When our patriot forefathers answered the first calls to arms for militias and the fledgling Continental Army, the muskets they toted were often the ones kept in their homes for hunting and defense.
As the military and industry grew, volunteers and conscripts began using firearms their nation provided.
Arms factories hum during times of conflict, and one "peace dividend" that follows is a glut of rifles. War surplus rifles from the late 19th and 20th centuries found their way into the closets and gun racks of thousands of outdoor enthusiasts.
Interchangeability between personal use and military applications was easy enough through World War II. The most famous and arguably still the most popular hunting cartridge, the .30-06, was first a military round with the 1903 Springfield and 1917 Enfield rifles.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Ed Thornton, a licensed firearms dealer, noted that many surplus rifles could be had in the 1960s for less than $10, with ammunition costing less than a nickel a cartridge.
"Of course, it was full metal jacket, but some people simply pulled the jacketed round and topped the cartridge with their favorite soft-point hunting bullet," Thornton said.
Besides the venerable .30-06, two other military cartridges that became mainstays of hunters were the .303 British and the 8mm German Mauser.
Accounts can be read of native people at the Arctic Circle still relying on a surplus .303, usually topped with a 180-grain soft point, to stop dangerous animals such as polar bears. The Mauser, with all of its European variants, has claimed its share of game, from regal red stags to African plains antelopes.
Older is sometimes better
Air Force Maj. Kent "Frag" Christen, chief of intelligence and counterintelligence for the 820th Security Forces Group at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., is an avid collector of vintage (pre-Vietnam era) military rifles and uses them for everything from range plinking to coyote hunting.
He has a Lee-Enfield No. 1 MK III in .303 British; a Springfield M1 Garand (a rare piece with a five-digit serial number) in .30-06 Springfield; a Remington M1903A3 in .30-06 Springfield; a Smith & Wesson model of the 1917 .45 ACP revolver; and a Trapdoor Springfield 1878 carbine in .45-70 Government.
"My two favorites are the M1 Garand, because it's one of the first ever built, and the Springfield, because it's so old and has a rich history," he said. "The others are fun to shoot, and I actually paid the least for the Lee-Enfield, $100.
"The bonus is that ammo is easier to find for the Garand, because it's a mainstream caliber. The .303 is a great round, though, and I think one that's often overlooked."
Christen, 34, likes to hand-load his own cartridges for his vintage war weapons but noted that factory ammo is still fairly easy to find, although .303 seems to be getting scarcer on sporting-goods store shelves.
A popular trend after World War II was to take military surplus rifles and "sporterize" them. Mass-produced military models tended to be heavy, couldn't readily accommodate scopes, and usually had triggers that were clunky, at best, with extensive travel ranges before breaking and releasing the firing pins.
Christen pointed out that, while many makers of modern sporting firearms advertise 1-inch accuracy at 100 yards out of the box, "laser" accuracy isn't typically expected of surplus weapons.
But a little personalized work can tighten shot groups to the 4- to 6-inch accuracy many shooters say they achieve, he said.
Reshaping original stocks, or swapping them out for new stocks, modifying the receiver to allow scopes, adding better trigger assemblies, and trying to tweak a barrel all came into play during the sporterize movement.
Thornton owns several vintage rifles in matched pairs: the original military design and the sporterized version. He recalled that the National Rifle Association provided instructions many years ago on modifying some of the more common surplus rifles, such as Enfields and Mausers.
"Sporterizing was mainly for folks who didn't have much money and were pretty handy with the tools needed to modify the weapon," he said. "It was an economical way to get a bolt-action hunting rifle."
These days, however, few people modify their surplus weapons, he said. "By the time you invest in work and parts to bring that old firearm to a more modern standard, you've probably spent as much as you would on a new, modern rifle," Thornton said. "Most folks today just enjoy shooting the surplus rifle as it was designed for the military."
Indeed, vintage military weapons seem to have long since transcended the utilitarian need for putting meat in the pot. Many enthusiasts, including re-enactment aficionados, are finding sporterized weapons and trying to restore them to their original military specifications.
Christen said he just likes bringing the rifles to the range and having other shooters stroll over to check out what he's brought to the bench.
"Invariably, those people fall into one of two categories," he said. "First is the veteran who either carried the piece I'm shooting or saw guys who did, or the guy whose father or other relative carried one just like it and wants to see what it's like.
"Gun people are generally very open and friendly with one another, and things like a good military surplus rifle or pistol will get a conversation going," Christen said.
Ken Perrotte is a freelance writer in King George, Va.