by Terry Wieland
When it comes to hunting rifles, compromises rarely work. Okay, certainly they can work well enough. But if you are a finicky perfectionist, where everything has to be just right, no compromise will do.
Ever since hunting rifles began to be identified as such—this would be a couple of centuries ago when rifles went one way and smoothbore fowling pieces went another—designers and gunmakers have wrestled with the problem of perfection in design versus what the public will buy. The great British makers came closest simply because most of their stalking rifles were custom built for one man, to meet his individual tastes and requirements.
In America, companies wanted to mass-produce rifles that would sell to a wide range of buyers, from penny-pinching farmers wanting a gun to keep behind the henhouse door, to explorers leaving for central Asia who might encounter who knows what. Compromises were inevitable, but with the advent of different chamberings, barrel lengths, and so on, every so often they hit on the perfect combination.
A “perfect” hunting rifle is a marriage of action, barrel, stock, cartridge, and sights that are all exactly right for one another, and there have been several in history. As you might expect, the American examples have been specific models within a broader line.
The obvious one is the Winchester 94 in .30-30 with open sights. It has a 20-inch barrel, which gets most of the ballistic potential out of the .30-30, while being as handy as they come for woods hunting. The cartridge does not demand a scope and the action won’t accommodate one—not easily, anyway, and it’s not worth the effort when you do.
Several generations of deer hunters endorsed this idea, in spite of several generations of gun writers panning both rifle and cartridge as old-fashioned, out-dated, and inadequate. For whitetails and black bears in the Eastern woods, nothing was demonstrably better. And, frankly, still isn’t.
There are other examples of perfect (by my definition) rifles throughout history. You would have to include the classic American Kentucky long rifle, and probably some of the long-barreled buffalo rifles that came later.
A more modern example is the .280 Ross in its original straight-pull rifle, with a 26- or 28-inch barrel and open sights that were good out to 500 yards without holding high or low. Admittedly, that’s a bit arcane, but the cartridge did deliver the goods claimed for it by Sir Charles Ross, the rifles were beautifully made, and almost supernaturally accurate for its pre-1914 era.
In the early 1950s, Winchester came up with the perfect marriage of rifle and cartridge when they mated the new .308 Winchester with the first Model 70 Featherweight. The cartridge did not require a long barrel to reach its potential, and you could have a scope or not, as you wished.
Alas, the Featherweight is also the best example of a good idea being turned into a disaster when non-shooting marketing guys get into the act. That is the only explanation I can come up with for expanding the line of cartridges available in the Featherweight—this is before the 1963 redesign—to include the .270, .30-06, and, most bizarrely, the .264 Winchester Magnum.
The .264 WinMag was, and is, a fine cartridge, provided you chamber it in a heavy enough rifle to tame the recoil, with a long enough barrel—26 inches minimum—to allow the bullet to reach its intended velocity. Put it in a light rifle with a short barrel, like the Featherweight, and you end up with violent recoil, muzzle blast that defies description, and ballistics little better than the .270.
In terms of sheer variety, the Savage 99 eclipsed every other rifle, with a half dozen chamberings; barrels long, short, round, octagon, and half-octagon; with straight and pistol grips, takedown and solid frame. There were so many choices, historians attempting to write the company history and list its many models have been driven ‘round the bend.
Inevitably, some 99s were better than others, and one or two were superb. For my money, the closest Savage ever came to my “perfect” rifle was the Model E, introduced in 1922 and regrettably short-lived. It was chambered in .250-3000, and had a straight grip, slim schnabel forend, and a 22-inch barrel. Fitted with a receiver sight rather than a scope, it carried as easily, and was as fast into action, as the Winchester 94. It was accurate out to 250 yards, which is a good maximum range for the .250-3000 on whitetails.
This is not a perfect rifle for Dall sheep in the mountains, or pronghorns on the plains, and no one in his right mind would hunt grizzlies with it, although all three have been killed with the .250, along with tigers, Asiatic bighorns, and other ill-advised species.
But for prowling the Eastern woods and creek bottoms, it would be my choice over everything else. Everything.
Gray’s shooting editor, Terry Wieland, at the age of 15 and after long consideration and analysis, invested $105 in a Marlin Model 336 in .35 Remington, drawing disbelieving looks from devotees of the Winchester 94 and the .30-30. He’s been out of step ever since.