As the roebuck season is underway, George Wallace considers his favourite short-barelled roe rifles for off-hand woodland shooting
What is the best roe rifle? I have been asked this question scores of times over the last quarter of a century and it can open a real can of worms because we are all different. One man’s roe rifle is another man’s Panzerfaust and yet another’s pip-squeak varminter.
And when people ask about the best rifle they usually mean the best cartridge, so we could end up chasing the wrong hare from the very start!
In case my enquirer did mean the cartridge, I can dispose of that problem in one sentence by saying that it doesn’t matter a damn as long as your choice is legal and you remember the basic rule of putting the bullet in the right place. Choice is an intensely personal matter and will, despite the previous paragraph, usually mean a combination of both rifle and cartridge.
We have no roe hereabouts – and bugger-all deer of any kind, if truth were told – so my experience of shooting roe is some years old. However, the roe himself has been pottering round these islands for umpteen thousand years, pushed south by one ice age after another and returning north as the ice melted, so since he hasn’t changed in all that time, I don’t suppose the fact that I haven’t shot one for about 15 years makes a great deal of difference.
Most roe are hunted in sometimes quite dense woodland, where ranges are usually less than 75 yards and shots may have to be taken quickly before the quarry goes back into cover. For such situations a light, short, well-balanced rifle makes all the difference.
If you do your shooting from high seats you can, of course, please yourself – and even fit a sound moderator – but for groundwork something light and handy, that points well and doesn’t get hung up in the vegetation, is a very definite advantage.
Bolt action rifles are too long
For such purposes most bolt-action rifles are already too long. You can certainly choose one with a short barrel but apart from affecting the rifle’s balance and handling, don’t forget that short barrels cause a marked increase in both recoil and muzzle blast. They also reduce muzzle velocity which can mean your .243 Winchester, for example, might not produce sufficient energy to meet the requirements of the legislation. Just a thought! So what is left? There are really only two obvious choices – single shot and lever action.
Winchester Model 1984
First, and undoubtedly best known, is the famous Winchester Model 1894 used by John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn in the Western great True Grit. Light, handy and chambered for cartridges perfect for woodland stalking, the little Winchester is a joy and a delight. If you don’t believe me, try one – the .30-30 Winchester, or the brilliant .38-55 if you fancy a pop at wild boar. The only problem with the .38-55 is that standard factory ammo is pretty anaemic and not legal for deer in Britain.
Marlin Model 1895
Marlin also make first class lever action rifles with tubular magazines, and have been doing so since 1881. The Model 1895 for the .45-70 cartridge and the 336in .30-30 or .35 Remington are both ideal for woodland stalking of roe as well as our larger deer. I have never handled one myself, but I know people who swear by them.
Ruger No. 1
There are quite a few single shots on the market nowadays, from the Ruger No.1 to a variety of reproductions of the great rifles of the 19th century. But for practical purposes, it really has to be the Ruger.
I have used quite a few of these over the years, chambered for .243, .244 Remington Magnum, 7×57, .270 Winchester, .30-06, .338-06 and .375 H&H Magnum and .45-70. The Ruger No.1 handles extremely well and works just as easily whether you are left- or right-handed. People used to say they had accuracy problems, but that was a long time ago – and not altogether true even then – and was completely solved when Ruger started making their own barrels.
But my very favourite woodland stalking rifle was built for me by Messrs Potter and Walker of Evesham on a Remington Rolling Black action, made in Sweden in 1876 (that’s not a mis-print and no, I didn’t buy it new!) and fitted with a Schultz & Larsen target barrel chambered in .3030 Winchester. Its balance and handling are absolutely perfect and it is by far the best roe rifle I have ever used for off-hand shooting.