American made rifles
Unlike everybody else these days, I don't long for a sub-half-minute, tactical bolt. Well, maybe a little. But what I really want are the guns in the yellowed photos at deer camp, where in the monochromes the old boys in knee pants cradle classic levers, and in the Polaroids the regular guys off for a week from the Alcoa plant carry hardworking pumps and autos.
Turns out, these blue-collar classics are still widely available, still priced right, and still solid deer guns. With today's sub-$500 bolts turning in cloverleaf groups, bargain hunters no longer need to raid the used rack. And as yesteryear's hunters walk their last trails, more widows and kids want to be rid of the old guns. The result is a wealth of modestly priced, classic deer rifles, adorning the walls of local shops and the pages of online gun-auction sites.
These aren't collector's items. They're working guns. Tools. Many aren't accurate by today's standards but are accurate enough if you don't mind an added challenge. Above all, they carry a connection to those who came before us. They burn with questions: whose hands, what hills, how many miles, how many bucks?-a mystique that makes them far cooler than any plastic bolt.
Here's what I've got in my old toolbox.
From top to bottom:
Remington 14 & 141 (shown); Years of production: 1913-1950; Number built: about 430, 000; Current used price: $400-$700.
Savage 99; Years of production: 1899-1999; Number built: Over 1 million; Current used price: $600 and up.
Winchester model 94; Years of production: 1894-2006; 2011-present. Number built: 7 million; Current used price: $400 and up.
Remington model 8 (shown) & 81; Years of production: 1906-1950; Number built: about 125, 000; Current used price: $375-$500.
Remington Model 8 and 81
Originally offered as the Remington Automatic Rifle in 1906 and renamed the Model 8 in 1911, this long-recoil John Browning design was the first semiautomatic centerfire rifle chambered to deal with truly big game, a fact Remington played to the fullest in fantastically romanticized advertising art featuring intrepid, Model 8-toting heroes facing off with grizzlies, mountain lions, and wolves. Legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, who formed the 1934 posse to subdue Bonnie and Clyde, carried a modified Remington Model 8 to the deadly ambush, and according to the lore, the fatal shot to Clyde Barrow's temple came from Deputy Prentiss Oakley's Remington Model 8.
As a brush rifle, what makes the Model 8 stand out is that: (1) It came in .35 Rem., a fine and still available big-woods round; (2) Its trim form makes for a fairly light and quick-handling package; and (3) With its sheathed barrel, fixed box magazine, and receiver-mounted safety lever, it is one crazy-cool-looking gun, guaranteed to stand alone at deer camp.
In 1936, Remington beefed up the stock, added the .300 Savage chambering, and renamed it the Model 81 Woodsmaster, a name retained for its eventual replacement, the 740 Woodsmaster. The latter is an affordable classic in its own right and admittedly a better gun. But the Model 8 started it all. When I got mine in .35 Rem. for under $400, the shop owner said an elderly lady had brought it in, saying her late husband's favorite thing to do in life was hunt deer in the Adirondack Mountains with that gun-and that she wanted another hunter to have it. When I carry it, I feel like he's along.
Winchester Model 94, Pre-'64
In August of 1894, when Winchester's hot offerings were the powerful-but-burly 1886 and the graceful-but-underpowered 1892, John Browning showed the company his patent for something in between-something just right. Seven weeks later, Winchester unveiled a then potent repeater so elegant and nimble, so just right, that it became the American deer rifle for nearly a century. From its debut until 2006, nearly 7 million 94s left the factory, outselling all other deer rifles before or since.
That's why the yellowed photos are strewn with 94s, and why this peerless rifle is still so common and affordable. Look for a pre-'64 model. Get it in .30/30 or .32, and love it for what it is: an open-sighted, fast-handling brush rifle for men with the skill to hunt close with their feet on the ground.
The same shop where I got mine in .30/30 for $400 several years back seems to always have two or three like it for between $450 and $600, and gunbroker.com usually has a dozen.
Devotees call this the greatest all-around deer rifle ever made. Although the elegant 99 generally cannot match the accuracy of today's factory bolts, it is a perfect marriage of form and function. Handsome and fairly light, the 99, fully loaded, was made to balance with the round-bottomed receiver form-fitted to your palm. It has a decent trigger, takes well to a scope, and fires high-intensity rounds with enough accuracy for moderately long-range shooting. In other words, it handles like a lever and performs like a bolt.