September 30, 2023
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There’s a subset of the hunting and shooting population who lives in the mountains of the eastern United States. Outwardly, they appear no different than other hunters and shooters, but they have a distinct preference for certain cartridges. These folk do not look for a single cartridge that can be used all over the world or even all across America. They want cartridges they can trust to work where they live — in the mountains. The notion that there exists a group of folk who don’t really care about what’s trending might strike some as odd. But here in the hills, that’s more of a way of life than it is an ignorance or aversion to the latest fad. Hill folk, like those who live in the Appalachian Mountains, have a history of practical existence. They go about their lives with little or no concern for what happens in big cities. Maybe this clannish lifestyle can be traced to their Scots/Irish heritage. Regardless, they know what cartridges work for them, and in most cases, that’s good enough. Here’s a look at some of the cartridges many might consider hillbilly in nature. Regardless of their ballistic prowess, all have established a relationship with folks whose ancestors settled the hard country they continue to call home.
Introduced as a rifle cartridge in the early 1880s, the .32 Winchester Center Fire (W.C.F.) became popular in revolvers. On a national level, it is mostly considered extinct, but early during the last century in the coal fields of western Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southern West Virginia, it was still very popular. In fact, in 1937, blues musician Robert Johnson even wrote a song about it. You’ll not find new .32-20 revolvers or rifles for sale in hillbilly gun stores. However, almost every country grocery store or gas station will have a box or two of ammunition behind the counter. A few years back, I was visiting local farmers looking for places to hunt coyotes. Sitting in a living room beside a coal stove with one old rancher, he stuck his hand down between the seat cushions and pulled out a Crown Royal bag containing an old Colt. Handing me the revolver, he said, “I keep this handy just in case.” The well-worn and loaded pistol was chambered for the .32-20.
By any modern standard, the .38 Special is considered an anemic cartridge. Though still common, most shooters use .38 Special ammo in their .357 Magnums as practice ammo. While it was one time the darling cartridge for police officers all across America, it has now been replaced with the 9mm Luger, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP. Even as far back as 40 years ago, the .38 Special was seeing a sharp decline in popularity. But in the rugged mountains of the Appalachians, it is still one of the most popular cartridges for self-defense. My grandfather, a moonshiner during the depression and an entrepreneur in later years, only had one handgun. It was a S&W Model 10 chambered for the .38 Special. He always had it close by, whether he thought he’d need it or not. I remember one night we were racoon hunting. The dogs had run off after a fox, deer, or some other trash, and grandpa and I were sitting in the truck. A game warden pulled in behind us, walked up to the window, and struck up a conversation. It was training season, and we were not supposed to have any firearms, but I knew grandpa had his pistol — somewhere. The game warden asked, “You fellers don’t have any guns, do you?” My grandfather smiled, patted his chest and said, “Just this .38 here in my overalls.” The game warden laughed, talked a few more minutes, and went on his way.
Most of the big-game hunters across America now consider the .30-30 Winchester a “starter gun.” Never mind the fact that for more than a century, it has been used to take every big-game animal in North America. Now, within most modern hunting periodicals and even on the wonderful entertainment spectacle known as hunting television, the .30-30 is mostly treated as a kid’s gun. I don’t understand this logic. Chances are, if you go into any hunter’s home within the Appalachian Mountain region, you’re going to find a lever-action .30-30. It will be well-worn and likely the most trusted gun in the home. No, it’s not a rifle for western pronghorn or mule deer, though many have been taken with one. It is a true mountain rifle. In fact, it might be the first mountain rifle. It’ll work just as well on a timbered ridge as it will fending off intruders coming through your front door. Unashamedly, I took a Marlin lever-action that was chambered for the .30-30 to Africa on safari a few years ago. What else would you expect from a hillbilly?
Introduced in 1920, the .300 Savage became an instant hit in Savage’s Model 99 lever gun. With its rotary magazine allowing the use of pointed bullets, the cartridge soon became popular with woods hunters looking for that little extra reach or oomph. Though the gun and cartridge found success nationwide, it didn’t take hold in the west where shots tended to be longer. There was just too much competition out there from the .30-’06 and the .270 Winchester, which was introduced only three years later. But for hillbillies, the .300 Savage was a true high-powered rifle. While visiting farmers with my grandfather in an effort to get hunting permission, we stopped to see one old gentleman who was dying from cancer. He and grandpa talked about ornery steers, green beans, and bad neighbors while my eyes pried the room. In the corner of the bedroom was an old Savage 99. I couldn’t resist and asked, “Is that a .300?” The old man smiled and said, “Yep. That rifle has killed 13 bears.” How special was that rifle to him? Special enough to be near his bedside while he was dying.
Though the .30-30 is clearly one of the greatest hillbilly cartridges of all time, the .35 Remington holds a special place in the hearts of many eastern mountain hunters. From a practical standpoint, this cartridge, which was introduced in 1906 for Remington’s Model 8 semiautomatic rifle, is really in about the same class as the .30-30. However, the fact that it fired a larger and heavier bullet made it a favorite for deer and bear in the mountains. For most of my life, the largest-racked deer ever taken on our West Virginia hunting property was killed by my father the year before I was born. The perfectly symmetrical 10-point held that record up until I was 35 years old. I’ll never forget asking Dad what he used to kill that wonderful deer. His response was, “A .35,” like there was, and always would be, only one .35-caliber cartridge.
.250 Savage and the .243 Winchester
After World War II, groundhog hunting became popular in the eastern mountainous country. Though the land was steep and most pastures were small, the rainbow trajectories of the .30-30s and .35s made sniping a groundhog at 200 to 250 yards difficult. A lot of veterans had a .30-’06, but most recognized it was a bit much for a 12-pound rodent. The old .250 Savage had been around for a long time, and farmers shooting groundhogs out of the garden and foxes out of the chicken coop had learned to trust it. But by the 1950s, those old 3,000 feet per second (fps) Savage rifles had become well used or even shot out. That’s when the .243 Winchester stepped onto the scene. Introduced in 1955, the .243 became the ideal both-ways rifle. During the summer, it made whacking ground hogs even across the longest pasture easy, and during the fall, it was powerful enough to put down a deer or a black bear. Dad had been borrowing deer rifles for many years; he’d even borrowed the old .35 he used to kill his best buck. But when he finally decided to get his own rifle, it was a .243. He never put a scope on it. I can vividly remember him shooting ground hogs at stupid long distances with those open sights.
The 16 Gauge
Hill folk have always had an affinity for shotguns. In the mountains, a shotgun could provide all the gun anyone would ever need. It could pot small game like squirrels and rabbits and upland game like quail and grouse. Of course, it worked just as well for turkey, and with slugs, a shotgun was deer and bear capable. Though the 12 gauge has long been the dominate shotgun gauge, there was a time, especially in the mountains, when the 16 gauge was the gauge of choice. It provided a great balance of power and recoil, and it could handle any game or nefarious intruder a fellow might encounter. Dad’s 16 was an old Winchester Model 12, and he used it to successfully take every game animal in West Virginia except bear. (Dad never hunted bear.) He simply could not miss with that shotgun. I remember jumping grouse with him. He’d let me shoot first — miss — and then he’d kill them at distances you’d think impossible. After Dad passed, I thought I’d take the old 16 hunting one day, but before I went, I patterned it. That’s when I found the secret. That old shotgun produced the most consistent pattern I’ve ever seen from any shotgun. Of course, that was a common trait of the 16 gauge. Hillbillies knew that.
A few years back, just as the 6.5 Creedmoor was becoming the most popular rifle cartridge in the world, I had an idea. Given the dual — groundhog and deer — service many hillbilly hunters looked for in a rifle, I thought it would be neat to design a modern/better version of the old .250 Savage and .243 Winchester that had won the hearts of so many eastern mountain hunters. The 6.5 Creedmoor case was the perfect place to start, and I reached out to two fellow West Virginians to help me. I worked with Mike Cyrus, who was doing research and development with Lehigh Defense, and Jerry Dove, who is a talented gunsmith in my hometown. Given this was a project worked on by only West Virginians, we ultimately ended up with two rifles. The first was a test rifle with a Proof Research barrel and what many would consider a precision or tactical stock. This served as the proof-rifle for the cartridge, and it shot well. It would push a 110-grain Hornady ELD-X bullet beyond 3,000 fps and a 90-grain Hornady GMX to 3,300. I’ve used the rifle to take a nice whitetail and a bunch of coyotes.
With the concept proven, we decided to build another rifle chambered for the 2Fity-Hillbilly, (the name we gave this hillbilly creation) but this time a rifle more suited to hillbilly hunting. Working again with Dove, we put together a light rifle on a Remington Model 7 action. Weighing in at just about 6 pounds with a 22-inch barrel supplied by Douglas Barrels of Charleston, West Virginia, this rifle might be the ultimate modern expression of a hillbilly rifle, chambered for a cartridge that is undeniably hillbilly. Of course, in the end, hillbillies don’t need or even want fancy new cartridges or rifles. They’ve been making out just fine ever since they settled these hills more than 200 years ago with common revolvers, rifles, and shotguns — guns and cartridges that most of the world has either abandoned all together or mostly forgotten. How could a small subset of American hunters and shooters continue to register success with such antiquated equipment? It’s actually quite simple. Hillbillies can shoot. The person pulling the trigger will always matter more than the gun or the cartridge. Hillbillies just happen to be very good at pulling triggers.
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