Woods and Brush Rifles
By Chuck Hawks
This article is about rifles for hunting medium game (like deer and black bear) in wooded or brushy country, where ranges run from a few yards to a maximum of 200 yards. The average shot in this sort of country will be less than 100 yards, so high velocity and long range killing power are less important than short range stopping power and the ability of the bullet to sneak (or blast) through leaves and twigs on its way to the target.
Because a great deal of the hunting terrain in North America falls into the category of wooded or brushy, you would think that suitable rifles would get the lion's share of the gun writer's ink. But, in fact, these eminently practical rifles receive little notice in gun magazines or on the internet, despite the fact that the great majority of deer taken every year in North America are killed within 100 yards, regardless of whether they are killed in the North, South, East, or West.
The rifle itself should be compact with a 20" to 22" barrel, depending on caliber. This is a reasonable compromise between portability and the ballistic requirements of the medium velocity woods cartridges for which it is designed. It also allows for a proper balance point, which should be an inch or so back from the front end of the receiver when a compact scope is mounted.
The actual hunting weight of a woods rifle should ideally run 7.5 to 8 pounds, including a mounted scope, a full magazine, and a sling. This is enough weight to minimize the recoil of woods cartridges on the order of the .30-30 and .35 Remington without making it an unreasonable burden. Rifles for lighter cartridges, such as the .357 Magnum, can be lighter; rifles for more powerful cartridges, such as the .45-70, should be heavier.
In country with a lot of cover a wounded game animal can get out of sight quickly. And even though I have been known to carry a single shot rifle in the woods, a repeating rifle is desirable in case a second shot is required. An action that offers quick repeat shots is better than an action that is slower to operate. Autoloading actions are the fastest of all, followed by pumps and lever actions. All of these make very good woods rifles.
A bolt action can make a satisfactory woods rifle for those who learn to operate it while keeping the butt of the stock against the shoulder, which should be done with all repeating rifles. However, the bolt is inherently the slowest of all repeating actions. The bolt action's forte is its ability to handle extremely high pressure cartridges and a perhaps a slight advantage in potential accuracy; neither of which is important in a woods rifle.
A woods rifle's stock should be designed for offhand use with a low mounted scope sight. Most shots will be probably have to be taken offhand (standing) because a clear view of the target will usually be blocked by underbrush from the prone position, and often even from the sitting position.
Stocks can be made of synthetic materials (plastic), laminated wood, a hardwood such as beech or maple, and genuine walnut. Walnut is the traditional and most attractive material. All but one of my woods rifles, whatever the type of action, have had genuine walnut stocks with standard factory finishes, even though I live and hunt in rainy Western Oregon. I have never had any reason to complain about a walnut stock.
In terms of intrinsic accuracy, a good woods rifle should be able to put three bullets into two minutes of angle (MOA) from a cold barrel, which means a 2" group at 100 yards or a 4" group at 200 yards. Three MOA groups (6" at 200 yards) are satisfactory. Four MOA (8" at 200 yards) would be the minimum acceptable accuracy required to put a bullet into the heart/lung area of a small whitetail deer 100% of the time at 200 yards, but most modern rifles will shoot better than that.
Not every capable woods rifle will meet all of these requirements, of course. But the closer to perfection the better.
The cartridge for a woods rifle should be able to launch a bullet with a sectional density (SD) of at least .205 (and .225 or better is desirable) at a MV between 2000 and 2500 fps for good killing power and sufficiently flat trajectory for shots out to 200 yards. Caliber should be .257 or larger, and .30 (7.65mm) to .35 (9mm) are about ideal.
A good woods rifle should not belt the shooter with more than 20 ft. lbs. of free recoil when fired in an 8 pound rifle. Free recoil of 15 ft. lbs. or less is desirable.
The bullet should have a round nose (RN)or flat point (FP) shape to give it the best chance of making it to the intended target if it inadvertently collides with a leafy obstruction on its journey. The ideal woods cartridge needs to put down deer size animals with authority, so it's bullet should open quickly against light resistance.
I have read two opposite arguments about bullet stabilization. One suggests that a bullet that is highly stable (spinning very rapidly) is more likely to stay pretty much on course after encountering an obstacle than one that is only marginally stable (spinning more slowly). On the other hand, I have also read that a fast spinning bullet is more apt to spin away from any surface it touches, as a billiard ball with a lot of English on it spins away from another ball. Which theory is correct I cannot say.
All sights need to be accurate enough to put a bullet into the vitals of a medium size game animal at 200 yards. Since we are talking about an 8" or larger target, even the factory installed open iron sights that come with most new rifles can meet that standard.
However, sights on a woods rifle should be fast to align, and allow an unobstructed field of view. Standard open sights are actually the slowest of all common sights to align, and they obscure most of the lower half of the target. The common "semi-buckhorn" and "buckhorn" rear sights have useless side wings projecting up on either side of the rear notch, and obscure even more of the target and the surrounding landscape. Inexpensive open sights are also very time consuming and expensive to zero-in because most lack accurate, repeatable adjustments. The cost of the extra ammunition required to get a rifle zeroed using these relatively crude sights will usually pay for a receiver sight or an inexpensive scope.
Better is a receiver mounted "peep" sight with a large diameter aperture through which to look. Lyman and Williams are the most commonly encountered brands. These sights have accurate adjustments and, because the eye looks through (not at) the rear aperture, they are faster to align than a standard open rear sight. Even the best iron sights, however, do not allow the hunter to take advantage of the intrinsic accuracy of a modern woods rifle. No one can shoot more accurately than they can see.
The fastest and most accurate type of sight is a low power scope with adequate eye relief and a big field of view. A telescopic sight's big advantage is not its magnification, but rather that it puts the target and the aiming point (the crosshair) into the same optical plane. This makes aligning the rifle with the target easy for the eye, which is why scopes are both faster and more accurate than any form of iron sight.
Another advantage of scopes is that they allow the shooter a clear view of what he is about to shoot. This is especially important in wooded or brushy country where part or most of the target may be obscured by foliage. A scope may allow the shooter to distinguish a buck from a doe, or man in a brown shirt from a deer.
Since woods ranges are not great, and even the smaller species of big game animals are relatively large targets, a lot of magnification is not needed. In fact, a lot of magnification is undesirable, because it is inversely proportional to field of view. A big field of view, on the other hand, is very desirable when hunting big game animals at fairly close range, and absolutely critical if running shots are to be taken. So a fixed power scope of 1.5x to 3x, or a variable power scope within the 1-4x range is the best sight for a modern woods rifle.
Such a scope should be mounted securely, centrally, and as low as possible. A low mounted scope allows the cheek better contact with the buttstock, lines up faster for a quick shot, and balances better on the rifle. Avoid those "tunnel" mounts that purport to allow the use of both the factory iron sights and a scope. They are a snare and a delusion.
Traditional Winchester lever action rifles used to eject their fired cases essentially straight up. On these rifles a conventional scope must be mounted to the receiver on an offset side mount to clear the ejected cases. The alternative is an extended eye relief scope mounted on the barrel forward of the receiver. This latter position has more recently been adapted to "Scout rifles." It works, but the extended eye relief dramatically reduces the scope's field of view.
On my various woods rifles I have tried factory open sights, receiver sights, scopes mounted forward of the receiver, and scopes (both fixed and variable) mounted conventionally. The conventionally mounted scope is by far the best arrangement whenever possible.
Makes and Models of Woods Rifles
There are quite a number of decent woods rifles on the market. The most popular autoloaders are the Browning BAR Mark II and the Remington 7400. The only widely distributed pump action centerfire rifle is the Remington Model 7600, although the Uberti replica of the Colt Lightning is also available.
In lever action rifles the selection broadens. There is the Browning BLR series; EMF imported replicas of early Winchester rifles; the Henry Big Boy; Marlin Models 308, 336, 444, 1884 and 1885; Ruger 96/44; the discontinued but still fairly common Savage 99 series; Taylor's Rifles Models 198, 199, 200, and 202 (all replicas of early Winchesters); Uberti imported replicas of early Winchesters; plus the now discontinued but extensive Winchester Model 94 series.
Most of my favorite woods rifles have been lever actions. I have owned Winchester Model 94's, Marlin Models 336 and 1894, a Henry Big Boy and a Uberti replica 1873 rifle, all with complete satisfaction. A few retained their iron sights, but most have had optical sights, which I strongly prefer. Calibers have varied, but my personal favorite is the classic .30-30 Winchester.
The selection of bolt action carbines suitable for use in the woods is even more extensive. Among the most popular are appropriate Models and calibers of the Browning A-Bolt II, Kimber Model 84M, Remington Model 7 and Model 700 Mountain Rifle, Ruger Model 77RSI International, Sako 75 Finnlight, Savage Model 10FM Sierra Lightweight, Steyr-Mannlicher Classic Carbine and Weatherby Synthetic Carbine.
I have owned a Ruger M77RSI for many years. Mine is in caliber .308 Winchester and wears a Leupold 2-7x variable power scope, which I mostly leave at the 2x setting. It has a polished blue finish and a full length Mannlicher stock; neither has ever caused a bit of trouble, even though I often hunt in the rain. For deer hunting I normally use a handload that drives a 150 grain bullet at a MV of 2600 fps. The M77RSI is a short and fast handling little carbine, as good a bolt action woods rifle as one could ask for.My other favorite bolt action woods rifle is a Kimber Model 84M Classic in .338 Federal caliber. This rifle comes with a 22" barrel, but is even lighter than the M77RSI. It also wears a Leupold 2-7x scope. I handload a 200 grain bullet at a MV of about 2450 fps for the .338. As you might expect, either of these rifles is sudden death on even large deer as long as the bullet goes into a vital area.
A fairly light single shot rifle, such as the Ruger No. 1A Lightweight Rifle, in a suitable caliber can be a very good woods rifle as long as the hunter is willing to forgo a quick second shot. The Browning/Winchester 1885 Low Wall and NEF Handi-Rifle are other examples of fast handling, easy to carry, and reasonably common single shot rifles.
The calibers that best fit our description of ideal woods cartridges are the 7-30 Waters, .30-30, .300 Savage, .307 Winchester, .308 Marlin, .308 Winchester, .32 Winchester Special and .35 Remington. All of these throw hunting weight bullets of the required SD and have a maximum point blank range (MPBR) of 200 yards or more. Recoil is between 12 and 20 ft. lbs. in a 7.5 pound rifle and muzzle blast is endurable from a 20" or 22" barrel. As cartridges for woods rifles, these are the pick of the litter. (For more on the .30-30, .300 Savage, and .32 Special, see my article "Ideal Deer Cartridges" on the Rifle Information Page.)
The medium bore .338 Federal, .348 Winchester, .356 Winchester, .358 Winchester and .375 Winchester make effective woods cartridges with round nose or flat point bullets. All of these save the .375 Win. have a MPBR in excess of 200 yards. These are also good combination deer and elk cartridges at woods ranges. Rifles for these more powerful cartridges are best with 22" barrels and should weigh at least 8 pounds ready to hunt.
The relatively high velocity .25-35, .250 Savage, .257 Roberts, .260 Remington, 6.5x55, 7mm-08 Remington, and 7x57 Mauser can also be satisfactory woods cartridges. Rifles for these calibers should weigh 7 to 8 pounds and have 22" barrels. These relatively small bore calibers are best if reloaded to velocities of about 2500 fps with round nose or flat point bullets that are heavy for the caliber. (117-120 grain in .257, 140-160 grain in 6.5mm, and 150-175 grain in 7mm are about right.) Recoil should be less than 15 ft. lbs. and penetration is usually excellent.
Less powerful than the first group are some old standby deer cartridges and modern revolver cartridges adapted for use in rifles. These include the .357 Magnum, .38-55, .41 Magnum, .44-40 and .44 Remington Magnum. They do well in 7 to 7.5 pound rifles with 18.5" to 20" barrels. For deer hunting these numbers are best limited to a range of about 100 yards.
Above and beyond the call of duty for use on deer and black bear are the .444 Marlin, .450 Marlin, and .45-70. These throw heavy bullets over moderate ranges and are usually considered to be combination deer and large game cartridges. With proper loads and bullets they can take any game animal in North America. The MPBR of these calibers is usually between 150 and 230 yards, depending on the load. Rifles for these cartridges should weigh 8 pounds or more and have 22" barrels. Recoil is right up there, above our 20 ft. lb. limit in an 8 pound rifle. In a 7.5 pound rifle they are not for the faint hearted.
Brush-Bucking Calibers and Bullets
I have read about several "brush-bucking" tests in which the authors tried to determine empirically what sort of bullet is most likely to penetrate brush and reach the target (usually a deer silhouette). The test conditions were all different, ranging from firing bullets at a target placed some distance behind actual heavy brush, to intentionally shooting through limbs, to firing into a box filled with equally spaced wooded dowels of fairly large diameter.
One important variable in such tests is the distance the target is placed behind the "brush." Another is the diameter and hardness of the simulated or real "brush." A leaf is different from a twig, which is different from a branch, which is different from a rigidly held wooden dowel. Real brush has a lot to recommend it and is probably the test medium I would choose, but the biggest problem with using real brush is that all bullets cannot hit the same amount of brush at the same angle, skewing the results. I suspect that you would have to fire an awful lot of bullets into real brush to get statistically valid results.
Unfortunately, the results of the tests I have read about varied widely. I have never constructed such a test myself (although I have been tempted), as I am not sure what the test conditions should be. I suspect that the results of my test would be no more reliable than previous tests. Most authorities have concluded that a large caliber bullet of great sectional density gets through brush the best. Cartridges like the .458 Winchester Magnum are frequent winners. That makes sense to me.
Jack O'Connor, in his Gun Book wrote about the results of such a test that he spent several afternoons conducting with a variety of calibers and bullet weights. O'Connor shot at a 3' by 4' outline of a deer through a heavy screen of natural brush. His results indicated several things. One was that, as logic suggests, the farther behind the brush the target was placed, the safer it was. At 6' the "deer" was liable to be hit; at 20' the "deer" was pretty safe.
O'Connor tested a variety of calibers from the .220 Swift to the .375 H&H Magnum, including the standard one ounce 12 gauge shotgun slug. This latter projectile proved to the best brush-bucker of them all, as it is stabilized by its weight forward design rather than by spin. Even the 300 grain Silvertip bullet fired from the .375 Magnum showed considerable deflection in O'Connor's testing. The .35 Remington's 200 grain RN bullet often found the target, but frequently hit sideways.
The worst caliber for penetrating brush was the .220 Swift loaded with a 50 grain Spire Point bullet. It almost never made it through the brush intact. (No surprise, as this bullet is designed to break-up against light resistance.)
Fairly light (for their caliber) high velocity bullets such as the 87 grain .250-3000, 100 grain .257 Roberts, 130 grain .270 Winchester, and 150 grain .30-06 spitzers also faired poorly in O'Connor's brush tests. The 100 grain .250 bullet was better than the 87 grain bullet, but still not very good at getting through the brush. The 117 grain RN .257, 150 grain RN .270, and 180 grain RN .30-06 bullets all gave O'Connor a much improved chance of hitting the target in their respective calibers.
He rated the .300 Savage with a 180 grain RN bullet and the .35 Remington with a 200 grain RN bullet as "good." The best results with any rifle caliber used in O'Connor's testing were obtained with the .348 Winchester using a 200 grain Flat Point bullet. O'Connor summarized his results this way: "I found that the higher the bullet velocity, the sharper the point, the thinner the jacket, the lighter the weight, the greater the deflection."
The .338 Federal, .338x57 O'Connor and .338 Marlin Express
Jack O'Connor concluded his chapter on the subject by suggesting a new woods cartridge designed specifically for hunting deer and black bear. He suggesting necking the 7x57 case up to accept 200 grain .338" bullets. (Or to accept 220 grain .358" bullets, which is the near ballistic equivalent of the later .356 Winchester cartridge.)
The .338 bullet selected should be a flat nose design with plenty of lead exposed for good expansion. This bullet should be driven at a MV of 2400-2450 fps. O'Connor theorized that such a cartridge (I call it the .338x57 O'Connor) should be able to drive its bullet through the brush pretty well, open up fast, and would have a lot of shocking power. A wounded animal hit with it should leave a substantial blood trail for easy tracking even if the bullet did not go all the way through. Recoil would not be as heavy as with the .338 Federal, .348 Win. or .358 Win. as factory loaded and the trajectory should be flat enough to allow a point blank range in excess of 200 yards. I heartily approve of Jack O'Connor's .338 concept and have written articles about it, which can be found on both the Rifle Information and Wildcat Cartridge pages.
The new .338 Federal is potentially very similar to the .338x57 O'Connor, but Federal factory ammunition is loaded too hot for an ideal woods cartridge. In a lightweight rifle the .338 shooting factory loads is a hard kicking cartridge. However, the reloader with a .338 Federal rifle can easily duplicate .338x57 O'Connor ballistics. That is what I do with mine and the results have been very satisfactory.
Even newer is the .338 Marlin Express, a wildcat first publicly proposed on Guns and Shooting Online and created by necking-up the .308 Marlin case to accept .338" diameter bullets. This rimmed cartridge can provide .338x57 O'Connor ballistics in a rimmed format ideally suited for use in traditional lever action rifles. The Marlin Model 336MXLR would be the ideal rifle around which to build a .338 Marlin Express rifle.
To summarize, a good woods rifle should be fairly light and well balanced. It should ideally be a repeater that allows a quick second shot when necessary. It should wear a low power telescopic sight mounted directly over the bore and as low as possible. This rifle should be chambered for a cartridge of moderate recoil that moves a fairly heavy for caliber, RN or FP bullet at medium velocity. A Marlin 336MXLR chambered for the .338 Marlin Express wildcat cartridge mentioned above would be an example of a rifle that perfectly meets these requirements and with such a rifle in hand the woods hunter could ask for little more.
The hunter owes it to the game he hunts to try to shoot through gaps in the surrounding foliage, or to wait for a clear shot. No one should intentionally try to drive a bullet though brush to kill an animal on the far side.
Copyright 2003, 2014 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.