Living in the age of the Modern Sporting Rifle, it is easy to forget that, once upon a time, semi-automatic centerfire hunting rifles were few and far between. That is until Remington took the design of John Moses Browning to market, and the Woodsmaster rifle series was born.
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The Remington Autoloading Rifle
Lever action and single-shot rifles were the reigning champions of the late 1800s. Autoloading designs had been tried but were not successful. Then, in 1900, Browning was granted a patent for a semi-auto rifle, he promptly sold the design to Remington, and in 1905, the Remington Autoloading Rifle was offered to the public. Browning’s design resembled the Auto-5 shotgun, except the barrel recoiled inside a tube. Jack O’Conner owned one and said it seemed like all hell broke loose when he pulled the trigger. Despite this, the rifles were plenty accurate for hunting deer in the woods and were very popular with bear and moose hunters.
With this new rifle, Remington debuted four new cartridges. The .25, .30, .32, and .35 Remington. The first three were rimless equivalents of Winchesters lever gun offerings, the .25-35, .30-30, and .32 Special. But the .35 had no real equivalent in the lever gun world and soon became the most popular of Remington’s offerings.
The Model 8
In 1911 the Remington Autoloading Rifle was rechristened the Remington Model 8, and it remained in production until 1936, with over a hundred-thousand rifles produced.
Unlike most semi-autos today, the Model 8 had a fixed magazine and was loaded through the top with stripper clips like the bolt-action military rifles of the day. The Model 8 was never adopted by any military, but several of the Europe-produced variant (the FN 1900) saw service with the French air corps in WW1. A couple of companies produced 15 and 20-round magazines for installation on the Model 8 and later Model 81. A rifle equipped with one of these is said to have been at the ambush of Bonnie and Clyde.
In 1936 Remington upgraded the Model 8 with a pistol grip stock and offered factory engraving. The Model 81 was the first model to actually bear the name Woodsmaster on the side of the receiver. The .25 Remington chambering was discontinued early and replaced with the .300 Savage. The .300 Savage gave the 81 a boost in horsepower and range, making the model 81 even more popular. Over 50,000 Model 81s were manufactured before production ceased in 1950.
Remington’s foray into gas-operated rifles began in 1955 when the model 740 came to market. It shared many components with the model 870 pump shotgun allowing for ease of manufacture. Original chamberings were .30-06, .308, 6mm Remington (then labeled the .244), and the .280 Remington. The design proved popular and was produced until 1960 when it was replaced by the 742. The 742 had several design improvements, notably a twin thread forend screw assembly, because the originals kept working loose. As an aside, my uncle uses a model 740 in .308 that has been in the family since it was new. It has never failed him that I am aware of and it has put venison on the table every year.
The 742 replaced the model 740 in 1960 and stayed in the lineup until 1980. It was a popular rifle with hunters and was a staple of many Michigan deer camps. Remington added the .243 Winchester chambering in 1968 and these delightful little guns now command a premium on the used market. The BDL (deluxe) version featured a blonde wood stock with basket weave checkering.
Another family note, the model 742 was my grandfather’s favorite. He wore out his first one just before I got old enough to hunt, and his second one now fills my freezer. Yes, I said he wore it out. From what I was told, the bolt jammed up when he fired it and locked the spent round in the chamber. Twenty-plus years of 180-grain loads and minimal cleaning had done their work. The 740 and 742 rifles did not have hardened slide rails for the bolt, they were milled directly into the receiver. According to an old article, the rifles were designed with 150-grain loads in mind. The gunsmith stated that the majority of problems guns encountered were fired with 165-grain rounds or heavier. Something about the violence of the bolt unlocking would batter the slide rails into oblivion after many rounds. This malady seems mostly to affect the .30-06 guns. The 742s are not bad guns though and will serve the average deer hunter fine if kept well-cleaned.
Initially offered as the model Four with higher trim and later as the plain-jane model 74 for big box stores, the model 7400 was an improved version of the 742 designed to address some of the faults encountered. Hardened inserts were added to the slide rails in the receiver, and the bolt head was fixed in place on the bolt carrier to keep it from battering the receiver like the floating bolt head of the 742.
The last Woodsmaster, model 750, succeeded the 7400 in 2004 and remained in production until 2015. It featured an improved gas system to better pressure compensate for heavy loads. Like the 7400, it featured the powerful .35 Whelen cartridge as an option, and it was a popular rifle until Remington ended the run.
The Remington Woodsmaster series of rifles offered hunters the option of an affordable semi-automatic sporting arm for 110 years. While the gas-operated models have a mixed reputation with sportsmen, all of the rifles in the series are effective game killers if properly maintained and cared for. They are not varmint rifles but will shoot accurately enough for most deer hunting in the woods. (If yours does have trouble grouping, have your gunsmith make sure that the barrel nut is tight) I love my Woodsmaster and intend on carrying it on opening day until I am old and gray.