Remington's Early Autoloaders--the 8 & the 81
January 05, 2011
We are likely to not see the likes of the Remington Model 8 and 81 autoloading rifles again. And that's a shame because they are fine examples of how classy sporting rifles can be.
Like a number of early rifle designs, the Model 8 is easily taken down into two short pieces. This makes it more compact for transporting and also allows the bore of the barrel to be cleaned from the chamber end. After a coin is used to loosen the forearm retention screw, the forearm is removed from the barrel. This exposes a takedown lever at the front of the receiver, and when it is rotated counterclockwise about seven complete revolutions, the shank of the barrel can be pulled forward and out of the receiver. In addition to being extremely user friendly, the takedown system also compensates for wear. Through the decades I have examined many Model 8 and Model 81 rifles, some showing signs of extremely hard use, and not a single one had a loose barrel.
The Model 8 "Remington Autoloading Repeating Rifle"--as it was originally called when it was introduced in 1906--was by far the most successful of the early centerfire autoloaders. And with the rifle came the introduction of four equally new cartridges designed specifically for it. The .25, .30, and .32 Remington Rimless cartridges were ballistic twins of the .25-35 Winchester, .30-30 Winchester, and .32 Winchester Special, while the .35 Remington pretty much duplicated the performance of the .33 Winchester. Barrel length was 22 inches. In 1911, the rifle was renamed the Model 8.
Designed by John Browning, the Model 8 utilizes the same long-travel recoil operating system as Browning's Auto 5 shotgun, with one exception. The shotgun has two recoil springs--one for the bolt housed inside the buttstock, and one for the barrel. The recoil spring for the barrel is wrapped around a tubular magazine resting below the barrel and inside the forearm. The Model 8 also has an action spring located inside its buttstock, but since it has no tubular magazine, its barrel recoil spring is wrapped around the outside of the barrel and held in place by a steel jacket. The jacket encloses the barrel all the way out to its muzzle, giving it a fat appearance that sometimes causes those who are not familiar with the Model 8 to mistake it for a shotgun. John Browning sold the European manufacturing rights to his design to the Belgium firm of Fabrique Nationale, where it was called the Model 1900 and described as the "Fusil Automatique Browning Cal. 35." Only 4,913 of those rifles were built.
While the Model 8 has long enjoyed a reputation for reliable functioning under harsh conditions, operation of its action is rather complex. When the rifle fires, rotating lugs on its bolt remain engaged with recesses in the barrel as the two travel together to the rear and compress the two recoil springs. Once the bolt and barrel reach the limit of their rearward travel, they separate and the bolt is momentarily held in place while the barrel is moved forward by its compressed recoil spring. Then the bolt moves forward, strips a cartridge from the magazine, and chambers it as its rotating lugs again engage the barrel extension.
The single-stack magazine can be loaded one cartridge at a time or with a stripper clip. Magazine capacity is five rounds for the .25, .30, and .32 Remington and four rounds for the .35 Remington. The bolt remains open after the last cartridge is fired. When the magazine is empty, a pull on a lever located at the bottom of the receiver on its left-hand side releases the bolt, allowing it to move forward. If the magazine contains one or more cartridges, the locked-back bolt can be released with the lever or by pulling back on the bolt and then releasing it.
These early cutaway drawings illustrate the inner workings of the Model 8 and would be the same for the later Model 81. At top, a cartridge is in the chamber, and the internal hammer is about to strike the firing pin in the locked bolt. At bottom, the rifle has fired, and both the barrel and bolt have remained locked together to the limit of their rearward travel. In both drawings the bolt recoil spring can be seen in the buttstock, but the barrel recoil spring is not shown.
The Model 8 was designed as a sporting firearm, and during its heyday the .35-caliber version was considered to be plenty of rifle for all North American game, including moose, elk, and grizzly bear. In early advertisements Remington touted the rifle as capable of penetrating a 5/16-inch steel plate at 100 yards. Due to its firepower, the Model 8 also enjoyed some popularity in law enforcement circles, especially when converted to use a 15-round detachable magazine. Newton Hillyard, who founded a household cleaning products company in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1907, designed the magazine and started converting rifles during the 1920s. His magazines were later sold through the Peace Officer's Equipment Company, also located in St. Joseph. Perhaps the most famous of those conversions was the .35-caliber Model 8 used by former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer in the 1934 Louisiana ambush that ended the crime spree of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.
The Model 81
When the 1930s rolled around, Remington decision-makers decided to boost sales of the Model 8 by giving it a minor overhaul. The job was assigned to company engineer Crawford C. Loomis. I doubt if Loomis spent a lot of time on the project since the barrel and action were left pretty much the same with only a few changes made to the stock and forearm. Increasing the diameter of the grip made it stronger, and doing the same to the forearm made it more hand-filling. That was about the extent of the changes made by Loomis.
In 1936 Remington introduced the revised version of the Model 8 as the Model 81 Woodsmaster. The .25 Remington chambering was dropped, but the .30, .32, and .35 Remington lived on, and in 1940 the .300 Savage joined them. Production ceased during World War II, and after the war only the .300 Savage and .35 Remington chamberings became available. Those two remained until production of the Model 81 was discontinued in 1950 with almost 56,000 built. Add close to 81,000 Model 8s produced and you have a fairly successful firearm, one as capable of bringing home the venison today as when it was introduced more than a century ago.
The barrel is easily detached b
y removing the forearm and rotating the takedown lever counterclockwise several revolutions. Since the system compensates for wear, a Model 8 or Model 81 with a loose barrel is seldom encountered today.
Despite its homely appearance, I have long had a soft spot for the Model 81. The one I have owned for a very long time was built in 1947. I have not downed a lot of deer with it, but I have taken enough to become convinced that the .300 Savage for which it is chambered drops a buck more quickly than the .30-30 Winchester. My rifle averages around 3.50 inches at 100 yards with its favorite loads, although occasionally it will surprise me by squeezing three bullets inside 2 inches. It won't win a benchrest match but is plenty accurate for shooting a deer as far away as I am good for with open sights. Lyman, Marble's, and other companies used to make receiver sights that attach to the receiver tang, and someday I may get around to rounding up one for my Model 81.
The safety locks the hammer and trigger and blocks the bolt from movement when engaged as shown here. Those who hunted during extremely cold weather liked it because it was easy to operate while wearing heavy gloves.
The Model 8 and Model 81 had their critics, but by and large most hunters who used them loved them (and a few still do). Hunters liked the quality, the reliability, and the durability, and many even appreciated the great amount of time it must have taken those guys at the factory to tediously carve various parts from blocks of steel. Those who hunted in extremely cold weather also appreciated how easy that big safety lever on the side of its receiver was to operate with a gloved hand. They also liked the way the receiver protected the inner workings of the action from rain, snow, dust, dirt, and field debris.
It's nice to occasionally leave the synthetic clothing and plastic-stocked rifles behind and head to the woods dressed in Filson wool and carrying an old classic like the Remington Model 81.
There are only two things that I do not like about Remington's grand old autoloader. The magazine is slow to load without a stripper clip, especially when the fingers are numbed by a cold winter day. And since the magazine and bolt handle are at the balance point of the rifle, they interfere with a comfortable one-hand carry. Even so, I still enjoy hunting with my Model 81.
We will never again see the likes of Remington's first autoloading deer rifle simply because the intricate machining and hand-fitting of its parts would price it far beyond what most hunters would be willing to pay. Luckily for those of us who occasionally enjoy leaving our synthetic clothing and plastic-stocked rifles at home and heading to the woods clad in Filson wool and carrying a classic hunting rifle of yesteryear, Model 8 and Model 81 rifles can still be found on the used-gun market at affordable prices.