Americans love rifles. From the Revolutionary War—where our Pennsylvania and Kentucky rifles showed a definite advantage over the British smooth bores—to WWII—where the Garand was dubbed “the greatest battlefield implement ever devised—Americans are proud of our designs. While the military rifles and hunting rifles have, in most cases, taken on two different guises, the love for a fine rifle hasn’t changed since the founding of our country. As we approach the anniversary of the announcement of our independence, and the greatest upset in history, let’s take a look at the five most iconic American hunting rifle designs.
Winchester Model 70
The Rifleman’s Rifle. Undoubtedly, the bolt-action Model 70 was, is, and shall be Winchester’s crowning achievement. The immediately recognizable profile, the sheer reliability, and impeccable reputation all add up to a rifle that has served hunters the world over since 1936. It’s gone through some changes, good and bad, but it still remains one of the most sound choices for a big game hunter. The 70 has been chambered in cartridges from the diminutive .22 Hornet to the beastly .458 Win. Mag., and almost all significant cartridges in between. Yes, it did borrow some important features from the Mauser 98 (most bolt-actions did) but Winchester turned the rifle into something truly American—it delivered a rifle would serve a hunter for an entire lifetime, at an affordable price point. I prefer the pre-’64 controlled-round-feed design, but I’ll honestly say that I’ve never met a Model 70 that wouldn’t get the job done.
Remington Model 700
Eliphalet Remington’s company has produced some excellent hunting rifles throughout their history – the Model 721 and 722 are favorites of mine—but none compare to the success of the Model 700. A smooth push-feed bolt-action design with a recessed bolt face and plunger ejector, this rifle was perfect for the hunter who needed long-range accuracy and reliability. Like the Model 70, the 700 would be chambered in cartridges for varmints up through elephants. The 700 platform would go on to make the basis for many uber-accurate long range rifles. While there are those who feel the extractor may be a bit small—especially for the high pressure cartridges—the rifle has been a success since its introduction in 1962. Available in several different magazine configurations, as well as differing grades of finish and appointments, the Remington 700 represents one of America’s most iconic rifle designs.
Winchester Model 1894
Utter the phrase “lever-action rifle”, and most people’s minds will conjure the Winchester 94 first and foremost. And why not? It has sold over 7 million units; and almost every hunter I know has owned or currently owns a Model 94 in one configuration or another. It was the rifle that introduced the world to the .30-30 Winchester, and was loved and embraced by a huge number of deer hunters. Being the brainchild of John Moses Browning, the Model 94 represented a classic blend of effective striking power, portability, quick handling and firepower. It’s kind of funny: with all the amazing, high-tech bolt guns we have, there remains a devoted following to the slab-sided lever guns that our grandfathers loved so much. While the modern 94s are still cool, if you’ve ever had a chance to shoot a vintage, octagon-barreled model, you’ll easily understand why this rifle gained that stellar reputation.
Ruger Model 10/22
A rimfire needed to be included in this list, as I feel that more hunters cut their teeth with a .22 than any other rifle. There have been some great designs over the years, from the Marlin Model 39A to the slick Browning autoloader, but few can rival the cool factor of Bill Ruger’s design. With over 6 million sold, and its own dedicated market of custom parts, the 10/22 represents American ingenuity: simple, effective, affordable performance. The 10-shot, detachable rotary magazine—sitting flush at the bottom of the rifle—is easy to load and stands up to years of use, and the receiver is easily mated to a low-mounted riflescope. I grew up shooting Dad’s Liberty model, and have used that gun for all sorts of small game hunting, varmint/predator control, and general plinking. Debuting in 1964, Mr. Ruger’s rimfire may just be the best design ever to grace the company’s drawing board.
Savage Model 99
Arthur Savage’s hammerless lever gun is one classy customer; though it was released at the tail end of the 19th century, it was ahead of its time. Using a fixed, rotary magazine (in the earliest models), the 99 could make use of spitzer bullets—a definite advantage over the tubular magazines of most other lever designs—as well as rimless cartridges. Chambered in .250-3000 Savage or .300 Savage, the proprietary combination could effectively take almost all of North America’s game animals. Through the years, it was chambered for some other classic cartridges as well. The .284 Win., .22-250 Rem., .358 Win., .303 Savage, and .22 Savage Hi-Power were all represented, and my grandfather spent most of his hunting career with an accurate 99 chambered in .308 Win. Among all the lever designs—and I love many of them—I could happily spend all my deer hunting time with a Savage Model 99 in my hands. Topped with a good, trim scope, and a cartridge capable of shots to 350 yards or so, it’d do anything I could. Perhaps grandpa had the right of it after all.
We’ve had some amazing rifles produced here in the States, and I use and enjoy many of them, but these represent—at least to me—five of the best. Happy Independence Day to you all!
Thanks to National Rifle Association of America for this post.