May 28, 2020
By John Barsness
After rifled barrels appeared about 500 years ago, any hunting rifle carried up a mountain could be considered a mountain rifle, but after the development of smokeless powder in the late 1800s, lighter-weight rifles became more popular. European hunters began using specialized mountain rifles before Americans, partly because so much of Europe consists of steep mountains.
The Alps alone cross eight countries, one reason the 1903 Mannlicher-Schoenauer carbine chambered for the 6.5x54 M-S cartridge was among the world’s most popular hunting rifles during the early 20th century. Those I’ve weighed have averaged around 6.5 pounds, which helped lighten the load when climbing after Alpine game.
European mountain hunters also used light single-shot rifles, particularly what Germans call Kipplaufs, meaning “break barrel.” In America we consider break-action single-shots “affordable,” but Europeans regard them as highly as any hunting rifles. Most Kipplaufs are not only light but also can be quickly taken apart, like double-barreled shotguns. The barrel/fore-end and action/buttstock can then fit into a pack for serious climbing and be reassembled in the high country.
During the same period, Americans concentrated their lightweight efforts on lever-action carbines, originally developed as general frontier tools. The “mountains” of the eastern United States, where most Americans then lived and hunted, weren’t nearly as high or steep as the Alps.
Whitetail deer weren’t common in those days, so most hunters had to search for them rather than sit in a tree and wait for a buck. For mobile hunting, a six-pound lever-action beat the typical nine-pound bolt rifle of the day. It was easier to carry in the hunter’s hands and provided faster repeat shots, often useful on running deer.
The original ballistics of the 6.5x54 and .30-30 were just about identical: a blunt-nosed 160-grain bullet at around 2,000 fps. This wasn’t totally coincidental; both killed well yet recoiled moderately in light rifles.
Early North American bolt-action hunting rifles usually weighed considerably more, partly due to recoil. Many were essentially military rifles, sometimes converted by cutting down or replacing full-length military stocks—and sometimes not.
The most popular rounds were the .30-40 Krag, .30-06 Springfield and .303 British, which at first used soft-nosed bullets, duplicating their military loads, weighing 215 to 220 grains. Many hunters considered the heavier bullets more suitable for big game than the 160-grain bullets of the 6.5x54 or .30-30, especially on animals larger than deer.
Unfortunately, these heavier bullets resulted in considerably more recoil, and back then—and for decades afterward—most sporting rifles had hard buttplates, often made of steel. Heavier rifles reduced recoil, mitigating shoulder pain.
Many hunters also believed heavier and longer-barreled rifles shot more accurately beyond “woods” ranges. Several influential gun writers were among that number, including Col. Townsend Whelen, Elmer Keith and even Jack O’Connor in his younger years. Plus, much Rocky Mountain hunting involved packing in on horseback, and one basic rule of physics is that rifles always weigh less when carried by saddle horses.
This perhaps partially explains why the first bolt-action “mountain rifle” mass-produced in the United States lasted only a few years. In 1920 Savage introduced a nifty little rifle it named, naturally, the Model 1920, chambered in the relatively light-recoiling .250-3000 and .300 Savage rounds.
I had a 1920 in .250 for a while; it was drilled and tapped by a previous owner for Weaver bases. With a 4X scope in Weaver rings, it weighed under seven pounds, but it was apparently too far ahead of its time, and production ceased by 1930.
The North American trend toward lighter bolt-action sporters didn’t really begin until after World War II, and that was partly due to more hunters using telescopic sights. Most hunters had stuck to iron sights before the war, but scope use increased rapidly afterward, adding at least another pound to rifle weight.
By then O’Connor was the best-known gun writer in the country, partly because Outdoor Life had been distributed to American soldiers during the war. After early experiences with heavy rifles—his first custom .270 weighed close to nine pounds with scope—he started having lightweight sporters built to weigh eight pounds scoped and wrote about them considerably.
This weight sometimes included a full magazine and sling, meaning the scoped rifle alone weighed around 7.5 pounds, but even the rifles weighing eight pounds scoped felt really good. I’ve handled several of his rifles at the O’Connor Heritage Center in Lewiston, Idaho, and have gotten to know several of his old hunting buddies, including his son, Bradford.
In June of 2009, we got to take O’Connor’s favorite custom Model 70 .270 out of the glass display case and, thanks to our friend Chet Fitzgerald’s super-accurate digital scale, learned it weighed a hair more than seven pounds, 15 ounces. (Some hunting buddies suggested O’Connor was kinda cheap because he selected relatively plain wood for many of his custom rifles, but plainer wood weighs less.)
Most of the soldiers who read O’Connor hadn’t particularly liked packing a nine-pound 1903A3 Springfield or a 10-pound M1 Garand over even modest hills. They believed hunting was supposed to be fun and not a forced march with a heavy rifle. Eventually, O’Connor’s blueprint for what a lightweight rifle should be became so popular that in 1952 Winchester introduced the Model 70 Featherweight. It had a stock and barrel much slimmer and shorter than the standard Model 70, a buttplate and “bottom metal” made of aluminum instead of steel, and a pair of substantial holes drilled inside the buttstock.
Chasing the Ideal
Over the years I’ve owned several Pre-’64 Featherweights, but I am now down to one: a .308 made in 1953. To see how closely it followed O’Connor’s ideal, I mounted a “period correct” steel-tubed K4 Weaver in Weaver rings, attached a plain leather sling, and filled the magazine with 150-grain ammo. Altogether it weighed a couple ounces over eight pounds.
However, even after the Featherweight appeared, many O’Connor-type mountain rifles were custom-made, and one reason they couldn’t be much lighter than eight pounds field-ready was cultural. True believers would use only pre-’64 Model 70 or 98 Mauser actions, and with steel bottom metal, both weighed 45 ounces—almost three pounds.
The 1976 Gun Digest included an article by James R. Olt titled “The Practical Light Sporter” that detailed putting such rifles together. Olt pointed out that while a couple ounces could be saved by using Featherweight bottom metal, for real weight savings many hunters chose the G.33/40 Mauser action, a small-ring Model 1898 designed for mountain fighting, which had considerable steel milled from the sides of the action, reducing the weight to “only” 40 ounces.
It’s difficult to build truly light bolt-action rifles when starting with an action weighing at least 2.5 pounds, but by 1976 new technology was already headed toward the mountain rifles we know today.
Some hunters dared to resist the “classic” actions and instead used Remington 700 actions loathed by classicists due to their push-feed extractors and ejectors. The long 700 action, however, weighed 38 ounces and the short action only 35 ounces—10 ounces less than a standard 98 or M70.
“Lay-up” synthetic stocks also appeared, using layers of fiberglass cloth epoxied together, but in reality, most didn’t reduce weight a vast amount. I’ve weighed a number of slim walnut stocks of 26 to 30 ounces, while most of today’s lay-up synthetics go 20 to 24 ounces.
Traditionalists also hated synthetic stocks and warned that a .270 or .30-06 weighing less than O’Connor’s custom .270 kicked too much for accurate shooting. However, they’d usually learned about recoil from metal-butted rifles. Many believed putting a rubber recoil pad on a “nice” rifle meant the owner (a) wasn’t a real man and (b) had the aesthetic sense of a tractor designer.
Admittedly, most solid-rubber recoil pads weren’t much softer than steel, especially after being exposed to the outdoors for a few years. And those “ventilated” with holes to soften them up resembled a John Deere radiator. But in the 1980s new polymers appeared, which resulted in truly soft, solid pads that felt pretty good when a light .30-06 went off.
At first, seven pounds scoped was the general goal for synthetic-stocked rifles, but the demand for even lighter rifles increased, partly because of the backpacking craze then sweeping the country. Many hunters couldn’t afford a horse-pack hunt but could afford one of the new lightweight aluminum pack frames and a nylon mini-tent.
It should be noted that mountain rifles can be handy for foot-hunting—not just the Alps or the Rockies but also the Missouri Breaks or the steep hills found on much northern tundra. While some he-men still strongly suggest that any real hunter should be able to hike uphill with a real rifle, the point of mountain rifles is the same that resulted in lighter backpacking gear 50 years ago: The less weight hunters have to carry up and down wild country, the longer and harder they can hunt.
Gunsmiths started responding, usually by lightening Remington 700 actions. My first synthetic-stocked mountain rifle, a .280 Rem. on a 700 action, was put together in the 1980s by the late Dave Gentry. Aside from milling excess steel from the outside of the action, Dave used a technique he made me swear not to reveal back then. He cut most of the steel tube from the middle of a 700 bolt, substituting an aluminum tube of the same dimensions so precisely that nobody figured it out.
Other gunsmiths decided even lightened 700 actions were too heavy, so they designed their own. In 1985 a gunsmith in West Virginia—a notably steep state—named Melvin Forbes started the company now named New Ultra Light Arms, building rifles on actions resembling minimized 700s.
By concentrating steel where it was really needed—in the locking lugs and front action ring—and trimming it elsewhere, he cut the weight of a “short” action to 20 ounces, almost a pound less than the short 700, and .30-06 and belted-magnum actions to 24 and 28 ounces respectively.
Eventually, major factories started making lighter actions, resulting in rifles like the Barrett Fieldcraft and Kimber 84. One advantage they have over the O’Connor format is the barrel can be heavier and longer, which results in a steadier hold. More recently, they’ve also allowed hunters to use heavier “dialing” scopes, which usually weigh a minimum of 20 ounces rather than the 10 to 15 ounces of more conventional scopes, while still ending up with a considerably lighter rifle.
I’ve taken the most big game over the past 20 years with a New Ultra Light Arms .30-06 with a No. 2 contour, 24-inch Douglas barrel. It now has a 3-10x42 Nightforce SHV in steel Talley rings, yet it weighs exactly seven pounds.
However, rifles like O’Connor’s favorite .270 still work in steeper country. Aside from the Model 70 Featherweight .308, I own several others, including a used custom .30-06 with a fancy walnut stock built by an unknown ’smith on a G.33/40 action, a 6.5 PRC on a short 700 action with one of Mark Bansner’s High-Tech lay-up stocks, and a custom .338 Win. Mag. on a commercial FN Mauser 98 action and a High Tech stock.
All weigh around 7.5 pounds scoped, give or take two or three ounces. Many consider this too light for a .338, but these days lighter “premium” bullets penetrate big game just as deeply as traditional 250-grain bullets but kick less. Plus, as some wise guy once noted: “The effects of gravity are constant, and recoil only temporary.”
In the late 1990s I ran into a gentleman at the annual Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade show whose name tag read “Jim Olt.” After we shook hands, I said. “Are you the James R. Olt who wrote ‘The Practical Light Sporter’ for the 1976 Gun Digest?”
He smiled and nodded, then said, “Mountain rifles sure have changed since then!”