A Light Brigade
September 23, 2010
Three custom guns that illustrate the pros and cons of lightweight rifles.
My favorite hunting rifles have always been fairly heavy, with a lot of the weight in long, stiff barrels. The weight dampens recoil and makes them easy to shoot on the bench--and also makes them come steady quickly from field positions. The heavier barrels also heat up much more slowly, which helps when testing loads at the bench.
It is often believed that heavier barrels are more accurate than light barrels. I am certain this is not true. The quality of a barrel is the single most important factor in rifle accuracy. How much steel surrounds that perfectly cut chamber and rifling is not, in itself, of critical importance. However, it is definitely more difficult to get a light barrel to shoot its best.
In my experience, light barrels are more finicky about bedding and thus are likely to be more finicky about the loads they shoot best. Barrel heat is also a significant factor. Slim barrels heat up quickly, the metal expands, and the groups start to wander.
A pencil-thin barrel may not be capable of firing a five-shot group without stringing (usually vertically). If you really want to know the true accuracy potential of a light barrel, the best way is to fire a shot, then wait for the barrel to cool completely, fire again, and etc.
This takes a great deal of time and, on a hunting rifle, probably isn't particularly meaningful. After all, if your first shot isn't exactly where you want it to be, you don't have time for the barrel to cool before you shoot again. Being lazy and chronically short on time, I go with three-shot groups.
Like I said, heavier barrels tend to be easier to shoot from the bench and in the field, but you do have to carry that weight. For many years I had no concern about gun weight, even on serious mountain hunts. Today, in my late 50s, nothing comes quite as easy. There is no way I'm going to haul another 12-pound rifle up another mountain, finally recognizing I can get up the mountains more easily--and shooter better when I get there--with a lighter rifle.
The Ultra Light Arms action is a push-feed action, its primary difference being that it's as trim and light as possible. A slight additional weight saving is gained by the very light Talley mount, a one-piece base with split ring. The Match Grade Arms rifle achieves much of its weight reduction by removing metal — "skeletonizing" — the action. The bolt is fluted, and metal has been removed from the bolt handle as well.
So if you're in the same boat as me or just like light rifles, the question becomes, Just how accurate can they be?
Given the mindset we have that heavy barrels are more accurate, I do think our expectations are more reasonable with light rifles. Since we tend to put smaller scopes on light rifles--and since, being light, they kick harder and thus are more difficult to shoot--this is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Does it have to be that way? The single most important components to accuracy is a good barrel, proper assembly (sound bedding, true mating of action to barrel) and good ammunition. Cartridge design and rigidity of action are also factors but aren't as influential as the first three.
Since there are so many variables that go into it, I'm going to take you through three light rifles I happen to have some experience with. All three are "conventional" hunting rifles, with synthetic stocks and "normal" barrel lengths.
One is a Match Grade Arms Ultra-Light .270 Winchester, made by Kerry and Carol O'Day in Spring, Texas. It's the lightest of the three--weighing 6.4 pounds with Leupold Vari-X III 3.5-10X scope in Talley lightweight one-piece base and rings.
The Match Grade Arms .270 has remained both accurate and consistent, although it's a bit finicky about the loads it likes. Hornady's Superformance GMX load shoots well.
I think the total weight of the rifle is the most important figure, because to be useful even a very light rifle must wear a good scope. However, this "ready to shoot" weight is influenced by choice of scope and, to a lesser degree, the scope mounts. In this case we have a versatile, fully capable variable scope, but it's a light one at 12.6 ounces.
The Talley aircraft aluminum mounts, base and lower ring in one piece with split ring attaching with four screw, is one of the lightest (and strongest, and simplest) on the market. They weigh in at less than 21â„2 ounces. This brings stripped gun weight down to about 51â„2 pounds.
Just about everything about this rifle is light. The stock is foam-filled and reinforced synthetic. This is my wife's rifle, so the stock is short and the fore-end appropriately short as well. This undoubtedly shaves a few ounces. It has a blind magazine, and the Model 700 action on which it's built is skeletonized: The bolt is fluted, and the sides of the action have cutouts to remove metal. There's even a cutout in the bolt handle, with the bolt knob itself hollowed out.
The barrel is slender, but I wouldn't call it pencil-thin. Length is 22 inches, and although it tapers quickly ahead of the action, it still retains a .625-inch diameter at the muzzle. The barrel is free-floated down to the major barrel taper ahead of the action, with the rest of the barrel and the action solidly bedded.
It really likes handloaded 140-grain Nosler AccuBonds. However, it groups identically with Winchester Supreme's 140-grain AccuBond-CT and, interestingly, puts Federal Premium's 130-grain Barnes Triple Shock into the same tight group. With any of these loads we can count on three-shot groups under an inch, and on a good day I've seen these cut in half.
There is one strange thing about this rifle: It is pressure sensitive. For example, we get very hard extraction and flattened primers with Hornady Custom 130-grain loads, but this rifle digests the Hornady's new Superformance load without a hiccup and shoots them very well. Most recently, I borrowed this rifle for a hunt in Turkey and shot a big Anatolian stag at nearly 400 yards. The little .270 put the Superformance GMX bullets right where they should
be, dropping the stag in his tracks.
The H-S Precision inexplicably began shooting first-shot fliers (left groups), but the addition of a several business-card shims tightened things up considerably (right groups).
This rifle has seen much more use than the other two and is one of the most consistent and trouble-free rifles we own.
The H-S Precision Pro-Series 2000 SA is no longer the Rapid City, South Dakota, company's most current model, but it remains a good example of this firm's work. "SA" stands for short action, which saves a bit of weight on the 22-inch-barrel .270 WSM.
The action is a CNC-manufactured push-feed with an in-line detachable magazine. This is the only rifle of the three that has a detachable magazine and thus a floorplate. It is also the only rifle of the three to have a three-position (Model 70 style) safety on the cocking piece.
Total weight on this rifle is 7.8 pounds, but it wears the heaviest scope, a Swarovski 30mm 2.5-10X. The scope alone weighs a full pound, and the Redfield-type mounts are also heavy, weighing about six ounces. I wanted the scope for its light-gathering capability, and I don't mind that it adds a bit of weight to the 6.2-pound rifle. Mounting a very light scope would make the little .270 WSM seem not so little.
The author has come to the realization that carrying a light rifle can actually help his field shooting. He took this Anatolian stag with a Match Grade Arms .270 and Hornady Superformance GMX ammo.
The H-S Precision rifle has the heaviest action and a larger bolt body required by the fat WSM cartridge. The synthetic stock is beefy in configuration; on this rifle the primary weight savings is in the barrel. The 22-inch tube tapers quickly to .56 inch and is deeply fluted. The feel is thus a bit butt-heavy and muzzle-light, but the stock fits me extremely well, making it a pleasant rifle to shoot.
H-S Precision rifles carry a half-minute guarantee, and this rifle has met that guarantee most of the time. Generally speaking, with 140-grain loads from Winchester or Federal I can count on it to produce one-inch groups. Recently it has done quite a bit better with Norma 150-grain Oryx loads, a fine choice for heavier game but neither as fast nor as aerodynamic as the 140-grain loads I prefer.
This barrel is fully free-floated, and although the fluting does create stiffness and aids cooling, there isn't a lot of steel in there, and the .270 WSM cartridge is hot and fast. The barrel heats up very quickly.
I have used this rifle off and on for several years now, and it has performed flawlessly. Very recently, however, it developed a problem. Inexplicably, the rifle started throwing the first shot from a cold barrel three or four inches high, then dropping down into a group as the barrel heated. I could understand a slender, free-floated barrel doing this all along, but for a rifle of known accuracy to suddenly do this is beyond my experience.
After I quit swearing and checked all the screws, I tried what is often indicated when vertical stringing is a problem: The good old business card shim between barrel and fore-end, just aft of the fore-end tip.
Yep, that was the answer. Barrels do change as they wear, and any cartridge as fast as the .270 WSM erodes throats and wears barrels. At this point in this barrel's life it wants upward pressure on the fore-end tip to dampen the vibration. Since the barrel had been free-floated, it took fully five thicknesses of business cards to get enough upward pressure. Voila, the rifle responded instantly and was back to shooting the kinds of groups I was used to--without any weird flyers.
If I wanted to be fancy, I could build up that pad with epoxy, or I could just trim the shims so they won't show, soak them in oil to exclude moisture, and then forget about 'em. Either way, this is a very good thing, because I like this rifle and have much use ahead for a light .270 WSM.
The New Ultra Light Arms Model 24, a .280 Remington, is the first of Mel Forbes' Ultra Light rifles that I have ever used. This Granville, West Virginia, company was one of the innovators and has long been a leader in the development of extra-light sporting rifles.
This rifle weighs 6.6 pounds with scope, a new Redfield Revolution 4-12X weighing 13.1 ounces, mounted with the same Talley setup I used on the Match Grade Arms rifle. Scope and the mounts together weigh just under a pound, making the .280's stripped gun weight less than 53â„4 pounds.
This is actually quite remarkable when you consider that the .280 Remington requires a standard (.30-06-length) action, and this rifle has a 24-inch barrel. Actually, the fully bedded barrel isn't all that slender. It tapers a bit more gently, and at the muzzle it's the same .625-inch diameter as the Match Grade Arms .270's 22-inch barrel. This is, in other words, a full-size barrel, so the weight reduction comes from elsewhere.
Like most custom gun makers, Mel Forbes doesn't make his own barrels, but unlike many he does make his own actions--a tidy two-opposing-lug push-feed action that is as light as it can possibly be.
The synthetic stock is full-size with a generous pistol grip, but it is also light. In sum there is actually nothing unusual about the Ultra Light Arms Model 24; it is simply a well-made, full-size, synthetic-stocked sporter with a blind magazine that truly is ultra light.
Like the other two rifles, this one has a good trigger, albeit with a wide shoe that feels very good but did take some getting used to.
While it's a great and versatile cartridge, the .280 has never been one of my favorites, and since I hadn't shot one in awhile I didn't have any ammo on hand and was only able get two loads for my initial testing: Federal 150-grain Nosler Partition and Winchester with 140-grain Ballistic Silvertip.
Initial groups were disappointing at about 11â„4 to 11â„2 inches. This suggests at least three lessons about all rifles, not just light rifles: No rifle should be judged until a wide selection of ammo is tried; many barrels need some breaking in; and sometimes a day makes a difference. The following day, after cleaning the barrel, groups with the 140-grain Winchester load were down to 3/4-inch.
A few days later I was sitting on a sandhill in northwestern Oklahoma on the opening day of deer season. At about 8:30 a nice buck appeared 350 yards away and looked like he was goi
ng to disappear over a ridge. I had a good rest, but I had expected closer shots and had zeroed the rifle only slightly high at 100 yards. I gave him just a sliver of daylight over the backline, the bullet hit with a resounding "thwack," and he rolled down the sandhill.
This was a very auspicious beginning for a brand new rifle that not only shoots straight but is a joy to carry. And that's the thing about light rifles: They really can shoot straight, although sometimes it takes a bit of work to get them to strut their stuff. They are not as steady or as stable as heavy rifles, but it's a whole lot easier to get them where you need to be to make the shot.