Monday, June 14, 2010

Gear on the Margin: Rifles for the Marginal Lands

© Joshua Stark

As with my archery and shotgun posts, I'm getting into some controversial stuff here.  So, before I explain, and before my caveats, I'll just flat-out say it:  For most North American hunting, and for the vast majority of the marginal lands, the 30-30 Winchester lever-action rifle is the best gun.

"What!?!" you probably say.  But, I'll say it again:  The 30-30 Winchester is the best gun.

Now, take a deep breath, and let me explain.

Today's gun market is awash in the latest and greatest, hottest and hardest hittin', flat-shootinest rounds, guns, and accessories EVER.  And I know I am, effectively, a thirty-year old 90-year-old man, a curmudgeonly sort.  But, I make no apologies about my love for the 30-30, for it's effectiveness, and for the good it can do to the deer-hunting world.

Usually, articles about the 30-30 Winchester spend the first couple of paragraphs talking about how maligned, out-of-date, and picked-on this 115 yr. old round is, and how its bad rap is unjustified. Then, they talk about how it is getting a 're-model' or some other such thing, in effect talking like it really is a bad round in desperate need of this latest makeover. They mention loading spitzer-type bullets, or the new LeveRevolution, both fine ideas, but the glaring omissions belie the authors' (and community's) belief that the 30-30 is a sub-par arm for hunting.

Baloney! As commonly stated, the 30-30 has probably taken more deer than any other round in North America. It is often touted as a person's first gun, due as much to the availability of ammunition and rifles, its excellent cost-to-quality ratio, as to the light recoil. I'd be willing to bet that the majority of folks got a 30-30 as their first rifle because it was either already in the house, or it was the one they could afford after Summer work, and that, for their hard-earned dollars, it was the best deer rifle.

The titles of most of these articles also have the words "close-quarter", "close range", "quick-action brush gun", or some other comment about the idea that this gun won't kill a deer outside of 100 yds. I won't tell you here that you can tap a dik-dik at 400 yds. on a breezy day with it. What I will say is that probably nine in ten shots taken at deer in this country are inside 100 yds., and one in twenty hunters has any business trying to shoot a deer outside 100 yds, anyway.

An 80-yard shot is not a "close-quarters" "brush" shot, it is a good distance to get to for a good, solid shot.  Selling a gun by convincing the buyer that they need to consider 300+ yards is unethical without knowing the person's capabilities.

My opinion? If you are worried about power, first get the tag and the guide lined up for that Alberta moose hunt or trip to Kodiak Island for the bear of a lifetime, then buy the .375 H&H magnum, although you won't want to shoot it.  If you are worried about distance, practice stalking. Hunters still take spooky game in open country with real bows, like these folks.

But, if you want a good, solid deer gun that will regularly hit what you aim at without inflicting about the same amount of damage in both directions, and if you want a gun that is fun to carry in the field and not fussy, then just reach under your bed or into your closet and grab your 30-30, and hunt.

You all have read about my preference for American made products, and the 30-30 lever gun had become a temporary casualty of outsourcing.  Thankfully, this is no longer the case:  A few years ago, Mossberg bought the designs for the Winchester, made some modifications, and manufactures a beautiful gun with the same lines as the old Model 94 (and Ranger, like mine).

When I was 15 and looking for a gun, I wasn't really looking. I wanted a Winchester lever-action 30-30. After 15-plus years owning this gun, I'm more glad than ever that I bought it.

As for it's abilities on marginal lands, the 30-30 beats any competition for the same reason I prefer a double-barreled shotgun on marginal lands - versatility.  The 30-30's lower power and weight benefit the hunter who may chance across rabbits to deer.  .22's are great guns, as are 30-06's, but really only a couple of calibers overlap between small and large game (anybody still shooting .243's?).  And, with the glaring exception of non-lead rounds (which are available, but not readily so), one can find 30-30 ammo just about anywhere.

Its lines are classic. Its feel, balance, and shootability are unmatched, regardless of price. It handles light without being whippy. Its action never fails. It is the prettiest gun I own. I did have my choice of rifles when I decided on the Ranger model, and I picked it because its magazine tube was shorter than the Model 94, and its wood was darker and nicer, both cosmetic choices, but my taste in rifles hasn't changed over time.

Do I hunt with other rifles?  Absolutely.  I take a .270 Savage model 110E out after pigs, and I love that tack-driving gun, but I don't practice with it enough to justify a shot outside of 150 yards right now with it, either.  And the 30-30 is prettier than any bolt gun, but especially that broom-handle stocked beast.

I will not apologize for taking my 30-30 lever gun after blacktails or mulies, and neither should you. It is the best marginal lands gun ever built.


The Suburban Bushwacker said...

lehuNicely told Josh, I really like the 'gear on the margin' thread I hope you keep it going.

.243's are very popular here in blighty, the default choice for foxes and the smaller deer.

A very good point about the trad gang


Tovar said...

Good post, Josh. It might even save a soul or two from suffering the ills of magnumitis.

When I was first getting into hunting, I overheard a guy talking to a gun shop owner. He was talking about buying a very high-powered scope for the magnum-load rifle he had recently purchased. "I might as well," he said, "I've got enough gun for it."

This was in northern New England, not Montana. Now maybe this guy was a crack long-distance shooter and planned to hunt out west or in Alaska. But somehow I doubt it.

Here, people do occasionally get long-distance shot opportunities across fields. But most shots at deer are much closer. The few deer I have killed with a rifle in the Vermont woods have all been in the 20 to 30 yard range: just close enough for a bow, definitely close enough for a 30-30.

Fortunately, my hunting mentor (my uncle) is a practical guy. He told me straight out that I could get a .270 or .30-06, but a 30-30 or similar round was all I really needed. He was right.

As it happens, I ended up with a 6.5x55, which likewise has plenty of power but doesn't beat me up (which means I shoot it more accurately and thus it kills more cleanly). And I ended up with a bolt because I have a personal preference for that action.

But all my rifle hunting so far could have been done equally well with a Win 94 or similar lever gun in 30-30.

Josh said...

SBW, that's interesting about the .243 in England. It makes sense, but for some reason I'd just imagined that one was an American round.

Tovar, I've heard good things about the 6.5x55, but I've never shot one. Your accuracy and love to shoot it is the very idea to which I was alluding. A person should want to shoot their gun.

Thank you both for stopping by!

Bpaul said...

Nice post.

I sport a 30. 06, which, if I cared to reload, can be an extremely good small game gun as well.

I don't care to reload at this time (talk to me when my girl is in school), so I have a .22 and a high-quality air rifle for small game.


Bpaul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Josh said...

BPaul, I've seen some neat rounds out there, including the 55 grain numbers for the 30-06. They make those for 30-30, too (obviously you know that, as a reloader).

I don't reload - I've always wanted to, but if I pick up another hobby, I'd probably go insane.

That's why I stuck with the 30-30 here, because it's versatile without the commitment to reloading and/or exotic rounds.

Steve Bodio said...

I have had MANY rifles but am down to two sporters and two old utilitarian moderate military rifles, another thing.

One sporter is a beautiful old Oberndorf Mauser carbine from between the wars in the very sane (if not everywhere available) 7 X 57 caliber. No sane person, especially one too poor to replace it, would sell it.

I'm not intending to. But if I HAD to keep only one rifle, it would be my just- postwar .30- 30 Model 94.

Josh said...

Steven, wow... a 7x57? That's very cool, man. But I see that you understand the allure of those lever guns.

Any pics? Of either?

Steve Bodio said...

There is a bad one of the Mauser in a winter blog post when I made a deal for it-- the 3rd 7 X 57 in the blog over the years! (Search "Mauser"?) Looking for perfection on a budget. But none of the .30-30-- maybe need to take some and post.

Steve Bodio said...

Josh-- I have a post recommending and elaborating on yours here.

Josh said...

Steve, a big thanks! for the link from your blog. And great pictures of those guns, I might add.