Long guns are a lot like clothing. They change based on fashion. Clothing fashion. Firearm fashion. What’s “in?” What’s hot? What are the beautiful people wearing or shooting? And does it matter?
Currently the utilitarian, nuts-and-bolts, “military and police” firearm fashion seems to be in the ascendancy. My questions are why? And will this last? Will the nuts-and-bolts, multi-adjustable, metal-on-metal, multi-attachment-point rifles become standard issue for plinkers and hunters? Are the classic curves and function of a Winchester M70 Featherweight or Ruger No. 1 going the way of Dan’l Boone’s flintlock?
Changing Times Change Firearm Fashion
I understand the appeal of the “machinery” look to younger shooters who grew up with pop culture “heroes” fighting star wars with futuristic weapons. I “get” the familiarity younger folks have with AK-47 and AR-15-style rifles. They’ve grown up with and often learned to shoot with such rifles. Their pop culture heroes and Hollywood touchstones weren’t firing lever-action Winchesters and Colt revolvers while defeating the bad hombres in black hats. Rambo and his followers were wielding full-auto military guns. Characters in computer games fire weapons barely recognizable as guns. Real world military heroes shoot full-auto rifles with as many attachments as necessary to win the fight. But are those really the best for civilian hunting use?
Moderating Firearm Fashion
The tempering agent in firearm fashion — the requirement that prevents it from changing too radically and too quickly — is functionality. While clothing can be colored, shaped, styled, shrunk, or enlarged for the “look” alone, firearm fashion extremes are limited by their need to function and deliver one or more projectiles precisely on target, sometimes with enough energy to incapacitate or terminate that target.
An infantry rifle, for instance, can’t retain the sleek, clean, simple lines of an 1885 Winchester single shot. Such a rifle doesn’t offer the rate of fire required on today’s battle fields. Nor can the ideal military rifle fire a low-recoil, low report rimfire cartridge like a 22 Long Rifle. While capable of killing, it hasn’t the reach or damage potential needed to stop enemy attacks. Similarly, a 50 BMG infantry rifle isn’t practical. Too bulky, too heavy.
In the hunting fields we are afforded more latitude. A 22 Long Rifle is perfect for taking squirrels and cottontails. A much faster 220 Swift is ideal for long range rodents and marauding coyotes. But while a compact, 20-inch barrel 30-30 Winchester is perfect for whitetails inside of 150 yards in forested habitat, a 300 Winchester Magnum with 24-inch barrel is more effective for High Plains whitetails foraging on vast western wheat fields. Yet that big magnum 30 wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice for stopping a Cape buffalo in Mozambique’s long grass. A 140-year old side-by-side double rifle firing a 113-year-old 470 Nitro Express cartridge is arguably the ideal tool there. That’s fashion longevity based on performance.
Pretty is as Pretty Does
But beyond the cartridges fired and overall handling characteristics, firearm fashion encompasses stock shapes and materials, barrel lengths, cycling operations, checkering, and purely esthetic treatments such as engraving and case color hardening. You don’t find much esthetic treatment on autoloading, modern sporting rifles. You don’t see it on long-range precision rifles either. But will it be yesterday’s news on classic field rifles? Will your great grandson’s family heirloom deer rifle be an AR-15 or a SigSauer Cross instead of Marlin lever-action or Mossberg Patriot Revere?
Your guess is as good as mine. But before we count out our old 20th century hunting rifles, let’s consider how rifles contribute to hunting success and enjoyment. Yes, enjoyment. Because carrying a rifle up, down, over, and across mountains, plains, woodlands and swamps reveals a lot about firearm fashions shortcomings.
Form Follows Function, Not Firearm Fashion
The basic truth about traditional rifles is that they evolved in response to function. Yes, there is plenty of difference between a Farquharson falling block single shot and a Browning BAR, but there are many similarities, too, most of them driven by the need for function. These and most 20th century hunting rifles — from the bolt-action and pumps to the lever-action repeaters — show adherence to a few consistent forms and features:
- Balance. Effective hunting rifles that survived in the market place balance nicely “between the hands.” This aids both in carrying with less effort and swinging onto target quickly and precisely.
- Comfort. This includes balance, but also mass and parts. Levers, bolts, barrels and stocks that get in the way of carry comfort and operations just don’t win fans. Thus did the top bolt handle of the first few military bolt actions get modified to a side position in sporting arms and eventually military rifles. Thus did the big, flip-over rear bolt safety get modified to a side swing or tang safety. Extended magazines that interfered with a natural, comfortable hand carry at the belly of the stock were phased out in favor of flush bottoms. Wooden barrel shrouds, designed to protect hands from hot barrels, hit the trash. (What deer hunter has to shoot so often that his barrel gets hot enough to sear skin?) Similarly 26- to 30-inch military barrels were cut down to 24, 22, even 18 inches for comfortable carry in the field and convenient transport to and from the field.
- Rugged dependability. Whether trekking the Alaska Range for Dall’s or grandpa’s woodlot for whitetails, every hunter wants a rifle that will reliably function and fire hot or cold, wet or dry, dirty or clean. Mechanisms that jam from a bit of mud, sand, or debris in the action don’t cut it.
- Simplicity. Bells and whistles are fun and fine inside automobiles and living rooms, but a rifle that might shed an essential component like a sight, magazine, bolt, or trigger is not a great hunting design. This is why blind magazines and securely locking floorplate magazines largely replaced extended, drop-out magazines in 20th century hunting rifles.
- Weight. Keep it light. Hunters eventually discover they can go farther when packing less mass. If a 6-pound rifle can deliver three shots inside MOA, why carry 8-pounds?
- Quiet. Rifles make plenty of game-spooking noise eventually, but no one wants clacking and clunking before the shot. A tight, secure rifle that’s easy to load quickly and fairly quietly isn’t mandatory, but nice. The soft “slide and click” of a falling-block, break, bolt- or lever-action locking a cartridge in the chamber is appreciated by many.
- Easy maintenance. Last and perhaps least, given the frequency with which some hunters clean their guns, is the convenience of cleaning and tuning a rifle. The bulk of American hunters, I’m convinced, cherish rugged field rifles they can ignore for 51 weeks each year, pull from the closet, hit a bucket to “sight-in,” carry for a week of deer hunting, then wipe down with an oily rag before sticking back in the closet. Few want a gun they have to strip and clean after every outing.
Old But Effective Firearms Persist
It is my studied opinion that rifle form as perfected in the 20th century will continue well into the 21st century and even beyond if guns, game, and hunting survive that long. While modern firearm fashion works well in military, police, and home defense situations, I can’t figure out what it contributes to hunting success. Of course, I’m basing this on limited experience of slightly more than 50 years in pursuit of more than 100 different species from squirrels to hippos on five continents. There are hunters who do that and more in a single decade. And there are innovative, younger hunters who discover new tactics for finding and engaging dinner on the hoof. They might have insights into the benefits modern sporting arms provide that I just can’t see. I hope they and you share those with us in the comments section.
Meanwhile, I’m not rushing out to replace my “old-fashioned” hunting rifles with today’s firearm fashions. To be colloquial: “They ain’t broke, so I ain’t gonna fix ’em.”
Ron Spomer really has taken more than 100 recognized species and subspecies of mammals around the world with just about every style and action of rifle manufactured, including today’s finest, all modern, autoloading firearm fashions.