September 23, 2010
Of all the rifles that have come and gone, 10 stand apart as the best of all time.
"Which, in your opinion, are the 10 greatest sporting rifles of all time?" Such was the assignment given me by Rifle Shooter magazine, and it's an interesting project. Now, I could wax ecstatic about Rigbys, original Mausers or a David Miller masterpiece, but few of us can relate to those kind of guns. When the editor asked me to do this story, what he wanted was production guns--huntin' rifles, the kind most of us can afford.
I'm sure you've got your nominees. Here are mine in chronological order.
How could this not be on everyone's list? The 94 was the first rifle to be chambered for the .30-30 WCF, the first sporting cartridge to be stoked with smokeless powder. But that in itself is not enough to qualify the 94 as a legendary design. Nope, what makes it qualify for my list is how it has withstood the test of time and its overwhelming acceptance by six generations of American hunters.
In addition to being the rifle with which more deer have been harvested than any other, its cinematic history is equally unrivaled. Has there ever been a Western movie is which a 94 didn't appear? Is there a person anywhere on Earth who hasn't seen John Wayne using both ends of a 94 to mete out justice?
The Winchester Model 94 also makes my list because it works and works well. Few if any other guns are as eminently suited to harvesting deer in the eastern half of the country, and fewer still have its carrying and handling qualities. The human hand and the receiver of a scope-less 94 were destined for each other. To me, no other rifle has ever felt as good in my hand--I'm talking one-hand carry at my side--than a 94.
It is ironic that the 94 ceased production in 2005 after 101 years of production--just one year before Hornady could have given the gun yet another lease on life with its LeverEvolution ammunition. But don't count the 94 out yet. If the Model 70 can make a comeback, so can the 94.
This is the one slot that can't be filled by any single make or model firearm. Some estimates put worldwide production of 98 pattern Mausers at 100 million, yet only a small fraction of that number were (are) commercial.
Perhaps the best example of a sporting rifle based on a commercial Mauser (i.e., no thumb slot in the left receiver wall) was the High Power made in Belgium by Fabrique Nationale and imported by Browning from 1959 to '74. A current example is the Remington Model 798, the barreled actions of which are made in Serbia and stocked here in Remington's Mayfield, Kentucky, facility.
It is essentially the same rifle as was imported for many years by Interarms as the Mark X and for a time by KBI under the Charles Daly name, an arrangement that ended a couple of years ago. Similar 98-based rifles were made for many years in the La Coruna armory in Spain and imported here as Santa Barbara actions and barreled actions.
Regardless of the name of the gun or the importer, if it's based on a true 98-pattern Mauser, it is considered by many as being the greatest bolt action ever designed, and one that has yet to be improved upon. Quite a claim for something that came off the drawing boards 110 years ago, but one which is hard to refute. Twin-opposed locking lugs at the head of the bolt, controlled round feeding, inertia ejection and a staggered column box magazine are all hallmarks of the 98--features that are found in most of the more popular rifles of the present day.
Remington's Model 798 is the best current example of a commercial version of the epochal 98 Mauser. It's made in Serbia and stocked here in the U.S.
One year younger than the 98 Mauser, this brainchild of Arthur Savage was a 19th century lever action rifle like no other. Unlike the Marlins and Winchesters, which utilized vertically moving locking bolts to back up the breech bolt, the 99 had a stronger locking system. On the 99, the last 11„2 inches of the underlever's closing motion pivots the rear of the breech bolt upwards, wedging it between the barrel breech and the upper rear surface of the ejection port. It's a very strong system.
Also distinguishing the 99 from its contemporaries was the fact it utilized a rotary spool box magazine, so it was not limited to blunt-nosed bullets. Whereas the Marlins and Winchesters were limited to cartridges generating no more than 40,000 copper units pressure, the 99 could handle just about anything that would fit its 23„4-inch magazine.
Not only was the 99 robust enough to handle the .250 Savage that was to come in 1915 and the first cartridge to break the 3000 fps velocity barrier, but it would eventually be chambered for the .243 and .308 Winchester cartridges, as well as the even more potent .284 Winchester, which was loaded to average working pressures of 55,000 c.u.p. Truly, the Savage 99 is an epochal rifle that deserves its place on my list.
The Model 70 has had its ups and downs over the eight decades it's been around but only because the original design was changed in the early 1960s to make the gun more economical to manufacture. It took 25 years for the company to come to its senses and revert back to the original, controlled-round feed action.
The Model 70's three-position safety, its efficient and unobtrusive bolt release, and the positioning of the ejector blade at the 7:30 rather than nine o'clock position are features that have been widely copied. Generally speaking, those who believe the 98 Mauser is not the end-all bolt action are Model 70 fans.
There's not much I can say about this rifle that I haven't already said about the Winchester 94, except that it doesn't have the cinematic identity and name recognition with the general public. Evolving from earlier models, the 336 was introduced in 1948 and is still going strong. I actually prefer the Marlin to the Winchester because of its side ejection, cylindrical bolt and the strengthening bridge that connects the right side with the top of the receiver. It handles and carries just as well as the Winchester 94, which is really saying something.
The several current permutations of the Marlin 336 in all calibers can now offer greatly improved ballistics simply by going to Hornady's LeverEvolution ammunition that allows spitzer bullets to be used in tubular magazines.
It's the most successful commercial bolt action centerfire rifle of all time. Surely there have been more permutations of the 700 than any other make or model. The 700 debuted in 1962, but it was little more than a cosmetically updated version of the Models 721 and 722 (long and short action, respectively) of 1948. A lot of minor design changes have been made over the years in the bolt sleeve, trigger, safety and extractor to name some, but the basic bolt and receiver of the 721 and 722 are virtually the same as on the current models.
With the 721/722 came a much more economical way to build a bolt action. Instead of using forgings for the bolt and receiver, bar and tube stock were used which required far less machining. Bolts started out as tubes to which a handle was brazed on at the rear, and a separate bolt head was cross-pinned up front.
Many of Sundra's early rifles were built around Sako L-series actions. This custom L61 chambered in his wildcat .375 JRS was used to take this Tanzanian buff.
The receiver was a pure cylinder with an eccentric "washer" sandwiched between it and the barrel to serve as a recoil lug. Two massive locking lugs of equal strength and a projecting nose on the bolt that encircled the case rim and fit into a recess in the barrel breech makes this one of the strongest, safest actions ever designed. From 1948 to date, some 51„2 million 720/700-series rifles have been sold.
I've lumped these two distinct models together here because they are essentially the same gun, despite one being a semiauto and the other a slide action. Both guns have evolved considerably since their introduction as the Models 740 and 760 in 1952 and 1955, respectively, but the common attribute that puts these guns on my all-time list is that they are built on the same basic receiver, which remains the most streamlined, compact action capable of handling the .30-06 family of cartridges.
Essentially, what Remington engineers did was take the pump action 760; remove the twin action bars connecting the bolt with the sliding fore-end; and replace them with a fixed fore-end, inside of which they put a gas block, piston and connecting rod to actuate the bolt. You could say the slide action 760 is simply a manual version of the semiauto 740. You can tell that by just looking at the two guns side by side.
In carbine versions, these two guns come the closest to duplicating the wonderful one-hand carry and balance qualities of the Winchester 94/Marlin 336. Both guns deliver a rapidity of fire unmatched by other action types and are ideally suited for hunting close cover where running shots are often presented.
Pennsylvania, where semiautos are not allowed for big game hunting, has historically accounted for the vast majority of 7600 sales. While there are now several semiauto rifles capable of handling the .30-06 family and even belted magnums, the Model 750 is unique. And no one has yet to match it, or its brother, in compactness of design.
Here's a marque that makes my list not with a specific model but as a manufacturer that has continually produced rifles of superb design and quality. This Finnish gun maker established its reputation with the "L-series" actions that appeared between 1955 and 1964.
Sako was the first to offer rifles built on three distinct actions, each scaled to a specific family of cartridges. There were several confusing model designations over the years, but they are best represented by the L461 Vixen, designed around the .222 family, the L579 Forester for the .243/.308 Winchester, and the L61 Finnbear for standard/magnum cartridges. At one time during the 1970s, my limited battery of centerfire rifles was mostly built around Sako actions.
The L-series Sakos were replaced by the Model 75 and within the past year by the Model 85. Both these newer series represent complete redesigns with three-lug actions and 60-degree bolt rotations rather than the twin-lug Mauser-type L series.
Regardless of specific models, however, for the 60 years that Sako rifles have been imported here, they have all been extremely well-designed, well-made, accurate and cosmetically attuned to American tastes.
Ruger No. 1
Introducing a relatively expensive single-shot centerfire rifle in 1967 was not the first time Bill Ruger confounded both the industry and shooting public, nor would it be the last. In its external appearance the No. 1 most closely resembles the old British Farquharson falling block rifle of the late 19th century, but mechanically it is a uniquely Ruger design. It is a rifle that is produced using the most modern materials and production techniques, yet it harkens back to another time when the single-shot was not only the most accurate rifle type but the only one capable of handling the most powerful cartridges in existence.
The No.1 is not for everyone, yet it's amazing how many of those "everyones" sooner or later succumb to its siren call. Usually it happens when a hunter reaches the point where the gun he uses to take game becomes as important as taking it at all. Using a No. 1 represents a state of mind.
Currently there are 11 distinct models of Ruger No. 1s chambered in 18 calibers from .204 Ruger to .416 Rigby and .450/400 Nitro Express. The No. 1 is quite a testament to the prescience of Bill Ruger, for even today, 40 years after its introduction, it has no rivals in the marketplace.
Ruger 77 Mk. II
The original Model 77 goes back to 1968, and the Mk. II began being integrated into the Ruger line in 1994, fully replacing it by 1996. The major change seen in the Mk. II, which is the rifle pictured in the lead photograph for this article, was the adoption of a controlled-round-feed action.
I've always wondered why the original 77, which already had the primary component for controlled-round feed--the big outrigger extractor that rides side-saddle on the bolt body--wasn't taken advantage of. Instead, it was a push feed with plunger-type ejector. Regardless, controlled-round-feed is what the Mk. II is all about. In addition, it has an excellent trigger and safety, integral scope mount rails and is one of the most comprehensive line of centerfire rifles extant.
I don't think it's been around quite long enough to qualify as being legendary, but I'm convinced a generation from now it would make anybody's Top Ten list. I'm just voting early.