Choosing a Bolt-Action Rifle

Back in early 2004, I started looking for a lightweight bolt-action rifle to use for target shooting and deer hunting. Earlier, I had a Remington Model 7 that I made into a scout rifle, but I had sold it in 2002 for a variety of reasons. I soon realized that no one rifle had it all, which would have included (in no particular order):

  1. A Mauser-style action (claw extractor & fixed ejector; this just seems like the right way to feed and eject rounds).
  2. A 5-round detachable magazine for easy loading and unloading.
  3. A tang safety for putting the rifle on/off safe without breaking a firing grip.
  4. Weight in the 7 pound range with a scope.
  5. Stainless steel construction for low maintenance.
  6. A light, crisp trigger, or at least one that’s easily made so.

I wasn't that worried about the trigger due to the ready availability of aftermarket replacements for just about any rifle. My chambering of choice was .308 due to the short bolt throw of short-action cartridges, long barrel life, and availability of relatively inexpensive 7.62x51 ammunition. This chambering would also provide ammunition commonality with my M14, a 7.62x51 semiauto rifle. Otherwise, I would likely have picked a .260 Remington, which is a .308 case necked down to 6.5 mm and ballistically almost identical to the fine 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser.

Thus began the process of pestering various gun shop clerks in an attempt to find something reasonably close. My first thought was Winchester's Model 70 Featherweight, which has a Mauser-style action and a 5-round internal magazine that's unloadable via a hinged floorplate. Unfortunately, it also has a terribly dorky side-swing safety on the bolt and weighs about a pound more than it needs to. Sweeping off the safety while mounting the rifle is hardly a natural motion. Kimber's 84M solves the weight problem and points well, but unfortunately retains the dorky safety design.

I didn't consider another Remington Model 7 due to the rough action, extreme difficulty feeding 7.62x51 ammunition, and tendency of the bolt to bind. The bolt encircles the case head and isn't forgiving of large-end-of-spec rounds. Also, while my Model 7 never failed to extract, the tiny hook didn't exactly inspire confidence. In Remington's favor, they build their rifles with a trigger that’s adjustable to a crisp, light break, provided you know what you're doing. In addition, the safety is located on the right side of the tang where it's easily reachable by the strong hand thumb.

Remington's Model 700 Mountain Rifle has a smoother action, but I was still concerned that it would have the same difficulties feeding surplus ammunition due to the bolt design. This rifle should be high on your list if shooting such ammo isn’t a concern.

Ruger's Ultralight (now the Hawkeye Ultra Light) rifles seemed like a strong possibility. They weigh less than six pounds and point very quickly with their 16.5" barrels. They also have a Mauser-style action and integral scope mounts. Unfortunately, they ship with a truly shameful trigger, a rough action, and a side-swing safety as bad as Winchester's. They also don't have a good reputation for accuracy.

One of the lessons learned here is that hunters apparently do not use the safety on their rifles. I can see carrying the rifle in condition three (chamber empty, safety off) when hunting in open country, as there's plenty of time to chamber a round upon sight of a target. However, hunting in brush calls for condition one (loaded chamber, safety off). I'm used to frequent manipulation of the safety from shooting my 1911 and AR-15 (safety comes off when the weapon comes to eye level and gets flipped back on when the weapon is lowered), and a side-swing safety doesn't facilitate that style of shooting. Of course, one could argue that I shouldn’t expect a hunting rifle to handle like an AR-15.

Several rifles made the final downselect:

Sako's Finnlight 75 came the closest to meeting my initial criteria but also costs well over a grand. The bolt uses three locking lugs instead of the usual two, which gives a short 60-degree bolt lift. This eases cycling the action when shooting prone and also provides more clearance between the bolt knob and scope. It's a push-feed rifle, but has a fixed ejector. This allows the shooter to control ejection: a slow pull on the bolt drops the case just to the right of the rifle while a vigorous pull throws the case well clear. The detachable magazine holds five rounds and the safety is positioned similarly to Remington's. The fluted barrel also looks way cool.

Savage’s rifles looked appealing, but they’ve all but given up not only on detachable magazines and hinged floorplates. Since the magazine is blind, the only way to remove rounds from the rifle is to cycle them through the action. I guess that if you only handle your rifle once a year, a hinged floorplate or detachable magazine becomes a liability, because you'll uncase your rifle the opening day of deer season and pitch a fit because the floor plate and magazine spring or magazine are missing. Needless to say, this happened because you opened the floorplate at the end of last year's deer season to unload the rifle, didn't close it before carrying the rifle back to your ATV, and banged it loose against a tree. In their favor, Savage does place the safety right on the tang where it belongs and has a reputation for producing inexpensive but accurate rifles. The oversized bolt knob also handles well. In addition, Savage's customer service answered my emailed questions promptly. I just couldn't get over the blind magazine on their stainless steel rifles. In addition, Savage’s AccuTrigger feels quite good when set to a few pounds, but rather vague when set lighter due to the transition between taking up the slack on the safety shoe and pulling the trigger.

I ended up purchasing a Browning A-Bolt II Stainless Stalker. It seems like Browning is the only firearms manufacturer that designs sub-four-figure rifles for people with three-figure IQs. The safety is in the right place, but the detachable magazine sadly only holds four rounds. The bolt uses a push-feed design with an internal plunger ejector; also not what I wanted. But, like the Sako, its bolt has three locking lugs to give a 60-degree bolt lift and all the benefits that entails. The bolt also rides inside a non-rotating shroud that provides extremely smooth cycling and essentially eliminates binding. It was pretty much a toss-up between the Sako and the Browning, so I saved a few hundred dollars and went with the Browning.

Choosing a Scope

I owned a pair of zoom scopes in the past (a 3–9 Redfield and a 1.5–6 Burris) and rarely adjusted the power on them: the Redfield stayed near the middle, and the Burris near the top. Hence, I decided to go with a fixed 6-power scope and try out a rangefinding reticle. There aren't many choices in 6x42 scopes with rangefinding reticles if you want to stay under a grand: most cost four-figures and come from der Vaterland. Two notable exceptions include Leupold’s 6x42 and IOR's 6x42. Leupold will install a mil-dot reticle in their scope, and IOR ships theirs with a unique mil-line reticle. Instead of dots, their MP-8 reticle uses small tic marks to indicate half-mils and longer tics to signify whole mills mil. They’re about the same size and weight, but the IOR has a wider field-of-view, so I ordered it along with a Leupold 2-piece Weaver-style base and quick-release rings.

Range Trips

I’ve been quite happy with the rifle, particularly after installing a Timney spring kit to lower the trigger weight to a bit over a pound. I very much like the 60-degree bolt lift, which eases cycling the bolt when shooting prone. It also affords more clearance between the bolt handle and scope. The rifle has a hinged floorplate to which the magazine attaches. I initially thought this a rather goofy arrangement, but it does ease reloading the rifle when prone. You can keep your weak hand on the fore-end, drop the floorplate, and add rounds to the magazine with your strong hand. The rifle has a wonderfully smooth action and feeds without a hitch. This was a pleasant change from the Remington, which was rather finicky. I’ve fired close to a thousand rounds through this rifle and have never had a failure to feed, fire, or extract. One thing I don’t like is that lifting the bolt cocks the firing pin. This is the part of the cycling process where the shooter has perhaps the least strength. I would have much preferred a system that cocks on closing.

Shooting prone with a sling at 100 yards, I’m able to print four-round groups of 1.5”–2.5” with Wolf .308. Those groups open to 6”–8” at 300 yards. Not surprisingly, the rifle does much better off a rest. A group to verify the zero with a new batch of Prvi Partizan 168-grain .308 match at 100 yards gave a vertical string of four holes that touched each other.

The IOR scope gives a bright, high-contrast image that’s free from distortion. The long eye relief prevents getting whacked during recoil. Unfortunately, while the reticle is calibrated in mils, the turrets are in MOA, which requires some mental arithmetic during zeroing. The scope holds its zero well, although it hasn’t been subjected to any hard hits. The one downside of the long eye relief is that I needed to add some spacers to the stock to increase its length of pull.

Updates

I replaced the fixed scope bases with an EGW Picatinny mount. This provided a lot more flexibility in positioning the rings, and I was able to slide the scope a centimeter forward and get a perfect view through it. The downside is that it raised the scope a bit, so I need to raise the comb. I recently swapped out the factory Tupperware stock for a Bell & Carlson Medalist stock, which has an integral aluminum bedding block. I still need to zero the scope and see how it shoots.

Savage has come a long way since 2004! Their 10 PC and 16 FCSS would make my short list if shopping for such a rifle today.

My Browning A-Bolt is no more. I hadn’t shot it in years and sold it to raise funds for a Sako TRG-22.

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Last edit: 1 July 2011