By Austin Knudsen
A few years ago, I wrote a light piece about the five handguns I couldn’t live without. It was a fun, easy article to write, but even more fun—and unexpected – was the amount of comments and discussion it generated.
Thankfully, we don’t live in a country where we’re restricted to only a certain number of firearms, nor do we have to justify to a Commissar why we need gun X (at least not yet). But in the same spirit of fun, let’s change it up a little: if I were forced to choose only five long guns, what would they be?
1) Winchester 9422 Lever Gun
Every rifle shooter needs to own a rifle chambered in .22LR (or twelve of them). In fact, I’d venture to say that most rifle shooters’ first rifle was a .22.
The Winchester model 9422 is the rifle I learned on. As a 6-year-old, I remember thinking that my dad’s beat-up, worn finished 9422 was the coolest looking thing I’d ever seen. It had a hand lever-thingy just like the one John Wayne used, and that’s what I wanted to learn how to shoot.
I can still remember sitting shotgun in the old beater ranch pickup, shooting my first gopher with that Winchester. Today, I own a couple 9422s: a very nice XTR, and a plain-Jane version — except for the saddle ring — I picked up at a gun show and onto which someone had JB Welded a tang peep sight.
Winchester created the 9422 simply as a way to emulate its extremely successful Model 1894 (or simply “94”) into an affordable, smaller .22LR package. Generally speaking, the 9422 isn’t the most accurate .22 rifle Winchester ever made. Not that it isn’t accurate, but it’s no Model 52. But there’s so much “cool” factor in these rifles that makes up for that.
First, it’s a lever action Winchester. ‘Nuff said. Second, it’s a takedown. For the uninitiated, that means the rifle can be broken down in half for easy storage and cleaning. Third, the 9422 was made in many different configurations. From plain rifles with stocks that look like they came from the high school wood shop class, to the high-end XTR models with fancy wood, checkering, and high gloss finishes, to the ultra-cool, short-barreled trapper models, Winchester made the 9422 in a dizzying array of configurations.
So dizzying, in fact, I’ve been told that Winchester kept very poor records of how many 9422s were actually made, and in what configurations. That’s a pity, because the 9422 is becoming somewhat of a collector item. They were manufactured from 1972 to 2005, a good span during which Winchester was owned by Olin, which I surmise explains the somewhat haphazard nature of Winchester’s record keeping at the time.
I once met a collector at a gun show who had the biggest collection of 9422s I’d ever seen. He’s the one who told me Winchester couldn’t tell him when several of his 9422s were made, simply because at that point, Olin didn’t keep records.
As a kid, I can remember going to pawnshops with my dad and seeing 9422s all day long for under $200. Today? A good one can cost you near a grand. The Winchester 9422 exhibits excellent craftsmanship, and for a young ranch boy obsessed with John Wayne and westerns, it was a “must-have” as soon as I got old enough. Because honestly, to this day my old man refuses to give me his old 9422 that I used to shoot my first gopher.
2) Colt AR-15 Rifle
This one physically hurts me. For the first 15 years of my shooting life, I had no use for an AR-15. It wasn’t political; I was simply raised on a farm and ranch where my father and grandfather both used bolt action rifles for everything. So when I started hunting and shooting, I used bolt action rifles for everything, too.
The first AR-15 I ever spent any time with was an old Bushmaster XM-15 A1 (with the integral carry handle) that my brother and I convinced dad to buy just so we could try it out. Frankly, it was a lemon that left a bad taste in all of our mouths. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago, when a good friend introduced me to 3-Gun competition, that I spent time with some gun guys who actually knew a thing or two about the AR-15 platform.
I learned that a properly maintained AR-15 is stone-reliable and extremely accurate. My first AR-15 — the Colt HBAR you see here — was purchased from one of those buddies. At the time, it sported a Viking Tactics round handguard which, at the time was state-of-the-art.
I’ve since updated the entire rifle with OdinWorks furniture and a Bootleg Inc. adjustable bolt carrier group so I can fire it with my Elite Iron STFU suppressor. The receivers, barrel and large-pin trigger are still all original Colt.
This baby has accounted for several coyotes and many, many prairie dogs, but frankly, that isn’t why I have it. I have it just in case. In case I ever need to protect my family or myself. In case I ever need to defend hearth and home. In case my wife (who is recoil sensitive, and hence loves the AR-15) needs a reliable rifle.
She has her own AR-15 now, and I’ve added other AR platform rifles to my collection as well. Like it or not, the AR-15 is the modern day musket, and every red-blooded American should own one and know how to operate it.
3) Winchester Model 70 .30-’06 Springfield Rifle
This was my first “big” rifle, a Featherweight XTR version, and a gift from my dad for my 13th birthday. I remember breathlessly opening the box and seeing the beautiful checkered wood and blue steel, topped by a Redfield 3-9x scope (which still tops this rifle after nearly 30 years).
While maybe a bit too much rifle and recoil for a skinny 13-year-old boy, in hindsight I think Dad got it right. He wanted to get me one rifle that I could use for the rest of my life and the .30-’06 cartridge is arguably the most versatile rifle cartridge in the world. I’d wager that maybe only the .30-30 WCF has filled more deer tags in the U.S. than the .30-’06.
Originally created as a military round for the U.S. Army, the .30-’06 saw action in WWI, WWII, and Korea. Veterans returning home from these conflicts and immediately set to turning their trusted battle rifles into sporting arms for big game hunting. In the 50s and 60s, my grandfather subsidized his farm and ranch by sporterizing and building custom wood stocks for military surplus 1903 Springfield rifles chambered in .30-‘06.
The “aught six” was the first cartridge my grandfather taught me how to reload (bragging rights: granddad knew P.O. Ackley and did all the load development and testing for the .30-06 Ackley Improved).
When I was a broke ranch hand, I used that rifle for everything because it was all I had. I loaded 110 to 150 grain FMJs for coyotes, 150 grain soft points for whitetail deer and antelope, and 180 grain soft points for elk. Believe you me, this rifle has accounted for plenty of all three. In fact, grandad glass inlaid into the wood stock the ivory elk teeth from the first elk I ever killed with that rifle.
The Model 70 Winchester was designed by one of my personal heroes, Elmer Keith. Today, it’s a design so universal that most hunters take it for granted. But when introduced, it was revolutionary.
The original Model 70 utilized the Mauser-style full-length extractor. Unlike the K98 Mauser and the 1903 Springfield (that shamelessly copied the Mauser), the Model 70 incorporated a graceful, handy, three-position safety on the rear right hand side of the bolt. When mated with a fancy checkered walnut stock and a decent scope, the Model 70 was pure sex.
Showing up to deer camp with a Model 70 was like showing up to the first day of your high school senior year with a ’68 Camaro. While my Model 70 you see here is the cheaper Olin-manufactured push-feed version of the 1980s with no full-length extractor, Winchester (now owned by Browning/FN) saw the error of its ways.
The Model 70 in its true form is back, manufactured today right here in the U.S.A. I have a safe full of rifles nowadays, all specifically selected for different jobs. I have a couple of varmint rifles, and many years ago I set a self-imposed .338 caliber-or-larger rule for elk. But if I was forced to use one rifle for the rest of my life for all of my big game hunting needs, a Model 70 in .30-‘06 would be my choice.
4) Benelli Nova 12 Gauge Shotgun
Of course I have to include a shotgun. And not a fancy over/under or semi-auto, but a pump gun. I’ll be honest: I’ve never been much of a shotgunner.
That’s a bit sacrilegious, because I grew up in northeast Montana, which is probably some of the best upland bird hunting country in the U.S. But upland bird hunting wasn’t something we did much of when I was a kid, so I didn’t own a shotgun until I bought myself one during my first year of college.
My best friend from high school was a pheasant and grouse hunting fanatic, and couldn’t believe I didn’t own a shotgun, so he convinced me to purchase one. Then he tried to tell me that a shotgun needed to “fit” in order for me to wingshoot accurately. “Hogwash, pickle juice and platypus spit,” said I. I was a shooter and a gun was a gun. If it went bang, I could shoot it accurately.
So at age 18, I walked into a college town pawn shop and purchased a Mossberg Maverick 88 in 12 gauge. Home we went that fall to bird hunt, and I couldn’t hit damn thing. I fought that Mossy in the field for a few years before putting a 18½” barrel on it and permanently relegating it to home defense duty.
Over the years, I slowly accumulated a few more shotguns, and did more and more bird hunting (to the point that I actually had a bird dog for several years). Some gray hair and experience have indeed taught me that shotgun “fit” is absolutely a thing. And of all the shotguns I’ve owned, nothing fits me better, swings, points and shoots more naturally than the Benelli Nova.
The Nova may be Benelli’s low end (and believe me, they have high end shotguns), but this is no junk scattergun. It’s a stone-reliable pump action that fits me better than even the fancy CZ over/under I bought several years ago.
Nowadays, I often host a small group of bird hunters during upland season, and inevitably I’m lending out my several shotguns. But the one that I always grab for myself is the Nova. Whether I’m shooting low-base trap loads at clay pigeons or 3½” goose loads out of a blind (which is not much fun in a pump gun), the Nova does it all. This one will never leave the safe.
5) Marlin 1895 Guide Gun .45-70 Gov’t Lever Action Rifle
I’ve been shooting, reloading, and casting bullets for the .45-70 for almost 20 years. Back in the day, I was a fairly prolific Long Range Buffalo Rifle competitor, and my ultra-accurate 1874 Shiloh Sharps rifle almost made this list. But if I was forced to keep only one .45-70, it would be this thumper. Because that’s what I bought and customized it for: thumping.
Every season, I try to spend at least a week at our annual elk camp in southwest Montana. Twenty years ago, we didn’t worry about grizzly bear encounters. Nowadays, though, Montana has at least half a dozen (or more) hunters mauled and/or killed by grizzlies every hunting season. After one particularly hairy pack trip into thick bear country in 2003, I decided I was not going to be one of those hunters.
I purchased the handiest, hardest-hitting, brick-chunking rifle I could find: the Marlin 1895 Guide Gun in .45-70 Gov’t. If you haven’t played with the .45-70, you owe it to yourself. For a cartridge that’s been around since 1893, it’s fantastically versatile. Even at its lightest, most anemic loading, it’s still hucking a 300 grain, .458 caliber bullet at 2,350 fps. Given a strong enough rifle, you can really load up and hot rod the .45-70, turning it into a near “magnum.”
What I learned shooting iron sighted Sharps rifles at targets over 1,000 yards away is that, with the right bullet, the .45-70 is also amazingly accurate. In 2006, I shot a 3-year-old bull buffalo at 75 yards with a personally cast 475 grain solid lead bullet. The bull was standing on a hill above me, looking down and facing straight at me, and I snapped my Sharps to my shoulder and fired.
We never recovered the bullet, because it entered his chest under his chin and kept driving straight back through his vitals and exited his body. The damage was catastrophic and impressive, and the kill was quick and humane. That’s when I became a believer in the .45-7o Gov’t.
Nowadays, I carry my 1895 Guide Gun in the deep Montana back country, usually in a saddle scabbard on my horse in case I meet an ornery bruin. It’s loaded with 405 grain hard cast flat point lead bullets, propelled by a stiff dose of IMR 3031. I have absolute confidence in this load, and in the gun that fires it.
My 1895 Marlin has been modified slightly; I’ve added a Wild West Guns big loop lever, which is much handier while wearing gloves and doesn’t physically hurt your hand while firing like the small loop factory lever does. I’ve also added a Wild West Guns trigger and sear for a crisp trigger pull, a Wild West Guns metal magazine follower, which replaces the factory plastic follower, and an XS front post and rear peep sight protected by sturdy “wings.” Honestly, I’ll probably swap the XS rear sight out for a Skinner Sights winged rear peep sight because the owner of Skinner is a friend, but the principal is the same.
Finally, I installed a Beartooth Mercantile safety delete, which effectively removes the crossbolt safety from this rifle. This may be controversial, but from personal experience, I firmly believe the factory Marlin crossbolt safety could get you killed in a situation where you’ve either A) inadvertently bumped it onto “safe” or B) in an emergency, forget to deactivate the safety.
I was once in the situation where I was on a mountain trail, standing between my family and an angry cow moose, with this Guide Gun cocked and mounted up in my shoulder. Luckily, the huge moose decided to disengage and walked off. A good thing, because when the adrenaline wore off and I de-cocked my rifle, I was horrified to find that at some point I had inadvertently bumped the crossbolt safety into the “safe” position.
That means had I needed to fire, the hammer would have dropped harmlessly onto the crossbolt, and the rifle would not have fired. I would’ve assumed it was a misfire, and hurriedly levered the action and pulled the trigger again, only to have it again fall harmlessly onto the crossbolt safety. I will never be in that position again. I ordered and installed the delete kit immediately.
I now have exactly what I hope to never need: a short, handy, reliable, hell-for-stout bear buster if things ever do get western with a big, nasty mountain critter.
I know I said only five, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least highlight a couple more and why they ALMOST made my list.
Weatherby Vanguard standard .243 Winchester
In my opinion, the Weatherby Vanguard/Howa 1500 is the best value in bolt action rifles today. And this particular one is another do-everything rifle in an almost do-anything caliber.
If I’m on the farm and ranch in northeast Montana, odds are this is the rifle I have in the pickup. I do a lot of winter coyote hunting, and this is my go-to coyote rifle, as I prefer a heavier 6mm bullet over the various .22s for sly dogs at distance.
This rifle absolutely loves my load consisting of Hornady’s 75 grain V-Max bullet and 41 grains of IMR 4064, and I lost track many years ago of the number of coyotes this old friend has put on the pole for me. There’s nothing special about the rifle. It’s a bone-stock, Series I Vanguard. The only upgrade — I ditched the cheap plastic factory stock and dropped it into a pillar-bedded Hogue rubber stock.
It wore a cheap Simmons Whitetailer 6-18x scope for many years (still a great value scope), which has since been upgraded to a higher quality Vortex 6.5-20x. It’s just an affordable, solid, reliable, versatile rifle.
Shiloh Sharps 1874 Saddle Rifle .45-70 Gov’t
As mentioned above, as a younger man I competed in Long Range Buffalo Rifle competitions all over eastern Montana and western North Dakota. For the first season, my dad and I actually shared a rifle, a beautiful C. Sharps 1885 High Wall in .45-70.
At a summer match in Broadus, Montana, I was stunned to win the match raffle: a brand new Shiloh Sharps 1874 Saddle Rifle chambered in .45-70, graciously donated by the Bryant family, owners of the Shiloh Rifle Manufacturing Company located in Big Timber, Montana. The rifle was factory upgraded with oil finished deluxe wood, case hardened receiver, a steel shotgun buttplate, a pewter forearm tip, Hartford collar, and a 30-inch heavy octagon barrel.
I installed a Parts Unknown long range Soule rear sight and an interchangeable insert globe front sight. Firing my hand-cast, 535 grain Postell bullet and a load of 26 grains of IMR 4198 (no, I never use black powder…I’m a heathen), I used this rifle to place a personal best 25th place out of 500-plus registered shooters in 2006 at Al Lee’s “Quigley” long range buffalo rifle match in Forsyth, Montana.
Shiloh’s rifles are hand-built from 100% Montana-made parts made right on site, at their shop in Big Timber. Today there is a nearly two-year waiting period for one of these beautiful rifles, but if you have the opportunity (or get amazingly lucky like me), there is nothing like them.
Austin Knudsen is the Attorney General of Montana.