All-American Deer Rifles

Jim Carmichel revisits some of the great moments in rifle-making history.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

There's a national holiday that's not on the calendar.

Yet every year the date is engraved in the memories of tens of thousands of American and Canadian citizens. It's a holiday that legions of people from all walks of life plan and prepare for weeks in advance, and the memories of which are savored and talked about for months afterward. It's Opening Day for deer.

Like our Thanksgiving and Fourth of July and our northern neighbor's Canada Day, the first day of deer season is rich in tradition and deeply rooted in our collective psyche. As is true of national holidays, it is a celebration of what we are, a confirmation of what we stand for and a reaffirmation of the bounty pledged to us by our forefathers.

To many of us, our first deer hunt was a stepping-stone into adulthood, a symbol of our joining the company of men. It's a time when sons, and an increasing number of daughters and wives, join fathers, grandfathers and husbands in the bonding of the deer hunt. The icon of this ritual-the American deer rifle-is unique among the sporting arms of the world. For us to fully understand why the deer rifle is so completely American in concept, manufacture and application, we must first define an equally unique species-the American deer hunter.

The importance of deer to the settling of North America is all too often overlooked by historians. Venison for the taking not only meant food on the table for America's first colonists but represented the freedom from tyranny for which they also hungered.

Though some of us like to fancy that the blue blood of noble ancestry flows through our veins, the ignoble fact of the matter is that North America was largely settled by the dregs of European society. These were people who, in their native lands, could never have dreamed of hunting deer (Robin Hood and his merry men excepted, of course) or anything else except perhaps the crudest vermin. In the British Isles poaching "the King's deer" was ranked an offense scarcely less serious than treason and offered a sure route to the gallows. Thus the hunting of deer, an unassailable symbol of tyranny and class oppression in the Old World, was to become in the New World a celebration of personal freedom.

On quiet evenings, when the embers of a hickory fire are casting a spell and the air is sweetened with the aromas of peat and malt, I muse about the fortunes of a forgotten forefather who, as an ambitious lad, escaped a career of sheep thievery and the poverty of Scotland by indenturing himself to five years of hard labor in return for stormy passage to the New World. As a man, his indenture paid, he worked his own land, took a wife and hunted deer. With every deer that fell to his bullet he cast his thoughts back to the land from which he had come and thumbed his nose at the king. "Aye," he would have said aloud, "look at me now. This deer is mine, not yours, and ye can kiss my ruddy bum."

For some colonists, hunting deer became a way of life. Exploring lush river bottoms and penetrating ever deeper into the seemingly endless Eastern forests, hunters killed deer by the thousands, packing out the hides on heavily laden mules.

Whether by hunting for food or profit, Americans became a nation of marksmen-an armed society of the deadliest riflemen the world had ever known. A society of civilians who owned guns-unheard of in the Old World-and used them well and willingly for just causes. This fact reverberated even into the British Parliament after a scruffy band of farmers and long hunters gathered in a remote river valley in a land now known as Tennessee and marched into history at a place called King's Mountain. The Tennesseans killed 225 of King George's troops, suffering only 28 losses, and the Battle of King's Mountain became a turning point in the fight for independence and forever established America as a nation of riflemen. The ragtag band patriots that routed the redcoats on that October day in 1780 were not ordinary soldiers; they were deer hunters.

Birth of an Industry
The weapons carried by the marksmen at King's Mountain, indeed by all Americans, were a hodgepodge of smoothbore muskets and graceful but deadly handmade flintlock rifles built "lock, stock and barrel" to supply the ever increasing demands of America's frontiers. As yet there was no American gun industry. That was to change a brief half century later when a young industrialist-to-be, Samuel Colt, showed the world how to mass-produce firearms. Except for a few generally misguided attempts to manufacture rifles, Colt did not make deer rifles. What he did do was establish that guns, and other utensils, could be cheaply and efficiently mass-produced and that a fortune could be made doing so. This was precisely the encouragement an equally ambitious entrepreneur needed to seek his fortune in the world of guns. His name was Oliver Fisher Winchester. If you'd met Oliver Winchester you probably wouldn't have liked him very much. Though his name is arguably the most recognizable in all the shooting world, he was not what we'd call a "gun guy." And it's doubtful he ever hunted deer, seeing as he preferred the company of investors, politicians and his balance sheets. But Winchester knew a good thing when he saw it. America was moving West. There were game animals to kill, Indians to fight and homesteads to be protected-meaning there was money to be made in the gun business.

The end of the Civil War brought the era of muzzleloading muskets to a close. Henceforth, military small arms would be faster-firing breechloaders, and better yet, in Winchester's view, repeating arms. Though not a gun designer himself (his previous business experience was as a manufacturer of shirts and other men's clothing), Winchester, along with his partners, had the acumen to acquire existing patents for repeating arms and, in 1867, to take over production of the Henry lever-action rifle. He called an improved version of the Henry rifle the Winchester Model 1866 (its patent date). A legend was in the making. In the short span of only 16 years he so thoroughly hammered the lever-action design into the American consciousness that even today when we say "deer rifle" we automatically think Winchester.

Just for the fun of hunting-camp debate, it's interesting to speculate on how the arms industry might have evolved had Oliver Winchester lived in Germany and Paul Mauser been an American. Would Europe have been the center of lever-action development and would the bolt-action rifle have been born a native of North America? My guess is that the lever rifle could flourish only on these shores because of the unique needs of the American frontier and, particularly, the desires of American hunters for light, fast-handling, multi-shot repeating rifles. By the end of the 19th century, three figures had entered the scene who would further the fortunes and legend of the American deer rifle: John M. Browning, John M. Marlin and Arthur J. Savage.

In the closing three decades of the 19th century, hoping to duplicate Winchester's success, dozens of designers were patenting and attempting to manufacture lever-action rifles for sport and war. Of these, Marlin triumphed because he held a patent for an excellent lever mechanism and knew how to manufacture a quality firearm.

The Marlin models of 1881 and 1888 were beautifully finished, slick-working rifles that had an instant appeal for hunters who preferred rifles somewhat "less ordinary" than Winchester's, and they soon began appearing in upscale deer camps. The Model 1889, with its closed-action, side-ejecting mechanism, further ensured Marlin's continued success. The 1889 Marlin's side-ejecting solid top, which remains a feature of Marlin lever rifles today, would eventually prove to be a bonus scarcely imaginable in the late 19th century.

John Browning and Oliver Winchester never met, which is probably a good thing for all concerned. If they had, Browning, who could be fully as obstinate as Winchester himself, might have sworn to have nothing to do with anything bearing the Winchester name. As it was, however, his designs prepared Winchester for the 20th century.

Winchester's Model 66 and the legendary Model 73 were designed to withstand only the mild internal pressures of relatively small blackpowder cartridges. With the increasing demand for larger, more powerful calibers, the quick solution was simply to make the rifles themselves larger and heavier, with obvious dead-end consequences. Browning's 1884 patent for a vertical locking system, which utilizes the strength of the receiver to reinforce the bolt, made Winchester rifles, beginning with the M1886, adaptable to a wide range of calibers available then. It also set the stage for the first smokeless-powder sporting caliber, the .30-30 WCF, and its companion, the most successful deer rifle in history, the Model 94 Winchester carbine.

Meanwhile, an adventurous character with the appropriately Hollywood-sounding name of Arthur Savage was looking far into the future, producing rifles and calibers that were well ahead of their time. With its curvaceous, hammerless profile, the Savage '99 contrasted sharply with other lever rifles at century's end. And its radically different locking system equaled the strength of even today's bolt-action rifles.

This would be demonstrated generation after generation into the 20th century, as the Model 99 was adapted to ever more modern, high-intensity cartridges. And while Winchester could be called the rifle of the common man or "the gun that won the West" and Marlin might in some ways be called "the gun that won the East," or at least the Eastern establishment, Savage rifles appealed to hunters like Savage himself-antiestablishment, modern and venturesome. These men were enchanted by a cartridge that had the astounding muzzle velocity of 3,000 feet per second, heralding an exciting new era of cartridge design.

The 1920s might well be called the golden era of deer hunting. Doughboys returning from the trenches of Europe brought home an intense desire to hunt, as well as revolutionary ideas about deer rifles and their use. Trains and autos put deer hunting within a day's travel of even the most populated urban centers, and recreational hunting became imbued with its own culture. Sportsmen's clubs flourished and publications such as Outdoor Life further fueled the rush to the woods with advice on where to hunt deer, how to get there and what rifles and calibers to use.

Enter the Bolt-Action
Remington Arms, which hadn't been a player in the lever-action race, entered the deer hunting paradele in the late 19th century.

John Browning and Oliver Winchester never met, which is probably a good thing for all concerned. If they had, Browning, who could be fully as obstinate as Winchester himself, might have sworn to have nothing to do with anything bearing the Winchester name. As it was, however, his designs prepared Winchester for the 20th century.

Winchester's Model 66 and the legendary Model 73 were designed to withstand only the mild internal pressures of relatively small blackpowder cartridges. With the increasing demand for larger, more powerful calibers, the quick solution was simply to make the rifles themselves larger and heavier, with obvious dead-end consequences. Browning's 1884 patent for a vertical locking system, which utilizes the strength of the receiver to reinforce the bolt, made Winchester rifles, beginning with the M1886, adaptable to a wide range of calibers available then. It also set the stage for the first smokeless-powder sporting caliber, the .30-30 WCF, and its companion, the most successful deer rifle in history, the Model 94 Winchester carbine.

Meanwhile, an adventurous character with the appropriately Hollywood-sounding name of Arthur Savage was looking far into the future, producing rifles and calibers that were well ahead of their time. With its curvaceous, hammerless profile, the Savage '99 contrasted sharply with other lever rifles at century's end. And its radically different locking system equaled the strength of even today's bolt-action rifles.

This would be demonstrated generation after generation into the 20th century, as the Model 99 was adapted to ever more modern, high-intensity cartridges. And while Winchester could be called the rifle of the common man or "the gun that won the West" and Marlin might in some ways be called "the gun that won the East," or at least the Eastern establishment, Savage rifles appealed to hunters like Savage himself-antiestablishment, modern and venturesome. These men were enchanted by a cartridge that had the astounding muzzle velocity of 3,000 feet per second, heralding an exciting new era of cartridge design.

The 1920s might well be called the golden era of deer hunting. Doughboys returning from the trenches of Europe brought home an intense desire to hunt, as well as revolutionary ideas about deer rifles and their use. Trains and autos put deer hunting within a day's travel of even the most populated urban centers, and recreational hunting became imbued with its own culture. Sportsmen's clubs flourished and publications such as Outdoor Life further fueled the rush to the woods with advice on where to hunt deer, how to get there and what rifles and calibers to use.