September 23, 2010
In 1970, as he neared the end of his career at Outdoor Life, Jack O'Connor wrote a book called simply The Hunting Rifle.
In 1970, as he neared the end of his career at Outdoor Life, Jack O'Connor wrote a book called simply The Hunting Rifle. Years later, as I ran my eye down the bookshelf, past all the volumes of O'Connor's work, I found it puzzling that he would devote an entire book to a subject that I thought was rather obvious. No more.
As the rifle world moves in several directions at once, all of them undesirable, I see exactly what motivated O'Connor to write that book 40 years ago, and wonder what he would think if he could see the stuff being produced now.
Don't misunderstand. There are some fine rifles being made today, and not all of them are custom jobs. But there are also some real disasters--rifles that are suitable for hunting the way a cow is suitable to run the Kentucky Derby.
Onto these rifles we are putting scopes that are more suitable for studying the four moons of Jupiter, that have illuminated reticles you could read by, and weigh as much as the rifle itself.
So what is a good hunting rifle? Basically, it is no different today than it was in O'Connor's era.
The hunting rifle should be light enough to carry comfortably all day, yet heavy enough for steady shooting and to tame the recoil; it should be handy enough for quick response, and to shoot from odd, hurried positions; it should be sufficiently accurate for its purpose at ethical ranges; it should be powerful enough to kill the intended game cleanly even when everything goes wrong, not when everything goes just right. Most of all, no single feature mentioned above should be over-emphasized to the detriment of the other desirable attributes.
Now I would add a couple of specifics: One, it absolutely must have a three-position safety, or a two-position safety that pulls the striker back off the sear and locks the bolt shut. A huge percentage of semi-custom hunting rifles today are based on the Remington 700 action, for which it is possible to get an after-market shroud with such a safety. The fact that so many others stick with the execrable two-position Remington safety that allows the bolt to pop open just shows that very few of the manufacturers do any real hunting themselves, or use their own product doing it.
Push-feed versus controlled feed? It could go either way. There are good ones and bad ones of each type. I prefer the Mauser-type controlled feed but I'm not a fanatic.
The Winchester 94, while hardly fashionable today, is one of the finest pure hunting rifles ever made--ergonomically excellent, accurate enough and powerful enough out to 200 yards, which is the extreme one would shoot using its iron sights or receiver sight.
And, of course, there are the great double rifles. They are nothing but hunting rifles and superb for their intended purpose. Into this group you could also lump almost every single-shot mountain rifle ever to come out of England or Central Europe.
I know a fellow who owns a 7mm Remington Magnum in a sort of target configuration. Heavy barrel, bulky stock. Fitted on this thing are a bipod; a bulky, heavy, cobra-style sling; and a 6-18x50 riflescope.
It weighs about five kilograms. Aside from the weight, all the junk on it makes it uncomfortable to carry for even a short distance, much less all day. It is noisy, with all its extraneous bits clanking against each other. Its owner is an American whitetail hunter, but it is a monstrously unsuitable whitetail rifle, and I can think of very few situations in Africa where it would be anything but lousy.
If the owner of this rifle ever got out and walked while hunting, carrying his rifle up and down real mountains, or slung under his chest crawling through the underbrush, he would see how poor it really is. Alas, he doesn't, and he won't.
There are practical aspects to a good hunting rifle that only become apparent when you are in the field, with the rifle, hour after hour, carrying it, slinging it on your shoulder, getting in and out of vehicles, loading and unloading it, using it as an alpenstock or balancing pole on steep slopes. Only then do you see how it carries, what sharp edges dig into you, how quiet it is in operation. Only then do you see if it has a comfortable balance point that will allow you to carry it for mile after mile.
A few makers say they care about these ergonomic fine points, and a few even produce rifles that suggest they mean what they say. But most rifles are produced by engineers on the one hand who don't hunt or shoot, dictated to by marketing people who also don't hunt or shoot.
The engineers are in love with things they can measure--accuracy, velocity, energy--but accuracy and velocity, alone or together, do not make a hunting rifle. If they did, we would all be pushing wheelbarrows with benchrest rifles in them, setting up on hilltops and waiting for that big antelope to emerge a kilometer away.
If there is an African equivalent of the American deer hunter's Winchester 94 in .30-30, it is either the Mauser 93 in 7x57, or the British Lee-Enfield in .303. Even in a minimally sporterized state, both of those are excellent hunting rifles. They are accurate enough, and powerful enough, for the purpose; they are durable to a fault, easy to carry, and absolutely dependable. Both have shown an astonishing degree of accuracy over the past century in thousand-yard matches, but that's not really relevant.
When you think of it, there are really very few hunting situations in Africa today that could not be more than adequately handled by a sporterized 7x57, with iron sights, in the hands of a hunter who knows how to stalk and how to shoot under real hunting conditions. It's been true for a century, and it's true now.