October 09, 2012
By Doug Howlett
Nowadays, a deer hunter has a lot of rifles to choose from, but a trip down memory lane turns up just as many quality bolt guns and lever actions that have stood the test of time. In the last 100 to 125 years deer hunters have had a lot of great rifle models to handle, and we've all been trying to define which were the best of all time.
Guns like the Savage 99, Winchester Model 94, Remington Model 700, Marlin 336, Ruger Model 77 and others are all deserving of inclusion and are often at the top of such lists. Perhaps even more challenging is picking out a handful that were or remain the most underrated deer rifles of all time. These are the solid performers, yet now out of favor or not as recognized as they should be. Here are our thoughts on the most underrated deer rifles of all time. Let the arguments begin.
Springfield Model 1903
With a military emphasis at the time still more focused on making skilled, well-aimed single shots than delivering rapid-fire, lead-in-the-air devastation, the military replaced the Krag with the Model 1903 Springfield
, a magazine fed, bolt action rifle in .30-06. It served as the standard military rifle during WWI on through 1936, but still saw action as a sniper rifle all the way up to the early years of the Vietnam War. Like the Krag, the Springfield found its way into the capable hands of a growing legion of deer hunters following WWII and are even seeing limited use among diehards today. The rifle's eight-and-a-half pounds is a bit heavier than most sportsmen would prefer from a modern deer gun, yet the chambering of the Model 1903 in .30-06 is perhaps its most lasting legacy, as it remains one of the best all-around big game rounds.
Krag Jorgensen .30/40 Rifle
The Krag Jorgensen
rifle in .30/40, designed at the Royal Norwegian Arms Factory in the late 1800s, was adopted by the U.S. military in 1892 to replace the .45-70 Springfield single shot rifles. Manufacturing of the rifle, used by Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, began in 1894 and remained in service until it was replaced by the Model 1903 Springfield. Following its replacement, many Krag's found their way home with former soldiers looking for a good deer rifle. The Krag was known for its smooth action, though its single locking lug was not as strong as multiple lug action rifles. The .30/40 was not even the most accurate round of its day, but still reportedly could deliver an accurate shot at nearly 600 yards in the hands of a skilled marksman.
Another company that is still relatively new, yet skilled in the rifle game is Mossberg, a company known for producing well-priced, workhorse firearms. Still seen as largely a shotgun company, Mossberg's ATR
boasts of high-end features for such a value-priced rifle (retail begins at $350) including a number of popular long- and short-action caliber options, an adjustable trigger and stock options in black walnut, camouflage and matte black synthetic. The laminate stocks are beautifully done and on a recent hunt for pronghorn and black bears in New Mexico, the guns performed flawlessly at ranges exceeding 300 yards. No doubt they'll handle whitetail-sized game just fine. Because their shotgun image is so entrenched in the minds of many modern sportsmen, it may take awhile for this Mossberg offering to get the attention deserved. Of course if the economy remains stalled, more hunters will be looking for a quality shooter they can buy for less than a grand.
Remington Model 14
The Remington Model 14
was first manufactured in 1913 and enjoyed a relatively short run until 1934 in which 126,000 14's were produced. Originally designed to handle rimless cartridges, the Model 14 grew in popularity and scope, eventually even handling a new round of the time, the .35 Rem. Released as the 14 and later the 14 ½, the rifle featured a tubular magazine with spiraled grooves that allowed soft-nosed and FMJ bullets to feed at a slight angle so that the nose never touches the primer of the preceding cartridge. The model eventually gave way to the Remington Model 141 Gamemaster and then the later variations of pumps offered by Remington including the Model 760 and 7600, the latter which is still produced today. Despite some following among northeastern hunters, particularly in Pennsylvania, pump action rifles have never really caught on among American deer hunters, and Remington remains one of the few companies to produce an active model.
Developed to bring big game legitimacy to their R15
, an AR-style hunting rifle chambered originally for the light .223 round, the .30 Remington AR cartridge made a splash when first introduced just a few short years ago. Remington was one of the first hunting-oriented, mainstream gun manufacturers to wade into the modern sporting rifle game (no doubt aided by their shared ownership of Bushmaster and DPMS) and to be sure, the gun is not only fun to shoot, but also a great deer rifle. Yet for all the hype of its introduction, the AR market is crowded, and to date the .30 Remington AR round has yet to gain any market beyond its pairing with the R15.
Ruger Model 44
Originally developed as a hard-hitting handgun cartridge and the most powerful of its time, it was only a matter of time before somebody chambered a rifle for the cartridge's use. That somebody was Ruger
, who also went to market with the first handgun for that cartridge just a few short years before. Ruger's semi-automatic Model 44 was a carbine length rifle designed for relatively short range shots at deer-sized game. It was first offered in 1961 and enjoyed a 24-year run through 1985, going through some slight design changes in 1974. Short range, hard-punching calibers have suffered at the hands of more powerful, longer range ballistically superior loads in modern times and as a result it fell out of sufficient favor to justify ongoing production. According to the NRA Museum, a revised version of the 99/44 Deerfield became available in 2000 and was produced for just six years.
The Savage 99
lever action had a near 100-year run (1899-1997) before its eventual demise. Yet in that time, it enjoyed an immense following and accounted for freezers full of venison, including a few by the author. Two of the 99's most popular chamberings were the .250-3000 Savage, which upon its creation was the first commercially produced cartridge to break the 3,000 fps muzzle velocity threshold, and the .300 Savage, which was designed to replace the company's slower .303 Savage and compete with the .30-06, yet in a shorter case. The Savage 99 was ahead of its time in that it was the first lever action capable of handling spire-type bullets with its rotary magazine. You'll be hard-pressed to find many new guns produced in the once popular rounds, basically because they can't compete performance wise with today's short action magnums. For that reason, the Savage 99 has the dubious distinction of belonging on both the 'Best Deer Rifles of All-Time ' and 'Most-Underrated Deer Rifles of All-Time ' lists.
Benelli shotguns remain among the best in class and are a favorite of waterfowlers and wingshooters. Law enforcement agencies the world over depend on their handguns, so when Benelli introduced the semi-auto R1
around 2003, the rifle was met with great enthusiasm. Available in .30-06, .300 Win Mag and .338 Win Mag, the gun's recoil dampening features help it shoot like a .270. And while the company has no doubt sold plenty of the rifle (Benelli doesn't release sales figures), like many semi-auto rifles, including Browning's famed BAR, you just don't see many in deer camp. This is a great rifle, with a modern look and is available at a price you'd expect from a company with Benelli's pedigree, so maybe it will just take a little longer for it to receive the warm reception the company's other offerings get from sportsmen. A quick look at chat forums on the gun reveal a host of generally positive, yet still reserved reviews, given the rifle's brief history.