26 November 2023

Military Equipment for Hunting? No Way!

 You can't use "military style" equipment to hunt! If that's you then read on but if you know, you know. What is "military style" anyway? It's a term used by gun-control advocates to describe firearms with modernized features and accessories and an aesthetic that resembles equipment that looks like items used by modern militaries. What if I told you that in the U.S. we've been using not just "military style" for hunting but actual, literally military equipment to hunt deer and other game for over a century? How about since the beginning of our nation? How about before that? Would you believe me?

I hope to articulate to you the historical use of military arms and ammunition by hunters and Americans in general for civil use including the AR-15. From the weapons used to fight against U.S. soldiers to government created cartridges for war-fighting  still in use today, let's take a look at not "military style" but actual military equipment. 

First, let's look at today. Today's de-facto "hunting rifle" is the bolt action rifle typically chambered in a big caliber such as the universally capable 30-06. Bolt action files didn't always exist. How did we get to today where they became the default? Military arms. The history of the bolt action system stems from early 1800's development in Europe for a breach loading, military rifle. As improvements were made from paper cartridges for use in systems like the Dreyse needle rifle in the 1820's and transitioned into metallic cartridges, rifles such as the Lebel 1886, European nations and armies were chasing repeating, magazine fed rifles for fighting their wars.

Tactics of the era are important to note as the vollyfire tactic still applied but these newer cartridges with lots of powder and rifles with long barrels give these armies the ability to launch vollies of bullets at their adversary from further and further away. The farther your are and can reach them without them reaching you, the better. Improvements in powder leading to smokeless powder make the distance even further. Changes to higher velocities and bullet designs made additional improvements. By the end of the 1890's, the European arms makers had developed the basis of the rifles used today for hunting and were actively fielding in large numbers, rifles such as the Mauser 1893 or the Norwegian designed Krag-Jorgensen. 

The Mauser 1893 and Krag rifles are special in this discussion because they became the two primary rifles in the Spanish-American War in 1898. The U.S. discovered that the Krag, while a great rifle, the cartridge simply was just not as capable as the Mauser designed 7x57 cartridge. The U.S. found out the hard way; in blood. After winning the fight, the U.S. began development of a new cartridge and a gun to replace the already new Krag and it's 30-40 cartridge. That rifle we know as the 1903 Springfield. Essentially a knockoff Mauser, the development of the 1903 rifle and it's cartridge, eventually the 30-06 after changes were made, replaced three different rifle cartridges in U.S. inventory. If you haven't caught it yet, 30-06 was developed by the U.S. government. The same 30-06 used by your uncle, daddy or grandfather to hunt whitetail deer or elk got it's start as a military rifle cartridge. 

Another question arises. When did hunters start using bolt action rifles though? I don't had a great answer for that yet but from what I have found is that we need to look at surplus military rifles. 

The U.S. had fielded limited numbers of bolt action rifles in the late 1880's as the Remington Lee. Remington may have sold commercially some of those rifles to civilians but based on the manufactured numbers, those numbers would have been small if any. After the end of the Spanish-American War, we can start talking about surplus Mausers and Krags. Bannerman's was a company that purchase huge quantities of surrendered military equipment for cheap and shipped that back to the U.S. The history of Bannerman's is fascinating. I recommend reading up on them. 

Bannerman's would go on to sell huge numbers of these military Mauser 1893 rifles to civilians. Additionally, Krag rifles would be surplussed by the government and sold to civilians. One of those Krag rifles made it to a man named Jack O'Connor via a private sale. Mr. O'Connor proceeded to use that rifle as a young boy, he says he paid a $1.50 for, to hunt a variety of animals in Arizona. I also recommend reading up on Jack O'Connor. Mr. O'Connor would be like many other Americans who acquired a cheap surplus military rifle and used it to hunt. 

Let's take a quick tally. We have noted three rifle cartridges and two surplus military rifles that are being used at this point for civilian applications. The Mauser 1893 and the Krag rifles along with the 7x57 and 30-40 Krag cartridges and the 30-06. You probably don't remember seeing the first two on shelves in Walmart but you'll find 30-06.

By World War I, the European militaries have again made further refinements in military bolt action rifles but WWI was a new beast. A wild mixture of new, old and commercial equipment was fielded by nations during the massive conflict. The number of new weapons made for the conflict is staggering and once the war was over, the number of surplus firearms would have been equally staggering. 

Mausers, Lebels, Gras', Chassepots, Kropatcheks, Lees, Remingtons, Mannlichers, Steyers, Berthiers, Ross', Winchesters, Martinis. Mosin, Brownings, Carcanos, Vetterlis just to name a few. Once the war was over, the number of bolt action rifles surplussed is incredible. This includes the cartridges they shoot such as the .303 British, 8x57 Mauser in addtion to the 7x57, 6.5x55 and 7.62x54R. All have been used to take whitetail at some point in the U.S.

Many of these rifles would come to the U.S. and gone through a process called sporterization. The idea is that many of the rifles not sold as is to U.S. civilians would go through a process to make them lighter and better for hunting. Sometimes it was cutting the stocks to make the lighter and sometimes it was far more intense. Many rifles would be rebarreled to use 30-06. The 1920's would have seen a huge number of surplus rifles for very cheap money. 

World War I for the U.S. would have also meant that manufacturers such as Remington, Westinghouse and Winchester were picking up contracts to make guns for basically everyone. By the end of the war, the manufacturers that survived sold contract rifles no longer needed to the commercial market. Remington sold the Model 30 which were basically spare parts guns built from the M1917 pattern rifle. Winchester had won a contract to manufacture the 1903 Springfield which later sold the Model 54 starting in 1925 which is pretty much a Mauser 98 action. The Model 54 was later replaced by the hugely popular Model 70. Sporterzied 1903 rifles can be found with a simple internet search. 

World War II resulted in pretty much the same situation. The large numbers of surplus M1 Garand and Carbines along with the imported foreign rifles would have been sold to the civilian population. 

From what I can tell, I speculate that the 1920's is about when bolt-action rifles became much more popular and the most popular models sold can trace their origins back to military designs. The models of today have improved and simplified the concept to a point that they can be made pretty inexpensively and well. Inexpensive to produce leads to inexpensive to sell which makes rifles easier to get. 100 years of military bolt action rifles eventually lead to commercialization and adoption of bolt action commercial rifles.  

Let's dive further into the past and look at military rifles in civilian hands. Bolt action rifles replaced single shot, breach loading rifles. In the U.S. the M1873 "trapdoor" and it's .45-70 cartridge became a widespread cartridge starting in 1873. Also known as the .45-70 Government, because it was developed by the U.S. Government, is still available today. While trapdoor rifles aren't common, Marlin sells it's 1895 lever action rifle that uses the cartridge and Henry sells both lever action and single shot rifles. Hunters have been using similar rifles to hunt for I honestly don't know how long. I don't think I could find out even if I tried. In simple terms, .45-70 is just another U.S. military rifle cartridge developed used by hunters and civilians for legitimate reasons today. 

45-70 wasn't the first metallic cartridge for government work but it was one that replaced another that replaced muskets. The Civil War era in the U.S. is honestly no different in the perspective above. After the war, surplussed rifles made their way into hands of the citizens for whatever use. One story I read that you can read here was about a man whos father had acquired a reworked Hawken. In that story a blacksmith in the town the father lived had been in the process of converting a Civil War era rifle into a smoothbore to fire shot. He was converting a military rifle into a shotgun for hunting. In the U.S., the militia system would have resulted in many weapons being used for both hunting and militia duty. 

Let's do another recap.  

In terms of cartridges, we have covered 7x57, 30-40 Krag, 45-70 and 30-06. I have mentioned other cartridges that, were it not for the pandemic related shortages, manufacturers might still be making ammunition in those calibers. The ability to handload for those cartridges is important in today's world to keep those old guns alive and shooting. 

From the rifle perspective we have several rifles that made their way into hands of the People and used for their purposes. A whole family of systems, single shot and bolt action have military intentions at their creation and yet they exist today in the world of civilian use without thought to their origins. 

On an aside, the bolt action rifle world is typically reduced to two action lengths. Long action or "standard" and short action. These standard action / long action rifles where the norm due to cartridges such as 30-06 being so wide spread. 30-06 is also responsible for development of several commercial hunting cartridges like 270 Winchester. Take note of that name for later. 

Let's go forward. Post World War II.

The cartridge that we know today as 308 Winchester has a long history. The development cycle is long but a look at the T65 series of experimental cartridges leads to what we call the 7.62x51 NATO cartridge. Today, 7.62 NATO is pretty much the backbone of support arms for Western militaries for machine guns and sniper rifles and select rifles. Winchester had been paying attention to what was going on and took pre-adoption versions of the cartridge to market. This became the 308 Winchester cartridge. They are nearly identical with differences in pressure being the most important. Rifles such as the M14, FAL and G3 all use the 7.62 NATO but commercial versions use the more powerful version being configured for 308 Winchester. 

308 Winchester is just another rifle cartridge with origins in the military world adopted by the commercial market for civilian use. I would love to see the number of 308 Winchester rifles sold by manufacturers compared to the other cartridges to see which sells the most. 

Where the 7.62 NATO replaced the 30-06 cartridge, the 5.56 NATO cartridge replaced the 7.62 NATO round as the primary infantry cartridge. In the commercial world 5.56 NATO, 223 Remington is the name though both are marketed side by side. The AR-15 replaced the M14 and the M14 replaced the M1 Garand. Today, the M14 can still be found from companies like Fulton Armory or commercial versions like the M1A from Springfield Armory. The M1A can function as a hunting rifle if needed but the M14's legacy is dying off and are mostly used for general use and target shooting. The M1 Garand could easily be used for hunting but CMP Garand rifles are dwindling. Surplus M1 Garand rifles are still for sale but can be pretty expensive depending on grade. 

This leads us to the AR-15. The AR-15 is, in my opinion, the rifle bringing semi-auto rifles into the deer stand in larger quantities than other rifles ever before. While rifles like Remington's semi-auto platforms like the 740 and 7400 were popular, they just aren't as widespread as the AR-15. While the .223 Remington commercial cartridge's bullet weights are much lower than cartridges like 30-06 or 308 Winchester, the velocities are relatively similar. This allows manufacturers to produce bullets such as jacketed soft points or hollow points that expand nicely to more than double the original bullet diameter. A good bullet can easily reach two times the diameter of the 22 caliber bullet making it a suitable bullet for hunting whitetail deer, feral hogs and coyotes. The lighter weight bullets may not have the same usable distances as 30-06 but it turns out that many hunters are taking shots at distances the .223 / 5.56 cartridge covers and does it with much less recoil and noise. It also means that the rifle you have setup for home defense can be configured with good hunting ammunition as serve a dual purpose. 

At this point we have a pretty big list of cartridges and rifles use by the military that have found their way into the hands of We the People who use them for our own legitimate uses. We haven't talked about pistol cartridges by the way and we won't. 

Now let's look to the future. 

The old 270 Winchester is based on the 30-06 cartridge. If you aren't familiar with it, I would recommend fixing that. A rifle setup for 270 WIN can push a 136 grain bullet from a 22 inch barrel at around 2800 feet per second. The bullets used are a .277 inch diameter. Recently, the U.S. military also is testing a .277 diameter based cartridge called 6.8x51mm. The cartridge was developed by SIG Sauer who now markets the cartridge as 277 Fury. While the cartridge isn't widely available at this time, the stated specifications of the 277 Fury have a 135 grain .277 caliber bullet moving around 2750 fps from a 16 inch barrel. I believe that as a few folks who have had access to the 13 inch barrel XM7 are clocking 2600 fps from said 13 inch barrel. It's reasonable that someone with an 18 inch barrel would match the 270 WIN performance but do it with a rifle that is much shorter. The action length needed for 270 is considered a long action while the 277 Fury is a short action cartridge. This results in around a half inch of length reduction in addition to the two inch or so difference. An over-all reduction of 2.5 inches for a hunting rifle can be a very welcome change. Where the change makes the most sense is in modern rifle designs. The XM7 rifle is similar in size to an AR-10 or SCAR in over-all size. What this means for us is a rifle the size slightly larger than an AR-15 now has performance similar to a 270 Winchester. If you live in an area where the longer range performance makes sense or you hunt a spot with longer range shots, a commercially available XM7 (MCX Spear) would make for a capable general purpose rifle. 

In summary, the legacy that military cartridges like 30-06 have on the hunting market is massive. Very old cartridges like 45-70 continue to persist. 5.56 and 223 REM are hear to stay. The rifles they started in may phase out but where those rifles started have paved the way for the future. I don't know what the future holds but it wouldn't surprise me to see some mid-aged guy in a deer stand with a SIG Cross in 277 Fury when I'm old and decrepit. 

I hope this article helps shed some light on the modern and historical legacy of military derived rifles and cartridges in use by hunters in the U.S. and that the idea of "military style" is mearly sensationalism to push an agenda. The history is far more interesting. 

Also we aren't covering surplus clothing like camo and other stuff. 

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