By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2021
“Short barrels bother some hunters. They shouldn’t... Deer, elk, moose, bears...don’t know what hit them...Consider saving some weight and making your rifle easier to maneuver...anything in the .30-06 class, and especially the short-action, .308 class, is a perfect candidate for a short barrel.”
— Hunter Ron Spomer, November 2016.
There has always been a certain appeal for very compact, bolt-action rifles that are simple, rugged, lightweight, and ideal for hunting medium or big game in the deep forest, or from the close confines of a camouflaged hunting blind, where longer barrel length may interfere with quick, handy movements while tracking wild game.
I recently had my Remington 700 ADL rifle in .30-06 professionally shortened by a reputable gunsmith to a barrel length of 18.8 inches, for portability and quicker aiming within a raised, hunting blind. With its standard, 22-inch barrel, I was constantly bumping it into door frames, window frames, and sometimes ceilings, and worrying about knocking the scope out of alignment. For this reason, all of my rifles and shotguns are no longer than 39 inches (just under one meter) overall, for better, faster handling in the forest, and in hunting blinds or tree stands.
Military special operations troops for the past 60 years have overwhelmingly preferred short-barreled carbines for exactly the same reasons: ease of entry and exit from helicopters or vehicles, compact, handy, and quick to use in close quarters, inside a building or aircraft, for example, and in general, for their overall, lighter weight when one is already encumbered with other gear, whether for military operations or civilian hunting.
In general, a “rifle” is considered to be a firearm with a barrel of 20 inches or longer, while a “carbine” barrel is less than 20 inches. But that definition has changed somewhat over time. In 1942, the M1 Carbine had an 18-inch barrel, but the modern, Colt M4A1 military carbine barrel is only 14.5 inches long. So, for the purposes of this article, let’s define “carbine” as having an 18 to 18.5-inch barrel or shorter, and “compact carbine” as having a barely-legal, barrel length of 16 to 16.5 inches.
Many hunting calibers, with faster-burning powders, can be quite efficient and accurate in this handy size, for maximum efficiency in heavy brush, on rocks and boulders, mountain slopes, and from inside a tight, hunting blind. Since about 90 percent of the deer and other game harvested in the United States (and the rest of the world, for that matter) are taken at 100 yards or less, a short barrel is perfectly adequate for most hunting situations. So, let’s take a look at seven of these most-popular, super-compact, “sweet 16s” that are quite suitable for hunting deer, elk, or even moose and bears, in certain calibers:
Remington Model Seven Threaded Mossy Oak Bottomland: This is a very traditional, bolt-action carbine, with a satin-black, 16.5-inch barrel, threaded at the muzzle for attaching a muzzle brake, flash hider, or suppressor. The synthetic stock is well-camouflaged in the woodland, Mossy Oak pattern, with a SuperCell recoil pad fitted. It weighs a very light 5.5 pounds, with a clean, crisp, 3.1-pound trigger pull, and is chambered in .308 Winchester, with four rounds, .300 AAC Blackout (7.62x35mm), with five rounds, or 6.5mm Creedmoor (6.5x48mm), with five rounds. The price range varies from about $650 to $830. Even from this very short barrel, a 150-grain, .308 round still attains a respectable muzzle velocity of about 2,620 feet per second.
I once owned a Model Seven in .308 Winchester with a blued, 18.5-inch barrel and synthetic stock, and it was a very handy, accurate, nice-shooting, hunting carbine, but it cost twice as much as the Remington 700 ADL in .30-06 that I acquired to replace it, was no more accurate, and was slightly less powerful, but the Model Seven is still an excellent, top-quality carbine, now available with an ultra-short, 16.5-inch barrel.
Just last, year, the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) selected the FN Mk. 20S (SCAR 20S) rifle in 6.5mm Creedmoor as its new, long-range, sniper rifle. American special operations forces have already procured the Mk. 17 SCAR-H battle rifle and Mk. 20 and 20S sniper rifles. During extensive testing, the 6.5mm Creedmoor, compared to the 7.62mm NATO round, had less recoil, one-third longer, effective range, and at a range of 1,000 meters, it had 30-percent more energy, 40-percent less wind drift, and double the hit probability, so for special operations sniper rifles, at least, it appears to be the wave of the future, and civilian hunters can certainly expect to make longer-range, more-accurate shots with the 6.5mm Creedmoor.
The mighty, .450 Bushmaster (11.5x43.2mm) cartridge, meanwhile, was specifically designed to be a lighter-recoiling. .45-caliber load to provide one-shot kills on big game out to 250 yards, but easier to handle than the stout, time-honored, .45-70 hunting cartridge. It fires a .452-caliber, 250-grain bullet at 2,215 feet per second, which is slightly more powerful than a modern, black-powder rifle discharging a 250-grain, magnum load with three pellets of White Hot or Blue MZ powder at 2,000 to 2,100 feet per second, so that’s still substantial knock-down power for hunting applications.
But, for those who feel that 250 grains are insufficient for big game, there’s a very simple solution. Because copper is 26.6-percent lighter than lead, given the same size and volume, a 250-grain, solid-copper bullet is therefore 26.6-percent longer, which is nearly the same size as a 316-grain, lead bullet, and will perform with the same degree of deep penetration and expansion. Various ammunition manufacturers make 250-grain, solid-copper bullets for the .450 Bushmaster, so it’s not difficult to locate. In fact, Buffalo Bore makes a 275-grain, solid-copper hollowpoint version at 2,000 feet per second, and they’re still in stock, even during this current, severe, ammunition shortage.
Remington 783 Synthetic Heavy Barrel: This is the best choice for those on a budget, since it provides traditional, Remington quality with a more-affordable price. It’s a bolt-action carbine with a matte-black, 16.5-inch, heavy-contour, threaded barrel, tapering from 1.08 inches at the chamber to .75 inch at the muzzle. By comparison, my Remington 700 now measures .67 inch at the muzzle end, with a standard-contour barrel. The synthetic stock is flat dark earth (FDE) in color, with a SuperCell recoil pad and detachable, box magazine, and overall weight is about eight pounds, mostly due to the heavier barrel. Trigger pull is 4 pounds, 2 ounces, slightly stiffer than the Model Seven’s,
but still quite clean for a carbine costing less than half as much, with a retail price in the $350 to $380 range. It’s chambered in either .308 Winchester, with four rounds, 6.5mm Creedmoor, with four rounds, or .450 Bushmaster, with three rounds.
The Remington Outdoor Company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and reorganization for a second time in 2020, and continues to sell ammunition, but not rifles anymore. The Model Seven and 783 may still be available for purchase from other suppliers, but are apparently no longer made by the company.
Ruger American Ranch Rifle: This is another reasonably-affordable choice, now produced in a variety of useful, hunting calibers. It comes with a matte-black, threaded barrel measuring either 16.1 inches, 16.12 inches, or 16.38 inches, depending upon the choice of caliber, with an efficient, Ruger Precision Rifle Hybrid muzzle brake installed on the .450 Bushmaster model only. The stock is synthetic FDE in each case, with a Ruger Marksmanship Adjustable trigger, adjustable between three and five pounds of trigger pull, and a soft, rubber recoil pad. The overall weight is 6.1 pounds. Retail price is a reasonable $549 for each model, and it’s available in .300 AAC Blackout (military-inspired), with 10 rounds, 7.62x39mm (AK-47 ammo), with five rounds, .350 Legend (9x43mm), with five rounds, 6.5mm Grendel (6.5x39mm), with 10 rounds, or .450 Bushmaster, with just three rounds.
The .350 Legend is a particularly interesting cartridge, designed by Winchester in 2019, specifically for deer hunting in states (such as Iowa, Ohio, and Michigan) that require straight-walled, centerfire ammunition for such purposes. It fires a mild-recoiling, 9.1mm (.357-caliber) bullet in 160, 165, or 180 grains, at a muzzle velocity of 2,100 to 2,300 feet per second, with more kinetic energy than a .30-30 round, which is therefore quite effective on deer out to about 250 yards. It’s advertised as the fastest, production, straight-walled cartridge in the world, although some .444 Marlin loads are slightly faster.
Ruger Hawkeye Compact: The Hawkeye Compact is another very traditional, bolt-action carbine with a satin-blued, 16.5-inch barrel (although stainless steel was available in the past) and standard, walnut stock (laminated wood was once available), with an LC6 trigger assembly, and an overall weight of 5.7 to 6 pounds. Only two versions are still produced, in either .308 Winchester, holding four rounds, or 7mm-08 Remington, also holding four rounds. Retail price is a hefty $979.
The 7mm-08 cartridge (actually 7.2x51.7mm) is a necked-down, .308 Winchester case accepting a 7mm (.284) hunting bullet in either 140, 150, or 175 grains, with muzzle velocities ranging from 2,595 to 2,800 feet per second, producing a flatter trajectory than either the .308 or .30-06, for longer-range shooting, due to a better ballistic coefficient.
These carbines are in short supply, however, and are gradually being phased out in favor of the newer, more-affordable, Ruger American Ranch Rifles.
Ruger Scout Rifle: This was the iconic, new design that initiated the sudden desirability of short, compact, bolt-action carbines in 2012. It’s currently produced in six different, hunting-caliber models, four of which possess either 16.1-inch or 16.5-inch barrels, in matte-black or stainless steel (.308 Winchester only), with stocks in laminated
wood, synthetic, or American walnut (.450 Bushmaster only), a soft, rubber, recoil pad, and an overall weight of 7.1 pounds.
The barrels are variously fitted with either a flash suppressor, muzzle brake, or Ruger Precision Rifle Hybrid muzzle brake (.450 Bushmaster only.) Iron sights are standard, with a Picatinny rail mounted forward of the breech area for mounting a scope. The available calibers are .308 Winchester, holding 10 rounds, .350 Legend, holding either five or nine rounds, and .450 Bushmaster, holding four rounds. This is a superb carbine, but it comes with a very steep price, in the range of $1,139 to 1,199. For legal, hunting purposes, .308-caliber magazines are also available from Ruger in either five-round or three-round capacities.
Savage 110 Scout: Not to be outdone by Remington and Ruger, Savage Arms manufactures the Model 110 Scout with a 16.5-inch, matte-black, carbon-steel barrel fitted with a muzzle brake, and an AccuStock, synthetic stock in FDE finish, using an AccuTrigger with a crisp, clean pull. Like the excellent, Ruger Scout Rifle, iron sights are standard, with a Picatinny rail mounted forward of the breech area for mounting a scope. The available calibers are .308 Winchester, holding 10 rounds, .338 Federal, also holding 10 rounds, or .450 Bushmaster, holding five rounds. Retail price is $865.
The .338 Federal (8.6x51mm) cartridge, created in 2006, is based upon the .308 Winchester, and necked-up to hold a .338-caliber bullet. It typically fires either a 180, 185, or 210-grain bullet at muzzle velocities of 2,630 to 2,830 feet per second, providing a slightly-larger, harder-hitting bullet for taking big game, yet still with reasonable recoil when used in a lightweight carbine.
SIG Sauer Cross: The brand-new, SIG Sauer Cross carbine looks more like a space-age, laser weapon, despite being advertised by the manufacturer as a “precision hunting bolt-action rifle,” with a 16-inch barrel, produced in four different versions in that barrel length. The free-floating, stainless-steel barrel is threaded at the muzzle, with a black-anodized receiver and folding, skeletonized, SIG Precision Stock, adding up to a total weight of only 6.5 pounds, and an overall length of just 36.5 inches. A polymer magazine holds five rounds of either .308 Winchester or .277 Fury (6.8x51mm.)
In fact, the Cross is the world’s first weapon chambered for .277 Fury, which is currently in competition to possibly become the U.S. Army’s new battle cartridge, fired from the SIG MCX Spear carbine with 13-inch barrel, under the Next-Generation, Squad Weapon-Rifle program. Or, as British actor Alan Rickman so adroitly stated in the 1990 Western film, Quigley Down Under, “An experimental weapon, with experimental ammunition...Let’s experiment!”
The Army has specified a 135-grain, low-drag, open-tip match (OTM) bullet at 3,000 feet per second from a SIG Cross barrel, or 2,820 fps from a Spear barrel, but SIG also produces a 140-grain, ballistic-tip, Sierra GameKing hunting version, also at 3,000 fps from a Cross barrel, with 2,694 foot-pounds of muzzle energy.
Effective range of the new, SIG ammunition, introduced in 2019, is 1,320 yards, a whopping, 50-percent improvement over the venerable, 7.62mm NATO round in current service. Although the Spear has a 13-inch barrel standard, I’d certainly expect to see a designated-marksman rifle (DMR) version soon, with a 16-inch, SIG Cross-style barrel for greater muzzle velocity, range, and accuracy. The SIG Sauer Cross currently has an outrageously-expensive price tag, at $1,650 to $1,880 each, before adding a scope.
Which of these seven ultra-short, hunting carbines is the best? Well, the two Remington firearms may no longer be available, the Ruger Hawkeye Compact is being phased out, and the SIG Cross is severely overpriced. That leaves the Ruger American Ranch Rifle, Ruger Scout Rifle, and Savage 110 Scout as reasonable choices. The Ruger Scout and Savage Scout are similar, high-quality carbines, yet still a bit overpriced for the average, American buyer, at $865 to $1,200. If looks alone were the deciding factor, I’d pick the $1,200, Ruger Scout Rifle in .450 Bushmaster, but for that very hefty price, it ought to look great!
The Ruger American Ranch Rifle, however, is probably the best choice for most of us, still in mass production, quite accurate, and reasonably priced at $549. Your choices are the low-recoiling, non-traditional, 7.62x39mm, .300 AAC Blackout, or 6.5mm Grendel, or the longer, more-powerful, .350 Legend, for most deer, or .450 Bushmaster, pictured above, for bigger game. It’s a fine-quality, hunting carbine, more than adequate for taking deer, elk, or even bears.
On November 20, 2016, hunter Ron Spomer wrote on his outdoors blog that, “Short barrels bother some hunters. They shouldn’t. It’s true that short barrels cost you some velocity...But is it enough to matter? Not so far as the deer are concerned. The thing about deer, elk, moose, bears...is that they don’t know what hit them. Disrupt their cardio-pulmonary system or central nervous system, and they’ll expire quickly, if not immediately. They do not care if this was done by a bullet racing 3,400 fps, 2,400 fps, 1,400 fps, or 400 fps...None of those are going to bounce off!...Speed doesn’t kill...And that takes us back to tissue destruction...putting a bullet in the right place.
“As a general rule, an inch less barrel will cost a bullet between 25 and 50 fps velocity...(but) 50 fps of lost speed isn’t much...(and) at 300 yards, a long shot for most of us, the bullet from the 18-inch barrel drops only an inch more than that from the 24-inch barrel...One lousy inch...(For) hunters who are interested in the handling convenience of short-barrel rifles...If your hunting/shooting is confined to 300 yards or less, you might want to consider saving some weight and making your rifle easier to maneuver through thick cover by shortening its barrel...anything in the .30-06 class, and especially the short-action, .308 class, is a perfect candidate for a short barrel.”
Spomer has a very valid point. It’s definitely not the speed that matters. I took a beautiful, eight-point buck last September with a crossbow bolt at a mere 370 feet per second, with precise shot placement through the heart/lung area. He ran about 50 yards, turned once, and dropped dead, just as quickly as most of the deer that I’ve taken with rifles or muzzleloaders. For any hunting inside of 300 yards (which includes most of us), a handy, short-barrel carbine will serve you admirably, just as swift and accurate as long-barreled weapons, and much lighter and easier to handle in the brush, or from a hunting blind. As with any hunting scenario, or even in self-defense situations with a handgun, it’s the shot placement that really matters. Good luck, and good hunting!
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism, and is an NRA member and avid hunter. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.