As near as I can recall, the year was 1978. My parents had just split up and we moved back to the small town that I call home. I was 12, and had already been deer hunting with my dad for several years. Well, hunting is a stretch; I tagged along. But I loved it, and often didn’t sleep a wink the night before we went out. I loved hanging out with my dad and his friends as they told stories about hunting, and especially hunting up in the Adirondack Mountains in NY. Because up there, you could use a rifle!
Where we lived in Western NY, one could only hunt with a shotgun. Having spent many a weekend reading the stacks of Outdoor Life, Field & Stream and other outdoor magazines my dad had collected over the years, I was an expert on rifle hunting and it’s inherent superiority to lowly rifled slug.
I don’t know how I did it, but I talked my dad into taking me deer hunting in the Adirondacks that fall. And that meant one thing; the Savage Model 99—chambered in America’s deer cartridge, the 30-30 Winchester—would be going with us. I had no doubt any deer would drop in its tracks when my dad touched off that magnificent rifle.
The Model 1899
The Savage Model 1899 was the third iteration of a lever-action gun that started off as a collaboration between Arthur Savage and the Colt Manufacturing Company as they worked to develop a gun for the U.S. Army in the late 1800’s. The first model, the 1892, never made it into production. Savage didn’t get the contract, but developed the 92 into the 1895. That, in turn, was further refined into the Model 1899.
The Savage 1899 was unique for many reasons. It has an incredibly strong action, stronger than the Winchester designs up to that point. It also used a rotary magazine instead of a tubular one. This was important as it allowed for the use of pointed Spitzer-type bullets from a lever-action rifle, a first. The 5-round tubular magazine featured a brass cartridge counter on the left side of the action. The rifleman would always know the exact status of the magazine. Being a hammerless design, it also offered faster lock time—the time between the pulling of the trigger and cartridge ignition—than hammer-fired guns. This improved accuracy, if even a little bit.
The 99 even featured a cocking indicator on the top of the receiver. A little button protrudes from the top of the receiver when the action is cocked, allowing the hunter to quickly ensure his gun is ready by running a thumb over the top of the gun.
With most of the weight in the center of the gun between the shooter’s hands, it’s a light and handy rifle. The Model 1899 was made for 99 years, finally being discontinued in 1998.
Dad’s Model 99
I don’t know the full story about my dad’s Model 99. I do know it originally belonged to his Uncle Chuck. Uncle Chuck is the one who really taught my dad about hunting and fishing. My dad was quite fond of Uncle Chuck; so fond that my middle name is Charles. When Uncle Chuck died, my dad inherited the ’99.
My first experience with the gun probably came when I was around eight or nine. I instantly fell in love with it’s graceful lines and lever-action. I’m sure I poured over articles about it and read every description in every annual Gun Digest.
That fall in 1978, my dad and I had a great time hiking through the woods in the Adirondacks. In spite of the idiotic politics in the state of New York, the Adirondacks remain one of my favorite places on earth. I can still picture the woods we spent a few days in. While we didn’t see any deer on that trip, one momentous occasion did occur; I fired a center-fire rifle for the first time. Up until that point, I had only shot rimfire rifles, such as my Nylon 66 that I’m sure I had already shot a thousand rounds through.
I was itching to get my hands on the ’99 the entire trip. My dad knew it, too. Near the end of the second day, when it was pretty clear we were coming home without that 12-point trophy buck I envisioned us bagging, my dad stopped at the bottom of a wash and said, “Well son, looks like we got skunked. Would you like to shoot this before we leave?” Would I? Do bears poop in the woods?
I remember taking the gun in my hands. I see the sights lining up on a log some 40 yards away. I can still smell the oil in the action, feel the cold of the trigger on my index finger. This was the first time I had been so close to such a powerful rifle and it was exhilarating! I squeezed the trigger and promptly stumbled backwards. My dad, anticipating the effect physics would play in this dance backstopped me and I looked up at him with a huge smile on my face.
Handing him the gun back, I took off towards the stump to inspect the impact. Sure enough, it was pretty close to where I had aimed. I had fired a “real” gun. And I was hooked.
The Intervening Years
What happened to the gun afterwards is somewhat of a mystery. Due to a long series of unfortunate events, my dad and I fell out of contact for a good many years shortly after that. He moved to Florida, then to Tennessee, before finally settling in Virginia. By the time we reconciled some 20 years later, the gun had been bouncing around the country with him. Though we visited and spent a lot of time together in the last years of his life, we never again got out to shoot the Savage. That is something I deeply regret.
On October 31, 2008, I received an unexpected call from my stepmom. Through tears, she blurted, “Mike, your dad is gone.” I knew he was supposed to have some minor outpatient surgery that day, and was expecting to hear from him the next day. That was a call that never came. We’d never have a chance to shoot together again.
In the fall of 2013, an old friend needed help moving some stuff from his recently deceased mother-in-law’s house up to Rochester, NY. He and I hatched a plan to do a road trip. Since we would be driving right through Virginia, I suggested we stop in and see my stepmom, and ideally, retrieve my dad’s guns that were just collecting dust in her closet. After dinner, I asked if I could have them back and she said, “Of course you can have them! Dave would want that.”
We unearthed them from the closet and for the first time in 35 years, I saw the ’99 again. I had feared it would be caked in rust and mold. But it was just as I remembered it. My dad was always really good about keeping them oiled up. It was like being reunited with an old friend.
The next morning, we loaded up the Model 99, along with a few others and headed north. When I met up with my brother the next day, we split up the guns. I kept the 99 and a Winchester Model 12 as those are the two I had the strongest connection to. I flew back to California with them a few days later and the gun was once again relegated to a corner of a closet.
When I moved back to America two years ago, I immersed myself into shooting in a big way. Sometime last summer, I took the ’99 to the outdoor range where I shoot to see if it still had the magic. I loaded a round in the super-cool rotary magazine and worked the lever home. Pulling up a sight picture, I squeezed the trigger. Instead of a BOOM! I got a muffled clunk. I ejected the round and inspected the primer. Nothing. I figured after all these years, the hammer spring was likely severely worn or broken. Saddened, I packed the gun up, took it home and put it in the safe, figuring I’d get it fixed one day.
Last weekend, I decided I needed to record all the serial numbers of my various firearms. As I was documenting the Model ’99, I once again worked the action and tried the trigger (after ensuring it was clear, of course). Same muffled click.
I though to myself, “Hey, I can build an AR-15 from parts. I can take this apart and at least see what’s wrong.” Using the Google to find a great set of instructions on how to take the gun apart (thanks, Gun Tests!), I set to work. When I pulled the breechblock out, and removed the hammer assembly, I immediately found the issue. The hammer and spring run in what is essentially a barrel in the breechblock. The oil that was put in the action, probably back in 1978, had turned to sludge. It was like pulling the hammer out of of a jar of peanut butter. “Well there’s your problem!” I though.
I spent the next several hours scrubbing it all down and sending it through a cycle in the ultrasonic cleaner. After getting it all oiled back up and reassembled—with no leftover parts!—I again ran the action and pulled the trigger. CLICK! It was back! It sounded just like it should.
The next day, as is my custom on Sunday’s, I headed to the range. I could barely contain my excitement. It was almost surreal loading a round into the chamber of a gun I last fired 39 years ago (I know I said 37 on social media…what I can I say, I’m not good at calendar math). I ran a target down to the maximum 25 yard range, brought the gun up and send a 170 grain soft point downrange. It was just as exhilarating as I remembered!
Since the gun was still together, I loaded up another round. Same effect. I loaded a full magazine and let ‘em fly. Running the target back so I could see what was going on, I was quite impressed. While it’s shooting high and to the right, all seven shots were in a 3” circle. And I wasn’t really going for accuracy; just like when I was 12, I couldn’t wait to pull the trigger and feel the power.
After the initial rush settled down, I loaded up a few magazines worth and adjusting for point of impact actually shot for accuracy. Firing offhand, the rest of the box landed in a 3-4” circle. And I know I pulled a few of them. At some point soon, I will be taking it to the outdoor range, where we’ll set it on some sandbags and see what it can do.
As someone who works in technology, where the longest anything lasts is a decade, there is something very special about shooting a gun designed in the late 1800’s, made in 1929, and last shot in 1978. This gun is nearly 90 years old, and it still shoots. In fact, it works perfectly. The action is just as slick as any modern gun, maybe even more so. It still feels lively in the hands, and I wouldn’t hesitate to take it into the field this fall on a deer hunt. Well, I’d want to get the sights dialed in first. But after that, no problem.
As I was cleaning it Sunday afternoon, I wondered if anyone would still be shooting today’s guns in 100 years. How will that polymer hold up, anyway? Will Americans even be citizens then or will everyone be subjects? Who knows. One thing I do know—this old Model 99 will be handed down to my kid’s kids. Hopefully, they’ll have the same level of appreciation for it that I do.