The big Texas whitetail buck slipped out of the thorns 350 yards down a clear cut and stood surveying the frozen landscape. My guide, Blake Osteen, gave another gentle grunt, and the buck started moving slowly in our direction, his head bobbing as he tried to catch the scent of his enemy. Normally, an old deer like that wouldn’t expose himself in the middle of the day, but the rut was in full swing, and a sudden cold snap had intensified the breeding action. Now, I needed him to close the gap a bit more.
“Two-fifty, Blake said.
The deer was closing fast, but it was the last morning of the hunt, and we had less than a half-hour before we needed to leave for the airport in El Paso. I slid the long-barreled Uberti 1885 single-shot through the small port hole in the side of the blind and watched as the deer kept moving in our direction.
I waited for the deer to close the gap a bit more. I felt comfortable with the big .45-70 to 200 yards, and I felt sure I could make the shot if I had to. But each step brought the deer closer and upped my odds of placing the shot perfectly. We could wait. The deer was coming on a direct line. And then, he turned. I don’t know what happened. Maybe he caught our scent, but the deer hadn’t spooked. Odds are, he simply lost interest in us as a doe made a run through the cat claw thorn to our left. I could hear her hooves clicking on the icy ground, and there was no pulling the mature buck away from her. If I was going to shoot, it had to be now. I cocked the hammer.
Blake called the range: “One fifty-nine.” The range was no problem, but the buck was quartering away and was about to vanish into the frozen thorn. I found the curve of the trigger just as the deer turned fully broadside and stopped. It was my only opportunity, and I took it.
The trigger broke, and the big rifle thundered, the shot catching the buck just behind the foreleg and dropping him in his tracks. And we still had 18 minutes to spare.
“There are many rifle designs that have been around a long time that make superb big-game hunting rifles just as capable of taking game in 2017 as they were in 1917.”
There are a lot of brand-new rifle designs on the market. Admittedly, some of them are very good. We live in an era of CNC machining and lightweight synthetics; a time when $500 will buy you a brand-new MOA bolt gun. In addition, the rise in popularity of AR rifles has made these guns widely available, and new hunting cartridges such as the 6.5 Creedmoor are perfectly adapted to the platform. If you are looking for a hunting rifle, there are plenty of options. But not all new rifles have fluted bolts and threaded barrels. There are many rifle designs that have been around a long time that make superb big-game hunting rifles just as capable of taking game in 2017 as they were in 1917. These guns are now considerably more-potent hunting weapons than they were back in their day, thanks to new materials and improved cartridges and bullets. If you’re a history lover, there are plenty of classic designs available today. Here are five rifle designs that have stood the test of time.
The 1873, also known simply as the ’73 or the “gun that won the West,” was a technological marvel when it was introduced. The robust design was fast to load, operated flawlessly in tough conditions and allowed for fast follow-up shots. Between 1872 and 1923—when original production ceased—more than 700,000 of these rifles were produced. The most popular chambering in the ’73’s heyday was the .44-40, in particular, because the owner could use that same load in both their revolver and rifle. This would eliminate the need to carry two
different cartridges on long horseback journeys through wild country. Other chamberings included the .38-40 and the .32-20, and standard barrel lengths were 24 inches and 20 inches on carbine versions.
Winchester is once again offering the ’73 in its line of production rifles, and Italian maker Uberti also offers a long list of 1873 clones in various forms with various finishes. Winchester currently offers five variants, and
Uberti offers nine different ’73s, so options abound. The rifles are chambered in cartridges such as the .357 Magnum, the original .44-40 and the .45 Colt. These caliber options and the 1873’s iron sights do limit effective range, but for close-range hogs, deer or when following cougars with hounds, there are few better options.
MSRP: Winchester: $1,299 and up
Uberti: $1,219 and up
BIG HORN ARMORY MODEL 89/90
Okay, the Big Horn Armory rifles aren’t original century-old designs, but they share elements from Winchester’s 1892 and 1886, making them a sort of updated hybrid hunting rifle for the modern age. But the machining and manufacturing of these rifles are superb, and there are a number of high-end upgrades available, such as a matte stainless finish and walnut stocks that are breathtakingly beautiful. These guns are also chambered in some pretty potent, modern-day revolver cartridges: the .500 and .460 Smith & Wesson Magnums, as well as the .454 Casull. And, with their adjustable iron sights (a ghost ring rear and bead front), you’d be surprised at the effective range of these weapons. The Model 90 .460 Smith & Wesson I tested produced great groups out to 100 yards, and the rifle’s weight and stock design kept recoil manageable.
Plus, if you’re hunting big game in bear country, it’s comforting to know you’ve got a potent weapon in your hands. They aren’t cheap—but guns of this ilk never are.
MSRP: Big Horn Armory Model 89/90: $2,500 and up
UBERTI 1885 HIGH WALL
The Winchester 1885 was the first successful commercial design of John Moses Browning, and the robust falling-block action is still regarded as one of the toughest and most durable rifl e designs of the time. In the days when buffalo and elk were abundant on the Great Plains and were fair game, having an ’85 made long shots possible. Although these rifles offered just one shot, that’s all that was required—in the right hands.
Today, Uberti offers a number of different 1885 rifles in .45-70, .45-90 and .45-120. If these cartridges seem like overkill for deer, keep in mind that heavy bullets at modest velocities are lethal, yet they destroy very little meat. In addition, the .45-caliber hole creates a heavier blood trail than smaller calibers.
Uberti’s newest offering is the 1885 Big Game rifle, which comes with a 22-inch barrel and accepts a scope. If you
prefer to shoot without magnified optics, there’s an option to purchase Creedmoor-style flip-up sights, as well.
MSRP: Uberti 1885 High Wall: $1,009–$1,279
The Winchester ’94 needs no introduction. During the early 20th century, this rifle was extraordinarily popular—even as bolt guns and magnified optics came into vogue. In fact, it’s believed the ’94 might have taken more deer than any other single rifle design, and that’s certainly possible.
The 1894 continued to hang on, despite competition from more modern designs, simply because no other gun could match its pointing and handling characteristics. In the right hands, these rifles can handle relatively long shots, and for fast shooting in dense cover, there are still few options that are better.
Winchester still offers the 1894 in a variety of calibers, including .30-30, .450 Marlin, .38-55 and the often-overlooked .25-35. Mossberg’s 464 rifles are also variants of the 94 design with modern features, and they are available at a relatively bargain price.
MSRP: Winchester 94: $1,199.99 and up
Mossberg 464: $518 and up
The Mauser 98 is still the basis for a number of the most popular hunting rifles in production today. It inspired the Winchester Model 70’s action, as well as the Kimber 84, Montana Rifle Company 1999 and Ruger M77, and there are still a number of 98 sporter conversions being carried afield each year. In addition, CZ’s popular 550 is closely patterned after the original Peter Paul Mauser design.
The Mauser gave rise to the controlled-round feed action, incorporating a large claw extractor and a fixed-blade ejector that are still the benchmark of reliability. In fact, these rifles have become the standard for African dangerous game.
Mauser is still importing the M98 Magnum, but you’ll pay dearly for one of these guns: north of $13,500. But the grade V wood (with an optional upgrade, if that isn’t quite good enough for you), seamless action fit, robust folding express sights and careful attention to detail truly set this rifle apart.
MSRP: Mauser 98: $13,500-plus
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2017 print issue of Gun World Magazine.