Make Mine a Carbine

By Rick Ryals

Classic Mannlicher carbine
Mannlicher Classic Full Stock Carbine. Illustration courtesy of Steyr Mannlicher

I am a fan of light, handy rifles. These used to be called carbines, but you don't see that term used much these days. Nowadays they are called compact rifles, scout rifles, or ultra-lights. But they are still the same type of rifle.

Most of my rifles weigh between 6 and 7.5 pounds scoped, with a length between 36 and 41 inches. However, they are also in moderate calibers like 7mm-08 Rem., .308 Win., .358 Win., and .270 Win. These calibers are adequate for most North American hunting, which includes deer, pronghorn, wild hog, goats, sheep, elk, and even moose with the right bullets.

My heaviest rifle, in .350 Remington Magnum, weighs 8 pounds and the weight serves the purpose of taming the recoil. For those who go in for Magnum Mania, the short, light rifle is not the most prudent choice. Since I am not nuts enough to hunt big bears with a .308, I got the .350 in case I ever find a way to afford such a hunt.

I would define a carbine as a rifle of moderate weight and length. This has typically been a weight of 6 to 7 pounds and approximately 38 to 40 inches in length. The Winchester M94 lever action is a classic example of a carbine. More contemporary examples are the Ruger M77 RSI, Mannlicher full stock carbine, and the Remington Model Seven.

The moderate cartridges that best suit carbines are generally based on standard size cases, typically falling between .243 and .308 caliber, and having velocities of from 2000 to 3000 feet-per-second. These are efficient cartridges that provide sufficient caliber size, sectional density, velocity, and trajectory for most hunting, but do not go to the extreme in any of these categories. As a result they also generate reasonable recoil.

Many of these cartridges are found in the .308 Win. family of cartridges. In addition to the parent cartridge, these include the .243 Win., .260 Rem., 7mm-08 Rem., and the new .308 Marlin (a distant cousin of the .308 Win.). Other examples are such classics as the 6.5x55, 7x57, .30-30 WCF, and .300 Savage. Medium bore fans might also want to toss in the .35 Rem., .338 Fed., and .358 Win. While not all inclusive, this is a good sampling of moderate cartridges reasonably suitable for carbines.

The defining characteristic of carbines is their handiness. The next time you are in a gun shop, ask to see a magnum rifle. Look for the longest barreled rifle on the rack. When you are finished handling that, ask to see a Winchester M94 or Marlin 336 carbine. Then ask yourself which you would rather carry all day in the field.

Most of us are going to choose the carbine. It is easier to hold and to carry. Weight carried has a cumulative effect on us. It will bother us more at the end of the day than at the beginning. A carbine also just feels better in the hands. It is livelier. It shoulders quicker. You can hold it steady longer while waiting for a deer to step from behind the tree.

Carbines are especially suitable for some types of hunting. Inching through a thick swamp comes to mind. When having to slip over, under, and around limbs and brush, a short rifle is much simpler to deal with. Some folks also prefer a carbine in tree stands. For them, a short rifle is easier to use from the stand than a long, heavy one.

Another application that comes to mind is when a rifle is incidental to other activities in the field. Hikers, game officers, Alaskan fisherman, and others who desire a rifle for defense while in the wild places would find a carbine easier to deal with than a full sized rifle. A carbine that is easier to carry along is less likely to be left in the cabin or the truck. An example of this is Remington's M600 carbine in .350 Rem. Magnum, which saw much use by Alaskan game officers back in the '60's.

There are certainly times when a full sized rifle is better than a carbine. If you want or need a long range cartridge with a MPBR (+/- 3") of about 300 yards or a magnum for shooting large game, a full length barrel is a practical necessity to achieve the ballistics for which you are paying. Also, a hard kicking cartridge kicks less in a heavier rifle. If a more moderate cartridge will do the job a carbine is a practical alternative.

Some of us simply like the looks of carbines. Some of us like the way they handle. And some of us are just lazy. We would rather carry less than more. So if your full sized rifle seems heavier than it used to be at the end of the day, give a carbine a try. Before you know it, you too might become a carbine convert.

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Copyright 2007 by Rick Ryals. All rights reserved.