Firearms

The 10 Greatest Rifles — 1860 to 1920

Line drawing of the Savage 1899 rotary magazine rifle

I am late in getting out this report after the 10 Great Handguns and 10 Great Shotguns Report. Perhaps the ‘great rifles’ are so awesome it was difficult to choose one over the other. These rifles made their mark in warfare hunting, and exploration. Some of these rifles are still in use in hot spots worldwide, especially the Lee Enfield and Mauser types. Let’s look at 10 great rifles.

Henry 1860 .44

There are a very few select number of rifles that represent true ‘Americana.’ The Henry is perhaps the quintessential representation of such. The Henry rifle was used during the War Between the States and later developed into the Winchester 1866 rifle. Compared to the standard musket of the day, the Henry lacked power but its magazine capacity of 16 cartridges would be a devastating advantage at close range. The Henry’s tactical niche was much the same as a submachine gun was used during later years.

1860 Henry rifle on an American Flag, left profile
The 1860 Henry is an important part of American history.

The Henry rifle was much stronger than the original Volcanic action, with modifications to the feed design, shell carriage, and barrel. The sights are graduated to an optimistic 800 yards. The Henry was also an important rifle during the westward movement.

I have fired the modern Uberti version extensively. It is well made of good material and chambers modern centerfire cartridges. The original Henry fired a rimfire .44 caliber cartridge. A 200-grain bullet at just over 1,000 fps isn’t impressive in most terms, but the Henry paved the way for stronger and more powerful actions.

Springfield 1873

While there have been reproductions, I have been privileged to fire an original Springfield. The unique trap door action and superb long-range sights made the Springfield a formidable rifle on the plains. The .45 70 cartridge was among the most powerful military cartridges ever fielded.

Why the long, heavy Springfield when repeaters were available? The war on the plains demanded a long-range cartridge capable of taking down an Indian war pony at extreme ranges. For all the blush of technology, the Springfield was rugged, reliable, and powerful.

Bob Campbell working the lever action of a Uberti Henry rifle reproduction
Uberti’s Henry reproduction is a joy to fire and handle.

Interesting enough, the .45-70 cartridge was tested on old shipwrecks and hulls at ranges over one mile! The carbine version was much less accurate and not as useful. The Springfield was in military stores until World War II.

Many were used for guard duty in the Philippine wars. The Moros were very hard to stop even with the .30-40 Krag rifle, and the stopping power of the Springfield .45-70 was not in question. Many were used in hunting big game, long after they were out of military service.

Lee Enfield .303

The Lee Enfield dates to the Lee Metford of 1888. Someone said the Germans designed the Mauser for hunting, Americans designed the Springfield for target shooting, and the Lee Enfield was designed for war. The 10-shot magazine was fed by stripper clips.

The bolt action is very robust and proved durable during trench warfare. The Lee Enfield’s rapid fire capability was by far superior to any other of the time. The rifle was used well into the 1960s, as the UK did not adopt a self-loading rifle until 1957.

Lee Enfield No.1 MK3 rifle, right profile
Lee-Enfield, designed for war.

The legendary Canada Rangers issued the Lee Enfield until very recently, replacing its aging rifles with a 10-shot SAKO in .308. As recently as 2020, Lee Enfield rifles were seen in the hands of Indian troops and police during a terror attack.

The rifle was manufactured in several variants including the legendary, and much misunderstood, jungle carbine. Sniper variants may still be in service.

Krag Rifle

Manufactured by Springfield Armory and based on the Krag Jorgensen rifle, the Krag was a bold advance over the Springfield 1873 rifle. Firing a powerful .30 bottleneck cartridge, the Krag proved a reliable and accurate rifle. Its side-loading design was not as fast as the Mauser’s clip loading, and the action was not as rugged. For the time however, the Krag was a great rifle.

original Winchester 1894 in .30-40 Krag
This is an original Winchester 1894 in .30-40 Krag.

Remember, the Krag was a contemporary of the 1888 Mauser, not the 1898 Mauser, as the Krag was adopted in 1892. The Krag saw service during the Spanish American War and Philippine War as well. It isn’t well known, but Krag rifles were carried overseas during World War I, issued to secondary units. They do not appear to have seen action in that conflict. The United States gave away thousands of Krags to Latin America, some were in use as late as the 1960s by Cuban militia.

Winchester 1894

The good old Thutty-Thutty has taken quite a bit of game — including some that seem an overmatch. This lever-action rifle is reliable, fast handling, and easily stored. Not the most powerful cartridge today, but in its heyday, it was a sensationally flat shooting cartridge.

The 1894 has seen tremendous use in the game field. It also saw more military use than it is generally credited with serving with the Canada Rangers and British naval forces in limited numbers. Many police agencies issued the Winchester well into the 1970s. It is still a useful rifle with many good attributes. Ranchers and outdoorsmen cherish the 1894’s reliability. At modest range, the .30-30 or .32 Special are all about shot placement.

Winchester 1895

The Winchester 1895 was never as popular as the 1894 — not even close! The 1895 features an inline magazine accommodating powerful cartridges such as the .30-40 Krag and .30-06 Springfield. This is an accurate and powerful rifle that doesn’t have the slim looks of the 1894. Just the same, this is a modern rifle that provided lever-action fans with an alternative to bolt-action rifles.

Winchester 1895 lever-action rifle, right profile
Winchester’s 1895 isn’t the most popular rifle but a very nice firearm nonetheless.

The 1895 was used by the Arizona Rangers. Millions were used by Russia during the first world war chambered in 7.62x54mm. The rifle is still in production and often found under the Browning name. The long lever throw (necessary with bottleneck cartridges) makes it slower to handle than the 1894 rifle but it is much more powerful. The .405 Winchester rifle saw quite a bit of action in Africa against big game.

Mauser 98

Arguably the most important bolt-action rifle of all time, the Mauser introduced controlled feed action in a smooth, reliable bolt-action rifle. Used foremost in military rifles, the Mauser design was also adopted in sporting rifles — especially those intended for use against dangerous game. The Mauser was chambered in the powerful 8mm Mauser cartridge originally.

claw extractor or a Mauser bolt
Mauser rifles feature a claw extractor and controlled feed action.

Mauser actions have been chambered in practically every rifle caliber introduced in the past 120 years. Carbines, rifles, engineers’ rifles, sniper rifles, and training rifles based on the original rifle were in wide use. The Mauser rifle remained on the front line and in use in military arsenals well into the 1960s. The Mauser — of one type or another — is still sometimes seen in the news in the Middle East or Africa.

Springfield 1903

The Springfield is a legendary rifle that served in two World Wars, the tail end of the war in the Philippines, and in Korea and beyond as a sniper rifle. The sights were among the best of the era and the rifle chambers the powerful .30-06 Springfield cartridge.

Springfield 1903 rifle on a field jacket with a AR-15 rifle
The Springfield 1903 is an important rifle among American service rifles.

The Springfield, in my experience, is among the smoothest handling and most reliable of all bolt-action rifles, taking the proven Mauser controlled feed to a different level. The Springfield is among the rifles that served America long and well. I have owned several and made certain my sons own an example of this rifle.

The Springfield is easily my favorite of the 10 rifles covered in this report. The Springfield was designed around the .30-06 cartridge. The Springfield is still a legendary rifle. If you can own only one of the 10 rifles covered, I would recommend the Springfield 1903. It is a fine shooter and will take your game cleanly if need be.

Savage 1899

The Savage 1899 was intended to compete in military procurement testing. With its smooth profile and superbly-reliable rotary magazine, the Savage rifle was easily the most modern lever-action rifle of the time. The rotary magazine allowed the rifle to chamber powerful bottleneck cartridges with pointed bullets. The rifle never received a large military contract.

Line drawing of the Savage 1899 rotary magazine rifle
The Savage 1899 was an innovative and interesting firearm.

Just the same, the Montreal Home Guard and other smaller institutions issued the Savage. There were many calibers offered including .30-30, .303 Savage, .300 Savage, and the hot-stepping 250-3000 Savage. The rifles were popular with those in the frozen North for reliability. Like many of the early .30 cartridges, they were often overmatched against large bears and moose at longer ranges. The rifle was later chambered in .308 Winchester.

Savage 1920

After World War I, Remington introduced a sporting version of the Enfield .30-06 rifle it had manufactured for the Allies. While rugged, smooth, and accurate, the 30S was a heavy rifle. Savage took another route and shortened a rifle it had entered in military competetion. The action was 1.25-inch shorter than the Mauser action.

The 1920 rifle was chambered in .250-3000 or .300 Savage. A light, fast-handling, and accurate rifle, the Model 20 proved popular. The Model 20 is the most obscure of these 10 great rifles, but it is visible in spirit in many modern bolt-action rifles intended for lightweight and easy packing ability.

Savage Model 20 rifle with a leather sling
Savage envisioned a light, fast-handling rifle with the Model 20.

The Savage rifle was available in 22-inch and 24-inch barrels. I owned the original in .300 Savage. The .300 Savage is closer to the .308 than the .30-30 in power and uses Spitzer bullets to an advantage. I am a man of few regrets, but perhaps I should have kept the old Savage. It fits my style now better than it did 20 years ago.

These are 10 great rifles, great shooters, and each with a bit of history. What are your favorites? Share your answers in the Comment section.

  • Original checkering on the rifle stock of a Savage Model 20
  • Savage Model 20 rifle with a leather sling
  • original Savage 99 lever-action rifle featuring a round counter in the receiver
  • Savage 99 rifle with tip off scope mounts
  • late model Savage rifle in .308 Winchester topped with a 3x9 scope
  • Line drawing of the Savage 1899 rotary magazine rifle
  • Bob Campbell's son shooting a Springfield 1903 rifle
  • Springfield 1903 rifle with two boxes of Fiocchi ammunition
  • Springfield 1903 rifle on a field jacket with a AR-15 rifle
  • Bob Campbell operating the straight bolt on a Mauser rifle at an an outdoor shooting range
  • claw extractor or a Mauser bolt
  • Mauser rifle with straight bolt handle
  • Winchester 1895 lever-action rifle, right profile
  • Winchester-made, Ted Williams/Sears rifle chambered in .30-30
  • A special order Winchester lever action rifle with a short magazine
  • Krag rifle stock with the original Cartouche.
  • A well worn but serviceable Krag rifle.
  • original M1 Jungle Carbine with sling, right profile
  • Springfield 1873 resting on a wooden fence post
  • Bob Campbell working the lever action of a Uberti Henry rifle reproduction
  • 1860 Henry rifle on an American Flag, left profile
  • Inuit man firing an old rifle

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.


Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Handloader
Rifle Magazine
Handguns
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns



Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (27)

  1. I can find no source to verify an 1894 Winchester ever being produced in .30-40 Kraig. And your picture so labled is an 1895 Winchester. And the Russians did not field “millions” of 1895s. They purchased about 294,000.

  2. I would argue that the Remington 1917 version of the Mosen Nagant should be included.
    Never sent to the Russians because they didn’t pay their bill, the US bought them and then in the late 1950s or early 60s they were available to be purchased unused. Commies used them as sniper rifles up into Viet Nam, they were so good.

    My father bought one in ~1960 and sporterized it. Last year I stripped it, glassed it, added a recoil pad and tripod. To this day it is still accurate with open sights at 400 yds. Next I will add a high-quality scope and get it tuned in for 8-900 yards.

    For fun watch “Texas Plinking 1 MOA 1K Challenge, Episode 5. A shooter with an old one with original wood and an inexpensive scope outshoots nearly all others with fancier equipment!

  3. I would argue that the Remington 1917 version of the Mosen Nagant should be included.
    Never sent to the Russians because they didn’t pay their bill, the US bought them and then in the late 1950s or early 60s they were available to be purchased unused. Commies used them as sniper rifles up into Viet Nam, they were so good.

    My father bought one in ~1960 and sporterized it. Last year I stripped it, glassed it, added a recoil pad and tripod. To this day it is still accurate with open sights at 400 yds. Next I will add a high-quality scope and get it tuned in for 8-900 yards.

    For fun watch “Texas Plinking 1 MOA 1K Challenge, Episode 5. A shooter with an old one with original wood and an inexpensive scope outshoots nearly all others with fancier equipment!

  4. I have a Savage 1895 75th anniversary edition chambered in. 308
    Internal rotary magazine. I have a Nikon tactical 308 BDC 800 reticle on top.
    My grandfather gave me the rifle as an inheritance.
    I shot Hornday 168g ELD match grade Nosler partition with it and got very tight groups. I have a great time with this rifle and enjoy thinking about Grandpa when I am shooting. Enjoy your articles thanks very much

  5. In the slide show you stated most British 303 jungle carbines are reproductions or fakes. There were never many of them made in the first place, but who makes the reproduction rifles?? I would love to find some decent aftermarket magazines for mine.

  6. Great article. Having owned over 500+ firearms in my very long life (any number bought when Hunters Lodge sold Mauser’s, Luger’s Lee Enfield’s and many more when they were priced about $20.00 a piece) I agree with most of your choices except the Sringfield1906, while it was a great rifle I feel the Enfield 1917 was a better rifle. In fact Alvin York used an Enfield and not a Springfield when he captured and shot all the German troops in the battle he is famous for. I feel you should have included the British Martini an incredibly powerful action and was (might still be) made by Greener for their beautiful shotguns. One of the strongest actions ever made. I had a Martini cavalry carbine in 577/450 loaded with cordite ammunition. I have never had any firearm kick like that one did. Shoulder was black and blue for days. i stand 6′ 5” and weighed 225 and it moved me every tme I fired it. Great article again. Thank you

  7. I purchased my Springfield 1903\A3 made by Smith-Corona back in 1960 from the NRA for $15.00, what a bargain and I shot my first whitetail doe that same year. I used 30/06 Silvertips and it was like using steel jackets because they didn’t mushroom in my deer which I shot through the heart. I still have my rifle and it was always very accurate and trustworthy! I shall pass on all of my hunting rifles to my older son and grand son. I too think the Springfields are great.

  8. Interesting article and lots of good pictures. As a point of clarity, the rifle depicted in slide #7 of the Slide Show is not a 1903 Springfield. It is a Model 1903A3 adopted during World War II and these rifles were made by Remington Arms or L.C. Smith Corona Typewriter Co. The Springfield 1903 was a compromise design that copied some features of the 1898 Mauser and the U.S. paid a royalty to Mauser. One wonders why the Springfield 1903 and 1903A3 retained the obsolete magazine cutoff feature from the U.S. Krag.

    In my opinion, the best of the rifles of the era were the 1898 Mauser and the U.S. Model of 1917. These were very fine rifles and proved very effective during World War I. In fact, the British realized that their .303 Enfield rifles were obsolete in design and caliber and worked with the U.S. to develop a replacement prior to World War I in the Pattern 13 and Pattern 14 rifles without success.

  9. The 303 British Enfield is probably the best bolt action made along w 10 rounds bolting it would not impere ur sightings for my money it’s the best

  10. I was waiting to see the weapon that won WW II, the M-1 Garrand. Patton summed it up when he said it was “the greatest battle implement ever devised”.

  11. What about the Marlin 1891, forerunner of the Model 39 favored by Annie Oakley and one of the longest continuous production run firearms in history? The Marlin 1895 or the Colt- Browning M1895 machine gun? Too many great guns from that era to pick just 10.

  12. What about the Marlin 1891, forerunner of the Model 39 favored by Annie Oakley and one of the longest continuous production run firearms in history? The Marlin 1895 or the Colt- Browning M1895 machine gun? Too many great guns from that era to pick just 10.

  13. Great article Bob ! I have a M97 action on a rifle chambered for 220 Swift. Not sure where the barrel came from, no markings. Was my grandfathers gun, he bought/traded with someone. I have a feeling a competent gunsmith put it together, it’s a hair-splitter ! I also share a love for the 300 Savage. I have a Rem 722 chambered in 300 Savage and it’s a nice shooting rifle.

  14. Missed the Remington Model 8, patent in 1900. Even though the gun fell out of favor, it was one of Brownings first semi auto rifle, and a lot of internal mechanisms still live on

  15. Hello everyone, I was hoping to see at least an honorary mention on the Winchester 1873-38/40. Dubbed the gun that won the West. I say that because I own one. lol.

  16. I like 303 rifles.
    It is used by Indian army in till 1962 Indochina war after the war, 303 was phased out from Indian armed forces.
    Lee Enfield rifles was still used by state police forces.

  17. Very good article. I have two Krags and two Savage 99`s in .300 Savage. I would like to get an 03A3 someday. The KRAG has the smoothest action of any bolt action gun. I have taken a deer at 300yds. with one of the Savage rifles so the .300 is not a bad round.

  18. @Bob, I was expecting that there would at least be a mention of the 1874 Buffalo Sharps. It came in a variety of calibers, including the .45-70 and a .50-70, if I remember correctly. This gun almost wiped out the American Bison, (not a good thing that) and it was historically significant in the history of the American Westward expansion.

    It was also prominently featured in several films, “Valdez is coming” (1971, with Burt Lancaster), “Quigley Down Under” (1990, with Tom Selleck) and True Grit (1969, with Glen Campbell as La Boeuf).
    There are probably more films it was in but those are all I remember off the top of my head.

  19. I still own a Springfield 1903 that has been sporterized and converted
    to .300 H & H Magnum. It is still as beautiful as it is accurate.

  20. History nut-

    Good catch! In the slide show at the bottom of the story right click and from caption 16 to 19 you will find images of the ’73 Springfield, and a Krag- and the 1895 correctly captioned!

    Thanks for reading. Spot on with the information on the .45-70. The US Army tested those beasts at a mile’s distance on naval hulks and found it was possible to rain fire in from that distance and the heavy bullet penetrated some planks as well.

    Best
    Bob Campbell

  21. Bill

    As the author pointed out the Springfield was a bolt action rifle that took the Mauser action to a different level. Sights, fitting and accuracy were superior. The .30-03 is at best a foot note in history of little interest. 99.9 per cent of Springfield rifles were .30-06
    The 1903A3 was a cut down budget gun but still a good one.

  22. Overall a very good article and I agree with your choices. I have to point out some errors/missing items. First, you write well about the 1873 Springfield and Krag rifles but include no picture of them? They aren’t that hard to find! The second is a glaring error captioning one of the pictures. It states it is a picture of a Winchester 1894 in .30/40 Krag but the picture is of an 1895 Winchester. Two distinctly different and great rifles. I am sure these are just “typos” as you obviously know your subject well. I would like to add that the 1873 Springfield and .45-70 cartridge were adopted not for fighting on the Frontier but so the U.S. Army would be able to fight a peer-level army of an European power. All had adopted powerful, single-shot cartridge rifles capable of long range volley fire that could drop a charging Cavalry horse. The “dirty little skirmishes” in the westward expansion were secondary to the Army’s mission although it would constitute most of its combat experience until the end of the 19th Century.

  23. I enjoyed the article very much but would like to point out some things. putting the Springfield and the mauser on the list seems redundant the Springfield is a mauser clone in fact the us government had to pay mauser for patent infringement. The other problem is the Springfield was not designed around the 30-06 it was originally chambered in the 30-03 cartridge which was longer than the 06 and had 220 grain round nose bullet thus the rifles designation the 03 Springfield. The rifle was in service for some time having changes made originals being 03 rifles and improved being given an A designation the final version being the 03A3.

  24. Another great article and I agree with your assessment I just wanted to add one that I know because I inherited it from my father, it is a bolt action 3030 savage bought in 1949 by my father and to this day it is a tack driver up to 200 yards for me I am sure with some shooters it could go out further

  25. If the Savage 1920 was drilled and tapped for a scope it would still be a first class rifle today. Beautifully designed and made, they are almost never sold by the people who are lucky enough to have found and bought one.

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