October 17, 2023
In truth, quite often, “small-game hunting” is not so much an activity as a reasonably credible excuse to go out and wander the creek bottoms with a rifle under your arm or stalk along a ridge to see what you see.
Certainly, one could do those things without a rifle, but having one with you serves the same purpose for modern man as a musketeer’s rapier or a warrior’s bow or a mountain man’s Hawken. Psychologically, at least, your rifle is part of you. The reasons for this are buried so far back in history that it would take three shrinks and an archaeologist to explain it. It just is. And, quite frankly, I don’t care why.
I do, however, care about the “what.”
What makes a good walkin’ around rifle? First, it has to be light enough to carry with the insouciance of a boulevardier with his walking stick. Second, it has to balance in the hand like a throwing knife. Third, it has no sling and no scope to get in the way. Fourth, it’s chambered for a cartridge that has just enough power but not too much, sufficient authority without being overbearing.
It’s easier to give an example than it is to list the attributes, so mine is a Winchester Low Wall with a 26-inch barrel and open sights, chambered in .25-20 or .32-20. Preferably, it’s at least a century old, has much of the bluing worn off, and not much left in the way of checkering, if it ever had any in the first place. If it was your grandfather’s rifle, so much the better, but as long as it belonged to someone’s grandfather, that’s good enough for me.
Obviously, there are alternatives. A Stevens No. 44 or 44½, pre-Great War, will do just as well, or one of the many fine old British rook rifles now floating around and commanding a lot less than they did a decade ago. Ruger’s short-lived No. 3 single shot is another. So is the Martini Cadet.
As for cartridges, anything between .25-20 at the short end and .357 Magnum at the long, will do just fine. (In the latter case, you can shoot .38 Specials when you don’t need the muscle.)
A key point about the walkin’ around rifle is that it cannot be junk—crude, cheaply made, intended for the penniless-farm-boy market. Like the musketeer’s rapier, it tells people who you are. Vastly more important, it tells you who you are.
I’m always reminded of Lucian Cary’s superb short story, “The Madman of Gaylord’s Corner,” when J.M. Pyne picks up his rifle to carry up the mountain, seeking the source of the shot that was intended to kill him. If you haven’t read it, do. Cary does not go into detail, but you just know Pyne’s rifle is as comfortable for him—low-powered though it might be; it’s a modest .25 caliber—as his jacket or gloves.
Alas, there is nothing available on the market today, unless you go in for seriously high-dollar custom work, that really fills the bill. There are some cheap rifles available, and some expensive target rifles, and a few intended to provide either maximum firepower or pinpoint accuracy with a scope. But we are looking for none of the above.
Fortunately, the Winchester Low Wall was made in sufficient numbers that they can be had for not much money, and you can apply as much or as little restoration as you see fit. The Stevens 44½ is harder to come by—relatively few were made between 1902 and 1916—in good shape and will cost more. It has the advantage of a barrel that is easily interchangeable; buy one in something obscure like .28-30-120, and you can have a barrel made in .357 Magnum that will turn it into a different animal. That will set you back about $800, but you’ll have a rifle unique to you.
Just remember, when you look at your walkin’ around rifle, you’re looking in a mirror. You want to like what you see.