Mountain Rifles

By Chuck Hawks

This article is about traditional mountain rifles, lightweight rifles specifically intended for hunting CXP2 game in mountainous terrain. While it is true that some large (CXP3) game, elk and grizzly bear for example, can be found from sea level to well up in the mountains, rifles for such creatures are covered in other articles.

The salient fact about hunting CXP2 game in the mountains is that you have to climb to get to them. As far as I am concerned, that precludes long barreled, heavy rifles despite their other advantages. Long range shooting is often not necessary in the mountains, but sometimes it is and the wise hunter should select his or her rifle accordingly.

Reducing the weight of any rifle increases recoil, which negatively impacts practical accuracy. Reducing barrel length decreases velocity, and that affects both trajectory and killing power. High velocity cartridges, the kind most often recommended for mountain rifles, are particularly affected by reduced barrel length. An "all around" type of rifle can serve as a stand in for a mountain rifle, but a real mountain rifle is a rather specialized hunting instrument. The hunter shopping for a mountain rifle should understand that it is not a general purpose hunting rifle.

A classic mountain rifle needs to be reliable (there are no gunsmiths up there), accurate for at least one to three shots from a cold barrel, and chambered for a reasonably flat shooting cartridge. The latter should have a maximum point blank range (MPBR) of at least 275 yards (+/- 3 inches) with a hunting weight bullet suitable for medium size big game.

The mountain rifle should wear a compact telescopic sight of about 6x in a fixed magnification scope or about 2-7x, 2.5-8x, or 3-9x in a variable power scope. Higher power, large diameter (low light) objective lenses, and tubes fatter than 1 inch (25mm) are neither necessary nor desirable. A low mount and light weight are what is needed in a scope for a mountain rifle.

A necessary accessory for any mountain rifle is a sling or carrying strap. A sling allows the hunter to use both hands while climbing, a matter of safety. It can also be a useful shooting aid for those who know how. I prefer a 1 inch, one-piece sling on a lightweight rifle.

The overwhelming choice of most experienced mountain hunters is a bolt action rifle, although a falling block single shot rifle is also an excellent choice. The bolt action is familiar to most shooters and offers faster repeat shot capability. The single shot rifle is shorter than a bolt action for any given barrel length, or can have a longer barrel (usually 3.5 to 4 inches longer) for any given overall length, which givers it a big advantage as a mountain rifle.

For example, a short action Ruger Model 77R Standard bolt action rifle has an overall length of 42 inches with a 22 inch barrel; a short action Ruger Model 77RSI International (Ruger's traditional bolt action mountain rifle) has an overall length of 38.25 inches, but a barrel only 18.5 inches long. The Ruger No. 1-A Light Sporter falling block rifle has an overall length of 38.25 inches and a 22 inch barrel, and it is not restricted to short action cartridges. Clearly, a quality single shot rifle such as an 1885 Low Wall, Dakota 10, or Ruger No.1-A makes a lot of sense as a mountain rifle. For the mountain hunter on a budget, the break-action New England Firearms Synthetic Handi-Rifle deserves a look. Note, however, that a break-open rifle can be somewhat awkward to reload when shooting over a low rest, and particularly from the prone position.

Examples of suitable bolt action rifles (in addition to the aforementioned Ruger M77RSI) include the Ed Brown Denali, Browning A-Bolt Hunter, Dakota 97 Lightweight Hunter, Kimber 84M Classic, Mannlicher Classic Full Stock and Ultra Light, New Ultra Light Arms Model 20 Mountain Rifle, Remington Model Seven LS or SS and Model 700 Mountain Rifles, Sako 75 Finnlight, Savage Model 10FM Sierra Lightweight, and Winchester Model 70 Classic Featherweight. All are available in suitable cartridges.

Some lightweight bolt action rifles have buttstocks with a shortened length of pull to decrease their overall length, so be sure the stock fits properly before buying. Proper stock fit is always important as it has a big influence on perceived recoil. Lightweight rifles kick harder than standard weight rifles, so stock fit is doubly important in a mountain rifle.

The prototypical mountain rifle is the classic Mannlicher-Schoenauer carbine in 6.5x54 M-S caliber. This rifle was a favorite of alpine hunters and guides in the early and middle years of the 20th Century. It typically had an 17.7 to 20.5 inch barrel, a slender full length stock, a flat "butter knife" bolt handle that lay close to the stock, a fully adjustable trigger, and weighed about 7.25 pounds. Sling swivels were included. One could do a lot worse, even today.

The classic mountain game are the various species of sheep and goats, although many species (mule deer for example) may be found in mountainous terrain. Sheep, goats, and deer are CXP2 class game, so there are many suitable high intensity cartridges that offer a MPBR of 275 yards or more. Reasonable choices include the .257 Roberts, 6.5x55, 6.5x57, .260 Remington, 7x57, 7mm-08 Remington, .308 Winchester, .30-06, and 8x57JS. The flat shooting .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .243 WSSM, 6x62 Freres, .240 Weatherby Magnum, .25-06, .257 Weatherby Magnum, 6.5mm Remington Magnum, 6.5x65 RWS, 6.5x68, .264 Winchester Magnum, .270 Winchester, 7x64 Brenneke and .280 Remington can extend the MPBR to 300 yards or more with selected loads.

Magnum cartridges from .270 WSM caliber on up are simply not required for CXP2 game, although they offer the requisite flat trajectory. The recoil of magnum cartridges in lightweight mountain rifles can be very unpleasant. Another problem with the large capacity magnums is that they require a barrel at least 24 inches long to achieve their advertised performance. When fired in the 20 and 22 inch barrels supplied with most bolt action mountain rifles their ballistic performance is often no better than a standard cartridge such as the .270 Winchester or .280 Remington, but the muzzle blast from the magnums is tremendous. The hunter who insists on a .270, 7mm, or .300 Magnum caliber mountain rifle would do well to select a single shot rifle with at least a 24 inch barrel.

As I write these words I own four suitable mountain rifles. These include a Ruger M77RSI International in .308 Winchester caliber, a Winchester Model 70 Featherweight in 6.5x55 SE, a falling block Ruger No. 1-A in .257 Roberts, and a falling block Browning 1885 Low Wall in .243 Winchester. All four rifles are moderate in weight. None of them kicks me out from under my hat.

It is hard to pick a favorite, but if you got me down in a hammerlock I'd probably choose the Ruger 1-A. That rifle wears a Bushnell Elite 3200 2-7x32mm scope with Rain Guard coatings and a lightweight Uncle Mike's nylon sling. I don't think a mountain rifle gets much better than that!

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Copyright 2003, 2006 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.