Originally posted March 23, 2017
Let's try a little roleplaying exercise this week. Imagine, for a moment, that you are John Moses Browning, the most prominent American firearms designer, basically, ever.
It's around the turn of the twentieth century, and you're at the top of your game. Since 1883, you've been designing rifles and shotguns on a freelance basis for Winchester, one of the biggest names in long arms. You also have recently begun a working relationship with Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company, the USA's leading name in handguns, and you've done some work for the U.S. Army, so you've got basically the whole small arms business in North America at your feet. Meanwhile, the highly-regarded firm of Fabrique Nationale of Belgium is selling guns based on your designs in Europe, where they are soon to be quite well-received.
Lately, you've been kicking around an idea for a self-loading shotgun—something that's been done before, but not very successfully. You're pretty sure you've figured out how to do it right, with a long-recoil system that will be plenty strong enough to cope with even the powerful smokeless-powder shotgun shells that have lately arrived on the market. In fact, now that you think about it, there's no reason why a high-powered centerfire rifle based on the same principles wouldn't work, too.
This is where it all goes a bit wrong. Your old pal Mr. Bennett, managing director at Winchester, doesn't think people will buy your fancy new automatic shotgun, and anyway he's pissed off because you've decided you want a piece of the action on each unit sold the next time you sell Winchester a gun that's going to make them mad bank, rather than the flat lump sum they've always paid you up front in the past. So, well, if he's going to be that way about it... You break off your 19-year relationship with Bennett and his company—which has produced some of the most famous firearms in American small-arms history—and decide to shop the auto-shotgun to their biggest competitor, Remington.
Unfortunately, your meeting with the man in charge of Remington is canceled with barely any notice... because he rather inconveniently drops dead that very day. It's going to take them a while to figure out what they're going to do. There's nothing for it. You might as well take your prototype shotgun to Belgium and see if they're interested.
(And they are! But there's a stiff import duty on foreign-made shotguns in the US, so Remington ultimately will end up making it for the American market after all.)
That's basically, in a nutshell, the origin of the Browning Auto-5 shotgun, a very distinctive longarm and one that, as a sort of testimony to the endurance of its appeal, is still in production today. But we're not going to talk (more than we just did) about the Auto-5 today, because they are hella expensive and I don't have one.
Instead, let's rewind to the part about what else Mr. Browning thought his long-recoil shotgun action could be used for. A few people had tried making self-loading rifles by that point in history, but they'd never really worked very well. They tended to be simple blowback designs, and so not suited to proper centerfire rifle cartridges; the concept of an intermediate cartridge didn't really exist back then, and the compromise cartridges developed for the early self-loading rifles were frankly pretty crappy. They'd probably have been better off just making those actions into pistol-caliber carbines.
Browning figured the Auto-5 action, with appropriate modifications, could handle high-powered rifle cartridges just as well as it could handle 12-gauge shotgun shells, and in 1900 he had filed a patent on just such a design in addition to the ones about the shotgun. So when he got back from Belgium with the FN contract to make the Auto-5 in his pocket, to find Remington back in something like order and ready to listen to a pitch, he shopped them the rifle instead.
Remington's new bosses were intrigued. Unlike Mr. Bennett of Winchester, they were evidently hip to the now-self-evident notion that you didn't brush off John Moses Browning when he put a prototype firearm on your desk and said, "Would you like to sell this?" They took the design and put it into production, proudly dubbing it (because at the time it was an essentially unique qualification) the Remington Autoloading Rifle. It appeared on the market in 1906.
From the very beginning, Remington's ads leaned heavily on dangerous-game imagery like the above. Variations on that theme turned up again and again over the years, the artwork always giving the impression that the Rugged Outdoorsman depicted would be in real trouble if he didn't have his trusty, rapid-firing, high-powered Remington rifle with him.
In 1911, a few years into production, the company changed the Autoloading Rifle's name to Model 8, which it would remain until 1936. At that point a verrry slightly redesigned version was introduced as the Model 81 "Woodsmaster" (a name that would later be reused for the Model 740), in which guise it remained until production ceased altogether in 1950. For brevity's sake, and since there really was very little difference between them, we can refer to all three collectively as the Model 8 hereafter.
Here's one now!
This one really is a Model 8; looking up the serial number online shows that it was one of the 1,441 made in 1931. This can be confirmed with the production code Remington stamped on the barrel:
W Z indicates that it was made in August of 1931.
That telescope is a much later addition, and not normally something I'd have gone for, but it's tricky enough to find a Model 8 for not-a-fortune these days without being picky about the accessories. If I get sick of it, I can always take it off. (I rarely have much luck with telescopic sights for some reason. I think the eye relief on a lot of them doesn't play well with my glasses or some such. I could wish that whoever put the scope on this one hadn't discarded the original rear sight in the process...)
Ways of identifying a Remington Model 8? Well, for a start, they say REMINGTON MODEL 8 on the left side of the receiver.
Beyond that, Model 81s usually had a semi-pistol-grip (or "Type C" for you M1903 Springfield buffs) stock instead of the more conventional straight version you see here. Mechanically, there's basically no difference between them, apart from some modifications made to simplify production and lower costs.
Over on the righthand side of the receiver, we have the operating handle, ejection port, and safety.
One thing that immediately jumps out at a lot of people who know something about modern military arms is that the safety level on the Model 8 looks awfully familiar.
I've seen assertions that the safety on the AK-47(/AKM/AK-74/and on and on, we'll get to that) was directly based on the Model 8's, but never any that were backed up with cited evidence. The documentation is, as you might expect, a bit sparse. Anyway, as far as I am aware, there is no direct evidence that Mikhail Kalashnikov's team at Izhevsk had ever seen an American autoloading hunting rifle from 40 years before when they designed the famous Avtomat that bears his name, but neither is there direct evidence that they hadn't. Regardless, it is undeniable that the Model 8's safety lever looks eerily similar and does essentially the same thing: it prevents the trigger from being pulled and physically blocks the bolt from moving backward.
(On the full-auto members of the AK family, it's also the single-fire/full-auto selector, which obviously is a function the one on the Model 8 does not have.)
Unlike the AK, the Model 8's action locks open when the magazine is empty.
Out at the business end, the long-recoil system is hinted at by this full-length barrel jacket with the muzzle of the actual barrel just peeking out of it.
A similar sort of arrangement can be found on the long-recoil Frommer Stop pistol. It serves a couple of different purposes. For one, it provides someplace for the barrel's recoil spring to live (since, like all long-recoil systems, the Model 8's needs separate springs for the barrel and the bolt). For another, it allows the front sight to be fixed to something that doesn't move around during the firing cycle, which it would if it were just attached to the end of the barrel as in a more conventional rifle. In a similar vein, it means the front hand guard (also known as the forearm, forend, or forestock) can be mounted to a fixed structure, the jacket, instead of having some provision for the reciprocating barrel to float in it.¹
The idea at the time was also that the barrel jacket would protect the barrel from exposure to environmental contamination. These rifles were never intended for trench warfare (although there are reports that some people did try to use them for that purpose in World War I), but they were meant as hunting guns, and hunting involves a lot of tramping around in the woods, often in wet weather. Protecting the barrel, which in a long-recoil system is very much a moving part, seemed like a good idea, and it does work.
The problem, as later owners of these now-vintage guns would discover to their chagrin, is that the barrel jacket also hides whatever may be happening to the barrel from view. If anything does get in there—moisture from condensation, leakage from exposure to water, whatever-it can do whatever it's going to do out of view of prying eyes. This is actually the second Model 8 I've owned. The first one looked very fine on the outside, but when dismantled, proved to be unserviceable—the barrel was badly rusted and more or less frozen in position. If I had ever tried to shoot it, I'd have been at best disappointed, and at worst in some trouble.
(As it happened, I sold my first one without ever having gotten around to shooting it, because reasons. The owner after me made the discovery about the rust, which was related to me by the guys at the shop I'd sold it to the next time I was in there. They didn't hold it against me; they didn't know about it either.)
The other problem there is that the bushing at the end of the barrel shroud requires a special spanner to remove, one that hasn't been available for decades. It's possible to improvise your own if you have a bit of expertise with metal working and access to a workshop, but most people aren't going to have one, which makes inspecting the barrel for yourself all but impossible. Before I try to shoot this one, I'm going to have to track down a gunsmith who has or can make a barrel spanner and have him check it out.
One way we can easily tell that there were meant to be sporting guns and not developed with an eye toward military adoption is that every single Model 8 was built as a takedown gun.
At some point, some prior owner added a set of sling swivels to mine. The wire loops of both have been lost, but you can still see the mounting points on the buttstock...
... and the hand guard.
But what's that other swivel mount? It actually isn't one. I'm sure some Model 8 owners over the decades have thought it was a sling swivel, and even used it as one. That's probably why this one is also missing its wire loop, which it would have had in its original form. What the thing on the hand guard actually is, is basically a wing screw, only designed to look less out of place on the front end of a rifle than a wing screw would look. Its only function is to hold the hand guard in place, and to make it easy for the owner to remove same. It's also captive, which was originally nice but now means I can't just take the broken one out and replace it.
(Misuse of the mounting screw itself notwithstanding, that is a terrible place to mount a sling swivel on a Model 8, by the way. It means all the weight supported by the front swivel is bearing directly, and only, on the little screw holding the hand guard to the barrel jacket, which was only ever designed to perform that purely cosmetic function.)
Once you do remove the hand guard, this is what's underneath.
That's not a lever, though it looks like one; it's a captive bolt with a sort of built-in swinging wrench on it. Every YouTube video you find with someone taking down a Model 8 shows this thing turning as easily as a doorknob; mine was seized up like it had been torqued down by a NASCAR pit crew. I had to take some Liquid Wrench and a padded crescent wrench to it, but in the end, I prevailed. In the photo above, it's unscrewed as far as it will go.
Anyway, assuming you do manage to get it undone, once you do...
... the rifle comes apart.
Another view of the takedown bolt, and the shank end of the barrel, revealed when the rifle is dismantled:
And a view into the front of the receiver, showing the business end of the bolt (with its big ol' extractor clearly marked with what caliber it's for).
The takedown capability is a feature that is of little to no use in a military arm, but it was very much in demand among the sportsmen (and women, one supposes, though there were probably a lot fewer of them at the time) of the day. It meant you could pack your rifle (or shotgun—a lot of contemporary shotguns did similar tricks) in a normal suitcase, possibly the same one with your socks and spare shirts and whatnot, and travel discreetly with it rather than lugging it around in a long, unwieldy, obvious rifle case.
This was a desirable feature indeed in an age when many hunters, particularly the ones well-heeled enough to own cutting-edge machinery like a Model 8, were city dwellers who took long trips out to the woods a few times a year to get their hunt on. Up until the 1950s, such trips were usually by train and/or automobile, and not having a valise as awkward as a full-length rifle case to manage was a good thing. Would still be today, I suppose, for air travel. Less chance of alarming the mundanes in the line at baggage check.
The rifles' original purchasers would have been well aware of this function, and so would have known full well what the thing that looks a bit like a sling swivel was really for. Subsequent generations of owners often did not, and more than one puzzled over why their Model 8s had front swivels but not rear ones. This probably explains why quite a few of the takedown screws on old Model 8s have come to grief at some point in their careers (the external part on the first Model 8 I had was broken off, making the screw un-unscrewable, and I gather this is not too unusual).
Other gotchas the modern collector (or hunter, for that matter—people do still use these rifles in the field) looking to pick up a Model 8 needs to be on the lookout for: You can't always get ammunition for them. These rifles were originally offered in four chamberings, all of them proprietary cartridges exclusive (at the time) to Remington: .25 Remington, .30 Remington, .32 Remington, and .35—say it with me—Remington. (The Model 81, later on, was also offered in .300 Savage, the popular medium-game cartridge of the day.)
Of the proprietary Remington cartridges originally developed for the Model 8, only .35 Remington is still in production. If you don't know that, you can end up with one in, say, .30 Remington, in which case you'll either have to make your own ammo (if you can get brass for it) or haunt the ammunition aisles of old, out-of-the-way general stores and/or backwoods hardware stores in hopes of finding a dusty box or two that nobody bought. This is a common problem with vintage firearms, but particularly painful for Model 8 enthusiasts, since not all of them are now obsolete ammunition-wise... just most.
As we saw on the extractor above, this one's in .35 Remington, so that's still OK for the time being.
While we're on the subject of annoyances the Model 8 collector faces, be aware that what looks like a detachable box magazine is, like that found on the Mosin-Nagant, not one. It was possible to get box magazine conversions done on Model 8 and 81 rifles by third parties, but some were only available to police agencies (such as the relatively-high-capacity conversions done by a company called, suggestively, Peace Officer Equipment), and others varied in quality. The good ones were pretty expensive.
Like many of its contemporaries, the factory-standard Model 8 was designed to be reloaded with Mauser-style stripper clips, and like stripper clips through the ages, these were originally deemed expendable. Hunters probably discarded them by the thousands in the North American woods wherever deer were found, and now that the rifles have been out of production for 67 years, well, if you want one, good luck. I found one on eBay, it was the only one being offered on all of eBay at the time, and it cost me an amount of money that leaves me feeling vaguely incredulous at my own willingness to pay it for a little bit of bent sheet metal with a leaf spring in it.
Also, you will note that the scope on mine makes the annoyingly expensive loading device completely useless. In fact, I'd wager it's not the easiest thing to finagle rounds in underneath it one at a time, either.
Anyway, those quibbles aside, this is a fine old firearm in a very distinctly they-don't-make-'em-like-they-used to sort of way. You wouldn't see a rifle like the Model 8 go into production today; the machining and materials requirements would make them so expensive no one would buy them. The long-recoil mechanism is beautiful but also very complex, and the state of the art in autoloading rifles nowadays is such that it isn't really necessary, even for full-power centerfire cartridges. Most modern self-loaders will use some sort of gas system, like that found in, e.g., the M1 Garand.
I'm glad I was able to find another Model 8 without spending a fortune on it. Sometime soon, I'll take it down to the gunsmith who tried to fix my old Bolo Mauser and get it a general health check and cleanup, maybe try to find a proper rear sight for it (those things can be harder to find than the rifles themselves nowadays) and get rid of the scope, and see about getting the hand guard screw fixed. I don't care so much about the sling swivels, since I'm not planning on carrying it much of anywhere on my shoulder; if I could without doing further damage, I'd just take the mounts for them off altogether.
I've also got an idea about a case for it, so we'll see how that goes. This is a Gun of the Week that will almost certainly be revisited.
¹ Interestingly, the Auto-5, despite using basically the same system, doesn't have this problem, because it doesn't have a barrel jacket. I'm not sure whether this was just because the increased diameter of a jacketed 12-gauge barrel was deemed to be too unwieldy, or exactly what the thinking was, but the Auto-5's barrel reciprocates right out in the open. I haven't examined one closely to see how the hand guard works, but presumably it's designed in such a way that it's attached to the receiver and the barrel floats above it or slides over it. Of course, having the front sight attached to a moving part is somewhat less of a concern in a shotgun than it is in a rifle.