If you're a fan of professional athletics, you've certainly heard the term "depth." Depth is a critical element to the success of any sports team, and even the greatest athletes have had a supporting cast that helped balance their game.
When the Chicago Bulls were the NBA's powerhouse franchise, Michael Jordan was the star of the team, but he was surrounded by fantastic role players like Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoc.
The 1993 Dallas Cowboys had Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman, but that team would never have been such an offensive threat without Michael Irvin and Jay Novacek. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earle Combs, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri made up the 1927 Yankees' famous "Murderers' Row."
And Franco Harris wouldn't have been a leading rusher in four Super Bowl seasons without one of the best offensive lines in history. Having one or two superstars simply isn't enough.
Such is also the case with firearms companies. Doing one or two things well is fine, but the largest and most successful gun companies have reached that status because they offer a lot of options that meet the needs of many different shooters. Two decades ago, shotgun manufacturers began offering specialized variants of their guns for every imaginable discipline: turkey hunting, waterfowl, home defense, sporting clays, slug guns, upland hunting and others.
The increase in concealed-carry licenses inspired a similar movement in the handgun market, and now there are guns that weigh less than 10 ounces, guns that cost less than $300 and guns with laser sights, easy-to-rack slides and pink grips.
It's happening in centerfire rifles, too, and the influx of budget-priced rifles capable of producing excellent accuracy has spurred companies to offer their own inexpensive bolt actions in an effort to stay competitive.
Browning has a long history of producing quality products, but few of its guns have ever been classified as "budget." The Browning A-Bolt and X-Bolt rifles are well built and accurate, but neither one is cheap. Even the least expensive X-Bolt has a suggested retail price over $750, and some variants of the X-Bolt and A-Bolt run more than $1,000.
If Browning were going to provide a rifle that could lure budget-minded buyers away from the likes of the Ruger American, Savage Axis and Remington 783, the company would have to be able to beat the price points established by its premier hunting rifles. Enter the A-Bolt III, Browning's entry-level bolt-action rifle. The gun's design lineage is unmistakable: It has the profile of the A-Bolt and many of the design cues of the X-Bolt in a package that retails for around $600.
But simply looking good and wearing the characteristic Buckmark symbol is not enough to convince shooters to shell out their hard-earned cash on a new rifle. If the A-Bolt III is to succeed, it has to offer the features consumers now expect in even the cheapest rifles: a great trigger; free-floated, crowned barrel; and a level of accuracy that just a few years ago was reserved only for high-end rifles.
I'm happy to say that when I opened the Browning box and took a look at the A-Bolt III, I wasn't put off by its construction. The recent craze toward ultra-accurate, ultra-cheap rifles has led some companies to allow cost cutting to dictate every design element, with the result a gun that shoots well but is coarsely built. The A-Bolt III doesn't demand that the shooter sacrifice aesthetics for the sake of savings.
The matte blued finish on the receiver and barrel is better than most entry-level guns and on par with more expensive models. Fit and finish are good for a gun in this price range, and the stock isn't dramatically angled in an effort to look avant-garde or futuristic. The overall look of the rifle belies its price tag, and the A-Bolt III doesn't scream "cheap."
The rifle incorporates the increasingly popular fat-bolt design where the locking lugs are the same diameter as the bolt. In the case of the Browning, there are three locking lugs that allow for a short 60-degree bolt lift, and there are a small extractor and a plunger-type ejector on the bolt face.
The oversized bolt fits tightly in the receiver, and there is very little slop when working the action. The bolt handle is flattened and angled just like its more expensive A-Bolt and X-Bolt cousins, and the rear of the bolt shroud is enclosed. A highly visible cocking indicator is located just under the shroud, and a tang-mounted safety pays homage to the rifle's Browning roots. There is a bolt release button located just behind the bolt handle, and the action can be cycled with the safety in the "on" position.
The matte-finish receiver is drilled and tapped and has scalloped edges that give the gun a modern look. The barrel is hand-chambered and free-floated and has a target crown to protect the rifling.
A-Bolt III rifles are currently available in four calibers: .270 Win., .30-06, 7mm Rem. Mag. and .300 Win. Mag. Non-magnum calibers have a 22-inch barrel; magnum calibers get a 26-inch pipe.
The stock of the A-Bolt III is simple and understated. It is a straight-comb, American-style stock, and the wrist has a right-hand palm swell that fills the hand and helps anchor your grip on the rifle (if you're a right-handed shooter). Large textured panels along the length of the stock allow for a secure grip even in wet conditions.
The stock doesn't "feel" cheap. Some budget guns sound like a snare drum when you tap the stock with your knuckles, but the A-Bolt III doesn't — which reduces the chances that banging the stock against a tree will spook all the game in a quarter-mile radius.
The A-Bolt III rifle comes with Browning's high-quality Inflex recoil pad, which, Browning says, is engineered to direct recoil down and away from the shooter's face, reducing felt recoil by as much as 25 percent.
I've shot Browning's Maxus, the new 725 Citori, the X-Bolt and now the A-Bolt III with this recoil pad in place, and I must admit that it seems to reduce the impact of recoil. I shot a handful of rounds from both sitting and standing positions, and I found the recoil of the 7mm Rem. Mag. to be moderate but not painful.
It's now widely accepted among shooters that new production rifles must have a crisp, creep-free trigger, and the A-Bolt III has a brand-new design that is on par with most rivals. Though the trigger performs well, it looks large and blocky. The swollen appearance doesn't really jibe with the smooth lines found on the rest of the gun, and its large, rounded-plastic exterior probably won't appeal to traditionalists.
The box magazine, however, will please traditionalists because it is not made of plastic. It's a simple and effective design with a recessed magazine release button located just in front of the magazine itself.
Ultimately, the A-Bolt III is cosmetically and mechanically a step above most of its slightly less expensive competitors in the world of entry-level rifles, but that segment of the market is purchasing a gun because it's a good value. For the A-Bolt III to win over this audience it has to be capable of very good accuracy with factory ammunition.
I tested the rifle on the range on a beautiful, clear autumn day- rare for southwestern Ohio. Even rarer was the fact that the range was empty almost all day, so I had the chance to spend a lot of time with the A-Bolt III at both the 100- and 200-yard ranges. I mounted and bore-sighted a Nikon Monarch 3 3-12x42 scope (see sidebar) on the rifle. With a stack of ammo on the bench beside me I went to work.
There were no feeding or extraction/ejection problems, but the box magazine sometimes required a solid tap with the butt of my hand to be sure that it locked firmly in place.
Results are shown in the accompanying table, and accuracy was sufficient with all loads tested. The Browning favored the Federal loads, and two of the three groups that I shot with those cartridges held right under one inch at 100 yards for an overall average of 1.04 inches.
For a budget-priced production rifle that's pretty good, but the Browning faces stiff competition from two other budget guns I've tested recently: Weatherby's Vanguard and Ruger's American, both of which are extremely accurate.
The Weatherby Vanguard retails about $50 more than the Browning, and the Ruger American is about $150 less. But one of the Browning's best features is that it is inexpensive without feeling cheap. The stock looks good and isn't as radically designed as the Ruger American.
The A-Bolt III is a solid entry into the highly competitive budget-centerfire market. Browning has managed to produce a gun that provides price-conscious hunters and shooters with the accuracy they demand without feeling shortchanged by the overall package, and this newest member of the Browning family plays an important role in the success of the company's growing team of centerfire rifles.
The bolt shroud is reminiscent of the original A-Bolt, and the three-position safety allows the bolt to be cycled with the gun on Safe. The bolt release is conveniently located at the rear of the receiver.
While the trigger pull on the A-Bolt III is good, breaking cleanly at 3.5 pounds, the author wasn't a fan of the trigger's blocky look.
Of the nine groups fired from the A-Bolt III in 7mm Rem. Mag., three were under an inch. Thanks to the Inflex recoil pad and stock design, recoil was quite manageable.
The rifle feeds from an aluminum detachable box magazine (three magnum rounds, five standard), and the recessed release button won't be hit accidentally. The mag did occasionally require a sharp rap to seat properly.
'Fat ' bolts are popular on economy rifles (less machining). Browning's sports a three-lug design for a 60-degree lift.
Browning didn't skimp on the recoil pad with the A-Bolt III. It's the same Inflex pad found on many of its other long guns.
Notes: Accuracy results are averages of three three-shot groups at 100 yards off a fixed rest. Velocities are averages of 10 shots measured on a ProChrono digital chronograph set 10 feet from the muzzle.