hunter should be given every chance at success. I sometimes hunt with open-sighted rifles, but I can hit farther with more precision using a scope, as can most hunters.  The Compact comes with an offset hammer extension to help cock the hammer with a scope mounted. It also has a good set of open sights, just in case. The Marlin also allows for easy scope mounting atop the action, but it is a heavier gun that costs more than the Ranger Compact.

There are a couple of more features of the Ranger Compact that make it especially useful to young hunters, or anyone of smaller stature, and that is size. The Compact wears a sixteen-inch barrel, and has a shorter length-of-pull than do most rifles. The pull length, that is the measurement from the butt plate to the trigger, measures just twelve and one-half inches on the Ranger Compact, making it much easier to mount properly and quickly for a young hunter.  I stand an inch under six feet tall, and have pretty long arms, but I find the shorter stock on the Compact very easy to use, especially when wearing heavy clothing. Weighing just five and one-quarter pounds, the gun balances well, and comes to the shoulder naturally, like a good bird gun. The buttstock is finished with a good synthetic rubber pad, which helps to absorb the already minimal recoil. The overall length of the Ranger Compact measures just over thirty-three inches. It is indeed a handy little rifle.

While the 94 Ranger Compact is available chambered for the .30-30 cartridge, I prefer the .357 magnum chambering for a youth gun, for a couple of reasons. First of all, a hunter, any hunter, needs to practice. Rifle practice is also fun, especially for younger hunters just getting started. They love to shoot, if the gun doesn’t punish them too badly. Give a new shooter a hard-kicking rifle that doesn’t fit him properly, and he is very likely to develop a flinch, miss his targets, and would rather stay home and watch music videos than go hunting. The .357 Magnum in a carbine, is very light on recoil, while packing plenty of punch for whitetail deer, even the big ones.

Another advantage that the .357 has over the .30-30 is that of ammo availability and cost. To start off a new shooter, the .357 can use low recoiling and inexpensive .38 Special ammunition. This allows for quiet, relaxing practice that lets the shooter concentrate more on the fundamentals of shooting and less on muzzle blast and recoil. The young hunter can also load the Compact with .38 Special lead semi-wadcutter ammo for small game hunting with his deer gun. I know of no better way to practice for deer hunting than by hunting rabbits and squirrels. The light .38 Specials will anchor a squirrel or rabbit on the spot, without destroying any more meat than would a .22 long rifle bullet.

As far as power, the .357 Magnum using the right ammunition is in the same class as a good .30-30 load, while shooting a bullet of larger diameter. From a sixteen-inch barrel, factory thirty-thirty ammunition from the big ammo manufacturers drives a 170 grain bullet at just under 1900 feet-per-second (fps). The .357 Ranger Compact, with the same length barrel, drives a 180 grain bullet in excess of 1800 fps, and this too is using factory ammunition available from Buffalo Bore. I tested the Ranger Compact over the chronograph using a variety of factory ammunition, along with two handloads, with the following results:

Load Velocity (fps)
Grizzly Cartridge Co. 180-grain cast lead 1502
Buffalo Bore 180-grain cast lead 1812
Cor-Bon .38 Special 125-grain Jaketed Hollowpoint 1437
Handload 125-grain Jacketed Hollowpoint 2003
Handload 180-grain Hornady XTP Hollowpoint 1831

 The carbine extracts much more power from the .357 than is obtainable in a revolver. The reason for including the lightweight Cor-Bon hollowpoints I will get to later.

My favorite hunting handload is with the excellent Hornady 180 grain XTP bullet at over 1800 fps from the little carbine’s 16-inch barrel. Before the emails start flying in, no, I will not give out the exact load data for this handload, as I have not had it pressure tested. I will state however, that it is perfectly safe in my particular rifle. Extraction is easy, the primers are not flattened, and case head expansion is normal. I am using CCI 550 magnum pistol primers and Hodgdon Lil’Gun powder in this load. The XTP bullet really holds together well for deep penetration, but expands beautifully. When zeroed in at 125 yards, the bullet is only two and one-half inches below the point of aim at 150 yards, where it is still traveling 1360 fps. Out to 150 yards, the bullet is never more than two and one-half inches above or below the line of sight. This is where I would draw the line on range, especially for an inexperienced shooter, as the bullet drops almost one foot below line of sight at 200 yards. However, even with a flat shooting high velocity rifle cartridge, I would not encourage a young shooter to shoot any farther.

For accuracy testing, I mounted a four power compact rifle scope in Millett rings. This little .357 Ranger Compact grouped five shots within two to two-and one-half inches at 100 yards with any load tested. That is acceptable hunting accuracy for big game. Testing the light .38 Special ammunition at thirty yards, it would group into one ragged hole, making for an excellent small game rifle at that range.

All loads tested functioned perfectly in the 94 Compact. While not really a big factor in deer hunting, the carbine holds nine .357 Magnum rounds in the full-length tubular magazine.

That brings us to another really good use for this little Winchester, and that is Homeland Security. This little carbine would make an excellent weapon for home defense, or to carry in a vehicle for the same purpose. Having a total capacity of ten rounds of .357 Magnum ammo readily available, along with the ability to reload without taking the weapon out of the fight, makes this a good choice for a defensive carbine. With practice, a shooter can get off ten shots in under five seconds with the little Winchester. For use inside of a home, the Cor-Bon 110 grain Plus P hollowpoints should work very well, without the danger of over penetration, and the recoil is very light.

There is one more really attractive feature of the Ranger Compact, and that is the price. You can purchase one of these, along with a good scope and mounts, and a case of ammunition for less than most bare bolt action rifles. The .357 Magnum combines low recoil, minimal muzzle blast, and adequate power for deer hunting, along with unmatched versatility to double as a small game rifle, inexpensive plinker, or a handy home defense weapon.  The Ranger Compact is a reliable, versatile, lightweight, and handy little carbine, and I am buying this one for my grandson.

For more information, check out:

Winchester Firearms:

Grizzly Cartridge Company:

Buffalo Bore Ammunition:

Cor-Bon Ammunition:

Hornady Bullets:

 Jeff Quinn


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Click pictures for a larger version.


Winchester Model 94 Ranger Compact .357 Magnum.



Compared to a standard 20-inch carbine (right), the handy size of the Ranger Compact .357 is readily apparent.



Top tang safety effectively blocks hammer movement.



The Ranger Compact features a good set of iron sights.



A hammer extension is included for scope use.



Winchester's "Angle Eject" system allows a scope to be mounted directly over the action.















The Winchester Ranger Compact .357 performed well with a variety of loads, including (left to right): Grizzly Cartridge Co. 180-grain cast, Buffalo Bore 180-grain cast, Cor-Bon .38 Special 125-grain JHP, Cor-Bon .38 Special 110-grain JHP, and author's 125-grain JHP handload.



One of Jeff's favorite bullets for handloading the .357 Magnum is Hornady's 180-grain XTP JHP.