March 18, 2021
By David Draper
By some accounts, the Golden Age of gun-building all but ended in 1964 when Winchester changed the design of the beloved Model 70. Since then, there have been a few cool, new guns introduced, and a few truly revolutionary ones. But 50? Surely coming up with that many great guns to hit the market since 1971 would be a tall task. After putting ink to paper and coming up short, I turned to the real experts — our staff of overly qualified and imminently experienced hunters and shooters who have literally seen it all when it comes to guns and hunting.
After consulting with Craig Boddington, Keith Wood and Joseph von Benedikt, along with publisher Kevin Steele and associate editor Joe Ferronato, I had a new problem. My list of 50 great firearms introduced in the last 50 years was now nearing 100. With a red pen, a stack of gun books and the Google-box within reach, I sat down and started cutting. Let me tell you, it wasn’t an easy task and there are many great guns that got left off the list for the simple fact we just didn’t have room on the page for all of them.
Top 25 Rifles Intro
While the argument could be made that the pre-’64 Winchester Model 70 is the best firearm ever designed, there are a lot of other rifles introduced since then that are pretty darn close. From the recent re-birth of the lever-action to sub-MOA bolt-actions that can be had for a few hundred bucks, there are a lot of great hunting rifles available to hunters today.
The in-line rifle swept the muzzleloader market, and blackpowder rifles now reach out to unheard of ranges (for better or worse, depending on your viewpoint). One even loads the charge from the breech, begging the question, is it really a muzzleloader? Many state game commission say it is.
The rifles that made the list did so for a variety of reasons, whether for their inherent accuracy, unique design or affordability. Others showcase the epitome of the gunmaker’s art. Some might be ugly, but they’re so functional, they found a permanent place behind the seat of thousands of ranch trucks out West.
Sure there are rifles that didn’t make the list, but probably should have. I can think of a few, and one or two that are among my favorites. But I had to draw the line somewhere, and for this list, that came in at 25.
See Top 25 Rifles
Top 15 Shotguns Intro
While the art of the rifle peaked in the earlier half of the last century, shotguns really came into their own starting in the 1980s and 90s. Consider Benelli’s Super Black Eagle — the autoloader that came to define waterfowling, or the venerable 11-87, an upgrade of the already legendary Remington 1100. In the mid-90s, I bought a Beretta 391 that was like an extension of my arm — it was like a couldn’t miss. Unfortunately, a struggling copywriter early in my career, the Beretta only lasted a few seasons before I had to sell it to keep the lights on. The Mossberg 835 introduced the world to the 3 ½-inch chamber, and became a nightmare for stubborn gobblers and high-flying geese. These are just a few of the scatterguns that make the list, and of those that didn’t, Browning’s Maxus is perhaps the most glaring omission. It could have just as easily made the list.
See Top 15 Shotguns
Top 10 Handguns Intro
When I asked Executive Field Editor Craig Boddington for suggestions on the best handguns of the last 50 years, he immediately replied:
“Damn me, I cannot come up with a single significant development in hunting handguns in the last 50 years.”
Lucky for our readers, we have a couple of other crack handgunners on our staff — Keith Wood and Joseph von Benedikt — that did come up with some great suggestions that have come to market since 1971. The boom in popularity of the 10mm chambering for hunting has given us a couple great 1911-variants, and of course, the Taurus Judge made a big splash when it was introduced. There are also some modern takes on the revolver worth noting, including the affordable Ruger Wrangler, which I’ve come to love since it was introduced in the last few years.
See Top 10 Handguns
The Essentials Gear Box.
Our editors have hand-picked these essential pieces of gear to make you a more successful hunter when you hit the game trails this season.