The Ten Greatest Centerfire Hunting Rifles Ever Made
By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
The primary criteria for selection to this list are functionality, popularity, historical importance and having successfully stood the test of time. It is weighted in favor of bolt and lever action rifles because, frankly, these are the dominant types of hunting rifles both historically and today. Note that only centerfire hunting rifles were considered, thus great rimfire rifles such as the original .44 Henry and Marlin Model 39 lever action rimfire rifles are not included. These are all significant and commercially successful rifles and over half are still available today.
Some very significant hunting rifles did not make our list. By limiting the total number to only 10, it is clear that a number of fine, significant rifles could not be included. Obvious among these are the Ruger No. 1, Merkel K3, Sharps and Farquharson single shots, Colt Lightning and Remington Model 760 pump actions, Savage Model 1899 lever action and all of the classic British double rifles.
For better or worse, then, here are our top 10 hunting rifles of all time. The rifles chosen are listed below in alphabetical order, not in order of preference.
Browning BAR autoloader
The gas-operated Browning BAR Mark II represents the pinnacle of semi-automatic hunting rifle performance. It is a beautifully finished hunting rifle that works. There are many other autoloading rifle designs, but the BAR combines solid reliability, excellent accuracy and available magnum power in what has became one of the most popular autoloading hunting rifles ever produced.
Most BAR's that hunters see are the standard Grade 1 version, but very fancy Grades have been (and some still are) offered by the FN / Browning Custom Shop. The top grade BAR in 2008 is the $14,333 Grade 4 VB.
The BAR was introduced in the middle 1960's and remains in production as this is written in 2008, which means that it has been around for over 40 years. "BAR" stands for "Browning Automatic Rifle," but the semi-automatic hunting rifle should not be confused with the BAR select-fire military weapon that served the US Army as the standard rifle squad light machine gun in the Second World War. They are completely different guns.
The BAR hunting rifle has undergone several modifications over the years, although the basic gas-operated action remains the same. This action significantly reduces subjective recoil and is a great advantage in powerful calibers, particularly the magnums. Recovery from recoil is simply faster than with other action types and nothing offers faster follow-up shots than an autoloader. Given our choice of rifles with which to stop a charging lion, the .338 Magnum BAR would be at the top of the list. Probably the best known version is the BAR Mark II Safari Grade, an improved walnut and steel BAR introduced in 1993 and still sold today. The famous BOSS accuracy enhancing muzzlebrake was introduced as an option on the BAR Mk. II in 1994.
The most recent BAR variations are the ShortTrac (short action) and LongTrac (long action). With their aluminum alloy receivers and plastic trigger guard / magazine floorplate assemblies, these are more economical to produce than the earlier Safari Grade and Lightweight models. Styling of the "Trac" models is in the Euro-trash vein. The various BAR models are offered in a variety of calibers ranging from .243 Winchester to .338 Winchester Magnum.
Mannlicher-Schoenauer bolt action
The Austrian Mannlicher-Schoenauer and the German Mauser 98 were the main competitors for the upscale, bolt action, hunting rifle market after the turn of the 20th Century. Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher was primarily responsible for the basic action design and Otto Schönauer was primarily responsible for the rotary drum, five-shot magazine design, hence the hyphenated name.
The M-S is a controlled cartridge feeding design with a fixed, receiver mounted ejector. The super-precisely made action uses a bolt with dual, opposed, front locking lugs and the bolt handle serves as a safety lug. The bolt rotation to open and close the action is 90 degrees. A split rear receiver ring guides the bolt handle as the bolt is withdrawn and this action, combined with the Schoenauer spool magazine that eliminates magazine follower drag on the underside of the bolt, makes the M-S the smoothest turn bolt design we have ever used. Cartridges in the Schoenauer rotary magazine never touch each other, feed in a straight line into the chamber and the magazine can be quickly recharged by means of stripper clips (a feature intended for military applications). The Mannlicher-Schoenauer's lock time is leisurely by modern standards and it is not the easiest rifle in the world on which to mount a telescopic sight, but nothing can compare to the silky operating feel of a Mannlicher-Schoenauer and no factory built rifle is better made.
The Mannlicher-Schoenauer went into mass production around 1903 and remained in production until 1971, by which time the rapidly rising cost of production had priced the "World's Greatest Rifle" out of the marketplace. Naturally, a rifle produced for that long underwent many minor revisions and was made in many calibers. Mannlicher-Schoenauer models include the 1903, 1905, 1908, 1910, 1924, Magnum Rifle, 1950, 1952, 1956-MC and 1961-MCA.
Mannlicher-Schoenauer sporting rifles were produced in conventional half stock rifle and full length stock carbine versions. The latter is known to this day as a "Mannlicher stock," regardless of company of manufacture. Ruger and CZ, for example, offer Mannlicher stocked, bolt action carbines. Another distinguishing design feature of M-S rifles was their "butter knife" bolt handle, variations of which are still used on Steyr/Mannlicher, T/C Icon and other bolt actions today.
A popular option on Mannlicher-Schoenauer hunting rifles was a double set trigger mechanism. This allows you to pull the rear trigger to "set" the front trigger for a very light release (measured in ounces!). The rifle could also be fired by simply pulling the (unset) front trigger in the normal manner.
Perhaps the most popular and best known of the unique Mannlicher calibers is the 6.5x54 M-S. This is one of the small bore calibers that WDM Bell used to shoot a number of elephants for their ivory tusks. The majority of Mannlicher-Schoenauer rifles, however, were sold in the same popular European and American calibers for which most bolt action rifles are chambered. These include, but are not limited to, such standards as the .243 Winchester, 6.5x55, .270 Winchester, 7x57, .30-06 and 8x57. Less frequently seen, but very appropriate American cartridges (especially for the M-S Carbine) include the .244/6mm Remington, .257 Roberts and .358 Winchester.
Marlin Model 336 lever action
The last we heard, something like 5,000,000 Marlin Model 336 rifles have been sold. It is hard to argue with that kind of success. The Model 336 traces its ancestry back through the Marlin Models 1893 and 1936. In 1948, the Model 36 action was revised to incorporate a round bolt and other detail improvements to become the Model 336 that we know and love today. Basic action features include tubular magazine feed, a solid top receiver that allows convenient scope mounting, side ejection and a rear-locking bolt. Open sights are supplied. Recent production incorporates a lawyer inspired crossbolt safety that is, thankfully, reasonably unobtrusive. The current Marlin Models 308, 336, 444 and (new model) 1895 are all based on the basic 336 mechanism.
The 336 is a blend of the modern and the traditional in a lever action and this has allowed it to be chambered for quite a number of cartridges over the years. At present, the 336 and its variations are available in calibers .30-30, .308 Marlin Express, .338 Marlin Express, .35 Remington, .444 Marlin, .45-70 and .450 Marlin. Discontinued calibers include .219 Zipper, .32 Win. Special, .356 Winchester, .375 Winchester, .38-55 and .44 Rem. Magnum. However, over the many years of its manufacture, the most commonly offered calibers have been .30-30, .32 Special and .35 Remington.
Barrel lengths have ranged from 24" down to 16.25", with the 20" carbine length barrel being the most popular. Most 336 stocks are of standard grade black walnut and incorporate a gentle pistol grip design, but Texan and Cowboy models with straight hand stocks have also been produced. All of the major metal parts are made from forged steel and this gives the Model 336 a solid feel that cannot be duplicated by lesser rifles.
Mauser 98 bolt action
The famous Mauser Model 98 (1898) is undoubtedly the most copied bolt action of all time, both for sporting and military purposes. Its basic operating principles have been incorporated into the great majority of bolt action hunting rifles, regardless of brand or manufacturer. Unfortunately, the true 98 action is expensive to manufacture, so most of the "improvements" have actually been attempts to cut production costs or skirt Mauser patents.
Noteworthy features of the Mauser Model 98 include a machined, one-piece bolt (including handle) with dual front locking lugs (90 degree bolt lift) and a rear auxiliary locking lug; open top, flat-bottom receiver with integral recoil lug; internal, staggered-cartridge box magazine; one-piece magazine / bottom iron / trigger guard assembly; fixed, receiver mounted ejector; full-length, controlled feed extractor and a bolt mounted, three position "wing" safety. This latter must be modified or replaced to clear low mounted telescopic sights and thus is absent from most commercial 98 actions, in which a two-position safety located at the right rear of the receiver is usually substituted. Mauser 98 actions have been made in various countries, including Germany, Belgium, Sweden, France, Spain, Serbia and the Czech Republic. They are still made in the latter two countries and these rifles are marketed in the U.S. by CZ and Remington (as the Model 798).
The famous and much sought after Browning FN bolt action hunting rifle was a true Mauser 98 type. The Swedish Husqvarna HVA action was a fine, lightly modified, commercial Model 98. One of the best known modified Mausers is the American Model 1903 Springfield military rifle. Among famous American sporting rifles, the Winchester Model 70 and Ruger Model 77 probably adhere most closely to Mauser 98 principles. The Kimber Models 84M / 8400 couple Mauser 98 controlled feed and ejection with Remington Model 700-like economy features, while actions such as the Remington Model 700 and Savage 110 retain the Model 98's turn bolt action, open top receiver and dual front locking lugs, but sacrifice most of the Model 98's other good features to facilitate inexpensive mass production.
Because of its quality, strength, fixed ejector and controlled round feeding, all of which contribute to its legendary reliability, the Model 98 is regarded as one of the best bolt actions for hunting African dangerous game. There is no higher praise than that!
Remington Model 700 bolt action
The Remington Model 700 was introduced in 1962 as a sleeker, much better turned-out version of the Company's "plain Jane" Model 721, 722, and 725 sporting rifles. It has become the best selling, bolt action, sporting rifle in history with upwards of 5,000,000 produced. Perhaps more than anything else, the Model 700 owes its instant success and great popularity to the attractive and functionally shaped walnut stocks supplied on the original models. This tradition of attractive and functional stocks is alive and well today in the Model 700 BDL, CDL, LSS and Mountain Rifle Models.
The basic Remington 700 action is loosely based on the Mauser 98 concept modified to allow the cheapest possible manufacture (given 1950's manufacturing technology). However, it also incorporated certain key improvements, including near Weatherby-like strength ("three rings of steel" surround the cartridge head), very fast lock time, a natural and easy to use two-position safety and an excellent trigger mechanism. The fast lock time and excellent trigger quickly earned the Model 700 a reputation for accuracy that it retains to this day.
This is a push feed action that uses a plunger ejector and a circlip extractor, both mounted in a recessed bolt face. The open top receiver is round because it is simply drilled from steel bar stock. The recoil lug is essentially a heavy-duty steel washer trapped between the barrel and the receiver. Cartridges are fed from an internal, staggered box magazine formed from sheet steel. The trigger guard/bottom iron is made from aluminum. Upscale Model 700's normally incorporate hinged magazine floorplates. Over the years the Model 700 has been offered in myriad configurations for a bewildering array of calibers, the latter ranging from .17 to .45 and it is fair to say that there is a Model 700 for practically any purpose and budget.
Weatherby Mark V bolt action
Probably the most influential and copied of all the latter day turn-bolt actions is the Weatherby Mark V. Roy Weatherby's Mark V shares some of the seminal Mauser 98's features, primarily the open-top, flat-bottomed receiver with integral recoil lug and staggered cartridge box magazine, but goes its own way in most other areas. Production of the Mark V action began in 1958-1959 and Mark V rifles have subsequently been made in Germany, Japan and the USA. Regardless of country of manufacture, they have always been of very high quality and something of a status symbol among rifle shooters. The Weatherby Mark V is known around the world, wherever big game is hunted.
The Mark V is a heavy action designed for great strength, since Weatherby cartridges operate at high pressures. The cartridge head is enclosed by Weatherby's famous "three rings of steel," the recessed bolt face, barrel and front receiver ring. The receiver is machined from a solid block of forged steel and includes a massive recoil lug. This is a push feed design that uses a large claw extractor mounted in the bolt body for extraction and a plunger ejector in the bolt face. The wide open top of the receiver and push feed bolt make it exceptionally quick and easy to load a single cartridge into the Mark V's chamber.
A full diameter bolt body (the body is the same diameter as the locking lugs) drastically reduces bolt wobble when fully withdrawn. The bolt (including handle) is machined from a single block of steel and incorporates nine locking lugs arranged in three groups of three on a reduced diameter bolt head, more like an artillery breech lock-up than a conventional rifle. Bolt lift is only 54 degrees, keeping the shooter's knuckles farther from the scope and making the Mark V the fastest of all conventional bolt actions to operate. The bolt body is fluted and incorporates three gas escape ports. The rear of the bolt is fully covered by a machined steel shroud to protect the shooter's face from escaping gas in the event of a blown primer or split case. At the rear of the bolt shroud is a cocking indicator.
The one-piece, trigger guard / bottom iron incorporates a hinged magazine floorplate with an exceptionally positive catch to prevent inadvertent opening under heavy recoil. The floorplate release is mounted inside the trigger guard, the most protected location. The single stage trigger assembly is fully adjustable. A two-position, receiver mounted safety blocks the firing pin and disconnects the sear; it is nearly silent in operation to avoid spooking wary game.
Perhaps the most recognizable feature of any Mark V rifle is the famous Weatherby stock. This is a "California style" Monte Carlo stock with a forward sloping comb and a cheekpiece. The pistol grip is slender and flares slightly at the bottom. The Weatherby stock is designed to correctly place the shooter's eye for aiming with a telescopic sight and minimize the effect of recoil. The slender forend is tapered in three dimensions and has a flat bottom for steady resting. It looks good and is very comfortable to hold. Weatherby walnut stocks are reinforced with steel rods epoxied in the action mortise and feature three bedding points.
The Mark V Deluxe, the quintessential Weatherby, comes with a AA grade walnut stock that is hand checkered and features a rosewood pistol grip cap and forend tip set off by maple wood line spacers. The barreled action is highly polished and luster blued, while the stock receives a high gloss finish that shows off the grain of the fancy wood. The whole rifle exudes quality; production hunting rifles just don't get much better than this.
Winchester Model 1873 lever action
This is the "rifle that won the West" and it represents the full development of the original B. Tyler Henry designed lever action repeating rifle. Henry was Oliver Winchester's plant manager and chief designer. Henry's first rifle, which laid the groundwork for the long series of Winchester lever actions that followed, was the tubular magazine fed, brass framed, .44 Henry rimfire rifle. This rifle fired the .44 Henry Flat (for flat point bullet) cartridge. This was followed by the improved Winchester Model 1866 ("Yellow Boy") that incorporated as its main improvements the now familiar receiver mounted cartridge loading gate, a separate magazine tube and a wooden forend, but retained the relatively weak brass frame. Thus, the Model 1866 was still restricted to the same, low pressure, .44 Henry Flat rimfire cartridge used in the original Henry rifle.
The Model 1873 introduced a case-hardened iron frame and center fire cartridges, while retaining the basic Henry action. This resulted in the smoothest, most powerful and most reliable lever action rifle of the time and it became very popular, with over 720,500 sold. The Model '73 was manufactured until 1919. The .44-40 was the most popular chambering, but .32-20 and .38-40 were also offered. There were musket, rifle and carbine models, all with many variations. Barrel lengths were 24" (rifle) and 20" (carbine), round or octagon. Today, the used price of a Model 1873 might vary from $500 to $350,000, depending on condition and rarity.
The Henry action is very different from the later John Browning designed Model 94 with which most shooters' today associate Winchester lever action rifles. The Henry action is longer and weaker, but much smoother. It is a 100% controlled cartridge design that feeds and ejects cartridges reliably with the rifle in any position, including upside down. A Henry action can be worked as slowly or as rapidly as the shooter desires without affecting reliability. (The later Browning designed lever actions should be worked briskly for best reliability.)
Winchester 1873's were high quality, carefully made and fitted rifles and many would still be in use today had collectors not cleaned out the used market and driven the price of functional examples beyond the reach of most hunters and shooters. Fortunately, for those who would like to actually use a Model 1873, Uberti of Italy makes several variations of their excellent replica 1873 in easily obtainable calibers, including .44-40, .357 Magnum and the .45 Colt revolver cartridge.
Winchester Model 1885 falling block
This is the Winchester produced, improved version of John Browning's 1878 single shot, falling block rifle. The larger, heavier and stronger High Wall model was intended for the most powerful cartridges of the day, such as the .405 Winchester, .45-70 and .45-90, while the more petite Low Wall model was chambered for shorter, less powerful cartridges from the .22 S/L/LR to the .44-40. Barrel lengths usually ran from 24" to 30" in round or octagon form.
Some 139,725 Model 1885 rifles were manufactured between 1895 and 1920, when the model was discontinued. Much later, Browning and Winchester (both now owned by FN) reintroduced the Model 1885 High Wall and Low Wall rifles chambered for modern cartridges ranging from the .17 Mach 2 rimfire to the .325 WSM and .45-70 +P. Model 1885 rifles have been in and out of the Browning and Winchester catalogs from 1973 to the present day.
Of whatever vintage, the Model 1885 falling block is arguably the best rifle of its type ever produced. It is simple, reliable, immensely strong, very accurate, safe and convenient to use. It has an external hammer, so there can be no question about its readiness. The hammer is automatically cocked when the under-lever is operated, just as with a hammerless action, so it is as fast as a hammerless action for a follow-up shot. Most versions incorporate ejectors to speed reloading. Shooters who own and shoot both a Model 1885 and a Ruger No. 1 almost always prefer the Model 1885, which is a heck of a recommendation considering the excellence of the Ruger No. 1. This is reason enough to include the Model 1885 on this list as the best of the single shot rifles.
Winchester Model 1894 lever action
The Model 94 is perhaps the most obvious choice of all the rifles included in this list. It is the most popular sporting rifle ever made, with over 8,000,000 sold. It was first offered to the public in 1895 and remained in production until 2006. During most of the years of its production, the Model 94 out-sold that other Winchester icon, the Model 70 bolt action. Like other Winchester models, the '94 was revised for less expensive production in 1964, but the changes did not affect the '94's reliability or function. Subsequent improvements reversed the most grievous 1964 changes.
For most hunters around the world, when someone says "lever action rifle," the Model 94 comes to mind. The '94 was the first American hunting rifle designed for the then new smokeless powder cartridges and it introduced the .30-30 Winchester cartridge, the best selling civilian hunting cartridge of all time. Neither the Model 94 nor the .30-30 owe anything to military development, they were designed from the outset for hunters. Other traditional rimmed cartridges for which the Model 94 has been chambered include the .219 Zipper, .25-35, 7-30 Waters, .32-40, .32 Winchester Special and .38-55.
Later, the Model 94 was adapted to more powerful, higher pressure cartridges such as the .307 Winchester, .356 Winchester, .375 Winchester, .444 Marlin and .450 Marlin, but these inordinately increased recoil in the lightweight Model 94 rifle and never became popular. Relatively late in its career and after the short action Model 92 had long been discontinued, the Model 94 was produced in short action form for revolver cartridges, including the .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum and .45 Colt.
The Model 94's forte' was always its light weight and superb handling qualities, especially in the extremely popular carbine versions with 20" barrels. Due to its slender profile and perfect balance, the Model 94 carbine may well be the best handling hunting rifle ever made. Its long history and the plethora of model variations that make it beloved by collectors tend to obscure the fact that the basic Model 94 is one of the most effective and deadly hunting rifles ever produced.
The Model 94 action was a complete departure from the traditional Henry designed Winchester action. Although retaining the general styling, under barrel tubular magazine, right side loading gate and top ejection of its predecessors, the '94 used a much stronger rear locking bolt and a pivoted shell carrier that substantially shortened the length of the receiver. It was a simpler, stronger action and, given 1894 manufacturing technology, less expensive to manufacture than the earlier Henry action.
The Model 94 action was revised for cheaper manufacture in 1964 and again in 1982 for "angle eject" to permit scopes to be mounted centrally over the top of the receiver. Between 1992 and 2006, Model 94's were produced with an unnecessary (and unsightly) crossbolt safety to satisfy Winchester's lawyers. During the last year of production, this was changed to a far less intrusive tang mounted safety.
Over the years the Model 94 was made in rifle and carbine form with barrels (either octagon or round) as short as 14" and as long as 26". The forend of carbine models was usually secured by a ring and the forend of rifle models typically terminated in a metal cap, but not always. Basic Model 94 rifles and carbines usually came with a blued barreled action and plain, straight hand, walnut stocks, but there have been many variations. Very highly decorated Model 94's have been special ordered from the Winchester Custom Shop with pistol grip stocks, elaborate checkering, engraving and inlays of precious metals. In addition to regular production and Custom Shop variations, the Model 94 was also repeatedly issued in commemorative form with various inscriptions, medallions, inlays and finishes. The various Model 94 commemoratives reportedly accounted for over 1,000,000 sales!
Winchester Classic Model 70 (pre-1964 and post-1991) bolt action
When the "world's finest bolt action hunting rifle" is debated, the Mauser 98 and the Winchester Model 70 are usually the most prominent contenders. Jack O'Connor, the Dean of American gun writers, stated flatly that the Mauser Model 98 and Winchester Model 70 were the best in the world.
The Model 70 (either the pre-1964 or later Classic versions) is the great American bolt action rifle. Known as "The Rifleman's Rifle," many knowledgeable shooters and hunters consider the Model 70 to be the epitome of bolt action rifles. Over its long production life many variations have been offered; the most enduring of these have been the Standard, Featherweight and Super Grade. All are notable for "modern classic" style walnut stocks and very good ergonomics. The Model 70 is an "improved" Mauser 98 type action that actually incorporates improvements, not just production shortcuts (although there are also some of those).
The controlled feed "pre-64" was manufactured from 1936 through 1963 and the controlled feed "Classic" was restored to the line in 1992 and manufactured through 2006, when the Winchester plant in New Haven, Connecticut was closed. Production of the Classic Model 70 was moved to the FN plant in South Carolina and resumed in 2008. Between 1964 and 1991, only push feed Model 70's were offered. These were very good rifles on the order of the Weatherby Vanguard, but they were never accepted by many shooters as "real" Model 70's.
Both the Mauser 98 and the Model 70 have their advantages, but they share the basic Mauser 98 turn bolt concept with two large front locking lugs, a full length extractor for controlled cartridge feeding and a fixed, receiver mounted ejector. Both have generous, open top receivers for easy loading and in the event of a blown primer or split case they keep escaping powder gasses out of the shooter's face. Like the Mauser, the Model 70's receiver is machined with an integral recoil lug from a solid steel forging. The Model 70's one-piece bolt body is machined from steel, but the bolt handle is a separate part.
Model 70's feed cartridges from an internal, sheet steel, staggered box magazine rather than the Mauser's integral with the bottom iron design. The bottom iron usually has a hinged floorplate for unloading, although the floorplate release is immediately in front of the trigger guard, a less convenient location than the commercial Mauser 98's. The one-piece bottom iron is steel in standard Model 70's and aluminum in Featherweight models.
Model 70 features not shared by the Mauser 98 include a coned breech for slick feeding, a more elegant bolt guide and a repositioned ejector that does not require a slot cut in the left locking lug. The coned breech is an especially nice feature that minimizes wear and tear on bullets as they are fed into the chamber; we wish that all bolt action rifles would copy this feature. In addition, Model 70's have always come with excellent, adjustable, single stage triggers and a bolt mounted, three-position safety designed to clear low mounted scopes.
Like the Mauser 98, the Winchester Model 70 is held in high regard by professional hunters in Africa and other places where big, dangerous animals are hunted. If you have to bet your life on a hunting rifle's reliability, it is reassuring to have a Model 70 in your hands.
Obviously, any such "Top 10" list is subjective and more apt to generate disagreement than agreement, so we don't expect you to agree with all of our choices. Doubtless, most readers would exclude some rifles that we have included and include some rifles that we omitted. That's fine, as everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. If you found this article interesting and/or thought provoking, it has served its purpose.
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