Rifles for Protection in the Field

By Chuck Hawks

Remington 673 Guide Rifle
Model 673 Guide Rifle in .350 Rem. Mag. caliber. Illustration courtesy of Remington Arms Co., Inc.

As the title indicates, this piece is not about rifles for hunting dangerous game (that article has already written and can be found on the Rifle Information Page), but rifles carried for protection from large and dangerous predators. The largest and most dangerous predators, worldwide, are crocodiles and alligators, the large cats and bears. Certain pack animals, such as wolves and hyenas, can also be a very serious threat to unarmed persons. (So can giant snakes, such as the python and Anaconda, but an adequate edged weapon is probably better snake protection than a powerful rifle.)

Therefore, this article is written primarily for the fisherman, camper, hiker, backpacker, nature photographer and anyone else who feels the need to carry serious protection in the field when they are not hunting big game. Big game hunters are, presumably, already well armed.

Let's consider the unique characteristics required of a rifle carried for protection from dangerous predators. First, the rifle chosen must not be too burdensome to carry, or it is apt to be left behind just when it is needed. After all, hunting is not the purpose of this rifle and the fisherman, photographer, backpacker, etc. is probably also carrying plenty of gear for the primary purpose of his trek afield. Therefore, the ideal predator protection rifle should be shorter and lighter than a typical hunting rifle of similar power.

Where a scoped hunting rifle might ordinarily weigh 8 to 9 pounds, a rifle carried for protection should be as light as possible for its caliber. It should probably weigh at least a full pound less that a typical hunting rifle of the same caliber. A rifle weighing about seven pounds would be nice.

While a 24" to 26" barrel is typical for a long range hunting rifle, an 18" to 22" barrel is all that is necessary or desirable on a rifle carried for protection. We are not going to be doing any long range shooting, so we can accept the inferior ballistics attributed to a carbine length barrel.

This means that it will kick harder than a typical hunting rifle, recoil being inversely proportional to weight. Since the rifle will be carried a lot and used very seldom, this is a tolerable trade-off. However, the shooter must still be able to shoot it without flinching. To minimize the effect of recoil a stock that fits the shooter is very important. A high quality recoil pad is definitely recommended to soften the blow. A rifle that kicks too hard for the user to control will not allow the precise shot placement necessary to stop or turn a charge. Do not carry a 6.5 pound rifle if a 7.5 pound rifle is the lightest that you can shoot accurately.

Like any rifle intended for possible use on potentially dangerous game, a rifle carried specifically for protection from large predators must have adequate killing power to get the job done. Any gun is better than no gun at all, but a rifle purchased specifically for protection should be powerful enough to decisively put down any aggressive predator that might be encountered.

The generally recognized starting point in terms of cartridge power for use on the world's dangerous predators is the .30-06 shooting a 180 grain bullet. (A 200 or 220 grain bullet is an even better option in .30-06.) For use at close range (50 yards or less) we can also include the 8x57JS Mauser (180-200 grain bullet), .338 Marlin Express (200 grain bullet), .338 Federal (200-225 grain bullets), .358 Winchester (220-250 grain bullets) and .444 Marlin (265-300 grain bullets). These and similar cartridges will be our minimum acceptable calibers. They are particularly applicable to rifles intended primarily for use against the smaller dangerous predators that average less than 300 pounds in live weight. This includes animals such as the wolf, hyena, cougar, leopard, jaguar and black bear.

In a 24" or longer barrel the various 7mm, .300, and 8mm Magnums can outperform our benchmark cartridges, but the performance of these high velocity, small bore magnums is greatly attenuated in a short barreled rifle, while their recoil in a lightweight rifle and the muzzle blast from a short barrel becomes very unpleasant. The small bore magnums should probably be eliminated from consideration.

Good choices for protection from the largest terrestrial predators, such as lions, tigers and the great bears (grizzly, brown and polar) are medium velocity calibers that derive a lot of their killing power from bullet weight and cross-sectional area, while retaining adequate sectional density. These include cartridges such as the .338-06, .35 Whelen, .350 Remington Magnum, 9.3x62mm, 9.3x74R, .376 Steyr, .450/400 NE, .405 Winchester, .45-70 and .450 Marlin.

Preferred bullet weights are 225-250 grains in .338 caliber, 250 grains in .35 caliber, 270-286 grains in 9.3mm, 270 grains in .375, 300-400 grains in .40 and 350-500 grains in .45 caliber. Any of these, with bullets of adequate design and full power loads, will do the job on even the largest predators. Being able to handload your ammunition is a considerable benefit and is practically required for some calibers to achieve the desired level of performance.

Since the rifle carried for protection will only be used at short range (inside of 50 yards/meters and probably within 25 yards/meters), a telescopic sight is optional. Iron sights are adequate if the user is fast and accurate with them.

Probably the fastest and most accurate type of iron rear sight is the large aperture or peep sight (marketed by some manufacturers these days as a "ghost ring" sight). A square post is probably the most accurate type of front sight to be used in conjunction with an aperture rear sight. These are similar to the "battle sights" traditionally provided on most military rifles.

A wide shallow "V" rear sight is also fast to acquire and is a traditional choice for double-barreled rifles. Such rifles usually come with a front sight blade incorporating a large gold, white, or red bead.

A scope, if fitted, should be relatively small, light, sturdy and offer a large field of view. A fixed power scope is best, as there probably will not be time to adjust a variable power scope when the rifle is needed. Good scopes would include 2 to 2.5 power models, such as the Leupold M8 2.5x20mm Compact, Sightron SII Compact 2.5x20mm and Weaver Classic K-2.5x20mm.

Remember that this is a rifle intended for use at close range and probably on a charging, or at least moving, animal. A person who can shoot 3" groups at 50 yards (or 6 MOA) with a rifle carried for protection is adequately armed.

The first shot is the most important shot, but a back-up shot in reserve is reassuring, so a single shot rifle probably should not be considered, although it is ideal in other respects. On the other hand, a large magazine capacity is not very important, as there is unlikely to be time for more than two aimed shots at a charging animal. A double barreled rifle, if affordable and sufficiently light in weight, would be well worth considering, as would lever, pump, autoloading and bolt action repeating rifles offering three or more shots.

Some of the rifles of the general type we have been describing are called "guide guns." This, in fact, implies exactly the type of rifle we are seeking: a powerful, lightweight arm carried for protection against dangerous animals.

Let's see what we have here. Our ideal predator protection rifle should be chambered for a cartridge with at least as much close range killing power as the .30-06, be light in weight, have a barrel no longer than 22" and offer at least two shots.

There are actually quite a number of commercially manufactured rifles that would serve our purpose. Examples would include the Beretta Sable O/U (.30-60, 9.3x74R, .444 Marlin), Browning BAR Lightweight Stalker (auto; .30-06), Browning BLR Lightweight (lever; .30-06, .358 Win., .450 Marlin), CZ 550 Carbine/FS (bolt; .30-06, 9.3x62mm), CZ 557 Sporter (bolt; .30-06), Henry .45-70 (lever action), Kimber Models 84M and 8400 (bolt; .30-06, .338 Federal, .338 Win. Mag.), Marlin Models 338, 444 and 1895 (lever; .338 Marlin, .45-70, .450 Marlin), Merkel Petite Frame Double Rifle (.30-06, 9.3x74R), Merkel SR1 (auto; .30-06, 9.3x62mm), Remington Model Seven (bolt; .350 Rem. Mag.), Remington Model 750 Carbine (auto; .30-06), Remington Model 7600 Carbine (pump; .30-06), Ruger M77 Compact Magnum (bolt; .338 RCM), Ruger M77 Hawkeye Alaskan (bolt; .375 Ruger), Ruger M77 Hawkeye Ultra Light (bolt; .30-06), Ruger M77RSI International (bolt; .30-06), Savage Model 111 Lightweight Hunter/Alaskan Brush Hunter (bolt; .30-06, .338 Win. Mag., .375 Ruger), Steyr-Mannlicher Classic Mountain/Light/Full Stock (bolt; .30-06, 8x57JS, 9.3x62mm), Steyr-Mannlicher Luxus Mountain (bolt; .30-06, 8x57JS, 9.3x62mm) and Steyr-Mannlicher Big Bore (bolt; .450 Marlin). This list is certainly not inclusive, but it should provide some food for thought.

Of these, the Browning BLR in .450 Marlin, Henry .45-70 and Marlin 1895 Guide Guns in .45-70 or .450 Marlin are the models I most often recommend for reasonably priced, serious protection in the field. For the person who is also a big game hunter, a scoped Kimber 84M or 8400, Merkel Petite Frame Double Rifle, Remington Model Seven, Ruger M77 Hawkeye Alaskan and the Mannlicher Full Stock Carbine are examples of multi-purpose rifles suitable for both hunting and protection.

Remember that bullet placement is the most important factor in killing power. Whatever rifle is chosen must be capable of being used effectively in the field. If a given rifle kicks too hard to be mastered, get another rifle. Power will not make up for inadequate marksmanship, nor will a magazine full of cartridges. You can't miss fast enough to prevail if charged by a dangerous predator.

After the predator protection rifle is properly sighted-in from a bench rest (usually at 100 yards), practice assuming and shooting from field positions: standing, kneeling and sitting. Practice primarily on targets at distances from 10 yards to 50 yards. The article "Practical Marksmanship Training" by T.W. Batzel Jr. (see the Rifle Information Page), although written for deer hunters, has some excellent suggestions for practice sessions. It is also necessary to understand the basic anatomy and vital areas of the dangerous beasts from which you need protection. It is absolutely critical to be able to quickly deliver the first shot to the vitals of a dangerous beast. Good luck and stay safe!

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Copyright 2004, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.