Practical Woods Rifles

By Cal Bablitz

Ruger 77RSI
Ruger M77RSI, an example of a satisfactory woods rifle. Illustration courtesy of Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc.

The woods rifle, bush gun, timber gun . . . the terminology might vary from region to region, but regardless of where one lives the subject of rifles well suited to hunting densely vegetated terrain often comes up. It is my opinion that conversations about woods rifles are often fueled more by the desire to add a nostalgic firearm, an interesting action, or a new caliber to the collection, rather than practical rifles that will see much use in the field.

There is nothing wrong with this line of thought, but to the bush hunter who wants a practical rifle that will actually see a fair bit of use, the answer might not always be a Winchester 1886 in 45-70. I have spent considerable time hunting in thick bush. For many years I have hunted timber by preference, to the near exclusion of other types of hunting. In that time I have used everything from short pump action carbines to long traditional muzzleloaders and I like to think I have learned a few things about bush rifles along the way.

Before I even start talking about rifles, I will get what I feel is the most important point out of the way: the absolute most important thing is the hunter be familiar with his rifle. This can be said of most types of hunting, but I feel for the timber hunter it is more important than ever.

The long range shooter often has time to fumble around with his safety and shift around to get his eye relief right, or his cheek weld just so. The timber hunter's shooting opportunities are often measured in heart beats and he has no time for no such foolery.

For the timber hunter the actions required to make the shot should happen nearly subconsciously. This includes flicking the safety back on after a heart stopping encounter, or chambering a fresh round immediately after the shot.

As I grew more inclined to forsake agricultural areas for the vast boreal, I experimented with various rifles commonly regarded as excellent bush rifles. Despite having some iconic woods rifles, for a long time I kept going back to my old Ruger .270. It was not the "best" bush rifle I owned, by any means, but I was most familiar with it.

When I had to make split seconds count, the Ruger was the best rifle for me to have in hand. No amount of shortness, lightness, quick handling, or rapid fire capabilities will ever make up for lack of familiarity with a firearm that is to be used in dense cover.

The third most important concern for a bush rifle (I will get to the second presently) is weight. While just about any rifle can be used by the stand hunter, the still hunter or tracker needs to keep his rifle in hand while hunting and it is for this type of hunting that bush rifles tend to heavily emphasize portability.

Unlike those who wait for deer to come out in the open, the timber hunter stands a good chance of catching animals up and about at pretty much any time of day. Packing a lunch and staying out all day is very much worth the effort.

Wandering the timber for 10 or 12 hours with a nine pound rifle dangling from your wrists is tiring. It can make it hard to maintain the high degree of focus that is needed and causes unnecessary movement, as you increasingly shuffle the load from hand to hand throughout the day.

I eventually retired my pet Ruger to the gun safe in favor of a lighter rifle for this reason. If one is comfortable carrying around an 8.5 pound rifle all day, as I was in my younger years, then by all means go ahead. However, these days I find a rifle weighing somewhere between seven and eight pounds to be preferable.

Although the question of what cartridge to choose is often the most deliberated issue when choosing a new rifle, I happen to feel this is among the least important considerations to a woods hunter. There are very few rounds suitable for big hunting that will not work. Never the less, some cartridges are better than others, so I will delve into the subject.

The shot distances are typically well under 100 yards and quite often under 50. Even in the unlikely event a longer range shot is presented, a woods hunter's effective range is often governed by how far he can shoot accurately from a standing, offhand position.

On the odd occasion when there is time to find a steadier position, there is nearly always too much undergrowth to allow for kneeling or sitting. More often than not, I have found that even the minor position change required to use a tree for support results in a shooting lane closing and the target becoming obscured by vegetation. Regardless of cartridge, rifle, sights and even the distance at which game can be spotted, as an average marksman my shots are almost always limited to just over 100 yards by my own ability.

Once this limitation is realized it becomes obvious the traditional woods cartridges, in the .30-30 class, leave very little to be desired. They generally shoot flatter than required and hit hard enough to dispatch most North American game at typical ranges.

For the hunter who regularly chases elk and moose a more powerful round is warranted, but I have always felt that most magnums are completely impractical for timber hunting. At close range extreme velocity is of little value and often results in erratic terminal bullet performance. This can be countered to some degree by using tougher bullets, but for the added rifle length, weight and recoil very little has been gained.

For the reloader, some of the more obscure rounds that launch relatively large bullets at moderate velocities, such as the .338-06 or .350 Rem. Magnum, make an excellent choice for hunting large species in heavy timber. Not being a reloader myself, I have stuck to using reasonably common cartridges.

I consider the .24 and .25 caliber rounds a little lighter than ideal, but most standard cartridges ranging from .26 to .303 caliber offer plenty of killing power and penetration, while maintaining tolerable levels of recoil. While I would maybe give the nod to the .30 caliber cartridges, having used the 6.5x55mm and .270 Winchester with great success, that nod would be very slight.

I am a fan of using heavy for caliber bullets, especially in higher velocity cartridges. I do not put much faith in the theory heavier bullets are better at resisting deflection. However, when heavy bone is encountered at close range, I believe the lower velocity and higher sectional density of a heavy bullet are beneficial.

We finally come to what I consider the second most important aspect of a bush rifle, the sights. There is no better way to completely ruin a rifle's usefulness in the bush than to put too much scope on it, even if the rifle is only to be used from a stand.

Sights for a bush rifle deserve far more deliberation than caliber. I have used scopes, peep sights and open sights and I think they all have their benefits.

While I have heard it claimed that irons are faster to line up than a scope, and vice versa, to me they seem about even. It takes me a little more time to line up a peep sight than it does a low power scope, but I can find my target a little quicker with the peep sight. In terms of speed I consider them about the same.

If we accept our shots will mostly be limited to 100 yards or less, one might be inclined to favor a peep sight for its ease of use and simplicity. I would not necessarily dispute that logic.

Personally, I use a scope most of the time. I ordinarily use iron sights only on days where the weather conditions make it difficult to keep a scope clear of snow or rain. My argument for a telescopic sight is when shots get out to about 80+ yards, a scope is better for threading the bullet through openings, especially in dim light.

What magnification is best for a rifle to be used in timber? A 3-9x scope is the absolute maximum, but far from ideal. When a deer's body is mostly exposed it is relatively easy to get a fairly high powered scope on him quickly. When a deer is behind a maze of sticks and branches at close range and in poor lighting, it is a totally different story.

You see his shoulder appear in an opening in the undergrowth and bring the rifle up. Zoomed-in, you cannot see enough of the picture and everything is out of context. Is this really the opening you want? Is that brown patch his shoulder? You raise your head and look around the scope, try to make a mental note of where everything is, then try again.

This is supremely frustrating and it has cost me more than a few good animals. A 2-7x scope is far superior for close range shots and is still quite capable at longer ranges, if the rifle is also to be used in more open country. I used a 2-7x scope for many years and found it to be capable in almost any hunting situation.

I now use a 1-4x scope on my rifle, as even 2x can be excessive on rare occasions. In addition, if I accidentally leave my scope cranked-up, it probably will not spoil a shot.

Now, the important business of the rifle itself. A lot of hunters think that bush rifles should have actions that lend themselves to quick follow-up shots. I have never tried an autoloader, but having used most other actions I find I prefer the rugged simplicity of a bolt action. Use the action with which you are most comfortable.

I have hunted in bush country with rifles varying from relatively short to quite long. I found that a couple inches one way or the other does not make much difference in handling. The difference between a 20 inch barrel and a 22 inch barrel is of little consequence.

The difference between the Husqvarna carbine I have come to favor with its 20 inch barrel and my Lee Enfield with a 24 inch barrel is more noticeable, but it has never seemed like a terribly big issue.

I do not think reducing barrel length by a couple of inches makes much difference, and I think the small loss of velocity with standard cartridges matters even less. As a result, I prefer a barrel around 20 inches long and 22 inches is about as long as I'd want on a timber rifle.

What makes for a practical, effective woods rifle? That depends on the hunter. Once again, the most important thing is the hunter be familiar with his rifle. Therefore, a dedicated woods rifle makes sense if it is to be the hunter's main rifle.

For a hunter who almost exclusively hunts timber, a lever action .45-70 with a peep sight might be a practical rifle. For the hunter who only occasionally hunts timber it might be fun to carry such a rifle, but in reality it might be more hindrance than help. The best option for the occasional woods hunter is probably to use the rifle to which he or she is most accustomed.

For hunters who divide their time more evenly between timber and open country, the best option is probably a medium length, all-around rifle that is topped with a medium power riflescope. (For example, a .270, .308 or .30-06 rifle with a 22 inch barrel and a 2.5-8x36mm scope. -Editor) Some rifles are available both in carbine and full lengths and this might allow a hunter to switch between two rifles while keeping things comfortable.

Remember, when shot opportunities are measured in heartbeats no amount of shortness, lightness, or quick handling will ever be more important than being very familiar with the rifle you carry.

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Copyright 2017 by Cal Bablitz and/or All rights reserved.