The Woods Rifle
The term "Woods Rifle" will, more than likely, mean different things to different hunters. My definition is a compact and portable rifle, used in thick cover most commonly found in typical whitetail habitat, east of the Mississippi. Of course, it's also a rifle capable, in proper calibers, of also hunting blacktails, mule deer, elk, bear, moose and hogs in any kind of thick cover where they might be found. Perhaps the eastern U.S. has the most identifiable and common scenarios for that type of rifle in much of the whitetail's, wild hog's and black bear's home grounds, however.
To further my personal definition, I'd also say this rifle needs to be able to deliver a follow-up shot in a timely manner, if needed, preventing such arms as a single barrel muzzleloader from being ideal. I also feel a practiced shooter with a single shot rifle might be at a slight disadvantage, though I think the single shot rifle should remain in consideration for those who prefer it. The type cover we're talking about here is the type where much game, east of the Mississippi is still harvested; at ranges from 25 to 75 yards, with 100 yards being considered a long poke in many areas. The eastern U.S. finds a majority of the whitetail, hog and black bear cover fitting this type of country. Hunting elk and mule deer in thick mountain cover and blacktails in the thick hilly country they so like, also fits right in.
Again, the rifle itself need not be any specific action type. Anything from a single shot (with a practiced shooter) to a bolt, lever, pump, semi-auto, combination shotgun/rifle and double rifle should fit the bill quite nicely, so long as it's fast handling. The typical single shot, combo and double rifle might have a 22, 24 or even 26 inch barrel and still maintain excellent balance, with short overall length and good feel "between the hands" as is commonly said. However, a bolt, lever, pump and semi-auto should certainly have a barrel no longer than 22," so as to keep their overall length to a nice manageable level.
I'll even go so far as to say that a barrel of less than 22" is definitely what I'm looking for in one of these action types. Most would call this rifle, with barrel under 22" in length, a carbine. The term carbine is a rather loose term which is meant to describe a rifle with shorter than normal length barrel, in any type of action. This, of course is something rather subjective, not really giving us a specific overall length criteria for a carbine. For the sake of argument, I'd call a carbine a rifle whose overall length does not exceed 42".
Some examples of rifles having both a rifle model in addition to a second "carbine" length model would be the older Winchester models 88 and 100. They both had versions with typical rifles having 22" barrels as well as carbine models with 19" barrels. I happen to own both a rifle and carbine model Winchester model 100, and for the record, you might not believe just how much difference the 3" less barrel actually does make, handling-wise in thick cover.
Of course the velocity is somewhat lower, but in the typical .243, .284, .308 and .358 (M88 only) calibers they were available in, the velocity loss was not a true hindrance in those rifles. I do own a model 88, but no model 88 carbine, although I can assure you, I hope to some day! These carbine models at about 39" in length are excellent rifles for carrying in stillhunting, spot and stalk mode, as well as sitting perched in a tree stand. Truly a very handy length for a rifle.
Another very handy carbine length rifle from our past are the Remington models 600 and 660. I've owned two model 600s, with 18.5" barrels and one model 660 with it's 20" tube, and can honestly say I wish I still had all three. They all carried well, and all the 600 series were pretty good shooters with their short stiff barrels. I likely needed a longer barreled rifle for some odd reason at the time, which is also more than likely gone from my collection now as well. Live and learn, as they say.
The Remington 742, 7400 and 7500 semi-autos have also been available in both rifle versions (22" barrel) and carbines (18.5" barrel) for many years now. I'm almost ashamed to admit just how long it took me to actually own a Remington semi-auto carbine, but the last 5 years have been better having one in .280 in my cabinet, as well as spending some quality time afield with me. These along with the all but identical feeling 7600s are the epitome perhaps, of the modern carbine woods rifles. The famous (and fabulous) Benoit family, of monster whitetail fame, have proven that a short barreled Remington 760 or 7600 can be just what the Doctor ordered in thick New England woods. Good guns all!
Four very diverse but equally effective woods rifles: left to right,
Husqvarna 4100 in .270 (20.5" barrel), Remington 7400 Carbine in .280
(18.5" barrel), Marlin 336ER in .356 Win (20" barrel), and Valmet model
412S combination 12ga over .308 (24" barrels).
The equally fine Model Sevens, which have barrel lengths in various models of 18.5," 20" and 22" are based loosely on the older 600 series platforms and carry and shoot very well. I own several Model Seven variations and can state unequivocally that I much prefer them to their larger Model 700 cousins. The Model Seven's action is actually more compact than the 700's short action, if you didn't already know that.
Ruger gives us several models that would rank as great woods guns. The first semi-auto rifle out of Ruger's formative years was the very popular Ruger .44 mag Carbine. It's reputation gained legions of fans in the thick cedar swamps of the Northeast, and I still remember from decades ago hanging on every word that accomplished author, hunter and guide, Joel Fawcett wrote about his, and his clients', exploits slowly stillhunting the very thick cover in Maine's big woods. His favorite "woods gun" why his trusty Ruger .44 Carbine, of course. There was a short-lived return of the .44 Carbine in an updated version and some can still be found, if the idea suits your tastes.
Ruger also makes several very compact versions of their very popular M77 bolt gun, the RSI and the Compact are just a couple. The RSI's compact length, with 18.5" barrel, make it a dream to carry or to hold while perched in an elevated stand. The Compact's barrel is shorter still. The #1 RSI is shorter still at around 37" total length and also has a very special feel. The standard #1A, with 22" barrel is under 40" total length and a practiced shooter is at little disadvantage with either of these very fine single shot rifles.
A Ruger M77 RSI in .308 (center) is flanked by a Sako .270 (left) and Savage 110
in .338/06 (right) both with 24" barrels. That is truly a significant difference
in overall length to be carrying through thick woods.
Although I feel the Ruger's falling block design is somewhat easier to reload quickly than any break-open single shot, the typical break-open design of the T/C Encore and Contender, along with H&R and N.E. Arms single shots also give a hunter a great feeling rifle with short overall length with the typical barrel lengths found on these models. Calibers from .243 to the thunderous 45-70 can be found in single shots today and I'd be lying if I didn't consider the .405, .444 and 45-70 calibers to be among the best bets if one wanted to choose a single shot for their personal version of the woods rifle.
CZ, Sako, Tikka and other major manufacturers also make bolt action models with the abbreviated barrel lengths so handy in close cover situations. Any of these fine bolt rifles would be great choices. Browning still makes it's semi-auto in traditional BAR mode with a 20" barreled Lightweight version and their newer Short Trac model just squeezes in at under 42" overall length and should also be plenty handy enough for thick cover use.
Perhaps the all-time King in woods rifle use would be the truly American lever action "deer" rifle. This particular type rifle is steeped in tradition and lore, like no other rifle ever seen in the U.S. I know that from a very early age, I looked at the Marlin and Winchester lever actions as something very special. Growing up and watching the scores of westerns on T.V. back in the 1960s (ouch! that hurt to say that!), it always seemed to be the mighty Winchester lever rifle that the good guys used to solve those insurmountable obstacles. (Never mind it was many times a model 1894 being shown, when the era was quite obviously a bit before that.) They were the guns of the good guy cowboys and could do anything needed to be done!
This included hunting big game in this country until well after the multitude of fine young men returning from "The War to End All Wars" that ended in 1918 returned and then also returned to the woods of their home country. The bolt rifle they were exposed to in WWI was a fine specimen indeed and slowly but surely it made inroads with the sportsmen of this country. The lever rifle still maintained a constant presence in our hearts and our woods and still today is seeing something of a rebirth, with new calibers and models for the hunters of any and all of North America's big game animals.
The 30/30 was hot stuff back at the turn of the century (the other turn) and still today, especially with some modern powders and bullets is still a very capable woods rifle, make no doubt of that. There are lever rifles with calibers as varied as .243 Winchester and 45-70 Springfield available to the lever afficianado chasing big game and lots of capable ones in between as well. Perhaps some of the best today might be the 7/08, .308 Winchester and Marlin Express, .338 Marlin Express, .35 Rem, .358 Win, the previously mentioned .444, 45-70 and monster .450 Marlin and don't forget some powerful magnum calibers as well with .300 and .325 magnums also available to the lever shooter.
There are some potent and diverse calibers out there for a hunter looking for a lever action woods rifle and it might not be as easy to choose one today as it was 60yrs ago when your choices ran something like this: .250 Sav, 30/30, .300 Sav, .32 Win Spcl, and .35 Rem; end of list. Browning's debut of their fine BLR gave us some high intensity, pointed bullet choices and more recently Hornady and Marlin have partnered with new calibers and new bullets that make the once semi-anemic lever rifle, fully the equal of the venerable bolt action 30/06. And in calibers such as the 45-70 and .450, give power at short to moderate ranges far above '06 levels. Add to the mix the .300 WSM and .325WSM, and you truly have calibers as capable as most any bolt gun can show you.
Not all these calibers might be perfect for a typical woods rifle, but depending on the game you're stalking, be it deer, elk, moose, hogs, or bear, there's a lever rifle suited for your needs today. The traditional lever action rifle is no longer traditional. It's modern, potent and accurate, plain and simple.
Levers, levers and more levers. Two peep sighted Marlin lever actions in
.375 Win (left) and .444 Marlin (right) are flanked by two scoped BLRs, a
.358 Win (left) and .450 Marlin (right). The Marlin levers are no more difficult
to scope than the BLRs, but they are easier to install a peep sight on!
Discussing calibers, and which are "better" than others is likely the fastest way to start an argument among shooters and hunters. Hunters are as faithful to their rifle brands, caliber selection and scope choices as they are to their wives! However I'd feel like I copped out if I didn't at least add something of a list of calibers I think would work very well for this category we're calling woods rifles. I think the lightest of calibers suitable for the pursuit of big game at moderate range begins just north of the fine .243. I likely just had several bad comments made, just now, about my heritage or anatomy! But, as I said, we have to begin somewhere, don't we.
It's obvious that the .243 has legions of fans and has smoked legions of deer as well, but for my woods carbine, I want something heavier than a 100gr bullet and at least a tad more frontal area. So my list will begin at the quarter bores, feeling the 120gr bullets available for the .257 Roberts and 25/06 make that much difference; we are talking 20% more bullet weight, after all. Next comes a number of fine 6.5s, there are the Carcano versions, the sweet "Swede," 6.5/.284 and the fine 6.5 RM. Actually, the models 600 and 660 or the later 673 in 6.5 RM would all make a very fine woods rifle. Moving up a bit in caliber are the great .270 and .280, along with the .284, 7x57 and 7mm08. All these calibers are great in short carbine type rifles.
Two of my absolute favorites in my collection happen to be an oddball limited edition 7400 carbine in .280 with 18.5" barrel and a 50 year old Husqvarna model 4100 bolt rifle built on the fine FN action with a 20.5" barrel. This rifle is an absolute joy to handle and carry, very lightweight and compact and with the best action I have ever fired from my shoulder. Smooth and precise, absolutely zero binding when the bolt is worked at your shoulder giving you a quick follow up shot, should it be needed. These two rifles might not make the absolute most out of the .270 and .280 calibers, but they sure as heck will work wonderfully at woods ranges.
The .30 cal family is next, giving us the great 30/30, .300 Savage, .308 Win, .308 ME, 30/06 and also a couple of handy rifles in .300 SM guise too. The first four calibers are manufactured (or were) in a diverse array of actions and models. Bolts, levers, pumps and semi-autos and barrel lengths well within the carbine format as well. While the .300 mags may seem to be overkill to some, they certainly should be high on the list of a moose, elk or bear hunter in close cover. The Remington model Seven (and 673) in SM calibers is a very sweet handling rifle, and maybe as close to an all-purpose big game rifle as any other, and all at under 42 inches in length!
Some of the most coveted woods rifles ever produced will fall in our next caliber category. The 8x57 is rarely thought of as a woods caliber, but with a plethora of 195-200gr loads at moderate velocity, a sweet sporterized M98, with trimmed barrel or a double rifle or combination SG/rifle chambered so would make an awesome woods set-up. The BLR in .325 WSM flavor is simply a souped up 8x57 of course and ALL shooters of anything 8mm should fall to their knees and rejoice in the bullets now available in .323. Among them are 200gr Nosler Partition, 200gr Nosler Accubond and 200gr Barnes TSX; some hellacious new bullets giving the 8mms some new life.
This group would also include the .348 Win (it's only rifle, the model 71 Winchester), the various newer .338s, Marlin, Federal and Rugers CM version. All these calibers are available in handy short-barreled rifles, some with tubes as short at 16.5 inches! The .35 Rem(20"), .356 Win(20"), .358 Win. (20 and 16.5"), .35 Whelen(18.5") and .350 RM(20") round out our list of medium calibers. I must say that my true favorite all-time woods rifles live here among these thumpers.
The next group of calibers, the big bores, are pretty much limited to the big bore lever gun type. The .375 Win (along with it's older cousin, the 38-55) is a good solid caliber/rifle combination and working from lightest to heaviest, we also find various lever actions in .44mag, .444 Marlin, 45-70 and .450 Marlin. A few other actions might tempt you to include a handy, short bolt and lever rifles Ruger made a while back in .44 mag and Ruger's twice released .44 Carbine, already mentioned.
A note here on the use of magnum or high velocity calibers for woods hunting. Most mags and high velocity rounds were devised so as to add range to an already effective caliber, or bore size. Examples would be the 7mm mags and plethora of .300 mags. If the overall length is not excessive, and the magnum caliber does not NEED 24" or more to achieve it's potential, then why not use one. But to buy a magnum caliber to shoot a deer-sized animal at 100-200 yards is certainly not necessary, IMO. Should your rifle please you in all other respects, then by all means, use it!
I have used, sucessfully, a nice handling Rem 673 in .300 SAUM to thread a 165gr bullet through some heavy cover to anchor a fine Tennessee buck in his tracks at 100 yards. Nope, the bullet didn't blast it's way there (and would not have), but it was threaded through a hole in the cover to the deer's neck, with a minimum of fuss. (more about that threading idea a bit later). Sighted in properly and with it's medium powered scope it happens to be a darn fine woods rifle, actually.
Sights for Short Range and Fast Acquisition
I am a firm believer in scoped rifles for most any rifle, short or long range. A properly mounted scope, of proper magnification and of good quality is nearly impossible to beat for quick target aquisition and sighting, except perhaps in the worst possible weather conditions. When it's raining hard, or snowing moderately to hard, a scope might not be my number one choice for a killing shot. Of course in conditions such as those, your shot had better be a quick killing one as well, since trailing a wounded deer's blood trail in either rain or snow can be tricky in the extreme.
For those rare times, when weather throws you and your hunt a curve a peep-sighted rifle may be my choice, but this occurs very seldom with todays excellent scopes which may have lens coatings, preventing fogging and distortion caused by water pooling on the lens surface. A lighted reticle might also help, and modern snap-open lens covers can be an excellent idea as well. Two nice lever rifles equipped with peep sights will still remain in my cabinet for times they might be needed, however.
A low powered scope set properly in a quality ring system, giving both good height and eye relief is very tough to beat. Add to that the addition of a more bold reticle in the Heavy Duplex or German #4 mode and you have one sweet sighting system. When you spot a hog crossing a logging road, or stepping out at 200 yards distant across a field to feed, and you'll be doubly glad you went with a 2, 3, or 4X scope over the supplied irons, I can promise you!
Lots of articles have been written on good scopes for short to moderate range hunting and I'll simply briefly mention a few choices that should give stellar performance for your woods rifle. There are scopes, made for black powder hunting that offer zero magnification. Nothing wrong with using one of them as they will still give superior sighting to even a peep sight, especially at over 100 yards. Move up to 2, 2.5, 3 and even 4X on a fixed power scope of good quality and you've likely chosen wisely.
If a variable scope is more your cup of tea, then something on the order of 1-3, 1-4, or 1.5-4.5, is a great place to begin your search. I own good scopes in all those ranges and honestly, they are all but interchangeable for usage in big game hunting, as far as I'm concerned. Some of the higher dollar scope choices, such a Swarovski and Leupold now give a hunter a full 6X mag range and a 1-6X is nothing to sneeze at either. I'd simply make sure that the added size and weight of these high range (magnification) scopes are acceptable on your chosen rifle.
A scope with all-round potential as good as any I've ever seen is the 2-7X range variable. Two power is plenty low enough for even the closest shooting with both eyes open at a game animal whether it's running or charging. Seven power is as much as any big game hunter should ever need to 400 yards, so at the top end it fits nicely as well. Lots of 2-7s out there with 32, 33, 35, and even 42mm objectives. Buy a good fully multi-coated model and you'll have no worries during legal shooting hours.
Scopes over this size have no real need here on your woods rifle, but a good 2.5-8, with small objective will surely work very well. I prefer a small objective model on these last two sizes, myself, no need for big objective lenses here. This limits the number of 3-9X models that would work well, as most of them have 40mm or larger objectives, which are simply too bulky and cumbersome on a fast handling rifle, for my tastes. Some great scopes there, of course, but we are talking a semi-specialized piece here and one not needing such a large scope.
Accuracy and Sight-in
We have been discussing rifles that would work well in close cover, typical short-range woods, with an occasional shot at perhaps up to 200 yards as well. Accuracy seems to have become a very important part of every rifle owner's vocabulary. An accurate rifle is certainly a wonderful thing, as everyone likes to see those neat little .5" groups! But rifles like the mod 94 Winchester and 336 Marlin did not become big sellers by being the most accurate rifles you could buy. They became popular because they brought home the bacon.
Still, in the year 2009, most game animals are shot at under 100 yards. I'd figure something like 85-90% are shot at under 200 yards and a very few, relative to total numbers of big game animals taken are harvested over 300 yards. This means that a rifle, used in terrain and cover that gives one a shot at likely no longer than 100 yards does not have to drive tacks, nor shoot pretty little cloverleafs.
It's quite possible that the hunter equipped with a properly sighted woods rifle, shooting 1.5" groups, might actually be better eqipped than another shooting his favorite rifle, in flat shooting caliber, getting groups half that size, but sighted in at MPBR. Here's my thinking process on this. A hunter who simply loves his pet bolt action .270 Win., and has it dialed in for it's MPBR of 297 yards with 130gr bullets and is getting consistent .75" groups, is shooting 2.5" high at 100yards. This gives the hunter a sure shot in the vitals on a deer sized target, no doubt, in open terrain normally associated with such long ranges.
The hunter shooting his trusted .358 Win and getting 1.5" groups, has his BLR sighted dead on at 100yards, and knows basically that it will drop 4" or so at 200 yards with that 200gr load at 2500 FPS. Their target is a buck at 100 yards standing between a couple big trees and as so often seen, partially screened by some interlying brush.
The hunter has a small window, sees by the deer's body language that he's about to be headed some other, safer place and the hunters (both) slowly squeeze their triggers, seeing enough hide clearly through their scope. Depending on just how big a window was present, and the distance from any brush in between muzzle and hide, which hunter has the best chance at venison?
Well, let's consider that right now. The .270 shooter is sighted 2.5" high with a .75" group, giving him a window of from 2.175" above his POA to 2.875" above his POA. Mr. .358 Win is looking at a window of from .75" above his POA to .75" below his POA. Given the choice, which would you prefer, in a thick woods scenario? I already know my answer, so what's yours?
Adding one more scenario into the idea presented here, what happens when a deer steps into the far side of a cut, field, or 200 yards distant on a logging road? The .270 shooter immediately knows his rifle is sighted for just such an opportunity and simply places the crosshairs mid chest and carefully squeezes off a killing shot. The shooter of the BLR does have some thinking to do, however. Being sighted dead on at 100 yards his 200 gr bullet will drop somewhere around 4" over the next 100 yards, to that deer standing at 200 yards. He will need to remember that fact and adjust his aim slightly, perhaps. He certainly has the accuracy and power to cleanly kill said deer though, no doubt.
So, overall accuracy may not be a huge factor in owning, shooting, and harvesting with a woods rifle; and certainly not nearly as much as many hunters and shooters seem to feel, I promise you. Granted, the .270 shooter sighted in at 100 yards changes my answer. But how many people actually sight their dedicated hunting rifle, especially in such a flat shooting cartridge, at 100 yards? I'll say that for many hunters (most?) a well scoped handy carbine type rifle, sighted in and decently accurate is a great thing for hunting "woods deer," meaning the addition of a dedicated woods rifle to their battery could make very good sense.
Simply something to consider when looking for another rifle. After all aren't we all looking for "another" rifle?