What's happened to the classic small-game rifle?
October 03, 2017
There was a time, in the dim, distant past, when American hunters had any number of small-game rifles to choose from. Of course, there was a time in the dim, distant past when there was lots of small game, too. Today, the game, the rifles, and the hunters are threatened species.
The quintessential American small-game rifle was the Winchester 92 in .25-20 or .32-20. With it, you could hunt squirrels and possums, pop woodchucks that were savaging mama's vegetables, dispatch a hawk threatening the chickens, or knock a crow out of a tree. You could even use it on raccoons and turkeys.
A good small-game rifle needs more power than the .22 LR but not be as destructive to meat as the .222 Remington. One of the best recent small-game rifles was Ruger's Model 77/22 Hornet, introduced in 1995, but it's now discontinued. That delightful rifle's demise says a lot about the current state of small-game hunting. Great little rifle, but what could you do with it?
Marlin ran into the same problem in the 1960s when it chambered the Model 62 Levermatic in .256 Winchester Magnum (the .357 Magnum case necked down). With a 60-grain bullet at a velocity around 2,750 fps, the .256 Win. Mag. was a small-game hunter's dream. It was also many small boys' dream rifle — your correspondent included. Out to about 125 yards, it was very effective and would be a great turkey rifle for areas where you can legally hunt them with a rifle.
The Levermatic was originally produced in .22 LR and later in .22 WMR. Neither really qualified as a small-game rifle. Altogether, only about 8,000 Levermatics were made in .256 Win. Mag. When it was discontinued, there was a distinct air of Marlin having simply lost interest, although the Levermatic survived in the rimfire versions for about 20 years.
The Real Problem
The real problem with a small-game rifle these days is that it's neither fish nor fowl. Ammunition is too expensive to rattle off like a .22, but it has neither the velocity nor the accuracy for varmints like prairie dogs. They aren't powerful enough for coyotes at the ranges we want to shoot them. Making the rifles inexpensive enough for kids to buy means they don't appeal to serious adult shooters.
Another virtue of small-game rifles like those in .25-20 was that ammunition could be handloaded, reducing costs dramatically. This allowed kids to learn how to load their own ammunition. And because recoil was negligible and the report was relatively quiet, a child could learn to shoot without developing a flinch or alarming the neighbors.
Of course, that's another aspect of life that has changed. When the .256 Win. Mag. came along, most kids learned to shoot on vacant land or on a farm. Today, both are hard to come by, so they go to organized shooting ranges where they are given formal classes and tests and not allowed to simply bang away at tin cans.
Bemoaning the disappearance of the family farm, a modern distaste for possum, federal penalties for shooting hawks, and the general demise of the woodchuck makes about as much sense as whining that we don't do things the way the Edwardians did. Still, you can have a lot of fun with older small-game rifles. After years of yearning, I found a Marlin Levermatic .256 Win. Mag. and fitted it with a custom Leupold 3X scope, and I love shooting it.
But maybe there's hope. One type of small game that hardly existed in many states 50 years ago is the armadillo, a 24-karat villain if ever there was one. They are moving north and spreading out like a smaller, armored version of the feral hog. All you need to do is rechristen your Levermatic an armadillo rifle, and you're in business.