Store-brand rifles great for hunting

Published 8 December 2017

A reader recently asked if he should spring on what sounded like a good deal on a Sears Model 53 rifle.

He didn't know Sears made rifles and was suspicious. Is it worth having?

For the price he quoted, yes.

While I prefer mainstream brands, there are a lot of store-brand rifles in circulation that are of surprising good quality. They have zero collector value, but they are excellent field guns. Many such rifles are capable of superb accuracy.

Into the 1980s, many retailers sold high quality firearms that were rebranded under license from major manufacturers. Montgomery Ward carried a line of firearms under the Western Field brand that were made by Savage/Stevens, Mossberg, Marlin, Glenfield, Springfield, High Standard and others.

Western Auto Supply had the same arrangement, as did J.C. Penney and OTASCO.

Alan Peoples, chief of wildlife management for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, has a Western Field Model 326 EMJ 20-gauge side-by side that was made by Miroku, which made or makes the Browning Auto-5, Browning Browning Side-by-Side (BSS), Browning Citori and Browning bolt-action rifles. Miroku also made Charles Daly double-barrel shotguns for a time.

Peoples' gun is basically a high-quality Charles Daly with some of the prettiest wood I have seen on a factory shotgun. It does not exist on any cross-reference, and how many were made is unknown.

Under this arrangement, major firearms manufacturers distributed their wares in volume to all kinds of retailers at all kinds of price points for customers of all income levels.

Sears was once a major player in the sporting goods industry, selling everything from rifles and shotguns to outboard motors. Its selection of store-brand firearms was vast.

From the 1940s to 1964, Sears sporting goods originally carried the J.C. Higgins brand. Starting in 1961, Sears morphed the J.C. Higgins brand into the Ted Williams brand.

Williams, the famous Hall-of-Fame baseball player for the Boston Red Sox, was a more marketable name than J.C. Higgins, who was widely suspected to be imaginary.

John Higgins was a real person. A longtime Sears employee, he retired as Sears's comptroller in 1930. He didn't have a middle name. Sears added the "C" to convey an everyman sound and appearance.

The Sears Model 53 and the Ted Williams Model 73 are post-1964 Winchester bolt-action rifles. They have sporter-style American walnut stocks, push-feed actions, blind magazines, iron sights and pressed checkering similar to that found on the original Remington 700 ADL and BDL.

In 1962, suggested retail for the the first ADL and BDL in standard calibers was $114.95 and $139.95, respectively.

The same year, the Winchester Model 70 in standard calibers retailed for $139. I am unable to determine the original MSRP of the Ted Williams Models 53/73, but in the early 1960s it was probably about $100 or less.

If you find one in like-new condition in the box from a knowledgeable owner, you might expect to pay $400-450, but you can often find them south of $300 in very good to excellent condition.

Are old, off-brand rifles safe to shoot? Are they accurate?

The standard disclaimer is to have a gunsmith inspect any elderly firearm before shooting it. If it is in good repair, oiled and with no signs of erosion in the throat or chamber, it should be safe. It was, after all, proofed with much brawnier loads than you'll ever find commercially.

Back when the opinions of outdoor writers were considered gospel, the late Jack O'Connor did great damage to the Winchester brand when the company mothballed its re-1964 action in favor of the post-94 push-feed action.

Actually, the damage was self-inflicted. O'Connor merely wrote the truth.

O'Connor helped Winchester sell untold numbers of the pre-64 design, and he hated the new model. Early versions of the new design looked and felt cheap and ugly.

Winchester corrected the errors, and the push-feed Model 70s made from the late 1960s through the 1980s -- especially the XTR models -- are excellent rifles.

The Sears Model 53 and Ted Williams Model 73, by extension, are excellent rifles, as well.

If you want a "shooter" that performs on par with today's best rifles, you can't go wrong if the price is right.

Sports on 12/07/2017