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Giving Thanks for a Father’s Favorite Rifle

Andrew McKean Avatar

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Every year on Thanksgiving, I take one of my late father's rifles on a hunt. This year, I packed an heirloom Savage 99 on an antlerless mule deer hunt on my Montana ranch. It may be a contraption of walnut and steel, but for me, the gun is a reminder of favorite hunts with my father.
My dad bought this rifle, chambered in the classic .300 Savage, from a pawn shop in Missouri when I was a kid. He always wanted a 99, so much so that he bought me a Savage 99 in .243 for my first deer rifle. That was in the mid 1980's, an unfortunate time for Savage, which had not yet reinvented itself as the home of affordable, accurate rifles. I still own that first Savage, more out of obligation than affection. It features excessive head space, truly horrible checkering and wood-to-metal fit, and a forgettable detachable clip magazine.
Early generations of the Model 99, on the other hand, are marvels of mechanics, workmanship and elegance. They featured rich walnut, beautiful metalwork, and lively balance. But the 99's real contributions to the state of the rifle art are inside its trim frame.
The .300 Savage is one of the first modern hunting cartridges. I like the Winchester 150-grain factory load for consistent performance. With a muzzle velocity of about 2,550 feet per second and virtually no recoil, it's a pleasure to shoot with reliable knockdown power out to 100 yards.
Arthur Savage's rotary spool magazine was revolutionary in the 1890's. The design allowed the lever action to feed high-powered cartridges pushing spire-pointed bullets, bullets that wouldn't work in tubular magazines on Winchester Model 94s and Marlin lever guns. The short action allows for quick following shots and a remarkably compact receiver.
The hinged lever features case-hardened steel and balanced lines. When I get in a hurry, I can pump five shots downrange in about three seconds with this butter-slick action. Of all the rifles I own, the Savage is the most instinctive pointer. It balances and handles almost like a shotgun.
My dad's Savage has a number of alterations, including a recess for a tang safety in the grip, which is out of confirmation with the lever safety just above the trigger. And my father added a Williams peep sight in place of the standard notched rear sight. Dad put peep sights on all his rifles, and I grew up centering the front post through the rear aperture even before I learned to shoot buckhorn sights.
The barrel of my 99 is stamped "Savage Arms Corporation – Chicopee Falls, Mass." Savage made the move to Chicopee Falls from Utica, New York in 1947, which helps date this rifle. I've not done any research on its vintage, but I'm guessing it dates from the late '40s or 1950's.
Every Thanksgiving since my dad died, I've tried to take one of his rifles on some hunt or another, usually doe hunts for antelope, mule deer or whitetails. This year the 99 chased mule deer. My dad always liked hunting muleys, and typically does are pretty fair game. I haven't shot the Savage enough to confidently take long shots, so I aimed to get a doe inside 50 yards. It know this sounds strange, but hunting with my dad's rifles is almost like hunting with him. I found myself muttering to the gun, as though I was talking through it to my dad.
I'd be shooting the 150-grain Winchester factory loads.
I patterned the deer the evening before I connected. Deer were moving from bedding areas in the prairie pastures to irrigated alfalfa on the river bottom. If I could find the spot they crossed the creek, I should be able to take a doe at fairly close range.
Turned out I could have shot this doe with my bow. She marched right in my lap, and actually took me by surprise, approaching from my blind side. By the time I saw her she was right on the steep creek bank. I wanted to drop her on high ground, but my 15-yard shot knocked her down and she fell into the steep, deep iced-over creek. It would be work to lift her out of the deep cut.
A new iteration of the Savage ads you may have seen: "One Shot, One Kill." Only this one is evidence of Savage's long legacy of accuracy, performance and style. I think my dad would have enjoyed the hunt. I know he would have enjoyed the rifle.

Every year on Thanksgiving Hunting Editor Andrew McKean goes on a hunt with one of his late father’s rifles. This year he took his dad’s favorite Savage 99.