Compact Hunting Rifles

By Chuck Hawks

Ruger M77 Compact
Illustration courtesy of Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc.

Compact rifles have become numerous. By "compact" I do not mean traditional youth rifles intended for use by hunters not fully grown, or even rifles intended to be sold to short or small framed adults (man or woman). I am referring to short rifles marketed to full size, male, adult hunters.

"Carbine" is the word formerly applied to short rifles, and they were usually created by the simple expedient of lopping off the barrel. At one time the U.S. Army preferred a 26" barrel on an infantry rifle and a 22" barrel on a calvary carbine. (Horse soldiers, naturally, wanted a weapon with a shorter barrel.)

The Army decided that, rather than produce a new service rifle with two barrel lengths, a 24" barrel would be a reasonable compromise, and that is the length that they adopted. To this day, the 24" barrel remains the nominal "standard" length, and that is the barrel length upon which most factory ballistics tables are based.

At a time when 28-30" barrels were common and a 26" barrel was standard on most hunting rifles, a carbine typically might wear a 22" barrel, or even a 20" tube. The famous Winchester Model 94 lever action carbines are a case in point. Since these rifles were intended to be fired by men, stock length of pull was usually the same on carbines as on rifles. (Length of pull is measured from the face of the trigger to the center of the butt plate.)

A relatively short barrel is handy when hunting from horseback, and it can also be convenient on a mountain or woods rifle in tight quarters. And a rifle with a shorter barrel is also lighter, since the barrel is the single heaviest component of most rifles. But there is inevitably a price to be paid in ballistic performance when barrels are shortened.

For cartridges in the medium range class, such as the .30-30, .32 Special, and .35 Remington, 20" is about the practical minimum. For high intensity cartridges like the .243 Winchester, .260 Remington, .270 Winchester, 7mm-08, .280 Remington, .308 Winchester and .30-06, a 22" barrel is about the minimum acceptable length from the standpoint of both performance and muzzle blast.

For any true magnum rifle cartridge, whether based on a super short, short, standard, or long case, a 26" barrel is very desirable and a 24" barrel is about the shortest tube that makes any sense. With barrels shorter than that, magnum cartridges on the order of the 7mm Rem. Mag., 7mm WSM, and 7mm SA Ultra Mag deliver performance about equal to the .280, only with much increased recoil and muzzle blast. So, from the standpoint of ballistics, there is a definite limit to how much a rifle barrel can be shortened before the performance loss becomes unacceptable.

One startling example of this is the U.S. Military's M4 carbine, which uses the 5.56mm NATO (.223 Remington) cartridge. The Army's M16A2 service "rifle" has a 508mm (20") barrel, and the M4 carbine version has a 370mm (14.5") barrel. The latter weapon's ultra short barrel reduces the Muzzle Velocity (MV) of the .223 cartridge from its former 3240 fps (in a 24" barrel) to .22 Hornet levels. No wonder soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq complained about a lack of stopping power!

Barrels have been progressively shortened for so many years that the 22" carbine barrel is now the most common standard length for high intensity cartridges, and the 20" carbine barrel has become the standard length for medium range cartridges. Today there are very few .30-30s or .30-06s sold with (formerly standard length) 26" barrels.

Given the modern tendency to take everything to extremes, gun makers have cast about, looking for ways to make rifles lighter and more compact beyond just reducing barrel length. The answer has been to shorten the buttstock, the length of pull. And while reducing barrel length is a slippery slope, chopping off the butt of the rifle is downright poisonous.

The length of pull of a bolt action hunting rifle is critical for proper stock fit. A short stock amplifies the subjective effect of recoil. The 1903 Springfield service rifle came with a very short stock, and the result was a generation of riflemen who held their rifles with the thumb of their strong hand alongside, rather than around, the rifle's grip. This was to keep the recoil from smacking the nose with the thumb. Accuracy and control, of course, suffered.

The 1903 Springfield had a more or less straight grip stock; this "thumb alongside the grip" technique causes even more problems with the sharply curved pistol grips found on most modern rifle stocks. It really isn't practical, and shouldn't be necessary, with a hunting rifle.

Over the years, as shooters have gotten bigger, standard rifle stocks have gotten longer, as they should. When I was in college, the average American from the East was 5' 8" tall. The average Westerner was 5' 10" tall, so I was exactly average. Now I understand that the average Easterner is 5' 10" tall, and I suspect that the average Westerner must be about 6' tall.

The length of pull of a standard Winchester Model 70 was 13 1/2" in 1966. By 2005 that had grown to 13 3/4". That is because the average shooter has gotten bigger and requires a longer length of pull.

Taller than normal individuals of average proportion require a rifle stock with a longer length of pull, while shorter people need a shorter stock. A shooter 6' 2" tall will usually take a stock with a 14" length of pull. Jack O'Connor wrote that his wife Eleanor, who was 5' 2" tall, shot a 13" rifle stock. Depending on their build, people 5' 2" to 5' 8" tall will do best with a stock that has a length of pull between 13" and 13 1/2". People with long arms will need more length of pull; those with short arms should use a shorter stock.

By altering the length of pull to make a hunting rifle more compact, the manufacturers are creating rifles that simply don't fit average men. Yet their advertising says nothing about this. These compact rifles aren't "handy," they're uncomfortable!

Removing wood from the stock and metal from the barrel makes the compact rifle lighter, which means that it kicks more--a lot more. So does chambering such a rifle for powerful cartridges. Add a short stock to this unholy mix and the result is a rifle that would make King Kong flinch. Of course, when the print magazines review such rifles they never mention these troubling facts.

Short, lightweight rifles are also difficult to swing smoothly on running game. The tendency is to poke the little rifle at the target rather than swing smoothly and follow through. Anyone who has shot a little trap with a shotgun can verify that the result of this is to shoot behind. That is why trap guns are heavy and have long barrels. The shotgunner who shoots behind a clay target scores a "loss," but the big game hunter who shoots behind ends up gut shooting an animal. That is not acceptable.

Here is the length of pull, barrel length (for standard calibers such as .308 Win., etc.), and weight of some of today's typical "compact:" rifles:

  • Browning A-Bolt Micro Hunter - 13 5/16" LOP, 20" barrel, 6 1/4 lbs.
  • Remington Model Seven SS - 13 3/8" LOP, 20" barrel, 6 1/4 lbs.
  • Ruger M77CR Compact - 12 1/2" LOP, 16 1/2" barrel, 5 3/4 lbs.
  • Ruger M77FR Frontier - 12 1/2" LOP, 16 1/2" barrel, 6 3/4 lbs.
  • Winchester Model 70 Compact - 13" LOP, 20" barrel, 6 lbs.

Clearly, none of these rifles will correctly fit men of average size and build, all of them will kick like the devil incarnate with cartridges on the order of the .308 Winchester, and their short barrels will closely emulate a flame thrower. Versions of these little monsters are also available chambered for magnum cartridges, but I refuse to go there.

These stocks should fit shooters of normal proportion about 4' 8" in height (Ruger), 5' 2" (Winchester), to maybe 5' 7" (Remington and Browning). Due to their light weight and attenuated barrels, I suggest reduced power handloads. If you are a shooter of average height or unwilling to create special reloads for these compact rifles, my suggestion is to suck it up and get a hunting rifle of normal size, barrel length, and weight.

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Copyright 2005 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.