January 14, 2021
By J. Scott Rupp
The X-Bolt has been Browning’s flagship bolt-action centerfire for more than a dozen years now, and in that time it has been produced in a dizzying array of variants—from relatively plain Jane synthetic-stocked models to classy, high-grade wood models to the feature-packed Hell’s Canyon series to rifles specifically built for long range.
The X-Bolt Western Hunter kinda falls in the middle, a workhorse rifle with just the right frills for certain types of hunters. Browning does things a little differently from other gun companies, and the Western Hunter is what the company calls a “SHOT Show special.” This means it’s a limited-production model. However, each year some of these SHOT Show specials make it into the regular-production catalog, and the Western Hunter is a strong candidate to do exactly that.
This is one reason why I thought it merited coverage in RifleShooter. The other reason is the Western Hunter’s stock. Adjustable combs are nothing new, not in this day and age when many hunters want to shoot farther. Adjustable combs allow shooters to achieve a proper head position in order to look through the center of a scope, thereby reducing aiming errors, which are magnified greatly at longer ranges.
However, most adjustable combs add weight and significant cost. The Western Hunter’s setup does neither. It’s probably best described as a sleeve that fits on top of the comb, and by means of four half-inch screws with washers, the sleeve can be raised or lowered to one of five positions. It’s a simple, sturdy and effective arrangement, producing a rifle that still weighs only about 7.5 pounds and sells for a little over a grand.
This stock feature is what attracted me to the Western Hunter, but the rifle has a lot of other features to recommend it to discriminating hunters. I’ve never hunted with an X-Bolt, but I have a lot of range time behind various iterations of the action, and I think it’s one of the smartest, best-shooting, smoothest-operating designs on the market today.
Sticking with the stock, it is a composite and finished in A-TACS AU camo. I’ll help you out on the alphabet soup here. A-TACS is a Georgia company that produces a number of patterns used by several companies, and AU stands for Arid Urban, the name of the pattern.
AU is a hybrid pattern—neither composed of pixilated digital shapes, nor the old-school “blob” type camo. Instead it employs what A-TACS calls “organic pixels” to create small and large shapes that are subtle but still effective at distance.
I’m not the type who goes all crazy worrying about how my rifle might appear to a critter a couple hundred yards away, but I do think camo stocks are a wise choice for big game hunting—as opposed to black or shiny wood. Plus, I like a stock that looks good, and this one does.
It can be easy to gloss over recoil pads, simply saying they do (or don’t do) a good job of reducing recoil. In the case of Browning’s Inflex pad, there’s a little more at work. Its geometry and internal structure act to pull the comb away from your cheek as it crushes under recoil. As everyone who’s shot stout-recoiling guns can probably attest, it’s the jolt to the cheek—often more so than the shove to the shoulder—that creates a lot of the discomfort.
The stock is slim and trim, and the wrist features a stippled pattern for a non-slip grip as well as a subtle palm swell for right-handed shooters. I’m a big fan of palm swells on hunting stocks, and this one feels great. The fore-end has similar stippling on the bottom, and there’s a relieved channel just under the barrel for your fingers to hang onto. The stock has sling swivel studs front and back.
The barreled action is free-floated in the stock. It’s worth noting that the action screws are treated to a thread-locking compound, so expect them to be a bit stiff when you go to remove the barreled action for the first time.
The fore-end has X-shaped cross-braces to provide rigidity. There’s epoxy bedding around both action screws and in the front portion of the recoil lug mortise, the last place the barrel touches the stock. It wasn’t evenly applied here: The left side showed solid contact with the barrel while on the right only a thin ridge of epoxy appeared to be in contact. This doesn’t seem to have affected accuracy, but if it were my rifle I’d probably fix it by adding a bit of bedding to even out the barrel contact.
The X-Bolt action has a three-lug bolt for a short, 60-degree throw. You’ll notice a small, beveled lug on the bottom of the bolt. This serves to push the top cartridge in the magazine down slightly as the bolt closes and prevents the seven o’clock locking lug from contacting against that round as it rotates down.
When Browning engineers were working on the X-Bolt, initially they were going to employ a three-position wing à la the Winchester 70. But apparently they’re like me and don’t prefer an intermediate Safe position, so they settled on a sliding two-position tang.
Tang safeties are popular because they’re easy and quiet to operate, and they work for both righties and lefties. Browning’s design goes one step further than most. On Safe, the sear, trigger and bolt are locked, but pressing a conveniently located button at the root of the bolt handle pushes down a small plunger that depresses the bolt-lock arm in the fire-control unit. This allows the bolt to be operated for loading or unloading while the safety remains engaged. You’ll quickly find it instinctive and easy to use.
Browning X-Bolt Western Hunter Specs
- Type: 3-lug bolt-action centerfire
- Caliber: 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5 PRC, .270 Win., 7mm Rem. Mag., .28 Nosler, .300 Win. Mag., .300 Rem. Ultra Mag, .300 PRC (tested)
- Capacity: 3+1 (as tested)
- Barrel: 26 in., 1:8 twist (as tested); muzzle brake, thread cap
- Overall Length: 46.75 in.
- Weight: 7 lb., 7 oz.
- Finish: Matte blue
- Stock: Composite, A-TACS AU camo; adjustable cheekpiece
- Sights: None; drilled and tapped
- Trigger: Feather adjustable; 3 lb., 12 oz. pull (measured, as received)
- Safety: Two-position bolt-locking tang; bolt lock override
- Price: $1,100
- Manufacturer: Browning, browning.com
Browning’s Feather trigger is a good one. It’s a three-lever design that allows maximum sear engagement while still permitting a light pull thanks to the extra leverage provided by the three levers as well as the smoothness made possible by the chrome-plated, polished internal working parts.
Browning engineers also created a near-vertical interface between sear and firing pin, as opposed to the more common 45-degree interface, for a more straight-line firing pin travel. This not only reduces firing pin “porpoising” for more consistent primer strikes but also reduces lock time.
The trigger has no take-up or creep and almost zero overtravel, and this lack of play makes for a super-crisp pull. Adjustment range is three to five pounds, and Browning sends them out from the factory set at 3.5 pounds. My sample weighed 3.75 pounds on average.
While the trigger is adjustable, there are two things worth noting. One, you have to remove the rifle from the stock in order to access the 2mm Allen adjustment screw in front of the finger piece. Two, this adjustment screw is covered in red threadlocker, which you’d have to remove in order to adjust it. Rafe Nielsen at Browning told me this is to prevent accidental loosening and also lets the company know if the trigger has been adjusted in case it comes back for service.
The rifle feeds from a detachable, flush-fit polymer rotary magazine. As detachable mags go, I love rotaries because they not only provide a higher capacity than flush-fit single-stacks, but also present the bullet straight in line to the chamber, unlike internal box magazines and many detachables.
The mag on my sample holds three of those big ol’ .300 PRC cartridges—three is the capacity for all chamberings except the 6.5 Creedmoor and .270 Win.—and its integral spring-loaded latch snaps into the aluminum-alloy bottom metal with authority. That bottom metal is black, has a powder-coat type finish and features the famous Browning Buck Mark logo tastefully engraved in gold at the bottom of the trigger guard.
Atop the receiver you’ll find the feature that gives the rifle its name. Instead of in-line two scope-base mounting holes in front of and behind the ejection port, there are four holes in a square or “X” pattern. I’m in agreement that more is better when it comes to securely attaching a scope to any rifle, especially a hard-kicking one.
One issue did arise here. I had a hard time finding a scope in my inventory with enough tube length to fit. It’s not something I’d encountered with previous X-Bolts, and Nielsen told me that while the action on the .300 PRC version is the same size as other long actions, the ejection port is bigger due to the size of the cartridge. So it, along with the .300 Rem. Ultra Mag version, will require a little forethought when it comes to choosing a scope.
In this case I found a Trijicon AccuPoint 3-9x40mm would fit, but there was no wiggle room for adjusting position for eye relief. Browning does offer a rail for the X-Bolt, including one specifically for the .300 RUM and .300 PRC.
The .300 PRC is a lot of cartridge, and Browning installs a 26-inch barrel in this chambering to get the most out of it. You might wince at having a barrel so long, but it is the “Western” Hunter after all, and unless you’re skulking around in dark timber after elk, deer or moose, a 26-inch barrel is no problem in the West’s wide-open spaces.
It tapers from 1.185 inches in front of the receiver to 0.608 inch behind the muzzle brake. And believe me, you’ll come to love the 40-port muzzle brake. Shooting magnums from the bench is never fun, but the X-Bolt was quite well-behaved, even when firing a cartridge that pushes a bullet weighing more than 200 grains to a velocity topping 2,800 fps.
Browning X-Bolt Western Hunter Accuracy Results
Hornady’s .300 PRC is a relatively new cartridge, and at the time I tested the rifle, that company was the sole source for ammunition—and only one of its two loads was available. I definitely prefer trying several types of ammo in any rifle, but depending on how you look at it, being able to shoot only one load isn’t a total write-off—and could in fact show the rifle’s accuracy potential. Groups at 100 yards averaged just over one m.o.a., and at 200 yards it was a shade better. Imagine what you might be able to accomplish if there were several different loads/bullets to try or if you took up handloading for it.
Normally, I don’t like a lot of weight out front, and the Western Hunter’s 26 inches of barrel does push the gun toward the muzzle-heavy side. However, from field positions—especially unsupported ones—between the long barrel and the muzzle brake, it was easy to get fast follow-ups because muzzle rise was relatively small for a cartridge this powerful.
It was excellent over a pack, and I suspect that would also be the case with a bipod. The Inflex recoil pad delivered on its promise, and for a rifle chambered to such a big round, the Western Hunter was a relative pussycat overall.
I loved the adjustable comb. I moved it up to the second hole, and my eye position and cheek weld were right where they belong. That certainly factored into the accuracy I was able to get from the bench and from positions.
The only downside is cleaning. I hadn’t needed to raise the comb very high, so I was able to get a cleaning rod into the cleaning rod guide with only the slightest lift/flex. Any higher and you’re probably going to have to remove the comb, at least if you’re using a cleaning rod and not a pull-through. It’s not like taking out four screws is a big deal, but it’s certainly not as convenient as internally adjustable combs.
Other than that small complaint and the scope selection challenge, which was due to caliber, I give the X-Bolt Western Hunter high marks all around. The bolt works smoothly, and feeding was excellent. It’s got a great trigger, it’s accurate, and it handles like a hunting rifle should.
Having said that, it’s not a “mountain rifle.” With Trijicon scope aboard and fully loaded with 3+1 rounds of .300 PRC, it weighed eight pounds, 10 ounces. However, at its bare weight the Western Hunter starts out a full pound lighter than the X-Bolt Max Long Range and five ounces lighter than the X-Bolt Hunter Long Range—both adjustable-comb models with similar-length barrels.
In any of the available chamberings, all of which are excellent long-range rounds for a variety of game or targets, I think it’s an excellent rig for places where you might want a little bit of extra reach—without lugging around a rifle that feels like an artillery piece or having to pay a fortune.