March 18, 2011
By Craig Boddington
A new rifle design and a new line of magnums prove a formidable combination.
By Craig Boddington
Author Craig Boddington.
I sat down at the bench with some trepidation. The rifle was the new Blaser R8, well-scoped with a Zeiss 4-12X. Its chambering was equally new, the .300 Blaser Magnum. It was a bit of a scoop for me to have this setup in my hands, so I should have been very pleased. Instead I was wondering why I was saddling myself with a completely unfamiliar rifle and cartridge just a couple of weeks before leaving for Nepal to hunt Himalayan blue sheep and tahr--one of the most difficult hunts currently available in the world.
I'd booked the hunt for April, so in November I started taking my trusty Rifles Inc. in .300 Weatherby Magnum to the range, but then I attended a writers' introduction of the new Blaser R8--an interchangeable barrel straight-pull bolt action, successor to the R93. Blaser also announced the upcoming launch of its line of Blaser magnum cartridges, developed in conjunction with Norma.
The rifle nut in me took over. From Nepal I'd be going straight to Romania to hunt European brown bear, a complex situation ideal for a switch-barrel setup. I asked Blaser's Bernhard Knobel if it would be possible to get a left-hand R8 with two barrels--the .300 Blaser Magnum barrel for Nepal and the .338 Blaser Magnum barrel for the bear hunt.
They came through, and by mid-March I had an R8 Jaeger, black sideplates, better wood than should be taken to the Himalayas, and two barrels--each wearing its own Zeiss scope. Norma and its U.S. distributor, Black Hills Supply, delivered the first batches of .300 and .338 Blaser Magnum ammo to hit the U.S.
As test guns go, I can honestly say this was the most perfect setup I have ever received. My confidence began with the first group and kept going up from there.
In the .300 I had a choice of 180-grain Barnes TTSX or Norma's 200-grain Oryx. In the .338 I had a choice between a 210-grain TTSX and a 230-grain Oryx. I immediately chose the more aerodynamic 180-grain bullet for use in the Himalayas, where long range was likely. I knew the Romanian bear would be taken at close range, so I chose the heavier bullet for the .338 barrel.
The Blaser R8 is a modular system that not only allows shooters to switch chamberings easily but also makes for a takedown rifle that stays zeroed upon reassembly.
The setup came in Blaser's fitted attaché case, so I first assembled the .300, a simple procedure that included mating the barrel to the action and attaching the scope with the Blaser saddle mount. Groups ranged from "good enough" to downright spectacular. My best was 0.20 inch; my worst just under an inch. The straight-pull action was fast and smooth, and feeding was flawless.
I took off that barrel and assembled the .338 barrel with its scope. Groups weren't as spectacular as with the .300--ranging from 0.75 to 1.25 inches--but I didn't need them to be as the bear hunt would be over bait and shots would be no longer than 70 yards.
The obvious question was how repeatable the system would be when disassembled and reassembled, so I took everything apart, including taking the scopes off the barrels, and started over. Nothing changed. So I did it again a couple of times. Still nothing changed.
On that first range session one thing I needed to know was the exact speed of the 180-grain TTSX so I could calibrate the velocity to the stadia lines of the Zeiss Rapid-Z 800 reticle via the company's ballistic calculator at zeiss.com. It was slower than I expected, 2,853 fps, but it was what it was.
I tend to think we have all the cartridges we really need. But since very few American manufacturers seem to think that way, there's no reason why the Europeans should, either. Blaser, working with Norma's engineers, had a simple concept: to create a family of branded Blaser cartridges.
Currently there are four, in bullet diameters 7mm, .308, .338 and .375. All are based on the large-diameter .404 Jeffery case, shortened to .30-06 length (nominally 21„2 inches), with a common and fairly gentle 30-degree shoulder angle.
The .404 Jeffery is also the parent case for the Remington Ultra Magnum line, but unlike the Remington offering, the Blaser magnums use a full-diameter 0.545-inch rim.
Rifle cranks will quickly note that the Blaser magnums are similar to Dakota's line of proprietary magnums in the same bullet diameters, but the Blaser ammo will not be proprietary: Norma will distribute it as part of its ammo line.
Case capacity considerably exceeds the belted cartridges based on the .375 H&H case shortened to the same length, so the target was to exceed "standard magnum" performance while maintaining moderate pressures of 58,000 psi.
There is clearly nothing new or revolutionary about the Blaser magnums, but a primary design goal was accuracy. According to Norma's Christer Larsson, the biggest challenge was the 7mm, a caliber not known for exceptional accuracy. Larsson told me Norma's research suggests that the culprit may be that 7mm bore diameters vary more than most other calibers in popular use.
The R8's fire-control assembly has the trigger located underneath the magazine, which shortens the receiver by a couple of inches.
In any case, Norma has been especially pleased with accuracy, especially in the 7mm. I can't speak to that one because I haven't tried it, but I was definitely pleased with the accuracy of both the .300 and .338 in the two barrels I have used.
Blaser is using slightly slower rifling twists than are often standard for the various calibers. This may or may not create issues with the lightest-for-caliber bullets, but the intent was t
o allow accuracy with heavier bullets: 1:10 twist in 7mm; 1:11 in .30; 1:12 in .338 (as opposed to the standard 1:10 to allow the use of 300-grain bullets); and 1:14 in .375 (versus standard 1:12 so Norma's 350-grain heavyweight .375 bullet can be used without over-stabilization issues).
I went hunting with the 180-grain TTSX at 2,853 fps, a most unimpressive velocity that was disappointing for a cartridge with the case capacity of the .300 Blaser Magnum. It turns out the ammo they sent me was a mix of prototype and first-run production fodder, and I'd grabbed the prototype boxes.
The new Blaser magnums are based on the .400 Jeffery (l.). Both the .300 (c.) and .338 versions proved to be capable rounds with velocities similar to their Weatherby counterparts.
If I had dug deeper into the box, I would've found a different lot with the same 180-grain TTSX bullet that yielded a credible 3,227 fps in a 24-inch barrel--not as fast as the .300 Ultra Mag but equal to the .300 Weatherby Magnum. The other load I had, Norma's 200-grain bonded core Oryx bullet, was also extremely credible at just under 3,000 fps.
If you like velocity, the .338 Blaser Magnum was even more impressive. The aerodynamic 210-grain TTSX was a fast 3,181 fps, exceeding factory loads for the .338 Ultra Mag and, again, pretty much equaling what the .340 Weatherby Magnum. The heavier 230-grain Oryx produced just shy of 3,000 fps.
Back to the rifle. The Blaser R8 reflects significant changes from its predecessor, the R93--both cosmetic and mechanical. Actual operation differs little from the R93. The Blaser action is essentially a fast straight-pull bolt action that locks up via collet-operated, retracting lockup.
It takes a bit of time to get used to the straight-pull operation, but once you get the hang of it, it is much easier and more natural to work the bolt from the shoulder, requiring much less movement than the turnbolts most of us are accustomed to.
The safety is actually a cocking lever, located at the rear of the action and operated with the thumb of the shooting hand; it's totally ambidextrous. Until the cocking lever is pushed forward and engaged, the rifle is completely and totally inert. Decocking is done by rocking the lever downward under slight pressure.
Thumb pressure to cock the rifle is not extreme but is considerably more than most traditional safeties require. I have flubbed it a couple of times, not getting it cocked when I thought I had. With practice I'm getting better.
The most significant mechanical difference from the R93 is that the trigger is integral with and underneath the detachable magazine. Remove the magazine and the trigger is also removed.
Removal automatically decocks the rifle, rendering it inert. That's a safety advantage for storage and transport, but the more significant advantage is that the design shortens the rifle by about 31„2 inches. This makes a 24-inch-barreled rifle almost as short as a single-shot or double rifle with similar barrel length.
The magazine with trigger is properly called a "fire control assembly" and is interchangeable. The trigger on this rifle (with either of the two magazines supplied) was wonderfully crisp and clean, breaking at about 21„2 pounds.
The Blaser R8 is available in a number of ascending grades and configurations, with synthetic stock or really good wood, and it features a completely redesigned stock.
My primary beef with the R93 has been its Germanic stock, which has a lot of drop. The R8 has a straight stock with a steeper grip angle. Add in the more familiar stock design to short overall length and plenty of weight between the hands, and the result is a fast, lively, smooth-handling rifle that comes up just perfectly.
Like the R93, the Blaser is a modular system. Changing barrels is a simple matter of opening the bolt and loosening two bolts from the underside of the fore-end and lifting out the barrel. Reverse to install a different barrel.
Blaser offers more than 30 barrels from .22 centerfire through .500 Jeffery, and both bolt heads and magazine box inserts can also be switched out for cartridges of radically different dimensions. A right-hand bolt can be switched for a left-hand bolt, and stocks can also be switched out.
WARNING: The loads shown here are safe only in the guns for which they were developed. Neither the author nor InterMedia Outdoors, Inc. assumes any liability for accidents or injury resulting from the use or misuse of this data.
Notes: Accuracy results are averages of five three-shot groups at 100 yards off a Redding rest and sandbags. Velocities are averages of five shots measured on a Shooting Chrony Alpha chronograph set 10 feet from the muzzle. Abbreviations: TTSX, Tipped Triple Shock
The system works. Realizing that I was going from my range at nearly sea level to a possibility of 15,000 feet, I left my zero just a bit low. I guessed pretty close because at our jumping-off point in Nepal, about 11,000 feet, the rifle was right at the desired 1.3 inches high. I fired just one shot to check the zero, which is an awfully good testament to great engineering and manufacturing.
With that particular load and that zero, the No. 5 stadia line on the Zeiss Rapid-Z 800 reticle was supposed to be dead-on at 460 yards at 14,000 feet elevation. A few days later, a fine Himalayan tahr stood broadside at, as luck would have it, exactly 460 yards. Elevation on that day was probably 12,500 and, figuring that was close enough, I held dead-on and a bit into the light crosswind. The bullet hit exactly where I wanted it to.
When my partner and I both had our tahr, we continued on up to the high, open slopes for blue sheep. The shot I drew was about 495 yards, this time with some downhill angle, and I made that one as well.
I went on to Romania for the bear hunt, switching the .300 barrel for the .338 and, although I had much confidence in the Blaser system by now, I insisted on checking zero before going to the blind. At 30 meters, the known distance from blind to bait, the rifle was a predictable three-quarters of an inch low--exactly where it should have been.
A beautiful boar came out just before dark. My gamekeeper/guide gave me the go-ahead, and I pounded the bear on the shoulder. He tried to make the forest, so I cycled that fast Blaser action and pounded him again. That was that. The tough Oryx bullets expanded well and ex
ited, perfect performance.
In my 30-odd years as a gun writer, I have never developed such confidence in a rifle so quickly. As for the cartridges€¦well, we probably don't need more cartridges to choose from, but the Blaser magnums are clearly of sound design, both accurate and fast, with good bullets to choose from. I like them.