The Savage Model 99

1-Savage Model 99

2-Savage Model 99

Savage 99: An American original reborn

THE lever-action rifle is usually thought of as a traditionalist's gun, with the Winchester Model 94 the archetype. Attempts to modernize the breed have met with indifferent success; witness the Sako Finnwolf or Winchester 88.

But one lever gun remains as modern-looking today as it did when introduced a century ago-the Savage Model 99. It came out in the same year as the Model 1895 Winchester, but while the latter is clearly a product of the last century, the Model 99 was from the start a lever gun that allowed easy scope mounting, that accommodated high-pressure cartridges with pointed bullets and that offered an eye-catching and distinctive silhouette.

Savage is celebrating the centennial of its original product with a special edition Model 99 CE rifle and with the reintroduction of the Model 99 as a production item.

The man behind the Model 99 is one of the most interesting characters in firearms lore. Arthur W. Savage was born in Jamaica in 1857, the son of a British colonial official. After education in this country and England, he set off for Australia, where he started a cattle ranch that grew to be the largest in the land.

After a brief return to Jamaica, Savage wound up in New York, where on June 8, 1887, he applied for a patent for a repeating rifle based on the Martini system. He persisted down this dead-end path through two additional patents before changing to a new and more promising design that featured a breechblock that tilted down at the rear to unlock, combined with a rotary magazine.

Savage submitted the new rifle, in .30-40 cal., for the U.S. Ordnance tests that eventually led to the adoption of the Model 1892 Krag. The Savage gun was an unwieldy piece almost 4 1/2 ft. long with a bulbous eight-round magazine and a Martini-style finger lever. Ordnance reports of the tests recount that while reliability was not bad, the Savage worked stiffly, and its long underlever was disliked.

Savage, by now working as a railroad manager in Utica, New York, decided to adapt his design for the commercial market, and produced a model in .32-20 that would be immediately recognizable to any Model 99 fancier. The Martini-style finger lever of the 1892 prototype had become a squared Marlin-style loop, and a cartridge counter on the left side of the receiver allowed the hunter to keep track of the magazine's contents.

With backing from a group of Utica businessmen, Savage formed the Savage Repeating Arms Co. on April 5, 1894. Wisely, Savage contracted with Marlin to produce the tooling required for what became the first Model 1895 rifles, and also had the firm make the first guns, in numbers estimated at around 8,500. These can readily be identified by a JM stamp on the barrel.

The Model 1895 was lengthened from the 1893 prototype to accept the .303 Savage cartridge. This round, not to be confused with the .303 British, was obviously intended as a direct competitor to Winchester's .30-30, and is similar in size, though the neck is considerably longer. The Savage round also was loaded with a 190-gr. bullet, which was thought at the time to give it a slight ballistic edge over the .30-30. Today it is loaded only by Winchester, with a 190-gr. Silvertip bullet at a leisurely 1890 f.p.s.

The Model 1895 added a new safety feature, a window in the top of the breechblock that allowed the shooter to see the firing pin, which was marked with a C for *bleep*ed or S for safe. This is the feature that distinguishes the Model 1895 rifle from the Model 1899. The latter has a rectangular *bleep*ing indicator that pops up from the front of the breechblock to provide both visual and tactile evidence of *bleep*ing.

Savage offered a conversion service to upgrade the Model 1895 to Model 1899 standard. For $5, the owner could get a new breechblock, indicator, sear, firing pin, hammer, extractor and retractor. So the presence of the pop-up *bleep*ing indicator is not definitive evidence that a rifle is a Model 1899 rather than an 1895. In 1908, the *bleep*ing indicator was changed to the current style, a pin located behind the breechblock.

While Savage offered rifles in .303 Sav. until World War II, other caliber choices came quickly. By 1905, the buyer could have his Model 1899 in four Winchester calibers-.25-35, .30-30, .3240 and .38-55. In 1912, Savage necked down the .25-35 to take a peculiar .228" bullet and created the .22 Savage High Power.

This was followed the following year by the Charles Newtondesigned .250 Savage or .250-3000, which replaced the .25-35. Newton had intended for his cartridge to drive a 100-gr. bullet at 2850 f.p.s., but then as now, the marketing department got in the act, arguing that 3000 f.p.s. was a magic number. So the weight of the bullet was reduced to 87 grs., with a corresponding reduction in effectiveness as a deer cartridge.

World War I veterans who'd grown used to the .30-'06 cartridge demanded more power than the .303 Sav. could provide, so in 1920 Savage introduced the .300 Sav., a round intended to produce .30-'06 ballistics in the Model 1899. This was accomplished by specifying a very sharp 30 deg shoulder angle and short neck to maximize case capacity. While the '06 still holds the edge, the .300 Sav. came close, and was an improvement over the .303 Sav. and .30-30.

A more obscure caliber choice for the Model 99 was the .410 2 1/2" shell. An auxiliary barrel for it was made 1922-38, and until 1934 buyers could order a cased combination kit with a .300 Sav. Model 99 and .410 barrel. The .410 operated only as a single-loader.

Savage might well have wondered what the point of the .308 Win. might be, given its similarities to the .300 Sav., but added it to the line anyway in 1955. Its smaller cousin, the .243 Win., came a year later, along with the .358 Win. The .284 Win. was no more successful in the Model 99 than it was in the Winchester Models 88 and 100, being offered 1964-72.

The .22-250, being a necked-down .250 Sav., might have seemed an obvious choice when added to the Model 99 line in 1977, but the consumer apparently didn't see it that way, and it was dropped in 1980. The .375 Win. had an even shorter run in 1979-80. The 7 mm/08 Rem. was the last chambering added to the line; it lasted 1980-84

Along with the profusion of caliber choices was an ever-growing array of Model 99 variations. These are far too complex to detail here, but are presented in Douglas P. Murray's The NinetyNine (Dept. AR, 20 Polo Lane, Westbury, NY 11590).

The 1899 catalog listed guns with 20", 22" and 26" round, octagon and half-octagon barrels, a saddle-ring carbine and a military musket. Around 1905 a 20"-barreled featherweight model that weighed just 6 Ibs.,1 1/2 lbs. less than the standard rifle, joined the line. It served as the basis for a takedown model in .22 Sav. HP introduced in 1912. Savage advertised this gun as the one used by Walter Winans to win the Olympic running target events.

While the early 99s most often had straight grips with relatively narrow schnabel fore-ends, pistol grips were available well before World War I and, in 1932, the Model 99R was introduced with a hefty round foreend and pistol-grip stock.

Shooting comfort with scopes, if not aesthetics, received a boost in 1960 with the introduction of the 99DL with Monte Carlo stock. In that same year, the safety was changed from a button in the finger lever to a sliding tang button. At the same time, the *bleep*ing indicator was moved back to avoid interference with scope mounts. The economical 99E also bowed in 1960; it had an uncheckered birch stock and deleted the car- tridge counter window.

In apparent effort to keep up with the Joneses at Winchester, Savage changed to impressed checkering in 1965, with results every bit as bad as the post-'64 Winchesters. The year also saw the introduction of the 99C, a detachable-magazine version.

The 1980s were tough for Savage and for the Model 99. Like several other firearms makers, it had been acquired during the 1960s by a large conglomerate that milked profits and rotated to executives in training through the leadership without regard to their gun savvy. Two different ownership groups tried and failed to make a go of it 1981-88, with the firm finally landing in bankruptcy.

In that year, a new management team led by Ronald Coburn took over, taking radical measures to save Savage. The product line was pared down to the Models 110 and 24, with emphasis on filling every possible bolt-action niche.

While there were plenty of Model 99 parts, the supply of receivers had been allowed to run dry. The new management team shipped the barrels and other parts to Spain, where they were combined with investment-cast receivers by Llama, fulfilling some of the demand for Model 99s until all-U.S. production could be reestablished.