People love lists. We have lists of the best and worst dressed, the scariest movies, the most beautiful celebrities, the most talented athletes, the dumbest politicians, and just about every other category a magazine editor can dream up. I love lists and am occasionally asked to rattle off my list of what I think are the best guns ever made. However, I’ve never done so in public. Until now. This is a subjective ranking in order, but all the firearms here have several things in common: All are superlative designs; all were chosen without regard to price; all were commercial successes to a greater or lesser degree; and almost all were influential on the design of other guns. You’ll notice that there are no military or target arms here (with a few exceptions, for reasons explained). We decided to limit the list to hunting firearms, which is what F&S is about. In making my selection, I’ve limited myself to the past 100 years or so, going back to the introduction of smokeless powder, so these are guns of the modern era. In many ways, firearms have changed very little over the past century. That doesn’t mean they haven’t progressed; it means they were pretty good to begin with–and these are the best.
-  Winchester Model 70 (pre-1964)
It was not even an original design. The Model 70 was an improvement of Winchester’s Model 54, which in turn was based on the Mauser Model 98. But upon its birth in 1936, it kindled a love affair that has never died. Winchester advertised it as “the rifleman’s rifle,” and the slogan stuck. This was the big-game rifle by which all others were measured, and it is still, in my opinion, the best factory bolt action ever made. The gun borrowed the best features from both the Mauser 98 and the Model 54. It retained the Mauser’s massive extractor and controlled-feed system but utilized a cone-shaped breech like the Model 54’s, which guided cartridges into the chamber even if they weren’t perfectly aligned. In place of the Mauser’s slow, jarring firing-pin fall, the Model 70’s was very fast and smooth. The trigger was the best ever designed for a hunting rifle, period–a three-piece miracle of simplicity that gave an excellent pull, would never fail, and once adjusted was adjusted forever. But the Model 70 has had a rocky road. Pre-World War II examples were fine, but after the war quality steadily declined, and the ones turned out before the old model’s demise in 1963 were shoddy indeed. Winchester’s then-president decreed that it must die because it was too costly to produce. In 1964, Winchester announced a new Model 70 that was cheaper and basically a good gun, but it was big-time, serious Ugly. Shooters beheld it and were outraged. Their fury did not abate until 1994, when Winchester reintroduced the traditional design under the name Model 70 Classic. Many of the original Model 70s are now collector’s pieces, particularly in the scarcer calibers, and some people will pay very fancy prices for them. Its luster remains undimmed. Never before and probably never again will we see such a combination of accuracy, reliability, grace, and mystique.
-  Mauser Model 98
Imagine someone building an automobile two years before the end of the 19th century, five years before the Wright brothers flew. Now imagine that this same automobile is still very much in use, still regarded by many as the best car around, and still in production. That is exactly what Peter Paul Mauser did when he designed his Model 98 rifle in Germany.
One of two military arms on this list, the 98 is here because it also comes in sporting versions, and because its action has been the basis for almost every bolt action made since 1900.
The Model 98 was the culmination of five preceding models and is, to quote The Encyclopedia of Small Arms, “the most successful bolt-action design ever produced.” Made in the millions, it was used by most of the world’s armies throughout the 20th century. If there is such a thing as an unstoppable machine, the Model 98 comes as close as anything.
New Mauser-actioned rifles are being crafted in Europe, and the military actions that date back 60 years or more remain sought after by gunsmiths and lovers of custom rifles. In some circles, if you mention that you have a short-action (G3¾0) Mauser for sale, people will begin weeping and licking your shoes.
There is a reason for this: Come hell, high water, sand, ice, snow, mud, dirty ammo, rusty chambers, burst cases, or anything else, the Mauser 98 will function.
-  Winchester Model 12
It is well known among the snobbier of shotgun enthusiasts that no repeating shotgun can handle as well as an over/under or a side-by-side. But there is one repeater that points like the Finger of Doom itself–the Model 12 pump.
Introduced in 1914, the Model 12 lasted until 1976, when production costs drove it out of the Winchester lineup. It came in every shape and form–from field models to riot guns to heavy waterfowl models–and in all gauges, but it was as a competition gun that the Model 12 was perhaps most dominant.
For decade after decade, if you did not shoot trap and skeet with a Model 12, you were an odd fellow. The Model 12 seemed to lock on a target and stay there, and you could not wear it out. Serious shooters would put several hundred thousand rounds through their guns, have some minor rebuilding done, and repeat the process. I’ve handled one Model 12 trap gun that had had a million shells shucked through it, and it was in much better health than its owner.
And it shot fast. Well-broken-in Model 12s had a slickety-slack smoothness that let you shoot them as quickly as an auto. Winchester’s great exhibition shooter Herb Parsons used to hold five clay targets in his left hand, throw them into the air, and break them all before they hit the ground, pumping his Model 12 faster than the eye could follow.
The Model 12 has faded now, overshadowed by more modern guns, but in its time it was the repeater–indeed, the shotgun–against which all others were measured.
-  Remington Model 1100
Autoloading shotguns had been around for a long time by 1963, but the new Model 1100 was different. Previous self-loaders were heavy and handled like sledgehammers. If they were recoil operated, they kicked like mules. People tolerated them only because they offered three or more fast shots. The 1100, on the other hand, was sleek, moderate in weight, and handled splendidly. Most important, it had softened recoil.
Its gas-operated action spread the rearward thrust of the gun over a long period of time and took the sting out of shooting. Trap and skeet competitors bought 1100s by the carload. New shooters, and people who otherwise would not be shooters, took to the 1100 as the one gun that would not beat the daylights out of them.
The 1100 was not perfect. It would jam if you didn’t keep its gas system clean, and it wouldn’t digest every kind of shell you fed it. Once you really began to pour the rounds through, an 1100 would break, but it was easy to fix. Not a “fine” gun like the Model 12, no marvel of fit and finish, the 1100 made extensive use of stamped parts. But it was, and is, a revolutionary gun.
-  Smith & Wesson Model 29
Some people date the birth of S&W’s, Model 29 .44 Magnum to the 1970 movie Dirty Harry, but they are ignorant and deserve our scorn. The Model 29 debuted in 1955 and is one of those rare firearms that force us to redefine what a gun can do. The .44 Magnum enabled handgunners to not only hunt big game but to shoot it at rifle-caliber distances. The cartridge, developed by Remington, fired a 240-grain lead bullet at 1500 fps. It was twice as powerful as its nearest competitor, the .357 Magnum. It was a handful to shoot and still is. Next to it, the .45 Auto is a girl’s caress. The Model 29 revolver, for which S&W chambered the new cartridge, was as fine a gun as Smith–or anyone else–knew how to make. Selling for the then astronomical sum of $240, Model 29s were beautifully fitted and finished, and each one came in its own handsome wooden case.
Both powerful and beautiful to look upon, the Model 29 was very accurate as well. If you didn’t care to break your hand with .44 Magnums, you could shoot .44 Specials in your Model 29, making it as docile and accurate a revolver as you could want. Dirty Harry was a vulgar sideshow. The S&W Model 29 is a masterpiece that changed the sport of shooting.
-  Winchester Model 94
It is useful only at comparatively short range; it does not take to scope mounting; it is not accurate by today’s standards. Every attempt to torture it into something else has failed. But if you say “deer rifle,” you mean the Model 94 lever action. Short and light, it kicks hardly at all, gets on target fast, is ultrareliable, and carries comfortably in the hand.
Although the 94 has been chambered for half a dozen cartridges over the years, the overwhelming favorite is the .30/30. In fact, “thutty-thutty” and “deer rifle” are more or less synonymous. It’s hard to imagine now, but the .30/30 was considered a red-hot high-velocity round when it first appeared in 1895. It was the first small-bore big-game load to utilize smokeless powder, and it fired 170-grain bullets at the then sensational velocity of 1970 fps.
A relic the 94 may be, but as hundreds of thousands of whitetails would testify, it’s a very effective one.
-  Remington Model 700
In the years after World War II, Remington hired a pair of brilliant designers named Mike Walker and Wayne Leek. The two men realized that if the company was to survive, it could not make guns the way it had before 1941. The new generation of Remingtons would have to be far simpler and cheaper to make. And so they came out with a horrible-looking rifle called the Model 721. It was cheap to make and looked it, but it was more accurate than any other factory rifle at the time.
In 1962, after an intermediate generation, the 721 morphed into the Model 700, which, although still a cinch to make, was a good-looking gun that retained all of its accuracy. The first minute-of-angle group I ever saw from a sporting rifle came courtesy of a Model 700 7mm Remington Magnum.
Since its inception, the Model 700 has been the foundation for more superaccurate rifles than anything else. Its sheer simplicity of design and wonderful trigger make it the first choice of anyone who wants to shoot small groups.
[HOW IT WORKS] BENELLI AUTOLOADER
Newton’s first law of motion–an object at rest tends to remain at rest–drives the ultradependable Benelli action, which redefined autoloading reliability in the 1990s.
The Benelli system consists of nothing more than a three-part bolt assembly–a bolt body, a rotary bolt head, and a short, stout spring between the two. As the rest of the gun moves backward under recoil, the unfixed free-floating bolt body remains in place, butting against the bolt head, solidly locking the action, and compressing the spring. When the rearward movement of the gun slows, the spring throws the bolt backward, ejecting the spent shell.
This inertia system functions with a wide range of loads, and by beefing up the action, Benelli was able to turn the original 3-inch Black Eagle into the 3 ½-inch Super Black Eagle with relative ease. The company’s lineup today consists of well over 100 model variations, from lightweight bird guns to magnum turkey-getters, all built around the same simple action.
Since the system doesn’t bleed off expanding gases to operate, the gases and fouling blast out the barrel with the rest of the payload, leaving the inside of the gun clean. Benellis, therefore, keep on shooting under conditions that strangle most gas guns. They make the very short list of models South American outfitters keep as “house guns” that will cycle more rounds in a season than most guns shoot in their owner’s lifetime.
Hunters praise their Benellis for reliable performance, but slick handling qualities may be the guns’ best feature. Because it has no springs or pistons around the magazine tube, a Benelli auto is lighter and slimmer up front than any gas gun.
Finally, Benellis are fast, spitting out empties and chambering fresh rounds more quickly than any other auto. For average hunters, however, speed isn’t a critical issue; function is. And the Benelli keeps on plugging long after other guns fall by the wayside.
THE RELIABLE AUTO
The Benelli recoil system is simplicity itself, consisting of a bolt body (A), a bolt spring (B), and a rotary bolt head (C). As the gun recoils, the bolt body remains in place, compressing the spring and locking the bolt head. As recoil eases (D), the spring releases and ejects the empty shell (E). There’s no gas system to worry about or clean, and Benellis will handle any kind of shell you feed them.
-  Remington XP-100
The development of handguns has progressed in a series of seismic jolts. One came in 1963, when Remington announced the XP-100, which looked like a prop from a Buck Rogers movie. It was not so much a handgun as a one-handed rifle. To make the gun, Remington utilized the bolt action from its Model 600 carbine, a Zytel stock borrowed from the Model 66 .22 autoloader, and a barrel rib and sights from the Model 660 magnum carbine. Designers didn’t stop there, though. They also cooked up a red-hot varmint cartridge called the .221 Fireball to chamber in the new gun. The result was historic: For the first time, varmint hunters could pound pasture poodles without a rifle, and handgunning had taken on a whole new dimension.
-  Remington Model 870
Think of it as a Winchester Model 12 that is easy to manufacture. The Model 870 made its debut in 1950 as one of the first of Remington’s “new generation” of guns that did away with the complex machining of the past. And it may be sacrilege to say so, but the plebian 870 is probably as good a gun as the aristocratic Model 12. It pumps just as fast, points as well, is just as reliable, and is unbelievably long-lived. The late shotgunning great Rudy Etchen put 4 million rounds through his 870 with just some minor parts replacement to keep it going. The 870 is still with us, made in every configuration known to man, and it will probably be around for many years more.
-  BROWNING SUPERPOSED
Unless you are an advanced geezer, you are unaware that over/unders were once a rarity in the United States. Then came the Browning Superposed, and all that changed. A John M. Browning design, the Superposed was made in Belgium and was introduced in 1931, two years into the Great Depression. This should have killed the costly Superposed, but it was so superior an arm that it survived and thrived. It was made in all gauges and in four grades and became a mainstay of hunters and competitive shooters alike. More important, for decades on end it was the definition of a “fine” gun. If you shot a Browning Superposed, you were shooting something special.
-  Ruger 10/22
This may well be the most popular rimfire rifle in the world, and it is probably the most cobbled on. Arriving in 1964, the 10/22 has been made in half a dozen configurations, most of which are used for plinking and small-game hunting, the normal task of a .22 auto.
But at some point it was discovered that if you installed a heavy target barrel and a custom trigger and replaced the factory stock with a high-combed target model, you’d have a rifle of uncanny accuracy that you could compete with and win. The reliable, affordable 10/22 regularly morphs into a supergun, but millions of them are still being used to shoot squirrels and tin cans.
-  Browning Auto-5 Standard
It is called the Humpback and gets this unlovely name from its unlovely receiver, which forms an abrupt angle where it joins the stock. John M. Browning designed this recoil-operated autoloading shotgun, which debuted in the United States in 1903, was discontinued that same year, and then was reintroduced in 1923, this time to stay for 50 years. The Humpback had one glaring fault: It kicked. Its bolt came crashing back with enthusiasm. But it had one great virtue: It worked. Waterfowlers loved it. In an era of swollen cardboard shells that would stop any other gun, the Humpback kept shooting.
-  Springfield Model 1903
Besides the Model 98 Mauser, this is the only military arm to make my list. The ’03 Springfield is a slavish copy of the Model 98; Mauser sued the Springfield Armory for patent infringement and won. This aside, the ’03 is the most graceful military rifle ever made, and one of the most accurate.
It earns its place here because it changed us from a nation of lever-action shooters to a nation of bolt-action shooters. The Dough-boys who were issued Springfields during World War I decided that the ’03 was the way to go. Thousands upon thousands of the rifles were converted to sporting use, or their actions were used as the basis for custom rifles. The very first Springfield sporter was made in 1909 for President Theodore Roosevelt. As a military and a sporting arm alike, the ’03 was an aristocrat.
[HOW IT WORKS] Smith & Wesson Model 500
Introduced in 2003, this 4 ½-pound monster of a double-action revolver is as much of a quantum leap over existing handguns as the Model 29 was 50 years ago. The .50 S&W cartridge fires a 400-grain bullet at over 1600 fps, leaving the .44 Magnum–and just about everything else–far in the dust. But the immensely strong, very expensive Model 500 revolver is surprisingly easy to shoot, considering how powerful it is. You want it, the Model 500 can drop it for you, from deer to Cape buffalo.
THE .50-CALIBER REVOLVER
The 500’s cylinder (A) holds five shots rather than six and employs an unusual ball detent that actually uses the force of recoil to hold the cylinder in alignment. This version of the revolver comes with a 10 ½-inch barrel equipped with a muzzle brake (B) and an integral rail (C) for scope mounting. In size (D) and weight the Model 500 dwarfs a Model 629 .44 Magnum with a 4-inch barrel: 18 inches overall compared to 9 5/8; 82 ounces to 41.5.
The S&W Model 500 dwarfs the Model 629, itself a sizable revolver.
-  Mossberg 500
Unglamorous guns need love too, and there are few more utilitarian arms than Mossberg’s bread-and-butter pump, which made its entrance in 1962.
It figures not in verse and song, but it’s affordable, and it works, and that is enough for thousands and thousands of shooters who swear by the 500. Like all hugely successful designs, it has been produced in many configurations and is in current use by the U.S. military, which is a sure sign that the thing is tough. When your Purdey balks and your Parker doubles, turn to the Mossberg 500, for it will not fail you.
-  Remington Nylon 66
It’s quite possible that our acceptance of synthetic stocks is due to a .22 rimfire autoloader that Remington first offered in 1959. It was called the Nylon 66 and had a stock made of a high-strength DuPont material called Zytel. It weighed only 4 pounds, held 14 rounds in a tubular magazine in the butt, and was offered in brown, black, or green. And it was unstoppable. I never cleaned mine and used it in 20-below temperatures, and it never failed me.
In 1959, over a period of 14 days, Remington’s exhibition shooter Tom Frye shot at 100,010 wood blocks thrown into the air, using two Model 66s. He hit all but six and had no malfunctions.
The Nylon 66 had a 41-year production run, and over a million were made.
-  New Ultra Light Arms Model 20
Prior to 1985, all light bolt-action hunting rifles began as heavy factory guns that were chopped, gouged, and hacked into svelteness. The first bolt gun that was born truly light was a .308 that weighed 5 ½ pounds with a scope.
Melvin Forbes, a West Virginia gunsmith, enlisted the help of two friends to create a Kevlar stock that weighed only a pound, and then he designed a barreled action that did not have an extra ounce in it. The result was so light it seemed like a toy, and it was as accurate as much heavier guns. As for durability, a NULA action, used for testing by Nosler Bullets, had 4 million rounds cycled through it over 12 ½ years before it was finally retired. That is probably more than you will shoot through one.
[HOW IT WORKS] Weatherby Mark V Deluxe
Roy Weatherby designed the cartridges that bear his name in the 1940s and built custom rifles around them, using whatever actions he could find. In 1958, he announced his own action, the Mark V, and it was as radical as his cartridges. Employing a massive bolt with nine, rather than two, locking lugs, it slid like a piston in the Mark V’s receiver. The stocks were claro walnut, often very fancy, and as unlike other stocks as a California hot rod was unlike a showroom Buick.
On special order, Weatherby would build you a rifle that was fancier than anything else in any gun rack. Profuse engraving, gold and silver or contrasting wood inlays, carving, and elaborate checkering patterns were yours for the asking. At its dandified peak, the Mark V was not so much a fire-arm as an original American art form.
THE RADICAL ACTION
It is an extremely strong lockup since the case head is fully enclosed (B) and because the strain of firing is taken up by nine lugs.
When he created the Mark V action in 1957, Weatherby designer Fred Jennie made a major departure from the Mauser design. He employed a bolt (A) that was just slightly smaller in diameter than the receiver, which eliminated the Mauser bolt’s “slop” and wobble. And instead of dual locking lugs, the Mark V employs nine much smaller lugs, which reduces bolt lift from the Mauser’s 90 degrees to 45 degrees.
-  Smith & Wesson Triple Lock
Officially, it is called the .44 Hand Ejector First Model or the .44 Hand Ejector New Century, but to handgun fanciers it will forever be the Triple Lock, so called because its cylinder locks at three points instead of the usual two.
The Triple Lock is a big, heavy, strong revolver that was revealed to the world in 1908. Terribly expensive to produce, even in those days of cheap labor, it sold for $21 at a time when the average American worker made $5 a week.
The standard chambering for the Triple Lock was the .44 Special, although it was also offered in .38/40 and .45 Long Colt. Decades before the advent of the .44 Magnum, venturesome handloaders found that they could stuff .44 Special shells with far more powder than was ever intended, and that the results were interesting to say the least. You could not do this with just any revolver, but the Triple Lock could take it and not shoot loose or blow up.
Sadly, Smith & Wesson could not afford to make the gun past 1917. The Triple Lock was discontinued with only 15,000 produced. Today, it is regarded as a treasure, one of our finest American handguns, and a Triple Lock in prime condition will command $3,000 instead of $21.
-  Savage Model 110
Debuting in 1958–the same year as the Mark V–the Savage Model 110 was the polar opposite of the Weatherby. A cheap bolt-action rifle put together out of inexpensive parts, it had a rotten trigger, and its barrel was screwed to the receiver by a slotted collar that added to the gun’s ugliness. But the 110 functioned, and it didn’t cost much, and it shot very, very accurately. And nearly 40 years later, this unassuming rifle would save Savage Arms from oblivion.
In the mid-1990s, when Savage had fallen on hard times and was about to close its doors, the company’s new president, Ron Coburn, asked which gun they could still produce. The answer was the Model 110. And so it was all Savage made for a while, but the company put everything it had left into that one gun. Gradually, shooters caught on that the homely rifle would outshoot just about anything else out there, and the company prospered. Savage 110s (and its variants, the Models 111 and 116) will still win no prizes for beauty, but they are probably the most accurate factory rifles on the market.
-  Ruger Mark I
William B. Ruger’s first venture into the gun business failed, but he knew what he had done wrong, and his second attempt is the stuff of legends. He went into partnership with the artist Alexander Sturm, and Sturm, Ruger & Co. began selling a .22 semiauto pistol that looked a little like a German Luger and sold for the low (even for 1949) price of $37.50. This delightful little gun was rugged, accurate, and simple to manufacture. It was a huge and instant success. In 1951, Alexander Sturm died, and the red Ruger eagle on the Mark I grip was changed to black in mourning, but the pistol has remained intact.
-  Parker
There is magic to that one word: It’s short-hand for the Golden Age of American shot-gunning, or simply for the finest American shotgun. Parkers were produced from 1866 to 1934 and spanned the transition from black to smokeless powder. They were crafted in a stupefying number of grades, gauges, and frame sizes. The Trojan was the plain working gun of the line, and ascending grades led to the sumptuous A-1 Special and the fabulous Invincible, of which only three were made. The Parker is a beautiful, fine-handling, and distinctive gun that is treasured above all others of its time. I can even put numbers to the esteem in which it is held: In perfect condition, the plain-vanilla Trojan is worth $2,000, and some versions of the A-1 Special will fetch $100,000. The three Invincibles are now regarded as priceless.
-  Browning Gold
How do you replace a legend? Browning answered that question in 1994 with the Gold, the successor to the great but outdated A-5 autoloader. In 1997, Browning debuted the 3 ½-inch version. As the first “all-load” gas auto, the 3 ½-inch Gold broadened our idea of versatility; with one gun, you could interchangeably shoot anything from light 2 ¾-inch target loads to 3 ½-inch, 2-ounce turkey magnums or 1550 fps steel screamers, all with the significant recoil reduction of a gas-operated action.
The Gold has matured into a wonderfully shootable, reliable gun. The sporting clays version is one of just two autos (the Beretta 391 is the other) that you see in the winner’s circle at sporting clays tournaments.
-  Marlin Model 336
Marlin’s 336 is not as famous as the Winchester 94, but that is about the only way in which it falls short. It is the other Deer Rifle Supreme, and I believe it is a considerably better gun. It first went on sale in 1948. Like the Model 94, it is short, light, quick to point, and dead reliable. I have found it to be considerably more accurate than the 94, and because it was designed with side ejection it takes very well to a scope. Finally, it is chambered for the .35 Remington, which is a better cartridge than the .30/30.
-  Marlin Model 39A
This is the other great Marlin–a .22 rimfire lever action that has been in continuous production in one form or another since 1939. I doubt if there is an experienced shooter who has never owned one of these rifles.
If the 39A has a fault, it is the takedown feature that has been part of the gun for just about forever. Turn a big knurled screw on the receiver, and the rifle becomes two pieces. Other people must like it, but I do not. When I owned one, I never saw a compelling reason to take the gun apart, and the feature added a needless complication to a design of otherwise sublime simplicity. That said, it is a marvelous gun that everyone has lusted after at one point or another.
-  Ruger Single-Six
In 1953, America was entering a TV Western craze; it was impossible to turn on your set and not see some horse’s ass–literally. With all these small-screen cowpokes waving around Colt Peacemakers, Bill Ruger reasoned that an inexpensive version of the Peacemaker might sell well. And so was born the Single-Six, a .22 rimfire clone of the Colt Model 1873 Single Action Army revolver.
This was at a time when the single-action was thought by the gun industry to be deader than Billy the Kid. Ruger proved them wrong and resurrected the thumb-buster from oblivion.
-  H&R Topper
It’s a basic, single-shot, exposed-hammer shotgun that dates back to 1946. Even today, when shooters are willing to pay any amount for guns, it’s only $150. There is no counting how many Toppers over the years have enabled people to hunt who would not otherwise be able to do so.
[HOW IT WORKS] Perazzi MX Series
The Perazzi over/under is on this list even though it is used almost entirely for competition. It got here by virtue of its excellence, because it is the first modular shotgun, and because it has had a profound effect on the design of other shotguns. You can swap chokes, barrels, trigger groups, and stocks in the twinkling of an eye.
The Perazzi company has been around since the 1950s, but its guns did not make their presence felt here until the late 1960s. “Fifteen hundred dollars for a plain gun?” people bellowed. Then they got in line to buy one.
Perazzis are expensive, incredibly durable, and supremely successful. It is quite possible that, in the last 30 years, more clay-bird championships have been won with them than with anything else.
THE MODULAR SHOTGUN
Perazzi has perfected the modular shotgun. The comb (A) can be raised or lowered, adjusting the point of impact higher or lower. Choke tubes (B) can be interchanged. Trigger groups (C) can be swapped in a couple of seconds, giving you a choice of coil or V springs and/or barrel-firing sequence. The buttstock itself (D) can be removed and replaced in a minute or two via a bolt that’s accessible through the recoil pad.
-  Ithaca Model 4E
This single-barrel trap gun was the last survivor of the Golden Age of shotgunning. Introduced in 1926, it did not breathe its last until 1991, 50 years after Parker, L.C. Smith, A.H. Fox, and LeFever had all become history. Ithaca single-barrels came in eight grades and were prized during the early days of American trapshooting. It was a very simple gun, and very, very strong. Renowned composer and conductor John Philip Sousa used an Ithaca to break clay birds, and the company named its top-grade trap gun after him.
At the very end, 4Es were made exactly as they always had been, by hand, with pride.
-  Thompson/Center Contender Pistol
The T/C Contender was first marketed in 1967. It’s a simple, single-shot, short-barreled firearm that offers almost unlimited versatility by virtue of interchangeable barrels. You can get it in a startling variety of calibers, from .22 LR up through centerfire rifle cartridges, and it will shoot with great accuracy.
Ironically, the T/C Contender is now available as a full-size rifle, which utilizes the same action but employs a 23-inch barrel, a full-size fore-end, and a buttstock. So this one-hand rifle is now a two-hand rifle.
-  Winchester Model 52 Sporter
For many years, there was only one fine .22 sporter, and that was the Winchester Model 52. It got its start in 1934 with the Model 52 target rifle action at its heart and went through four variations. In production until 1958, it was unrivaled for beauty and accuracy–the rimfire version of the Model 70. Used 52 Sporters in good condition are bringing fabulous sums.
-  Ruger Number One
Part of Bill Ruger’s genius lay in the fact that he did not believe in market research. He built what he liked, for his own reasons. In 1966, he literally raised the dead by bringing out a single-shot falling-block rifle. It was like reintroducing the matchlock or the snaphaunce, but Ruger doted on the single-shot, and that was that.
It would have cost a fortune to make, except that Ruger had conveniently reinvented a process called investment casting (last used in ancient Egypt). This enabled him to avoid the machining that would have been necessary to make the Number One’s receiver.
Bill Ruger’s baby was a solid success from the start, and it single-handedly resurrected the single-shot rifle.
-  Tar-Hunt RSG-12
Here is another gun that redefined firearms performance. During the 1970s and 1980s, rifled slug guns grew increasingly important, but for the most part, a slug gun was a 50-yard machine. A few could hack it at 75 yards, and a very few at 100 or more. Enter Tar-Hunt Custom Rifles, which in 1990 unveiled a bolt-action slug gun that was built like a rifle and shot like a rifle. It cost a lot of money, but it would put those big lumps of lead through the same hole at 100 yards and beyond with deadly certainty. Fourteen years later, it still has no serious rivals.
[HOW IT WORKS] Savage Model 99
Its streamlined form first graced the shooting world a year before the 20th century, and it stayed in production for nearly all of that century. I think it is the greatest lever action, period, and at the least, it was far, far ahead of any other lever gun. The 99 was strong and sleek. It could handle pointed bullets because it used a rotary magazine rather than a tubular one, and thus could be chambered in .250/3000, .300 Savage, and other calibers more inherently accurate and powerful than those the Winchester Model 94 was chambered for at that time. It had a good trigger, and its accuracy was, for the most part, excellent. Sadly, it is a gun that cannot be produced without a good deal of hand labor, which makes it impossible to manufacture at a competitive price. The good news is that there are still plenty of 99s around, and they are just as effective in the 21st century as they were in the 20th.
THE ROTARY MAGAZINE
Along with the Mannlicher/Schoenauer, the Savage Model 99 was one of the very few rifles to employ a rotary magazine (A). It held five cartridges in a spool that rotated into battery with each stroke of the lever. This enabled the 99 to employ spitzer bullets, which other, tube-magazine lever actions couldn’t. The 99’s bolt (B) locked at the rear, with the lever (C) camming into place behind it. It was a very strong system and allowed the use of high-intensity cartridges such as the .250/3000.
The 99 action looks simple but the rotary magazine must be fitted by hand.
-  Dakota Model 76
The Dakota 76 was introduced in the year of America’s Bicentennial and makes this list for one simple reason, best put by the dean of American custom gunmakers, Jerry Fisher: “It’s a perfect action that comes off an assembly line. No matter how fussy you are, you can’t find anything wrong with it.”
The 76 is the ultimate refinement of the Model 98 Mauser, combining the 98’s best features with those of the Winchester Model 70. Only about 100 are made a year, and they start at $3,600. Nonetheless, Dakota is hard put to keep up with the demand.
-  Knight MK-85
Tony Knight is another country gunsmith who changed the way things are done. In 1985, he built a muzzleloader with the nipple at the rear of the barrel, directly behind the powder charge instead of alongside. This made ignition far more reliable and began the Great Blackpowder Revolution, which has resulted in muzzleloaders that are practically as accurate, reliable, and fast to load as cartridge-firing arms.
All this drives traditionalists mad. But ordinary hunters love it.
-  Ruger Blackhawk
With the Single-Six a success, Sturm, Ruger announced the Blackhawk single-action revolver. It was a much improved version of the Colt Peacemaker, chambered in .357 magnum, and was simple, extremely strong, and affordable. It marked the return of the single-action centerfire revolver as a viable firearm.
The Blackhawk was yet another Ruger triumph and enabled untold thousands of shooters to pretend that they were Wyatt Earp–except that their revolvers were better than his.
-  Ithaca Model 37
It’s hard to please everyone, but the Model 37 has come pretty close. The 37–introduced in that year–loads and ejects from the bottom. This protects its innards from the weather and makes for an unusually reliable gun. Duck hunters loved it for that reason, as did cops and the military. It is also light for a pump gun, and so upland hunters took to it. The smoothbore slug version of the Model 37 was among the most accurate you could get in the era before slug guns were built like rifles, so add deer hunters to the list. All in all, there were 2 million Model 37s produced.
-  Remington Model 600 Magnum
IN 1965, I owned a brand-new Model 600 in .350 Remington Magnum. It was short and light, and it kicked very sincerely. The 600 Magnum lasted only three years, and then a funny thing happened: People recognized that this gun with the odd laminated stock and the nonfunctional nylon rib was sensationally effective. Nearly 40 years later, it has come to life again as the Model 673 Guide Rifle–a gun whose time has come round at last.
-  Winchester Model 71
You could argue that this is a failed design. Only 47,000 were made between 1935 and 1957, and it was chambered for an obscure cartridge called the .348. But that would be only part of the truth. The Model 71 is about the fastest-handling, slickest-operating lever action you can get your hands on. All of them are wonderful examples of pre-64 Winchester craftsmanship, and they pack a wallop. Elk hunters still go dippy over the Model 71, which now costs $800 to over $1,000.
-  Remington Model 32
The 32 was a hard-luck gun. To be an over/under in 1931 was to be marked as odd, to have split barrels was really strange, and to be expensive in the third year of the Great Depression was almost fatal. The 32 was made in very small numbers from 1941 to 1947, when it was abandoned. Probably only 7,000 or so were made. But it was a wonderful design, far ahead of its time, and today lives on in the form of the Kreighoff K-80, which is essentially the same gun and is beloved by competitive shooters everywhere.
-  A.H. Fox
If I had left Parker off this list, or ranked it behind the Fox, I would be expelled from the Gun Writers’ Union. But forgive me; I believe that the A.H. Fox is better. Made in Philadelphia from 1903 to 1930 and in Utica, New York, until 1946, the Fox was produced in a dizzying variety of grades and gauges, and all of them shared a wonderful simplicity that made them durable and trouble-free. Fox even had a single trigger design that worked reliably, which was rare indeed in those times.
Foxes do not bring the same kind of money that L.C. Smiths and Parkers command, but these guns live on today whereas the others don’t–the Connecticut Manufacturing Co. of New Britain, Connecticut, is making high-grade Fox shotguns that are, if anything, better than the originals.
-  Freedom Arms Model 83
This company was founded in 1983 to produce a superstrong, ultra-high-quality single-action revolver chambered (most notably) for the hand-shattering .454 Casull cartridge. The Model 83 is a continuation of the tradition that began with the Smith & Wesson Triple Lock, and like the Triple Lock, it is a very expensive firearm, starting at more than $1,500. But I’ve never heard anyone who owns a Model 83 complain about the price.
-  Jarrett Signature Rifle
This bolt action’s antecedent is the Kentucky rifle. Like the Kentucky, it comes from a small shop run by a self-taught gunsmith and designer, Kenny Jarrett. Similarly, it can be had plain or ornate, and the fancy versions are something to behold. It is very expensive, like the Kentucky, even the modestly appointed ones. And like the Kentucky, it is more accurate than anything else available, and not just more than the job requires but more than even the most crazed perfectionist could expect.
An African professional hunter once told me that the very best American rifle shots were in a league by themselves. And so is the Jarrett Signature.
-  Winchester Model 21
You can argue until your teeth fall out about the merits of the great American doubles, but this fact stands beyond dispute: The Model 21 is the strongest of the lot. John Olin, president of Winchester, wanted it that way, and he put the Model 21 through hell before he put it on the market. There have been two incarnations: From 1931 until 1960 it was a mass-produced gun; from 1960 until 1982, the so-called round-frame 21s were made in the Winchester Custom Shop on a to-order basis only. While the Model 21 is not ranked with the Parker et al, there are a lot of people who are fanatics about it and pay high prices for even the plain field models. The money required for a custom-grade 21 would give you a myocardial infarction.
-  Westley Richards Droplock Double Rifle
One does not need a double rifle, but they are beautiful firearms, and romantic artifacts. There are at least half a dozen makers of fine doubles practicing the art, but I like the Westley, probably because I once seriously considered taking out a second mortgage to buy one. I didn’t and still wonder if I did the right thing. You can have a Westley Richards Droplock for $69,000 in most of the standard elephant-bashing calibers.
-  Beretta SO6 EL Over/Under Shotgun
Beretta is the oldest manufacturer in the world, period, and produces, for the most part, very good guns that range in price from moderate to fairly expensive. At the top of the line, however, is something else altogether. The SO6 is a true sidelock, made in 12-gauge only to customer specs. It employs gorgeous wood, first-rate engraving, and the kind of metal-to-metal fit that you normally find only in fine watches. The reason it’s here among the 50 best is because even priced at around $18,000 it’s a bargain. For guns in this class, it’s easy to spend two or three or four times what the SO6 costs, and the odds are that what you get won’t work half as well. If I ever hit the lottery, the first words out of my mouth will not be “Oh boy,” but “SO6, please.”
-  Tikka T3 Hunter
If you will forgive the blasphemy, this is the modern version of the Winchester Model 70–a rifle that is just about flawless in every respect. T3s have been around since 2003, and they are as modern as it is possible to make sporting rifles while still retaining traditional lines. It’s light, slick-handling, very tough, and far more accurate than all but the best Model 70s.
-  Merkel Model 2001 EL
When the Germans build a shotgun, they expect it to breech up just as tightly after 200 years of hard use as it did on the day it was made, and they like it ornate in a Teutonic way, and as complex as it can be made, just to show how good they are as machinists. This over/under will not be shot loose by your unborn progeny 10 generations removed, but it is not overly fancy, and it is not overly complex. Some German shotguns tend to be overweight and don’t handle as well as other fine guns, but the Merkel is a fine-handling, lively gun with distinctive lines and the life expectancy of a redwood tree.
FIREARMS OF THE FUTURE
Scott Warburton, DESIGN ENGINEER, SAVAGE ARMS
“In the future, we need to create more accurate guns that can multitask and be converted for different kinds of shooting. Their overall appearance should also change to fit the high-tech look of the future.”
FIREARMS OF THE FUTURE
Melvin Forbes, PRESIDENT, NEW ULTRA LIGHT ARMS
“It’s not going to change. It’s going to be all Model 70 Winchesters and nostalgia. You can’t sell a gun unless it looks like granddaddy’s gun.”
FIREARMS OF THE FUTURE
Ward Dobler, DIR. OF MANUFACTURING, DAKOTA ARMS
“We’ll have guns that use a practical caseless cartridge, and we’ll see the development of a laser-rangefinding scope that automatically adjusts the reticle for the distance you’re shooting at.”
FIREARMS OF THE FUTURE
John C. Trull, PRODUCT MANAGER, REMINGTON ARMS CO.
“The biggest change you’re going to see is the way in which we launch a projectile from a barrel. The old system of primer and gunpowder is going to be replaced by something entirely different–maybe along the lines of the electronic rail gun that NASA is experimenting with.”
FIREARMS OF THE FUTURE
Kenny Jarrett, PRESIDENT, JARRETT RIFLES
“Caseless ammunition. Self-adjusting laser-rangefinding scopes. Exotic materials in the barrels and actions.” (And no, Jarrett and Ward Dobler of Dakota Arms did not consult with each other.)
…AND THE WORST
Just as there are best guns, there are some on the other end of the scale. Here they are, in their varying degrees of ignominy.
1 MBA GYROJET MARK I MODEL B
From 1960 to 1969, MBAssociates of San Ramon, California, produced a rocket-firing handgun they called the Gyrojet (shown). It resembled an automatic pistol but instead held six .50-caliber miniature rockets, each one powered through four angled ports in its base. The firing pin was fixed, and the hammer was located in front of the rocket.
When you pulled the trigger, the hammer fell rearward, smacking the rocket on its nose and driving its primer against the firing pin. The rocket would ignite, pushing the hammer forward and down, and go spinning on its way to wherever it pleased.
The Gyrojet set standards of inaccuracy that have yet to be equaled, and in addition, if you shot at something from close range, the rocket would not have enough velocity to do any damage.
2 THE ORIGINAL KIMBER RIFLES
From 1980 to 1991, Kimber of Oregon (not to be confused with Kimber Manufacturing Inc. of Yonkers, New York, whose guns operate with relentless perfection) produced rimfire and centerfire rifles that often failed to work or shoot–sometimes both. These elegant guns were assembled from parts that were produced by a variety of sources, and said parts seldom worked in harmony. In the mid-1980s I owned the third left-hand Kimber .22 ever made and was spellbound by its beauty. Then I shot it, and I sold it the next day.
3 WINCHESTER MODEL 1400
When Winchester designed this sleek-looking auto in 1964, it tried to save money by adapting one frame size to several different gauges and thought to take up the slack space in the receiver with plastic inserts, which usually cracked and fell out. That is part one of this story. In 1965, the company embarked on an ambitious program of establishing Winchester-franchised trap and skeet ranges. These ranges were stocked with Model 1400s, and soon the inevitable took place. Operators and shooters alike were driven to a frenzy by the antics of the 1400. I once phoned such a range about something perfectly innocent, and the first sentence out of the owner’s mouth was: “IF YOU SAY ONE WORD ABOUT THAT !#@&*% 1400, I’LL KILL YOU!”
That seemed to sum it up quite nicely. –D.E.P.
EJECTION CYCLE ACTION WHEN LOADED BEFORE FIRING RECEIVER LOCKUP MARK V ACTION ADJUSTABLE COMB INTERCHANGEABLE CHOKE TUBES TRIGGER GROUP CHANGEOUT