The ideal big-game rifle combines a number of virtues. Adequate power and accuracy are givens, but beyond that it needs to be ergonomic—the right weight, shape, and balance for the shooter to make it an extension of his body.
A deer rifle should handle like a fine shotgun, for quick, accurate shooting at sudden, fleeting targets. A mountain rifle should be accurate but light enough to carry. A dangerous-game rifle should come to the shoulder in an instant, like a Purdey game gun.
Barring luck, the only way to get a rifle that fits that way is to have one made to measure—or to buy a factory rifle and have it altered. Alas, very few of today’s production rifles even come close. They are too heavy or too awkward, the grips are too large, and most fore-ends are more suited to target shooting than carrying in the field.
One would think that after more than a century of building hunting rifles with modern chamberings that every factory rifle would be perfect, but cutting corners, reducing costs, and taking the easy way (as with composite stocks) have actually taken rifles in the other direction.
Most of my acquaintances look at these statements and mutter, “Well, I shoot factory rifles pretty well.” Maybe, maybe not. Unfortunately, most hunters today, having never handled a rifle that really fits them and was built to be the best possible hunting rifle for them, have no idea what’s good and what isn’t.
You can’t appreciate the driving qualities of an Aston Martin if you’ve never driven anything but a John Deere tractor. Once you have driven an Aston Martin, anything less will never quite satisfy you.
The Al Biesen Touch
Al Biesen, Jack O’Connor’s “genius of Spokane,” was a custom gunmaker who aspired to make perfect hunting rifles. Not works of art or glitzy artifacts to sit in a glass case—real hunting rifles. It was my good fortune to acquire one of his .270 Winchester rifles last year, a gun from the 1980s on an FN Deluxe action. Although I’ve handled a good number of fine rifles in my life, with names like Holland & Holland and John Rigby, the Biesen was a revelation in several ways.
The grip was small compared to production rifles and fit my hand perfectly. Similarly, the fore-end is slender and slightly pear-shaped. The checkering wraps completely around, giving as solid a grip as anyone could wish. By today’s factory standards, the grip and fore-end are almost dainty. But combined with the weight and balance of the rifle, they cause everyone who picks it up to say, “Wow! I’ve never felt anything like this.”
The rifle is as responsive as an Aston Martin and feels alive in my hands.
Every detail—from the custom shroud with a Model 70-style safety, to the Canjar trigger, to the cheekpiece—is fashioned with hunting utility in mind. The walnut is lovely but not gaudy, with straight grain through the fore-end to ensure stability. Overall, it has the lines of a racing yacht: lean and efficient but beautifully fashioned.
Over the past century, some factory rifles have been produced with these qualities. The Winchester ’92 is as good a close-range deer rifle as anyone has ever made. The Mannlicher-Schönauer Model 1903 in 6.5×54 Mannlicher-Schönauer is an excellent mountain rifle straight from the factory and has been used on everything from chamois to sharks to elephants. And—a pleasant surprise—the current Winchester Model 70 Featherweight is right up there, too. One in .270 Win. may not match my Al Biesen, but it’s not far behind and incorporates one or two features Biesen pioneered. Another good modern hunting rifle is the Ruger 77 Hawkeye FTW Hunter.
It can still be done, and you don’t need to spend a fortune to get a good hunting rifle. You just have to know what that means and what you want and keep looking until you find it.