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A Forgotten Classic: The Remington Model 81 Review

by Garry James   |  July 24th, 2007 3

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It’s impossible to talk about the Remington Model 81 Woodsmaster autoloading rifle without first looking at its precursor, the Model 8, for they’re pretty much the same thing. Like so many seminal firearms designs, the Remington Model 8 was the brainchild of John Moses Browning. Originally patented in 1900, it was the first successful high-powered semiauto rifle made in the United States–or just about anywhere else, for that matter.

This recoil-operated wonder had a number of innovative things going for it. It featured a rotating bolt with dual lugs that locked into the rear portion of the barrel. When the gun was fired, the barrel, bolt and bolt-carrier assembly recoiled all at once, allowing the bullet to exit the barrel before the mechanism unlocked. During this operation a couple of heavy springs inside a sheetmetal covering surrounding the barrel were compressed.

When the bolt went back as far as it could, the springs forced the barrel forward, unlocking the bolt from the rear extension. After the barrel had completed its travel, it released the barrel lock and allowed the bolt/carrier to strip a round from the magazine.

It’s a very efficient, powerful setup and provides reliable semiauto function. There’s no pesky gas system to worry about, and the piece works well under some pretty adverse conditions with a minimum of maintenance.

But there’s more. The Model 8 was equipped with a five-shot box magazine that could be loaded by means of a stripper clip, just like the military bolt-action rifles of the period.

The gun was never intended to rival some of its contemporary heavyweights; the action was simply not up to the pressures of an 8mm Mauser, 7.62 Mosin-Nagant or .30-06, nor could it physically handle rounds of those dimensions. Instead, it was offered in .25, .30, .32 and .35 Remington, all rimless cartridges with performances on a par with some of the more moderate lever-gun loads.

The heftiest of the batch, the .35 Remington, had velocities similar to the .30-30 but with a beefier bullet, giving it more knockdown power. Understandably, the .35 proved to be the Model 8′s most popular loading .

All of the Model 8′s chamberings were intended for short- to medium-range work and within their particular parameters were more than up to the task.

The magazine looked like it was removable and could be taken out, although not without effort involving some disassembly. Unless there was some malfunction, this was not something to tinker with at hunting camp. The gun was really designed to be charged through the top of the receiver either with single rounds or the aforementioned clip.

Another great feature was a large, positive sheetmetal safety mounted on the right side of the receiver that locked the trigger and prevented the bolt from being moved to the rear. I can’t believe this setup wasn’t the inspiration for the similar arrangement seen on the AK-47 (I should have asked Mikhail Kalishnikov when I met him in Russia a few years ago, but I suppose I was too busy sampling his vodka and caviar to think about such things). There was also a small, unobtrusive bolt release located on the left of the frame, just above the trigger guard.

One must remember that when Remington brought out the Model 8 in 1906 (it also had a limited production by Fabrique Nationale in Belgium from 1910 to 1931), lugging a sporting rifle to the field wasn’t as easy as it is now. Many conveyances, particularly early automobiles and buggies, had limited storage space, so a long-barreled firearm could present a transportation problem.

Here the Model 8 shone. Inherent in its design was a built-in takedown setup. All one had to do to remove the barrel from the receiver was undo a captive screw in the fore-end, remove the fore-end, spin the takedown lever, located in the front of the action, and then pull the barrel and jacket forward out of the receiver. This effectively cut the gun’s length (which measured some 41 inches) in half, the longest section being the 22-inch barrel assembly.

The Model 8 was offered in several grades with more or less engraving, checkering, fancy wood and so forth the No. 1 Standard, No. 3 Special, No. 4 Peerless, No. 5 Expert and the No. 6 Premier.

Considering that the rifle first appeared well before World War I and when one takes into account its excellent properties, it’s surprising that it was not adopted by the military, but such was not the case. On the other hand, many police forces found the gun to be just the ticket for dealing with hooligans, gangsters and desperados. There were even extended magazines available from specialty suppliers.

In 1934, legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hamer picked up a Model 8 in .35 Remington at Petmeckey’s Sporting Good Store in Austin and then had it fitted out with a 20-round mag by the Peace Officer’s Equipment Company of St. Joseph, Missouri. He took the rifle along with him when trailing bank robbers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker and found it more than up to the task of punching through the couple’s Ford V-8, as well as the couple themselves. Today, many Model 8s and some 81s will be found with police markings.

After about 80,600 Model 8s were produced, Remington felt the old warhorse needed a facelift and in 1936 introduced the Model 81, basically the same gun with a few minor cosmetic differences such as a heavier pistol-grip stock and more robust fore-end. As well, the gun was initially offered in a different range of calibers .30, .32, (dropped after World War II) and .35 Remington.

In 1940, .300 Savage was added to the lineup to make the 81 more competitive and give it “close to .30-06″ performance. Named the Woodsmaster (a moniker that would also be given to Remington’s follow-on Model 740 and 740A autoloaders), like the Model 8 the 81 came in different grades the 81A Standard with a plain stock and fore-end; 81B Special with checkered select wood; 81D Peerless sporting a bit of scroll engraving and fancier checkering; 81E Expert with more engraving yet and better checkering; and the top-of-the-line 81F Premier, introduced in 1945, with two panels of engraving and even fancier checkering and wood. Prices ranged from $89 for the Standard to $370 for the Premier. As well there was a No. 14 1/2 R Carbine with a shortened 18 1/2- inch barrel.

Model 81s were made until 1942 when Remington’s efforts were turned toward wartime production. Manufacture of the rifle was resumed again in 1945, and it continued to be cataloged for another five years. Eventually, more than 55,000 were turned out.

To my mind the Model 8/81 always had a great aesthetic and historical appeal. I’m basically a military arms enthusiast, but it’s one sporting rifle I’d always admired–I suppose because of the Depression-era police/Texas Ranger connections.

A few months ago, while perusing the wares at one of my favorite gun shops, King’s Gun Works in Glendale, California, I looked up on the rifle rack and there, exuding a sort of ethereal nimbus, was a pristine Model 81. The only thing keeping it from looking brand new was that it was missing an original hang tag.

Mentally telling myself If that gun’s in .35 Remington, I’ll buy it, I figured I had a four-to-one chance to escape with a full wallet. I then tentatively asked to take a look, and sure enough, the sucker was a .35. I bought it for the premium price it commanded and haven’t regretted it.

Now, I’m not going to tell you I’ve never shot an 81 before. I have, and enjoyed the experience immensely–that’s one of the reasons I wanted one. Our classic evaluation firing session proved to be no exception. The rifle performed flawlessly, and there’s something really satisfying about the kerchunk, kerchunk, kerchunk of the barrel as it moves back and forth, in and out of battery.

Chosen ammunition was some Remington 150-grain Core-Lokts and a batch of the new Hornady 200-grain Lever Evolution fodder. Abetted by a crisp 33?4-pound trigger pull, accuracy with both brands of ammo was very good, with average rested 75-yard groups coming in at 21?4 inches using the issue adjustable open notch rear sight and beaded ramp front. Hits were right to point of aim, and recoil, with either load, was pussycat grade.

At the time of production, some fancy tang and receiver peep sights were available as aftermarket accessories, and I’m sure groups could be tightened if one was fitted to the rifle–though frankly I’m loathe to spoil the gun’s original pristine appearance, so there’s a very good chance it’ll stay pretty much the way it is.

The 81 is a lot of fun to shoot and would still make a great gun for the field, given the limitations of the cartridges for which it was chambered. The top choice for efficiency, if you could find one, would be the .300 Savage, but the .35 Remington is no slouch either, and there’s a greater possibility of coming across one in .35 than just about any other caliber. Whatever you get, though, be prepared for a lot of fun–and some surprising performance.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/jack.snyder.31586 Jack Snyder

    Still have my Dad’s 300 Savage. Haven’t fired it since the 50s. Wouldn’t part with it for any amount of money!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1555095951 Ronald J. Lewis

      I have 12 model 8′s and 81′s in all calibers from .25 to .300 savage and fired and hunted with them all. In the woods there is nothing better and for pigs in Texas this rifle in .300 savage and .35 Remington with Hornady ammo is a sure killer! They are getting harder to find but are still a bargain at $600+ for a clean rifle. Don’t pass it up if you are lucky to find one.

  • maodeedee

    I shot one in 35 caliber that had an old lyman scope mounted on it. It cut me right above the eyebrow!
    That recoiling barrel kind of makes the gun come back at you harder that you’d expect for a 35 Remington. At the time I had a TC contender in that caliber and that same cartridge didn’t seem to recoil as much in the pistol.

    I never knew they made them in 300 Savage.

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