In 2014, the state of Ohio surprised resident hunters by adding certain centerfire rifles to the list of legal firearms for deer hunting.
Having grown up in Ohio, I was rather shocked by the decision; up until then, the local logic was that the combination of flat terrain and a high human population made centerfire rifles a threat to public safety. However, because muzzle-loader and shotgun slug technology had improved to the point where 200-, and even 300-yard, shots were a real possibility, it opened the door for the use of rifles. And, as almost all hunters anticipated, there was no spike in injuries or damage to public property.
Ohio has joined Michigan, Indiana, Mississippi and other traditionally slug-only deer states in passing legislation that allows the use of certain centerfire calibers for use on whitetails. This has created something of a renaissance in timber rifles—guns that are light, compact and easy to maneuver in timber, brush or a tree stand. In many parts of the country, specifically New England, timber rifles never went out of vogue, simply because those hunters were generally chasing deer in woods where 100 yards was a long shot.
Timber guns have their own charm, as many of my fellow Ohio residents are learning since they traded in their slug guns for compact woods rifles.
Nevertheless, you don’t have to live in a landscape dominated by old-growth forest to appreciate a slick lever gun or ultra-compact bolt action. I’ve used timber rifles in Texas and Montana and even shot 1,100-yard targets with one of the lightest, most compact .308s on the market. The truth is that timber guns are more versatile than you might imagine, and carrying a lighter, shorter rifle makes covering a lot of ground less of a burden.
What follows here is a short rundown of some of the best timber guns available today.
About the same time Ohio legislators gave the nod to centerfires, firearm manufacturers started falling in love with Colonel Cooper’s “Scout Rifle.” These short-barreled rifles wore either iron sights or long eye-relief optics (or both). Although envisioned primarily for personal protection, these guns are great for hunting.
A few standouts are Ruger’s Gunsite Scout Rifle, Howa’s Scout Rifle and Mossberg’s MVP Scout. I’m currently in the process of taking the last MVP Scout, which I used for an elk hunt in Montana, and converting it to the ultimate home-defense bolt-action. Talk about versatility!
However, not all bolt guns for timber are Scout rifles. I tested Remington’s Model Seven in .308 some months ago and fell in love with that 6½-pound, 39-inch turnbolt. The Model Seven’s greatest competitor for years was the Winchester Model 70 Featherweight, which is available with a 22- or 24-inch barrel in several short-action offerings and is another great woods rifle. Ruger recently added a short, lightweight .450 Bushmaster to its American Rifle Ranch lineup; and, at 5.5 pounds with a 16.12-inch barrel, this is about as light and compact a woods gun as you’ll find—although it is not lacking in firepower.
Modern mountain rifles, such as Kimber’s Montana and Mountain Ascent and Howa’s Alpine, are great options, and the Alpine offers the added versatility of the Ammo Boost 10-round, detachable magazine.
When it comes to bolt guns for timber, though, perhaps the ultimate production rifle is Kimber’s svelte Adirondack, which weighs fewer than 5 pounds and measures just 37.25 inches long. There’s no brush too thick or box blind too cramped for this accurate, little rifle.
When you mention timber guns, many hunters automatically envision a slick lever-action rifle—and with good reason. Forty years ago, these rifles rivaled bolt-actions in terms of popularity with Eastern hunters; and, in dense woods, where flat-nosed bullets weren’t a handicap, lever guns gave up nothing to their more-modern turn-bolt counterparts.
Winchester’s Model 1894 and Marlin’s 336 lever guns have accounted for more deer and bears in the Eastern woods than anyone can count, and those rifles are also popular among Western hunters who don’t mind having to get a little closer to game in order to hunt with their favorite saddle rifle.
Henry’s Big Boy and Winchester’s Model 92 are two great pistol-caliber options, and Mossberg’s new 464 is a reliable and affordable option, as well.
If you’re planning to hunt (or potentially be hunted by) very large game, you can step up to the .45-70, .450 Marlin, .444 Marlin and even a handful of rifles such as the Big Horn 89 and 90 that are chambered in magnum pistol-caliber cartridges (such as .460 and .500 Smith & Wesson Magnum). The great draw of lever guns is that they are short (often fewer than 40 inches), light, and they balance and swing as well as many premium upland shotguns. Plus, they’re just plain fun to shoot.
The recent rise in the popularity of AR rifles has prompted more hunters to carry these rifles afield. ARs are, indeed, excellent hunting rifles, especially dedicated hunting ARs such as Daniel Defense’s Ambush .308.
However, the AR is not the only great autoloading rifle for timber hunters. Browning’s BAR celebrates a century of production this year, and there are few rifles that are better equipped for taking big game in timber than this reliable Browning semiauto. I used the new-for-2017 BAR DBM in .308 to shoot rolling rabbit targets at a sporting clays media event. I was impressed not only by how well this gun handles, but also how well it functions.
That BAR literally had hundreds of rounds fired in a short period of time with no time to cool, and there were no feeding problems.
Remington doesn’t list the 7400 on its website any longer, but it is also a superb woods gun. In addition, although it is better known for its autoloading shotguns, Benelli’s R1 semiauto rifle is another excellent option.
I’m a sucker for woods rifles, but there are few guns I enjoy more than my Ruger No. 1 in 7×57 Mauser. With a 20-inch barrel, that rifle weighs in at slightly more than 6 pounds and measures a bit more than 3 feet long. Over the years, Ruger has offered a number of great compact No. 1 rifles chambered in a wide array of calibers; and this year, the company launched an all-weather .450 Bushmaster version that’s great for Midwestern states in which the .450 is legal.
Dakota’s Model 10 is another excellent single-shot option, and the sky’s the limit on those rifles in terms of engraving and ornamentation. Both the No. 1 and the Model 10 utilize very strong falling-block actions that can stand up to years of hard use.
On the break-action side, Thompson/Center’s Encore and G2 Contender rifles are truly excellent, and they offer a level of platform versatility not found in other guns.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the January 2018 print issue of Gun World magazine.