February 02, 2011
The new short-action Model 54 from Cooper builds on a legacy of elegant accuracy.
We all knew it was coming, right? After Cooper Firearms announced a centerfire magazine rifle for the .30-06 family of cartridges, a short-action version couldn't be far behind. Well, the Model 54 is here. It shares many features of its long-action sibling, the 52, which means I wanted one right away. Clean, classic lines, tight tolerances and fine wood seduce me every time.
When I ordered my test sample, Cooper's Laura Kelly listed the available chamberings: .22-250, .243, .260, 7mm-08, .308. "Oh, and we're offering .250 Savage as well," she said. I jumped on that one. Long a fan of Charles Newton's lively little .25, I couldn't wait for the chance to wring it out in an accurate bolt rifle.
When it came to the stock, I fought the temptation to drive immediately to the Bitterroot Valley and spend a long afternoon sifting through Cooper's racks of walnut. Nor did I request fiddleback French or marblecake. I gulped hard and said that for review purposes, anything a Cooper customer would get in a basic Classic sporter would work--the choices being AA claro or French. I chose the latter.
The smoothly swept grip features 22 lpi point-pattern checkering, which looks great on the AA French walnut.
As this was to be a representative rifle, I confirmed standard stock and metal specifications except for barrel length. The Model 52 comes with a 24-inch barrel, the new Model 54 with a 22-inch. I think most centerfire bolt rifles look best with barrels of at least 23 inches and asked for one of that length.
The crew in Stevensville had my .250 ready in three months with the first production run, and I took Laura up on an invitation to come see the manufacturing process when I picked up the rifle.
I had visited Cooper several times but was keen to take another look. The company was, after all, in new hands. Founder Dan Cooper, who'd designed the super-accurate Model 57 rimfire and Model 38 smallbore centerfire rifles--and the 52--had relinquished the reins to Hugo Vivero, who also owns the Wilson barrel company that has supplied Cooper barrels. Ian, Hugo's son, is an engineer now working on future Cooper rifles.
The Model 54 has a three-lug bolt with Sako-style extractor, plunger ejector and enclosed head.
Product manager Rocky DuBose ushered me straight to the woodworking shop, where we met John Sherman. John directs efforts there, from blank to finished stock. The aroma of seasoned walnut can as heady as the leather in a new Ferrari. I'd begun to swoon when Rocky pulled me to a CNC machine whose programmed tool heads spewed chips as they smoothly contoured a stick of figured claro. Behind it, skilled woodworkers used rasp, file and progressively finer sandpaper to ensure the seamless fit of grip cap and butt-pad and fore-end tip. They finished the bedding, too.
"We pay attention to that," said Rocky. "Cooper rifles are known for accuracy, and we plan to keep that reputation."
A dark, quiet room with bright table lamps focused on fixtured stocks serves the talented women who checker Cooper wood. I watched as one deftly scribed then cut the master lines that would chart the course for all subsequent grooves. "You must get this part right," she said. "Otherwise the entire panel is skewed."
As I'd never seen a Cooper panel that was even the least bit misplaced, I concluded they got the master lines right all the time. Rocky smiled and told me that was so, adding that structural and finishing defects, no matter how slight, send stocks to the rejection bin.
Model 54 receivers start as bar stock. The blanks are meticulously machined, the three-lug bolts fitted to slide like race-car pistons. The Sako-style extractor mirrors the 52's, but instead of a mechanical blade ejector the 54 has a bolt-face plunger.
The unobtrusive bolt release is of Mauser design. The two-position thumb safety on the right-hand side of the tang rocks forward with a muted click and no play. It has the crisp demeanor of a cylinder hand on a pre-war revolver. It does not lock the bolt.
The three-round, single-column detachable magazine is thick-walled steel, with a flush belly. A forward latch drops the box neatly into your hand. Seated, it does not rattle. Cartridges march smoothly off the dished follower. You must have the box out to load it. The modest ejection port on the 54 keeps the receiver stiff for better accuracy, although it's generous enough to allow for easy single-feed.
The detachable box magazine is a straight-feed three-rounder that releases via a flush-mounted latch.
Cooper's trigger is adjustable from 11„2 to five pounds with the stock off. I didn't need to tinker with the .250's. It registered a clean, consistent two pounds, 14 ounces on my Timney gauge--perfect for a hunting rifle.
"You can't get the half-minute accuracy we guarantee if the rifle moves when you pull the trigger," said Rocky. Half-minute? Yep--with match-grade ammo. Targets furnished with Cooper rifles demonstrate that level of accuracy. Sadly, competition-quality .250 ammunition is not available. In fact, only Remington and Winchester currently load the round--one 100-gain offering each, loads I suspect have not been changed for decades.
Each Model 54 comes with Talley or Leupold scope bases. I like both but specified Leupold for this project. I'd already set aside 30mm Leupold rings and a 2.5-10x42 Zeiss Varipoint scope for the Cooper.
The factory tour finished with an unveiling of the .250. My oohs and ahs were not forced. I was pleased with the 23-inch barrel; the rifle looks right and balances perfectly. At around 71„2 pounds, it is not a lightweight, but it feels light and hops eagerly to my cheek.
The grip is perfectly proportioned for my hand, with deep comb-nose fluting. Wood-to-metal fit is worthy of much more costly rifles. I'd like to checker as well as the lasses who cut the perfect point-pattern panels on this rifle.
Accuracy with factory ammo was only okay, but the author got sub-inch performance with several handloads.
At the range, I dialed the Zeiss up to 10X and fed factory rounds first. They cycled smoothly; alas, the accuracy was about what I expected. Had .250 Savage ammo been given the attention lavished on the .308 since the 1950s, thought I, all .250s would shoot better.
The next group, with a handload of IMR 4895 pushing 87-grain Sierras, put me at ease. It measured a snug 0.35. The next was even smaller. The rifle obviously liked this load. Was it the light bullet? I scrounged a few handloads with 100-grain bullets. Powered by H414, three Speers hopped into a vertical column just 0.6 tall.
Subsequent shooting showed the factory loads unredeemable. I'd have drawn data from half a dozen other handloads, but the cases had been neck-sized after shooting in the generous chamber of my Savage 99 carbine, and they wouldn't enter the closely machined Cooper barrel. I'll full-length-size the next batch for the 54.
Overall, this rifle met my expectations, and they were high. My first Cooper rifle, a rimfire, put .17 HMR bullets into sub-minute 10-shot groups at 100 yards. A Model 52 in .270 shot a 0.6-inch group with its first magazine of Remington factory loads. While factory-loaded .250 ammunition didn't measure up in my trials, the one-hole performance of my handloads told me the rifle is hardly at fault. Cooper's reputation for accuracy remains intact in this house.
Functioning was almost faultless. The striker spring lacked zip, resulting in two misfires. Cooper replaced it at no charge, and pronto. "An early-production glitch," Rocky told me.
What's next at Cooper Firearms? The company has a Model 56 on the drawing board--a magnum version of the models 52 and 54. It's to be chambered for traditional belted cartridges like the 7mm Remington Magnum. While it may not lend itself to as many cosmetic variations as its siblings (who needs a varmint rifle in .338?), it will surely come in more than one version.
Cooper plans to announce it in the near future and is not currently taking orders for it. Watch upcoming issues of Rifle Shooter. As soon as the staff hears about it, it'll be on the website's blog.