The first time I can specifically recall seeing a Savage Model 99 was in the movie “Joe Kidd” when I was 7 years old or so. I had already started reading everything I could get my hands on about firearms so I was able to identify the Mauser C1896 on display but I didn’t know what to make of that sleek lever action Robert Duvall was sporting. I corrected that knowledge gap most ricky-tick during my next trip to the library. My love for the Savage 99 has never flagged since then although actual trigger time has tempered my affection a teensy bit.
Before getting into the specifics of the Savage Model 99 I should square away some details to put the platform in perspective. In 1886 the French military put the world on notice that there was a new game in town when they rolled out the 8MM Lebel rifle round using smokeless powder. Beyond the whole “smokeless” thing the real news was the vastly higher pressures generated by the new powder which resulted in much higher velocities. This was a tectonic shift in firearms technology the likes of which that hadn’t been seen since the percussion cap and, to a lesser extent, the advent of cased ammunition.
The black powder era had relied on launching the biggest chunk of lead possible in what was, in the best case scenario, a parabolic trajectory that offered gold at the end of quite a rainbow. With smokeless powder velocity skyrocketed and trajectories flattened. There was a limit, though, to how well a chunk of old style lead could tolerate high velocity. It wasn’t long before folks realized two things.
1. If you didn’t want to turn your rifle‘s barrel into a smoothbore in a few rounds you’d want to find some way to coat that lead with a jacket of material hard enough to not get scoured off by the grooves in the barrel.
2. It was no longer necessary to rely on a big ole fat ass chunk of lead to handles one’s business. A smaller projectile moving at 200% faster velocity would make your target just as sick at a much greater range with a much flatter trajectory. The way to get to that increased range and flat trajectory was to utilize a jacketed bullet design that was quite a bit more pointy than its predecessors; in 1898 or so the “Spitzer” bullet was developed to meet that need.
At this juncture you may be wondering what all of this this has to do with the ding dang lever action you signed up to read about in the first place. I can surely empathize but a certain degree of context is crucial to fully appreciate the story being told.
There were 2 direct impacts that the smokeless powder revolution had on the lever action scene with one having more material implications than the other.
1. Smokeless powder had operating pressures far beyond anything experienced to that point and the only games in town in 1886 for a repeating lever action that would digest high tension rounds (by black powder standards) were the Winchester 1886 and the Marlin 1881.
2. Beyond operating pressures there was a fundamental issue that no repeating lever action platforms of the day were equipped to address; namely those pointy ass spitzer jacketed bullets. The tubular magazine that was the sine qua non of the repeating lever action was, well, a tube that stacked one round on top of another. Having an aggressively pointed bullet resting against the primer of the next round in the tube is, as one might imagine, a sub-optimal proposition that could readily turn your smoke pole into a Roman Candle. That isn’t even close to as fun as it sounds even if you asked somebody to hold your beer before you demonstrated it.
In light of these two limitations the introduction of the .30WCF (also known as the .30-30) in 1894 is not exactly a shocker. Beyond being stoked with smokeless powder the round nosed soft point ammo didn’t really do anything in terms of long range performance beyond barely stretching the envelope of the tubular magazine fed lever action platform. To be fair, though, it must be acknowledged that .30-30 ballistics and a lever action platform have been the vector for quite a few cases of lead poisoning in the last 124 years.
The Winchester 1895 was an effort to address the inherent limitations of the tubular magazine by incorporating a box magazine that stacked the rounds one atop the other. Teddy (AKA Teethadore) Roosevelt was a notable 1895 enthusiast (especially in .405 Winchester) but I have to say that, for what little I know it is admittedly worth, I don’t share his opinion. I’ll grant that the platform’s ability to accommodate a stripper clip and high tension rounds was a plus but I feel that it fails in virtually every other respect. The most glaring (pun unintended) example of this failure is that it had an open topped receiver that largely, if not entirely, precluded the use of a technological advance that went hand in hand with high velocity jacketed bullets; the telescopic sight. To further complicate things the balance of the rifle was thrown off by the magazine and recoil has often been cited as being excessive. Recoil is, simple physics notwithstanding, a subjective thing but I can say, objectively, that the platform is in my humble opinion (but not so humble that I’m keeping it to myself) as ugly as sin.
Before I go on to laud the relative beauty of the Savage Model 99 I reckon I should address the important stuff like the mechanics of the platform and the rounds it was chambered for. The Model 99, and the ammo it ate, was a serious deviation from what was the lever action status quo.
1. The first obvious feature of the platform is the lack of an exposed hammer. There were three immediate benefits to this.
A. Decreased Lock Time- Lock time is, essentially, the distance a weapon’s hammer or striker needs to travel before the process of cartridge ignition begins. Distance equals time and time is at a premium when one is setting off a controlled burn of a high tension fuel source to propel an object at high velocity. As hard as it may be to believe little stuff like this really matters. While advocates of shooting (myself most certainly included) can be a pretty coarse lot our pastime is one that that embraces precision on a religious level. The lock time of the Savage 99 with its internal hammer was both an obvious and big ole improvement over the external hammers of the competition.
B. The lack of an external hammer allows for a more streamlined profile and makes the platform a bit safer since there isn't an exposed hammer to catch on brush or whatnot and possibly (lottery ticket odds) touch off a round causing issues with putting unintended holes in stuff that would be best left in a hole free status.
C. The internal hammer absolutely set up this platform for an efficient use of optics; which no lever action repeater of the day (or the next few decades) could claim. Marlin at least offered a solid topped receiver but the Savage still wins on this because the lack of an external hammer allowed mounting an optic as close to the bore axis as possible absent placing the optic in the bore itself which would cause some difficulty for all involved.
2. On the topic of optics; the solid frame receiver and side ejection of the Savage Model 99 placed it in the rarified air of being the only lever action game in town that could manage the rapidly evolving technology of both ammo and optics. Truth be told Marlin was knocking at the door but the Savage 99 was the only one that could combine the horsepower of the new smokeless rounds with the “leverage” to maximize them.
3. The rotary magazine of the Savage 99 was a much more elegant approach to the notion of stacking rounds with pointy-ass spitzer bullets than any of the competition could come up with. The closest contemporary would be the Winchester 1895 and the design (stripper clip accommodation notwithstanding) was so far behind that I might have already name checked it a time or two.
4. The Savage 99 came with a loaded chamber indicator and a round counter; nobody, near as I can tell, did that back in the day. Was it some kind of a “Nanny State” thing or a common sense response to a design that made it difficult to see if a round was in the chamber and the weapon was locked and loaded? I know how little I care about other folks’ take on the situation and the measures I take to address what I see to be a shortcoming of the platform but I will say that while I appreciate the feature I would chamber check my 99 religiously. Truth be told I feel like there are worse approaches to life than the one that can be summed up in two words; “Chamber Check”.
5. The safety on the 99 was placed in about as ergonomic a spot as possible for the platform and was, again, years ahead of the competition.
6. While I’ve talked about the design features of the Savage 99 that were way ahead of its day I haven’t talked about the ammunition. If the 99 was "fashion forward" the ammo was "fashion fast forward". The 99 was known to eat a lot of proprietary rounds but , in the overweening interest of my profound laziness, I’ll restrict my discussion to the 2 rounds that serve to illustrate its place at the top of the heap.
A. If Charles Newton’s creation of the .250-3000 Savage didn’t set the world on fire in 1915 it sure threw a few matches on the kindling by being the first factory round to exceed 3,000 Feet Per Second with a reasonable payload (a 75 or 80 grain bullet).
B. In 1920 Savage rolled out the .300 Savage that was, pretty much, the blueprint for the 7.62X51MM (.308 Win) that came out 3 decades later. The fact that Savage was roughly 30 years ahead of the military speaks, to me, about a corporate culture that placed a premium on innovation.
My particular Savage 99A hails, by my estimation, from the mid-1950s. I base this on it being chambered in .308 Win and having a rotary magazine, loaded chamber indicator, and a round counter. It may well be a slightly later model but my aforementioned laziness has, to this point, precluded me from exerting the energy to determine its birthday so I’ll just run with the info I have decided on.
The case hardening on the receiver is sweet and I like the looks of the Schnabel fore-end. That last detail has nothing to do with me making jokes about Schnabel fore-ends back in the day. Yes, I am such a gun nerd that Schnabel was a word I was well aware of before my 11th birthday.
The specifics of this platform are-
Unloaded Weight -6 lbs. 9 ounces
40 Inches overall length
19 Inch Barrel
3 lb. trigger pull.
5 round magazine
The iron sights are a pretty standard folding rear buckhorn with a reasonably precise gold bead ramp front. Sight adjustments are about par for the course for a lever action that is closer to the term “octogenarian” than pretty much anyone would prefer. The elevation options on the rear sight are, to put it bluntly, absolute shit. The front sight is drift adjustable for windage which is all kinds of fun for nobody other than the target. For the uniformed that means you take a chunk of metal (a punch) and whack on it with a larger piece of metal (a hammer) to move the point of impact left or right. I have got the iron sights adjusted so the elevation is on at 50 yards but right by a couple of inches. I am not interested in whacking on that front sight so it will remain the way it is.
To be fair to the sights I strongly suspect that by the time my rifle got built optics were the standard choice and the iron sights were a bit of an afterthought intended as a back-up. A receiver mounted peep sight would no doubt do wonders for the rifle’s performance but it still churns out 5 shot 50 yard groups in the 1 to 1.5” neighborhood. Or at least does so for the first 5 rounds. The barrel heats up pretty quick and groups open up even more quickly but are still well within the minute of pie plate that is practical hunting accuracy. I have read reviews that cite the recoil as being excessive off a bench but I have not found that to be the case at all. The poor design of the iron sights is far more of an impediment to meeting the rifle’s potential than recoil is.
Speaking of impediments to meeting the rifle’s potential I am somewhat saddened to report that there are a couple of issues that will relegate the Savage to the role of “Safe Queen” until I correct them. The first is that the rifle does not feed surplus ammo with any degree of reliability. More often than not the bolt seizes up and requires an absurd amount of energy to cycle; like dismounting the rifle and placing the butt plate between your feet and yanking on the lever (with the muzzle pointed in a safe direction). This may very well be dealt with by giving the chamber a serious deep cleaning but ultimately isn’t that big a deal since this is a hunting rifle so what really matters is how it handles sporting ammo like Remington Core-Lokt 150 and 180 grain loads. The upside is that extraction of those rounds has been flawless.
A much more serious issue and the one that will relegate this rifle to range use only is that the ejector is prone to pop out of the groove it rides in if the action is briskly cycled (like setting up a quick follow up shot) and completely binds the action of the rifle. This is unacceptable in a hunting rifle and something I hope to be able to correct.
There are three things I need to address with this rifle and I’ll list them in order of importance.
1. The situation with the ejector has got to be corrected because even though the Model 99 is a fine lever action it is a piss poor single shot.
2. A decent set of optics will do wonders for this rifle. I suspect that it is probably a 1.5 MOA platform if given a chance.
3. Running FMJ surplus ammo is a non-starter but also a non-issue since this is not a plinking rifle.
At the end of the day I am glad that I own this rifle and, minor disappointments notwithstanding, it is a beautiful and classic bit of American firearms history.
Too "gun show" for the hippies, too "hippie" for the gun show, I'm the misfit liberal gun nut in the crowd. Probably the only one. Stick around if you are pro-choice on everything including the right to own guns or can handle an opposing view on things.