Every now and then mankind creates something so sublime that it almost justifies our blood-soaked, villainous stay on earth. When the curtain finally falls on Homo sapiens, we can look back to such high points as Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, the gull-wing Mercedes 300SL, the Martin 000-45 guitar, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Carl Perkins’ recording of Blue Suede Shoes, and a few really good rifles.
Our purpose here is to celebrate five common, everyday deer rifles that are darn near perfect. They have stood the test of time. They have brought home the venison by the ton. They are:
The Winchester Model 70
Introduced in 1936, the Model 70 makes everyone’s short list of “greatest rifles of all time,” never mind deer guns. It was an incomparable mixture of grace, utter reliability, and, for its time, outstanding accuracy. Winchester called it “The Rifleman’s Rifle,” and so did everyone else. In 1963, Winchester dropped the original Model 70 and replaced it with a new version that was cheaper to manufacture. The new Model 70 would outshoot the old one, but it was ugly and cheap-looking, and the bellows of rage were so loud and so sustained that in 1972, the original was reinstated as the Model 70 Classic.
This Model 70 shown here was one of the very first made in 1947, and is chambered for the .257 Roberts, one of the best of all whitetail cartridges.
The Savage Model 99
In 1899, the United States was lever-action crazy, but lever guns had their drawbacks. Most were top-ejecting, exposed-hammer rifles with tubular magazines that required flat-nosed bullets which were for short range only. Arthur Savage’s Model 99 was a radical departure. It was a side-ejecting, hammerless rifle that employed an unusual rotary magazine. It was simple; it was strong; it would accept spitzer bullets; and when scopes became popular, it would accommodate them. The 99 was as sleek as a cobra, and it was fifty years ahead of its time.
In its 100 years of production, the 99 has been offered in a host of calibers and configurations. This one was made in 1920, and is chambered for the .250/3000 cartridge, the first commercial round to break the 3000 fps barrier. One of the gun’s owners replaced the original rear sight with a filler blank and installed a peep sight on the tang, and another (the same person?) scratched him name and address on the age-silvered receiver and barrel.
The Marlin Model 336
Since its introduction in 1948, the 336 lever-action has been offered as a carbine and a rifle, in plain, deluxe, and commemorative versions, and even (briefly) as a varmint rifle. But in its purest form, as you see it here, it is a deer rifle–the deer rifle. Well over 4 million have been made, and you can hardly go to a deer camp without seeing at least one in the gun rack.
A direct descendant of the Model 36, the 336 employed a round bolt and an improved feed mechanism. It is slick, dead-reliable and, within its 200-yard range, surprisingly accurate.
Even in its classic carbine form the 336 is not light, yet it is perfectly balanced. It points almost as if it is alive, and its slim receiver rides easily in the hand. This pristine example was made in the early 1950s, and is chambered for the .30/30.
The Remington Model 740A
There were semi-auto deer rifles before 1955, but they were complex, clunky, heavy, recoil-operated, and chambered for poky, low-powered cartridges. Prison guards loved them; Texas Ranger Frank Hamer used one to retire Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow; but deer hunters mostly turned their backs.
Then came the 740A. It was light, streamlined, gas-operated (which took the sting out of recoil) and chambered for modern cartridges like the .270, .280, and .30//06. Deer hunters loved it, and bought it in huge numbers. The original 740A and the fancier 740ADL and BDL have long singe been supplanted by newer versions, but the essential design is unchanged. This is the semi-auto that showed the others the way.
The Remington Model 700
Thirty-five years ago, I saw my first sub-minute-of angle group from a big-game rifle. It was five shots in 5/8-inch, printed by an out-of-the-box Model 700 in 7mm magnum. The gun’s owner kept the target in his wallet and let people worship it when the mood came upon him. Introduced in 1962, the Model 700 descended from the Remington Model 721, which was mechanically almost the same, but one of the homeliest rifles ever produced. For the 700, Remington kept the 721’s stiff, cylindrical receiver, quick lock time, and excellent button-rifled barrel, but added a superb trigger and a handsome stock.
There is little doubt that the Model 700 action has been the basis for more super-accurate rifles (both Remington and custom guns) than any other. For deer hunters who love accuracy above all else, this is the rifle to have.