Every enthusiastic shooter and collector has a list of guns they want to own, or maybe just to shoot. How to narrow it down?
Well, that is not easy. But I have managed to narrow my recommended list of rifles down to five. So, without further ado, here are five rifles you should shoot before you die, in no particular order.
I know I said, “in no particular order,” but the “Gun That Won the West” is the exception. While preceded by the 1860 Henry and the 1866 Winchester, it was the ’73 Winchester that made the name “Winchester” synonymous with “repeating rifle.”
In production for fifty years, from 1873 to 1923, the 1873 was only produced in cartridges also used in revolvers, from the .22 Long Rifle (rare) to the .44 WCF, better known as the .44-40 Winchester. About 720,000 guns were made, which means that it is not terribly difficult to find a shootable example even today, ninety-seven years after the end of production.
It is important to note that you can now buy a brand-new Model 1873. In 2013, ninety years after production of the “Gun That Won the West” ceased, Olin/Winchester brought back the Model 1873, made in Mikoru, Japan, along with most other Winchester and Browning-labeled arms. I’ve handled but not fired one of the new Winchesters, and the feel and balance are essentially the same, although the new rifles have an improved ejector (the originals had an unfortunate tendency to kick hot brass back toward the shooter) and a safety mechanism that doesn’t allow the hammer to drop unless the trigger is pulled. Uberti also makes an excellent and somewhat more faithful replica.
If you get the chance, though, try an original, and when you are shooting, try to imagine all the tales that old rifle could tell if only it could speak.
There is a reason the pre-64 Winchester Model 70 was called the “Rifleman’s Rifle.” This ultimate development of the ’98 Mauser was a refinement of the also excellent Winchester Model 54. The Model 70 entered production in 1936 and is still in production today, although the pre-1964 versions command a well-deserved premium in price. Why? There are a couple of reasons.
The original Model 70 (like the newer “Classic” versions) uses a big Mauser claw-type extractor and a controlled-feed system, wherein the cartridge is picked up from the magazine by the extractor and fed securely into the chamber; the Mauser extractor maintains its grip on the case rim from feeding through firing and ejection, resulting in a very reliable action.
General fit and finish were much finer on the pre-64 guns. A better grade of wood was used, with cut checkering; the polish and bluing were generally better, and the guns just showed overall better craftsmanship.
When Winchester decided to re-make the Model 70 in 1964, one of the gun writers they informed was Jack O’Connor, long a proponent of the Winchester bolt gun. At that time, O’Connor wrote: “I was informed by Winchester brass that the Model 70 was being redesigned. I told them that I was glad to get the information so I could lay in four or five more before they loused the rifle up. Then I saw the pilot model of ‘New Model 70.’ At the first glimpse, I like to fell into a swoon. The action was simplified, the trigger guard and floor plate made of a flimsy-looking one-piece stamping.”[i]
Despite this, the post-64 Model 70 was still a pretty decent rifle. There was even one improvement. The post-64 bolt head completely enclosed the case head, adding strength to the design, but that was offset by the cheap aluminum floorplate and trigger guard and the lower-quality stock with stamped checkering. However, it was still a good enough rifle to prompt O’Connor to amend his earlier statement: “Actually the post-1964 Model 70 is not a bad rifle in spite of the fact that rifle aficionados have never taken it to their bosoms the way they did its predecessor. It is a stronger action than the pre-1964. The head of the bolt encloses the head of the case. It has a small, neat hook extractor, which is adequate. With this extractor the cartridge is not as surely controlled as it is with the Mauser-type extractor. However, the new model seldom gives feeding problems.”[ii]
About 700,000 Model 70s were made prior to the 1964 retooling. If you want to experiment with the “Rifleman’s Rifle,” try to find a pre-64, but as with many things, in this question, there really is no wrong answer. Pick up any Model 70 made from 1936 to today, and you’re handling a pretty fine rifle.
No, not that BAR, although that would be fun as well. In 1966, the Browning Arms company introduced something new: a commercial, gas-operated semi-auto that handled full-length and even magnum rifle cartridges. In fact, the BAR is the only semi-auto (aside from the clunky and awkward-looking Benelli R1) that handles my favorite big-game round, the .338 Winchester Magnum.
The BAR, like the Model 70, is still in production and is, in fact, still made by the folks at the FN plant in Belgium. Like so many manufacturers, Browning has allowed the BAR to be offered with camouflage, all-black, and various other Tacticool-seeming finishes, but you can still get this fine arm in what Browning calls Safari Grade; this version still offers fine walnut furniture and high-polished blued steel. I am something of a traditionalist myself, and so would prefer the Safari Grade, but as my late Grandpa used to say, “Every cat its own rat.”
For some years now, I have toyed with finding a BAR in my favored .338 Win Mag, but to date, the only one I have had a chance to fire was a long-action version in .270 Winchester. It was a joy to shoot, with the eight-pound weight and gas operation reducing recoil to almost beneath notice. Empty cases pinged reliably out to the right rear, and I had no trouble keeping the ten rounds I fired in a 4” circle at a hundred yards, shooting from the sitting position. The commercial BAR is an interesting piece.
We have seen state-of-the-art, so let us also include one of the first commercially produced semi-auto sporting rifles, the famous old Remington “piano leg.”
In 1900, the great John Browning was granted U.S. Patent #659,786 for a long-recoil action semi-automatic centerfire rifle, which would be the first commercially successful semi-auto centerfire rifle sold in the United States. As were so many Browning designs, the rifle was built in Belgium by FN for non-U.S. sale, being called the FN Model 1900; but in the United States, the design was licensed to Remington, who built it from 1905 to 1911 as the “Remington Autoloading Rifle,” from 1911 to 1936 as the “Remington Model 8,” and from 1936 to the end of its production in 1950 as the “Model 81.”
The new auto fired four proprietary rounds especially designed for this piece, including the .25 Remington, .30 Remington, and .32 Remington, which were essentially rimless versions of the .25-35, .30-30, and .32 Special rounds. They also introduced the .35 Remington, a new design, a good mid-range thumper of a woods cartridge that remains in use today.
In 1936, the Model 81 was introduced, featuring several improvements in the action, and offering the .300 Savage chambering, giving the old piano leg a round that rivaled the later .308 Winchester in performance.
The Model 8/81 rifles are funny-looking things by today’s standards. They were clunky and awkward in appearance, with a heavy full-length barrel jacket that formed part of the long-recoil action adapted from the Auto-5 shotgun. But they had one great virtue: Like most Browning designs, they worked, and they kept on working, unusual for a first-generation semi-auto. You do not have to go too far to find one in the game fields, even today, with 150,000+ rifles built. A childhood friend’s dad had a Model 81 in .300 Savage, and he took a great deal of game with it. The “piano leg” is a singular piece; there’s not another rifle quite like it.
Note that I do not specify a model or caliber here. There are just too many original variants and replicas available to land on any one in particular.
With a history that spans from Christian Sharps himself to Matthew Quigley and on to the present day, the 1848 introduction of the falling-block single-shot breechloader would rattle a lot of cages in the gun world. The original Sharps rifles used a paper cartridge, and either a musket cap or tape primer to fire the charge, but later, the Sharps would become one of the few rifles to smoothly make the transition to brass cartridges, eventually being offered in .45-70, .45-110 and .45-120 rounds, among others. The Sharps even broke into movie stardom when a Uberti Sharps replica co-starred in the 1990 film Quigley Down Under with Tom Selleck, Alan Rickman, and the lovely Laura San Giacomo. In one famous scene from that film, the aforementioned Matthew Quigley (Selleck) waits patiently on a hilltop for two minions of the villain Marston (Rickman) to line up so he can use the famously accurate Sharps to send one bullet through both; to this day, killing two enemies with one shot is known in the military sniper community as “pulling a Quigley.”
The Sharps ushered in an era of solid single-shot falling-block rifles, starting a family that included such greats as the Browning/Winchester Low-Wall and Hi-Wall and the Ruger #1/#3 singles. An interesting side note: The original Sharps Rifle Company closed its doors in 1881, but the last rifle designed and produced there was the Sharps Model 1878 Sharps/Borchardt, designed by a German, Hugo Borchardt, who also designed the toggle-actioned Borchardt pistol that became the parent design of the P08 pistol – making the last Sharps rifle a first cousin of the German Luger.
There are originals floating around, many in shootable condition, but there are also excellent replicas, including the Uberti “Quigley” Sharps. They are great rifles to this day, heavy, accurate, and powerful. Once you learn to allow for the rainbow trajectory of the old black powder rounds they are designed to use, you will find them a lot of fun to shoot.
You will notice, unusually, given my admiration for the man, that only one of these is a John Browning design (the BAR was introduced well after John’s death and was designed by John’s grandson, Bruce Warren Browning, along with FN’s Marcel Olinger.)
There’s an old saw that goes: “Wealthy guys shoot shotguns. Riflemen are generally broke.” I guess I am somewhere in between. As I have grown older and financially more comfortable, I’ve tended to favor old shotguns more, particularly Brownings and Winchesters; I’ve made no secret of my love for the Model 12, for example.
But I still love a good, accurate, reliable rifle, and if you need a tool for serious business, a rifle is what you want. The guns on this list are good examples; all solid, all reliable, and all interesting in their histories and their design. If you get the chance to shoot one, grab it.
[i] Jack O’Connor, The Rifle Book, 3rd Edition, p. 57, Alfred A Knopf (1978)