The Eastern Woods Rifle
By Ed Turner
The term "woods rifle" will mean different things to different hunters. My definition is a compact and portable rifle used in thick cover most commonly found in typical whitetail habitat east of the Mississippi. Of course, it's also a rifle capable, in appropriate calibers, of hunting blacktails, mule deer, elk, bear, moose and hogs in thick cover, wherever they may be found.
To further my personal definition, I would also say this rifle needs to be able to deliver a follow-up shot timely manner, if needed, preventing such arms as a single barrel muzzleloader from being ideal. The type cover we are talking about here is the type where much game east of the Mississippi is still harvested, usually at ranges from 25 to 75 yards, with 100 yards being considered a long poke. The eastern U.S. finds a majority of its whitetail, hog and black bear living in this type country. Hunting Rocky Mountain elk and mule deer in thick mountain cover and Columbian blacktail deer and Roosevelt elk in the thick country of the Pacific Northwest fits right in.
Again, the rifle itself need not be any specific action type. Anything from a single shot to a bolt, lever, pump, semi-auto, combination shotgun/rifle or double rifle can fill the bill quite nicely, so long as it is fast handling and the hunter knows how to use it well. The typical single shot, combo and double rifle might have a 22" or 24" barrel and still maintain a short overall length and "between the hands" balance. However, a bolt, lever, pump or semi-auto should have a barrel no longer than 22", to keep its overall length manageable.
I will even go so far as to say that a barrel of less than 22" is definitely what I am looking for in one of these action types. Most would call this a carbine. The "carbine" is a rather loose term that is means a rifle with shorter than normal length barrel. This, of course is rather subjective, not defining a specific overall length for a carbine. For the sake of argument, I would call a carbine a rifle whose overall length does not exceed 42".
7400 Carbine, Marlin 336ER and Valmet Model 412S. Photo by Ed Turner.
Some examples of rifles having both a rifle model in addition to a second "carbine" length model would be the older Winchester Models 88 (lever action) and 100 (autoloader). These were available as typical rifles with 22" barrels and as carbine models with 19" barrels. I happen to own both rifle and carbine Winchester 100 models and you might not believe how much difference the 3" shorter barrel actually makes in thick cover. Of course, the muzzle velocity is considerably reduced, but at close range, the velocity loss is not a true hindrance. These carbine models, at about 39" in length, are excellent rifles for carrying in still hunting, spot and stalk mode, as well as sitting perched in a tree stand.
The Remington Models 600 and 660 bolt action carbines are handy rifles from the past. I have owned two Model 600's with 18.5" barrels and one Model 660 with a 20" tube. I wish I still owned all three. They all carried well and the 600 series, with their short stiff barrels, were good shooters.
The Remington 742, 7400 and 7500 series semi-autos have been available in both rifle (22" barrel) and carbine (18.5" barrel) versions for many years. I am almost ashamed to admit how long it took me to acquire a Remington semi-auto carbine. These, along with the identical feeling Model 760 and 7600 pump guns, are the epitome of the modern woods carbine. The famous Benoit family, of monster whitetail fame, has proven that a short barreled Remington 760 or 7600 can be just what the Doctor ordered in thick New England woods. Good guns all!
The equally fine Remington Model Seven bolt action rifles, which have barrel lengths in various models of 18.5", 20" and 22", carry and shoot very well. I own several Model Seven variations and can state unequivocally that I much prefer them to their larger Model 700 cousins. The Model Seven's action is more compact than the Model 700 short action.
Ruger offers several models that would rank as excellent wood's guns. Ruger's first semi-auto centerfire rifle was the popular .44 Magnum Carbine. Its reputation gained legions of fans in the thick cedar swamps of the N.E. I still remember hanging on every word that accomplished author, hunter and guide Joel Fawcett wrote about his and his clients' exploits hunting the thick cover in Maine's big woods. His favorite wood's gun was a trusty Ruger .44 Carbine. There was a short-lived return of an updated Ruger .44 Carbine and some of these can still be found.
Ruger also makes a several compact versions of their popular M77 bolt gun, the lovely, Mannlicher stocked RSI and the Compact being notable. The M77RSI's length, with 18.5" barrel, makes it a dream to carry or to hold while perched in an elevated stand.
The No. 1 RSI falling block single shot is shorter still, at around 37" overall length. The standard No. 1A Light Sporter, with its 22" barrel and short forend, is under 40" in overall length and a practiced shooter is at little disadvantage with either of these fine single shot rifles.
Although I feel that Ruger's falling block design is easier to reload quickly than any break-open single shot, the T/C Encore and Contender, along with H&R and N.E. Arms single shots, also allow for a rifle with short overall length. Calibers from .243 to the thunderous 45-70 can be found in single shots today and I would be lying if I did not consider the .405, .444 and 45-70 calibers to be among the best bets if one wanted to choose a single shot for their personal version of the woods rifle.
CZ, Sako, Tikka and other major manufacturers also make bolt action models with the abbreviated barrel lengths so handy in close cover situations. Any of these bolt rifles would be good choices. Browning offers their traditional BAR Mk. II Lightweight with a 20" barrel and their newer Short Trac model just squeezes in at less than 42" in overall length.
Perhaps the all-time King in woods rifle use would be the truly American lever action rifle. This particular type rifle is steeped in tradition and lore. I know that from a very early age, I looked at the Marlin and Winchester lever actions as something special. I grew up watching the scores of westerns on T.V. back in the 1960's and it always seemed to be a Winchester lever rifle that was featured. (Never mind that it was usually a Model 1892, when the era depicted was quite obviously a bit before that.) They were the guns of the cowboys and could do anything that needed to be done! This certainly included hunting big game in North America.
Multitudes of fine young men returned from the First World War having been intensely exposed to bolt action rifles for the first time. These slowly but surely made inroads with the sportsmen of this country. However, the lever rifle maintained a constant presence in our hearts and our woods and today is seeing something of a rebirth, with new calibers and models for the hunters of all of North America's big game animals.
The .30-30 was hot stuff back at the turn of the 20th Century and remains a very popular and capable cartridge. There are lever action rifles with calibers as varied as .243 Winchester and .450 Marlin and many capable numbers in between. Perhaps some of the best might be the 7mm-08, .308 Winchester, .308 Marlin, .338 Marlin, .35 Remington, .358 Winchester, .444 Marlin and .45-70.
There are some potent calibers out there for a hunter looking for a lever action woods rifle. Browning's introduction of their fine BLR gave us high intensity cartridge choices and more recently Hornady and Marlin have collaborated with new calibers and new spitzer (Flex Tip) bullets that make the traditional lever rifle the equal of a bolt action. Add to the mix the BLR in .270 WSM, .300 WSM and .325 WSM and you have calibers as capable as any bolt gun. Not all of these calibers might be perfect for a typical woods rifle, but whether you are stalking deer, elk, moose, hogs or bear, there is a lever rifle suited to your needs. The traditional lever action rifle is no longer traditional. It is modern, potent and accurate.
Discussing which calibers are "better" than others is likely the fastest way to start an argument among shooters and hunters. Hunters are as faithful to their rifle and caliber selections as they are to their wives! However, I would feel like I copped-out if I did not at least add something of a list of calibers I think would work very well for the modern woods rifle.
I think the lightest of calibers suitable for the pursuit of big game at moderate range begins just north of the fine .243 Winchester. It is obvious that the .243 has legions of fans and has smoked legions of deer, but for my woods carbine, I want something heavier than a 100 grain bullet and at least a tad more frontal area. My list will begin at the quarter bores, feeling as I do that the 120 grain bullets available for the .257 Roberts and .25-06 make a substantial difference in killing power. We are talking 20% more bullet weight, after all.
Next comes a number of fine 6.5mm cartridges. There is the 6.5x50 Carcano, 6.5x52 Arisaka, 6.5x54 M-S, the sweet 6.5x55 Swede, .260 Remington, 6.5-.284 and the fine 6.5mm Remington Magnum. The Remington Models 600M, 660 and the later 673 in 6.5 Rem. Mag. would all make fine woods rifles.
Moving up a bit in diameter are the .270 Winchester, .280 Remington, .284 Winchester, 7x57 and 7mm-08. All of these are great calibers. Two of my absolute favorite rifles are a limited edition Model 7400 carbine in .280 with 18.5" barrel and a 50 year old Husqvarna Model 4100 bolt rifle built on the fine FN action with a 20.5" barrel. This rifle is an absolute joy to handle and carry. It is lightweight, compact and has the smoothest bolt action I have ever fired from my shoulder. Smooth and precise with zero binding when the bolt is worked at your shoulder. These two rifles do not make the most out of the .270 and .280 calibers, but they sure as heck work wonderfully at woods ranges.
The .30 caliber family is next, giving us the great .30-30, .300 Savage, .308 Winchester, .308 Marlin, .30-06 and a couple of handy rifles in .300 and .350 short magnum guise. While the magnums may seem to be overkill, they certainly should be high on the list of a moose, elk or bear hunter in close cover. The Remington Model Seven (and 673) in short magnum calibers is a sweet handling rifle and maybe as close to an all-purpose big game rifle as any other at under 42 inches in length.
Above the .30's are the .32's (8mm) and among them is one of the most useful woods cartridges ever, the venerable .32 Winchester Special. Last year Hornady made available a new factory load using a Flex-Tip Spitzer bullet in .32 Special. The 8x57 Mauser is rarely thought of as a woods caliber. However, using 195-200 grain bullets at moderate velocity, a sweet sporterized M98 with a trimmed barrel would make an awesome woods rifle. The lever action BLR in .325 WSM flavor is simply a souped-up 8x57, of course. All shooters of anything 8mm should fall to their knees and rejoice about the new bullets available in .323" diameter. Among them are the 200 grain Nosler Partition, 200 grain Nosler Accubond and 200 grain Barnes TSX; some hellacious bullets giving the 8mm's new life.
Medium bore woods calibers include the modern, short action .338's (Marlin, Federal and Ruger versions), the .35 Remington, .356 Winchester, .358 Winchester, .35 Whelen, .350 Remington Magnum, .375 Winchester and it's older cousin, the 38-55. All of these calibers are available in handy short-barreled rifles, some with tubes as short at 16.5 inches. I must say that my all-time favorite woods cartridges are among these thumpers.
The next group of calibers is the big bores, many of which are chambered in lever action rifles. Here we find the .405 Winchester, .444 Marlin, 45-70 and .450 Marlin. Qualifying in caliber, if not power, are the various .44 Magnum carbines.
A note here on the use of magnum or high velocity calibers for woods hunting. Most magnum and high velocity rounds were devised to add range to an already effective caliber or bore size. Common examples would be the 7mm and.300 Mags. If the rifle's overall length is not excessive and the magnum caliber does not require a 24" or longer barrel to achieve its potential, then it should be acceptable However, buying a magnum caliber to shoot a deer-sized animal at 100-200 yards is unnecessary. Should your magnum caliber rifle please you in all other respects, feel free to use it.
I have used a Remington Model 673 Guide Rifle in .300 SAUM to thread a 165 grain bullet through some heavy cover to anchor a fine buck in his tracks at 100 yards. Nope, the bullet did not blast its way there (and would not have), but was slipped through a hole in the cover to the deer's neck. Sighted in properly and with its medium powered scope, it happens to be a darn fine woods rifle.
I am a firm believer in scoped rifles. A properly mounted scope, of proper magnification and good quality is nearly impossible to beat for quick target acquisition and sighting. The exception might be when it is raining or snowing hard. Under these conditions, a scope might not be my number one sighting choice. Of course, in such conditions, your shot had better put the deer down on the spot, since trailing a wounded deer in either rain or snow can be tricky in the extreme.
For those rare times when weather throws you a curve, a peep-sighted rifle might be my first choice. However, this seldom occurs with today's excellent scopes, many of which have lens coatings designed to preventing fogging and shed water droplets. An illuminated reticle might help in very dim light and snap-open lens covers can be an excellent accessory.
A low powered scope in a good quality mount is very tough to beat. A bold reticle of the Heavy Duplex or German #4 type can make for a sweet sighting system. When you spot a buck or a hog crossing a logging road or stepping out 200 yards distant across a field, I can promise that you will be doubly glad you went with a two, three or four power scope instead of iron sights.
Many articles have been written on good scopes for short to moderate range hunting and I will simply briefly mention a few choices that should give stellar performance for your woods rifle. There are scopes, usually intended for black powder or shotgun hunting, with no magnification. Nothing wrong with using one of them, as they will give superior sighting compared even to a peep sight, especially at distances in excess of 100 yards. Move up to a good, fixed power scope in the 2x to 4x magnification range and you have chosen wisely.
If a variable power scope is your cup of tea, then something about 1-3x, 1-4x, or 1.5-4.5x, is a great place to begin your search. I own good scopes in all those ranges and they are interchangeable for use in big game hunting. Some of the higher dollar scope choices, such a Swarovski and Leupold, now give hunters a full 6X magnification range and a 1-6x scope is nothing to sneeze at. I would simply make sure that the added size and weight of these wide zoom range scopes are acceptable on your rifle.
A scope with all-round potential as good as any I have ever seen is the 2-7x variable. Two power is low enough for even the closest range shooting. Seven power is as much as any big game hunter should ever need. There are lots of 2-7's out there with (highly desirable) moderate diameter objectives. Buy a well made, fully multi-coated model and you will be set. If you feel the need for a bit more magnification, a 2.5-8x36mm scope will also work very well.
Accuracy seems to have become a very important part of every rifle owner's vocabulary. An accurate rifle is certainly a wonderful thing. However, rifles like the Model 94 Winchester and Marlin 336, although quite accurate, did not become best sellers by being the most accurate rifles you could buy. They became popular because they brought home the venison. Most game animals are shot at less than 100 yards. I would figure something like 85-90% are shot at under 200 yards and a very few at greater distances. This means that a rifle used in terrain that gives one a shot at 200 yards or less does not have to drive tacks, nor shoot pretty little cloverleaves at the range. Figuring that even a small deer has at least an 8" heart/lung kill area, a hunting rifle needs only to shoot groups that measure less than 4" center to center at 100 yards to be deadly out to 200 yards. Most modern woods rifles will shoot groups half that size (or smaller) at 100 yards. The bottom line is that accuracy is not a huge factor in a woods rifle. It is certainly not nearly as important as many shooters seem to think.
For most hunters, a scoped carbine chambered for a standard caliber and sighted-in at 100 yards is a great tool for hunting woodland deer. The addition of a dedicated woods rifle to their battery might make very good sense. Something to consider when looking for another rifle, and aren't we always looking for another rifle?
Copyright 2009 by Ed Turner. All rights reserved.