What is it about a hunting rifle that evokes such strong emotions? For many of us, our prized rifle—be it the quintessential lever-gun, a sleek turn-bolt or even a slick self-loader—ceases to be a tool, instead becoming a journey that defines us. First, there is the long and contemplative search, one often so exhausting it leads to both elation for the acquisition, and remorse for the end of the search. In that, finding a hunting rifle mirrors the range of emotions most of us feel when using it for its ultimate purpose, the killing of our quarry. And like the connection we earn for the game we chase, that emotional attachment to the rifle is hard-won, earned through countless hours at the range, mind-numbing hours at the bench, and if we’re lucky, through decades of hard use in rough country—from the hot, humid bottomland swamps of the south, to the blustery North woods, to the wide-open plains, to the nearly inaccessible, foreboding mountains of the West. To truly win our hearts, that rifle must take everything we can dish out at it, yet deliver when called upon without fail.
So any list that attempts to rank the greatest hunting rifles of all time is at best an exercise in futility. For if one hunter spends a lifetime using one rifle, how can another man tell him any other gun is greater? Nevertheless, we’ve taken on the daunting task of making such lists. And our criteria is pretty strict, as we’ve taken into account innovation, effectiveness, production numbers, impact on the sport of hunting and influence on future designs. Then we argued with much enthusiasm, voted individually, and averaged up the votes. And while we can’t claim the results definitively name the 10 greatest hunting rifles of all time, it does illuminate what kind of hunters we are, and where our interests lie. But more than anything, I hope this list will spark another round of debate on just what it is that defines a great hunting rifle.
Because it’s the singular greatness of that design that so often becomes a definition of one’s self. The Remington Model 700 hunter becomes a Remington man, green to his very core, while a Winchester Model 70 man is equally red, a Winchester man to the bone. So the hunter becomes a part of something bigger, choosing a side in the endless debate over who is better. It’s Ford vs. Chevy, Republican vs. Democrat or Red Sox vs. Yankees. It’s that fundamental characteristic that we’ve both earned and inherited as a free people. In short, it’s a uniquely American endeavor. With that, let the debate rage on forever. —Chad Adams
No. 1—Winchester Model 70
And while the Model 54 was not perfect—it had a stamped steel triggerguard—it formed the basis for what many consider the greatest field sporting rifle of all time: the Model 70. Introduced in 1936, what would become known as the “Rifleman’s Rifle” gave sportsmen all the features they required—right out of the box. With the Model 70 there was no need to drill and tap the receiver for scope bases, and there was no need to alter the bolt handle or safety to accommodate scope mounting. Its coned breech sped cycling, protected bullet tips and helped give it a fast, slick-feeling action. Most of all, its Mauser-type claw extractor provided true controlled-round feeding.
A myriad of chamberings and configurations followed through the pre- and post-war years. But antiquated manufacturing methods meant that, by the 1960s, the Model 70 was practically a semi-custom gun requiring inordinate amounts of hand fitting. It simply wasn’t a profitable proposition. When Winchester economized the Model 70 in 1964 by making it a push-feed design and giving it impressed checkering, shooters cried foul. It would take until the advent of the Classic “pre-’64”-style Model 70 nearly 30 years later to simmer them down. The Classic was made in New Haven, Conn., just as Winchester guns had been for more than 140 years, but this time on modern CNC equipment. Most important, the Classic returned the claw extractor, true cut checkering and a remarkably good grade of walnut for the time.
The 2006 closure of the old facility and the news that the Model 70 would once again be made by Winchester parent company Fabrique Nationale—this time at the latter’s Columbia, S.C., M16 and machine gun plant—reassured loyal Model 70 shooters that their favorite rifle had not ridden off into the sunset for good. The newest Model 70 is, once again, ready right out of the box for the biggest adventures the shooting sports have to offer. —Brian C. Sheetz
No. 2—Winchester Model 1894
It may have come too late to have “won the West,” but it became one of the greatest “woods” guns of all time, and the ’94 staked a claim in the hearts and minds of American shooters and hunters. It became an American classic and icon—one that suspended production with the close of U.S. Repeating Arms in 2006. How strong is its appeal? By 1993, around 1 million ’94 commemoratives alone had been produced—and that number has risen dramatically since. That’s in addition to an estimated 7 million or so regular-production guns. Now that’s appeal. —Mark A. Keefe, IV
No. 3—The American Longrifle