What does it take for a rifle to qualify as one of the best big-game rifles of all time? Some win this acclaim through innovative design, others through their reputation for hell-and-back reliability. Many of the best big-game rifles have been copied, and some — like the 98 Mauser — are the inspiration for dozens of other similar designs that have remained popular over the course of the last century.
Modern machining technology has allowed companies to build cheaper rifles to tighter tolerances. With the accuracy revolution of the last decade, we've seen the development of rifles that cost less than $500, yet still promise sub-MOA accuracy and a great trigger. With that kind of competition, it's hard to believe that anyone would pay for a rifle designed 50 or even 100 years ago.
None of us would consider driving a 1916 Studebaker Speedster through rush-hour traffic every day, but hunting big game with an early 20th century rifle doesn't significantly limit the hunter's ability to fill a tag. The enduring nature of these firearms — and their innovative designers — is a testament to just how good they were in the first place.
And, in my opinion, they've all earned a spot in the big-game rifle hall of
fame. Check out my list of the best big-game rifles of all time.
Marlin Model 336
The Marlin 336
is one of the most versatile and popular lever guns ever designed. Over 6 million have been produced since 1948, and it's still in production today. It functions in much the same way that lever guns have since the late 1800s. Cartridges are held in a tubular magazine, the action is manually cycled with the lever on the bottom of the rifle and it has an external hammer. But the Marlin offers side ejection, which makes it easy to mount a scope.
With its superb build quality, reliability and accuracy potential, this rifle is one of the best big game guns ever designed. It was originally available in .30-30 and .35 Remington, but it's also available in big bore calibers like the .45-70 and .450 Marlin. Two new calibers, the .308 and .338 Marlin, offer improved trajectory and allow for the use of Hornady's FlexTip ammunition with spitzer bullets, which makes the 336 even more attractive.
Remington Model 700
The Remington Model 700
, introduced in 1962, is the great nemesis of the Winchester Model 70. The Model 700 has a push-feed bolt with two locking lugs and a plunger-type ejector. It was also cheaper to build than the Model 70 (hence the Model 70 redesign in 1964).
If you're looking for the first popular budget-priced rifle capable of outstanding accuracy, that title probably belongs to the 700. It's still immensely popular and if you spend much time in hunting circles it won't be long before you find someone who swears by the 700. It's filled many freezers with meat for the winter — and with about 40 different models currently being offered by Remington — that is a trend that will continue well in the future.
Remington Model 74/7400/750
original gas-operated semi-auto has been in production since the mid-20th century, and since that time over 2 million of these rifles have been sold. The 740 offered fast follow-up shots with its reliable system that functioned with modern centerfire hunting cartridges.
Several other companies designed similar rifles that operated in much the same way, but none of these guns won the heart of American hunters like the Remington semi-auto. It's still as useful and practical as when the first 740 rolled off the assembly line. The sleek 740, 7400, and 750 have accounted for big game from Alabama to Alaska, and there are still plenty of hunters that rely on this design to fill their tag each autumn.
Which rifles currently in production will earn their place in the "Big Game Rifle Hall of Fame" in the future? It's hard to say, but there are several likely contenders. The single-shot Thompson Center Encore
— which is both versatile and popular — is a likely candidate. There are a number of very good, inexpensive bolt-actions like the Tikka T3
, Remington 783
, Ruger American Rifle
and Savage Axis
that also have a legitimate shot of being future inductees.
And, if the growing trend in modern sporting rifles continues, there will likely be a few AR platform rifles that earn a place on the list. Some high-end rifles, like the Kimber 84
and the Nosler 48
, which carry price tags that preclude them from having mass appeal, are excellent. New rifles like the Savage 110
, Browning A-Bolt 3
and CZ 557
also stand a chance of becoming future hall-of-famers. Only time will tell.
Ruger No. 1
Hunting big game with a single shot rifle seems like a step backwards in the evolution of sporting firearms, but don't tell that to the legions of hunters who swear by this rifle. The falling-block action is extremely robust and capable of being chambered in cartridges up to the .458 Winchester Magnum.
Plus, with the accuracy potential of the Number 1
, you'll likely only need one shot anyway. With its timeless and classy look, it's easy to mount an optic on this rifle. The Number 1 has a cult following, and many people that purchase one of these rifles end up owning two — or three, or four — pretty quickly. The Number 1 may only offer one shot, but it has accounted for a whole lot of big game around the world.
Winchester Model 70
The Winchester Model 70
, the 'Rifleman's Rifle, ' was an American take on full-length claw extraction design. It won over a lot of critics, including the blunt and sometimes painfully honest Jack O'Connor, who admonished the brass at Winchester for cheapening the Model 70 in 1964.
The original Model 70 was popular for a reason: it offered the aforementioned claw extractor, came with a relatively good trigger and included a well-designed three-position safety. Some of the early Model 70s shoot incredibly well. Production of the Model 70 ceased in 2006, but it has since begun again in a new facility in South Carolina. There are some who would argue that the current Model 70 is the best version ever produced.
Winchester Model 94
It's unlikely that any rifle currently in production has accounted for more game than the Winchester Model 94
. Over the course of its 120 year history this rifle has been used to hunt big game around the world, and there are still plenty of 94s that see action every fall.
It follows the basic design cues of most traditional lever guns, but the build quality and reliability is excellent.
Even though it's chambered for rimmed cartridges with flat-nosed bullets (the 94 uses a tube magazine), it's still an effective lightweight, dependable and fast big game rifle. Winchester is once again building this iconic rifle, so you should have no problem find plenty of these guns for sale.
If the American shooting public hadn't fallen in love with the bolt-action Springfield 03, the Savage 99
might have changed the course of history. It was a thoroughly modern lever gun design that didn't require a hammer and used rotary magazines so cartridges loaded with pointed bullets could be loaded into the rifle without the fear of a discharge in the magazine tube.
The Savage was a complex and costly rifle to make, which eventually caused its demise. But the 99 was a great rifle that still has a lot of fans. There's always a glimmer of hope that someday, somehow, this rifle will go back into production. For now, if you see one, buy it.
design was a military rifle that was later sporterized for use in the field. It featured a controlled-round action and was extremely accurate. Its popularity only grew when notable figures like Ernest Hemingway wrote about their experiences with the 03
Despite having been out of production for some time there are still a number of sporterized Springfields being used today. And they're just as good today as they were 100 years ago.
design is the most-copied bolt action rifle of all time, and there's a good reason. The Mauser's design is robust, with a full-length claw extractor that insures positive extraction and ejection when you need it most, whether that's on a battlefield or facing a charging cape buffalo.
Mauser's design became a worldwide winner, and you can thank him for giving us the concept of the 'controlled round feed ' action. Mauser still makes rifles, but it will take another century to determine whether or not any of the newer designs will be as successful as the venerable 98.