*your opinions/results may vary
Okay, you may be thinking to yourself as you read the headline, “what crock of crap does he have cooked up now?” Maybe you think it’s an AR with interchangeable uppers in different calibers. Maybe a rifle like the Thompson/Center Encore, with interchangeable barrels for all manners of hunting? Or a carbine like the Marlin 1984 that can use pistol caliber cartridges like the .38 Special/.357 Magnum or .44 Special/.44 Magnum? Nope sorry. Wrong on all counts.
I guess maybe before I get the rifle described, I should define “versatility” to me. A versatile rifle, in my book, is one gun, in one caliber, that can handle almost everything that is thrown its way that the user is LIKELY to come across, terrain and circumstances depending…before and even after TSHTF. I live in rural Maine, where the populations are spread out, the terrain is extremely varied (I could be watching over a blueberry field plain, scouting an oak/hardwood grove, or sneaking my way through a close-in hemlock glade within the course of a hunting trip, all within a few minutes’ walk of my house. It should be chambered in a caliber that is easily obtained, useful in an array of situations over varied ranges, powerful enough to take game up to moose and bear-sized, yet accurate enough to plug that woodchuck that’s been chowing down on your crops, at 100 yards. It should have multiple sighting systems, not just for operational redundancy, in case one breaks, but also to adapt the rifle to the terrain. It should also be simple, rugged, of quality workmanship. It should also be able to defend your home and family if needed.
Here are two rifles that are my take on this principle, one a Winchester I put together for myself, another a Remington I set up for my brother. Both are chambered in .30-06 Springfield.
My Winchester Model 54 (upper gun) was made in 1926, and has a 4-digit serial number. It was given to me by my father as a graduation present. It was a Texas rancher’s rifle, and the stock had been bleached almost bone white by the sun. It originally sported a 1920’s-era Zeiss 2 3/4x scope on Western Mounts. I have many, many hours rubbing raw linseed oil into the stock to bring it back to how you see it, and it now has a Leupold Vari-XII 3-9x scope on Warne Quick detachable mounts.
The Winchester Model 54 was the immediate predecessor of the fabled Winchester Model 70, and was manufactured from 1926-1936, in several calibers. It was a less-expensive derivative of the “Imperial” model 51, a hand-made rifle made in the late 1910s. It took the best features of the Mauser M98 and the Springfield 1903, and combined them into a svelte, quick-handling sporting rifle. My rifle will shoot 1″ groups, even with its dark, old bore, with Federal 180-grain factory loads at 100 yards.
My brother’s Remington is a model 721, which is the predecessor of the modern Remington Model 700. They are known for quick lock times, fine accuracy, and dependability. 721s were introduced in 1948, and utilized a push-feed system to get the cartridge from the magazine to the chamber.
This particular rifle has Leupold QD rings and bases under a Leupold 3.5-10x scope, and it is extremely accurate. With a chosen handload (49.0 grains of IMR-4064, and a Speer 180-grain bullet) it will shoot 3/4″ groups at 100 yards without even trying. I stripped the stock of the factory gloss finish, and re-finished the uncheckered stock with a mixture of boiled linseed oil and Birchwood Casey Tru-Oil. I also inletted Dakota Super Grade-style sling swivels into the stock.
“Yeah, okay, I see a couple old bolt-action rifles. Yawn.” I’m guessing that is something similar to your response upon first inspection. But what makes these rifles extra versatile? First off, the .30-06 caliber is one key. It can shoot bullets from 100 grains all the way to 220 grains with fair to excellent accuracy (rifling twist nonwithstanding). It can handle varmints, coyote-sized game, deer, antelope, elk, moose, bear, and it served our country with distinction as the main service rifle caliber from 1906 up through the 1950s, serving through WWI, WWII, and Korea…like my grandfather always said, “if you can’t kill it with an ’06, it probably doesn’t need to die.” Both of these rifles are accurate enough to hit deer sized game out past 500 yards if conditions are right. Plus, .30-06 is one caliber that’s still relatively easy to come by, even if you have to scrounge for it. Everyone and their moms have a .30-06.
But what else? Well, both of these rifles have quick-detachable scope rings for a reason. Both rifles mount Lyman receiver sights as well. The Winchester has a Lyman 48 longslide, and the Remington has a steel base Lyman 57.
These receiver sights are kind of an old-school setup. With the advent of the modern scope that magnifies, the receiver (or “aperture” or “peep”) sight is a fantastic piece of gear for a variety of shooting. It is incredibly quick and accurate at long distance (1-2″ groups at 100 yards are possible on a good day). But, as the biggest bonus, they are extremely rugged. All-steel construction means they will stay in good shape even if dropped, something that cannot be said for many scopes.
The Winchester has a weakness, where I need to pull the bridge of the sight out to mount the scope:
But, once the scope is off and the sight is set up, the rifle (which was designed before the heyday of the scope) has a low stock comb that allows your cheek to come right down low, in line with the low profile of the sights. It is very, very quick and intuitive, and I have taken several running deer at medium ranges with this setup. As a bonus, without a scope, it is a delight to carry around in the woods. So much so that I almost never bring the scope with me when hunting with the rifle, unless I know that I will be sitting over a field or places I can shoot over 200 yards. With the scope off, it is quick enough to handle close-in hemlock groves on fast-moving short-range whitetail, and accurate enough to make a confident shot on a deer out to 200 or so yards. It also has stripper-clip guides (a throwback to the 1903 Springfield/98 Mauser heritage) that makes reloading with a 5-round clip a one-second proposition. With the scope mounted, (yes, the Warne rings retain scope zero when removing the scope) it is all set to shoot out to extreme distances if needed, whether taking that antelope on the North Dakota plains at 400 yards, or long-range targets of opportunity from your bug-in location.
The Remington 721 is set up with modified Leupold QD bases.
I found that if I ground down the rear base and mounting screws, it resulted in enough clearance to keep the Lyman 57 permanently mounted, even with the scope on. As long as you use high rings, it leaves enough clearance to mount the scope. Pretty slick. Since the 721 was designed with scopes in mind, it has a higher stock comb that makes you have to work a little bit to get your cheek down further to look through the aperture, but it works far better when you have a scope mounted. (The Winchester’s low comb makes a high-mounted scope a little tough to use.) The Leupold rings also retain zero, and are fast and simple. Good stuff, and highly recommended. If you find that your travels take you through closer foliage or in mountainous terrain, or (God forbid) you drop the rifle and smash a scope lens or knock the zero out of alignment, simply pop the scope off, throw it in your pack, and you still have a quick-handling, accurate rifle that’s powerful enough to do what you need to do. What’s wrong with that?
Also, due to the fact that these rifles were overshadowed by their descendents, they are relatively inexpensive (at the local Cabela’s, there is a 721 in .270 for $395 in almost perfect shape. A Winchester 54 in average shape will be more like $500-1000, depending on caliber…however, the Remington will probably be more accurate. Just sayin’.).
If this theory piques your interest, a few other rifles can be adapted the same way, since they have receiver sight mounting holes drilled into the rifle’s receiver. Some examples are the Winchester 54, Winchester 70 (earlier models, through late ’80’s production), Remington 721, Remington 722, Remington 788, Remington 700 (earlier models). Lyman and Redfield make my favorite receiver sights, but Williams, Pacific, and a couple other manufacturers can be found who made sights for these rifles. Also, Redfield made a one-piece scope base that had a pop-up aperture sight that was built right into the base. Just another option. Some manufacturers (you’ll have to do some hunting) make aperture sights that bolt onto Weaver/Picatinny-type bases…just another option to look at.
For my uses, these rifles can do 95% of what I need a rifle for…where I am. I’m not going to go into a post-apocalyptic Detroit with one (unless it was all I had) but it suits my philosophy of harvesting game and avoiding unnecessary human conflict just fine.
What are your ideas on the most versatile rifle for your needs?