History: The Winchester Palma Rifles

The Winchester Palma Rifles
by: Hap Rocketto

For almost four decades there was no Palma competition. The Great Depression and World War II changed the world in many ways. Edward, Viscount Grey of Fallodon commented at the start of World War I that, “The lights are going out all over Europe: we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” The same thought was valid during the tumultuous decades of the 1930s and 40s. One of those lights extinguished in the wake of the economic collapse of 1929 was the Palma Match. In 1966 the Dominion of Canada Rifle Association and the National Rifle Association of America met at Camp Perry to compete in a ‘preliminary’ Palma match to explore and experiment with the procedures necessary to revive the great international long range shooting event first staged 90 years earlier.

The attempt to revive the match was successful and there were nine matches fired in the next ten years. During this renaissance it was the responsibility of the host association to provide the rifles and ammunition necessary for the conduct of the match. Four of these tournaments were held on the south shore of Lake Erie at the ranges of the Ohio National Guard’s Camp Perry. The NRA drew 7.62mm M14 match rifles and Lake City M118 match ammunition, lot LC 712072, from the Director of Civilian Marksmanship stores for the 1966 and 1973 matches. However, for the matches conducted in 1968, 1971, and 1976 the NRA officials involved in planning the event would turn their eyes to New Haven, Connecticut and the Winchester Repeating Arms Company for rifles.

The NRA selected the Model 70 Match Target Rifle to be issued to the Palma competitors in 1968. The bolt-action staggered-column box magazine rifle, chambered in .308 Winchester, was popular with the high power community. During this period of time the Model 70 was undergoing manufacturing changes. As a result of a corporate decision to improve profitability some basic changes were made in the rifle during the early 1960s. In particular was the replacement of many machined parts with stampings. A case in point was the action of a pre-64 rifle. It began as a 7 1/2 pound block of steel, but by the time the machine shop had finished with it only about 11/2 pounds of finely machined and polished metal was left. These were the days before automation took over many of the machinists’ labors and the creation of the action was labor intensive. Good machinists do not come cheap and the labor and material costs rose to a point where Winchester had to choose between red ink and rifles. It chose the latter and as a result earlier Model 70s are generally referred to as ‘pre -64’ and viewed as superior products. The post 64 rifles are looked at, somewhat unjustly, as inferior products.

The 1968 Palma rifle is a production line item that tips the scales at 12 pounds 8 ounces. It sports a marksman style high comb stock with a full pistol grip with a rubber serrated butt plate. An aluminum Freeland style handstop and a second sling swivel are attached via an inset four inch metal block that has six drilled and tapped holes to accept the handstop’s mounting screw. The semigloss finished stock has a 131/4 inches length of pull. The barrel, floorplate, and trigger guard are blued.

The barrel is rifled with a four-groove right hand twist, with one turn in 12 inches, and is marked “-Palma Trophy Match-” on the right hand side just forward of the front scope block. The action and barrel is glass bedded to 11/2 inches forward of the action. The barrel is free floating beyond the bedding while the newly designed bolt features a red cocking indicator that appears below the bolt cap when the rifle is cocked.

The rifles commissioned by the NRA were equipped with a Redfield International Match Receiver 1/4-minute sight with a fixed aperture and a Redfield International Match Big Bore front sight with a set of interchangeable inserts. The receiver sight is set on a mounting block that gives the competitor about one inch of adjustment for eye relief, allowing for a sight radius between 32 3/8 and 33 3/8 inches. The receiver is drilled and tapped for a scope mount base and a set of scope mounts is attached.

In all seventy-five rifles were manufactured for the match. At the conclusion of the match competitors were allowed to purchase the rifle they had been issued. Many took advantage of the opportunity to obtain either a souvenir of a great shooting event or, in the case of some of the United States’s shooters, a good barreled bolt action to form the basis of an ‘across the course’ rifle for shooting the National Match Course of fire. As a consequence of having such a limited number made, some going overseas, and others being modified, original 1968 Palma Match rifles are hard to find.

They must have been good rifles as the United States won the 1968 match with a record team score of 4414X4500 while US shooter Clint Fowler chalked up an individual record score, a perfect 225-31Vs. The 1969 Palma, held outside of Toronto at the Connaught Range, saw the United States win again. This match marked the only time during the eight-year span, 1968 to 1976, when the home team was not the victor. The British next hosted and won the match at Bisley in 1970. The match sponsors awarded the 1971 Palma to the United States, beginning a tradition that often places the match in a nation at the same time as the celebration of a notable anniversary. In this case 1971 marked the centennial of the establishment of the National Rifle Association of America.

The NRA again turned to Winchester for rifles that would both shoot well and commemorate the association’s 100th birthday. The Winchester custom shop produced 125 Model 70s that were styled as the ‘Winchester Palma Match Target Rifle’. They were much the same as the 1968 Palma rifle with a few exceptions. The Redfield front sight was replaced with a Champion front sight, which had a bubble level attached to the base. There are no fiducial marks on the level’s tube, which must have reduced its effectiveness. The receiver sight is equipped with an adjustable Merit Master Disc, which allowed the shooter to obtain the best possible sight picture, a critical aspect in Palma shooting. The barrel is not blued, but rather finished in a black matte, which is very reminiscent of the parkerized treatment given to military rifles. Under the scope block on the barrel’s right hand side is engraved two lines, centered above ‘NRA CENTENNIAL 1871-1971’ are the words ‘PALMA MATCH’. The team from the United States used the rifles well and won its tenth Palma Trophy.

The Palma would return to Camp Perry in 1973. This match would mark the last time a service rifle, in this case National Match M14s, would be issued for use in a Palma. South Africa hosted the 1974 Palma and, true to form as the host association, won. This South African match marked the first time that the Palma had been fired south of the Equator. The hectic pace of a Palma each year was beginning to take its toll and there was a welcome lay off during 1975. The NRA took advantage of the breather to prepare because they would host 1976 Palma and the event would coincide with both the centennial of the Palma and the bicentennial of the United States.

Part of the preparation was to again contact Winchester for rifles. Building on the Model 70 tradition Winchester’s custom shop hand selected 140 rifles that incorporated some small, but important, changes. While the rifle looked much as the two previous ones the 1976 edition, the last of the line, featured the traditional semi-beavertail fore-end that was now routed out and fitted with an accessory rail to accommodate a large Freeland style handstop. The rail allowed each shooter to adjust the handstop to fit rather than having to settle for the more limited adjustments available on the earlier models. The NRA issued brand new M1903 slings to each shooter who displayed great ingenuity in reducing the stiff cowhide to a pliable state in the short time between issue and sighting in and practice sessions.

Two readily accessible Allen screws, located behind the bolt, allowed the shooter to adjust the single stage trigger for both weight of pull and overtravel with out having to take the action from the stock. The rifle was also two ounces heavier and a quarter of an inch longer than its predecessors. All the exposed metal surfaces, with the exception of the floor plate and trigger guard, which is blued, are finished in black matte. The barrel of the ‘Winchester Model 70 Ultra Match Palma Centennial Target Rifle’ is engraved ‘PALMA MATCH 1876-1976’ six inches from the receiver on the right hand side.

The sights used were Redfield, an International Match 1/4-minute receiver sight with fixed aperture and a Redfield International Match Big Bore front sight accompanied by a plastic sleeve of apertures of various sizes. For some unfathomable reason the Winchester gunsmiths made a technical blunder that may, or may not, have had a real effect on the outcome of the match. The rifles were fitted with a two-step smallbore front sight base. This oversight certainly caused some upset and hard feelings among the guests. The two-step base is designed for prone shooters so that they can maintain the same head position shooting at both 50 and 100 yards. By moving the front sight from the high section of the base, used at 50 yards, to the lower one, used at 100 yards, the receiver sight is effectively moved up about seven or eight minutes. This works because, while point of impact moves in the same direction rear sight moves, the front sight is moved in the opposite direction to achieve the same results.

While the idea is eminently practical for the smallbore shooter the Palma Match presented a problem. Even at its lowest setting the base did not allow for sufficient elevation without extending the elevation staff of the receiver sight to the point where it became wobbly. It goes without saying what the movement of just .001 inch can do to the placement of a bullet at Palma distances. Within a very short period of time of discovering this weakness there were long lines at the various armorer’s vans behind the firing line of Viale Range as competitors queued up to seek a solution to this problem. Some teams simply wound rubber bands around the sight and pistol grip to reduce extraneous movement. To this day some members of Great Britain’s 1976 Palma team wear a rubber band in place of a tie bar on their team ties in remembrance. What has now has passed into Palma folklore was a much more serious public relations problem at the time.

Winchester also produced special ammunition for the 1976 matches to accompany the rifles. The head stamp was ‘PALMA 76’ in a semicircle on the top half of the base, two upper case Ws at the three and nine o’clock position standing for Winchester-Western, and ‘308 WIN’ as the bottom semicircle. The case was nickel-plated brass and a 190-grain hollow point boat tail match bullet topped it off. The bullet was chronographed at 2550 feet per second. The 25,000 rounds were packaged 20 to a red, white, and blue box that carried the Palma logo.

Only two more matches would be fired with sponsored provided rifles. After the 1982 Palma it was agreed that each competitor would be responsible for providing a suitable rifle for his or her own use. Palma veteran Mo Defina owns two sets of the three Winchester Palma rifles. It is his expert opinion that there can be no more than 30 complete sets in existence and probably less. He reports that the last set sold on the open market went for $5,000. The cost reflects more than the going rate for three post-64 Winchester Model 70s in .308 Winchester, which might run as much a $1,000 per rifle. Rather, it represents the value of the merger of two great traditions of shooting excellence, something for which a price really cannot be set.
 

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