The Lever Action .30-30 Scout Rifle
By Chuck Hawks
With the recent introduction of the heavily promoted Ruger Gunsite Scout (see our review on the Rifle Information page), the late Jeff Cooper's scout rifle concept has received a shot in the arm. Commercial scout rifles had previously been introduced by Steyr Mannlicher, Springfield Armory and Savage Arms. Jeff Cooper credited the Winchester Model 94 and Mannlicher-Schoenauer carbines as the inspiration for the concept that he developed into the modern scout rifle.
According to Jeff Cooper, the ideal scout rifle should be based on a short action, weigh about seven pounds (without scope) and be no more than a meter (39") in overall length. Such a rifle should be chambered for an internationally available cartridge of about .30 caliber. He championed an intermediate eye relief (IER) riflescope mounted forward of the receiver as the ideal scout rifle sighting system.
Cooper considered the .308 Winchester an ideal scout rifle cartridge, because it fits the bill and is distributed internationally. However, the high intensity .308 suffers substantial velocity loss when fired from barrels less than 22" in length. Further, the muzzle blast from a short-barreled .308, such as the 16.5" barrel of a Ruger Gunsite Scout, really lays the daisies low. It seems to me that one might better choose a lower pressure cartridge with less powder capacity that would suffer less velocity loss in a carbine length barrel. Such a cartridge would potentially have less muzzle blast, kick less and still get good results, with less fuss than the .308. The .30-30 Winchester is just such a cartridge. It works in short actions and it is distributed world wide, wherever hunting is allowed. How about a .30-30 based scout rifle?
The .30-30 has been chambered in bolt action rifles, such as the Savage Model 340, but it is most commonly encountered in Winchester and Marlin lever action carbines. Jeff Cooper said that the Winchester Model 94 was one of his original sources of inspiration. A lever gun is flatter and easier to carry than a bolt action, important considerations for a scout rifle. It also can be fired considerably faster. Its tubular magazine carries six cartridges and, unlike box magazines, it can be replenished without taking the gun out of action, even for a moment. You can feed fresh cartridges into the loading gate as you fire shots.
Because the receiver of a lever action .30-30 is shorter than that of a .308 length bolt action, the lever action can have a barrel a couple of inches longer for the same overall length and still be less than the 39" maximum length specified by Jeff Cooper for a scout rifle. The Ruger Gunsite Scout rifle we recently reviewed had a 16.5" barrel and an overall length of 39". A Model 94 carbine with a 20" barrel has an overall length of about 38".
Any Winchester Model 94 or Marlin 336 carbine with a 20" barrel can make an excellent scout rifle. Inexpensive utility rifles, such as the Marlin Glenfield, Marlin Model 336W and post-1964 Winchester top eject Model 94's come immediately to mind. These models are reasonably priced on the used market.
In particular, Winchester post-1964, top ejecting Model 94's are trim, lightweight, cheap and available. They are scorned by collectors as inferior to the pre-64 version and hunters prefer the later angle-eject version for easy scope mounting, so the used price for these top eject Model 94's is low. The first generation of post-'64 Model 94's may be belittled by many for their stamped steel parts and inferior finish, but they are accurate, reliable and durable. Modern scout rifles from Savage, Steyr, Springfield and Ruger are full of cast, stamped, MIM, aluminum and plastic parts and their unpolished matte finishes are certainly nothing to brag about. Post-1964, top eject Model 94's are, if anything, better made and finished than the latest bolt action scout rifles. Their top ejection is no detriment for use as a scout rifle, since the scope will be mounted forward of the receiver.
XS Sight Systems, and possibly others, make forward of the receiver scope mounts for top eject Model 94's. These are typically in the form of a Weaver/Picatinny rail that allows mounting the long eye relief optical sight of your choice. For those who prefer iron sights, the rifles come with open sights and the receiver is drilled and tapped for peep sights (Lyman, Williams, Redfield, etc.). Alternatively, the scope can be mounted in quick detachable rings and exchanged for a peep sight mounted on the Weaver rail whenever desired. The scout rifle in the photo at the top of this page wears an XS mount and Leupold FX-II 2.5x28mm IER Scout scope in steel Weaver rings. This is a pre-'64 Model 94, because that is what I happened to have on hand for this project. In appearance and function, it is identical to the less expensive post-'64 version.
Other accessories include an Uncle Mike's elastic cartridge band on the butt stock (holds nine extra cartridges and is trapped in place by the rear sling swivel), detachable sling swivel studs (available through Brownell's online) and a black nylon sling. This rifle's trigger pull has been smoothed and lightened; it releases at a crisp three pounds. A slip-on pad (not shown) can be used to soften recoil and increase the length of pull during practice sessions at the rifle range.
The chosen ammunition is Hornady's excellent LeverEvolution load using a 160 grain FTX boat-tail spitzer bullet. The muzzle velocity from a 20" carbine barrel is about 2240 fps. Zero that load to hit 3" high at 100 yards and it will be 3" low at about 218 yards. A 218 yard MPBR (+/- 3") should be more than sufficient for any carbine.
A scout rifle is not a military rifle. The primary purpose of a scout rifle is to accompany the scout, hunter or explorer on journeys deep into remote country. It must be short, light, versatile and easily portable. It could be viewed as a big game hunter's survival rifle. It will probably be used to harvest game for food and, possibly, for protection from hostiles.
A lever action carbine can fill the bill today, just as it did in the mountains, forests, plains and deserts of the Old West. Certainly, the .30-30 cartridge is far superior to the black powder .44 Henry, .38-40 and .44-40 that won the west. In addition, our .30-30 scout rifle is an excellent choice for home, farm or ranch protection. (After all, it has served admirably in that role for over 100 years.) It could also serve for personal/family/business protection in an urban environment in the event of rioting or civil insurrection. When deer season rolls around, it reverts to its role as America's favorite deer rifle without missing a beat. The lever action scout rifle is, truly, a jack of all trades.
It seems to me that a scout rifle should have a place in every home in America. A lever action scout rifle based on a used .30-30 carbine is very simple to assemble and much less expensive than a new bolt action scout rifle. It also has numerous tactical advantages over bolt action scout rifles, is more reliable than a semi-auto and is more versatile than either. It is also traditionally American, cannot be accused of being an "assault rifle" in anti-gun jurisdictions, has better lines and is more attractive. You can hang it on your wall without embarrassment or apology, just as was routinely done in thousands of frontier cabins all across North America.
Copyright 2011 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.