The Modern American Plains Rifle


By Chuck Hawks

Ruger 1B
Ruger No. 1B. Illustration courtesy of Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc.

In the days of the westward expansion, a plains rifle was a heavy caliber, powerful rifle capable of dealing with the bison and grizzly bear that were encountered on the Great Plains. The familiar "Kentucky" type rifles and their relatively small caliber descendents were fine for the small game and whitetail deer of the Eastern United States, but simply inadequate for the demands of the large, dangerous game encountered when explorers and settlers reached the great plains and, farther west, the Rocky Mountains. The ultimate plains rifles of yesteryear were the mighty .40 to .50 caliber black powder cartridge Sharps, Remington, Browning High Wall, and other such big bore rifles.

Today the mighty herds of bison are long gone, and with them the grizzly bears that once preyed on them. And the modern plains rifle is a very different creature from its historical predecessors. Today's plains rifle is a long range model chambered for a high velocity, flat shooting cartridge designed primarily for bagging CXP2 game (open country deer and pronghorn antelope, for example). The Caribou of the open tundra are another, larger type of plains game, but they are not particularly hard to kill.

Plains rifles are ordinarily bolt action or modern single shot models with 24" or 26" barrels to achieve maximum velocity from their cartridges. The single shot, because it lacks the long action of a bolt gun, makes a handier and lighter rifle. A single shot with a 26" barrel is about 2" shorter than a bolt action with a 24" barrel. A classy falling block single shot rifle is still the queen of the plains.

Plains rifles should fall into the medium to heavy weight category, since steady holding and a high degree of practical accuracy are more important than fast handling or easy carrying. Most extended travel across the plains, whether dry or frozen, will be in a vehicle rather than on foot. And even a fairly heavy rifle is portable enough for the final stalk to get into shooting position. The Kimber LongMaster, Remington Model 700 Sendero and Weatherby Mark V Deluxe are representative of modern bolt action plains rifles, while the Ruger No. 1B is a representative single shot rifle.

Weatherby Mark V Deluxe
Mark V Deluxe. Illustration courtesy of Weatherby, Inc.

Cartridges can range from .243 Winchester to .300 Magnum, but the smaller bore calibers are generally preferred. Numbers such as the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .240 Weatherby Magnum, .25-06, .257 Weatherby Magnum, .260 Remington, 6.5-284, 6.5mm Remington Magnum, .264 Winchester Magnum, .270 Winchester, .270 WSM, .270 Weatherby Magnum and .280 Remington are reasonable calibers for plains rifles. Of course, the ubiquitous .308 Winchester and .30-06 still get plenty of use.

The 7mm, .300 and 8mm Magnums can deliver the flat trajectory required, but are unnecessarily powerful and encourage flinching, which is poisonous to the precision shooting that should be every long range hunter's goal. It's not how hard you hit light framed animals, but where you hit them that counts. Of course, the 7mm-8mm Magnums are excellent for the long range elk hunter and for larger African plains game, but that is another subject entirely.

Zero a plains rifle to take maximum advantage of its cartridge's maximum point blank range (MPBR) +/-3". For most of the cartridges mentioned above that will give you a MPBR of about 300 yards. Avoid shots in excess of the MPBR of whatever cartridge and load you select. It's very difficult to follow-up an animal wounded from far away and a clean, one shot kill should always be every hunter's goal.

Bullets should be selected to open at long range against light resistance. They should also feature a high ballistic coefficient to maximize MPBR and minimize wind drift. The wide open spaces are typically windy. Experienced varmint hunters have an advantage here, as the two sports have a lot in common. The plains hunter willing to attempt long shots (out at the end of his or her cartridge's MPBR) should be proficient at compensating for wind drift.

Most of the modern plastic-tipped bullets are excellent choices (Swift Sirocco, Nosler Ballistic Tip, Hornady SST, etc.), as are conventional soft point boat-tail spitzer bullets such as the Sierra GameKing and Speer BT Spitzer. Bullet weights of 90-100 grains in .243/6mm, 110-117 grains in .25 caliber, 120-140 grains in .264/6.5mm, 130 grains in .270, 139-140 grains in .28/7mm and 150-165 grains in .30 caliber are typical choices for plains hunting.

CXP2 animals are not huge targets, but they are not prairie dogs, either. You are probably looking, as a minimum, at a 10" kill zone. The standard 3-9x riflescope is a good choice for a plains rifle, and a 4-12x scope would also be a practical choice. One of the Nikon or Burris laser scopes reviewed in detail on the Product Review Page would be excellent for a purpose built plains rifle. Heat mirage can make magnifications above about 10x counterproductive. Variable power scopes are definitely preferred, as open country animals are not always shot at long range. Leave your scope set at 4 to 6 power until you know for sure that you will need more magnification.

To close, here is a brief run down of plains rifles owned by various members of the Oregon contingent of the Guns and Shooting Online staff: Ruger No. 1B in 6mm Remington, Ruger 1B in .270 Winchester (2 each), Weatherby Mark V Deluxe in .257 Wby. Magnum, Weatherby Mark V Deluxe in .240 Wby. Magnum and Weatherby Mark V Deluxe in .270 Wby. Magnum. All of these rifles wear high quality 3-9x, 3.5-10x or 4-12x scopes. (Huh, until I wrote this paragraph I hadn't realized how similar our rifle choices were!)

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Copyright 2007, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.