September 23, 2010
By Layne Simpson
Roy's downsized, lightweight varmint rifle was easy on shoulders and hard on coyotes.
By Layne Simpson
Long before Roy Weatherby and his chief firearms designer, Fred Jennie, started developing the Mark V action during the mid-1950s, Roy had envisioned having his own line of modern rifles built on two actions, one large enough to handle his biggest magnums, the other scaled down in size for varmint cartridges.
A scaled-down version of the Weatherby Mark V, the VarmintMaster was available only in .224 Magnum and .22-250.
With a family of cartridges capable of handling everything from whitetails to rhinos, he had the entire spectrum of big-game hunting covered, but missing from the lineup was a varmint cartridge of his own design. At the time, Roy did chamber his custom rifles for the .220 Weatherby Rocket, but unlike his other cartridges with their belted case and distinctive double-radius shoulder, it was nothing more than one among several improved versions of the .220 Swift of similar shape that had been concocted by various gunsmiths.
Roy Weatherby introduced his Mark V rifle in 1958 but only with the magnum action. I once asked him why he did not introduce the smaller action then rather than later, and he told me it was simply a matter of economics. The Mark V action had taken about five years to develop, and by the time the magnum version was finally being produced, there was not enough money left to get the smaller action into production.
When the needed funds did become available in 1963, Fred Jennie was no longer working for Weatherby, so the design work was turned over to the engineering department of J.P. Sauer & Sohn of West Germany, builders of Weatherby rifles at the time. There actually was not a lot of design work involved but rather a scaling down of the dimensions of the magnum action.
The trigger assemblies of the two actions are the same, but other parts of the smaller action are reduced in size by about 20 percent for an overall weight reduction of more than 40 percent. The small action ended up weighing only 31 ounces compared to 51 ounces for the big action. It was 73?4 inches in length and its receiver ring measured one inch in diameter, whereas the original action was nine inches long and 1.335 inches in diameter. And since the bolt was considerably smaller in diameter, it did not have room for the nine locking lugs of the magnum action, so they were reduced to six.
The new Weatherby rifle was introduced in 1963 as the VarmintMaster in two barrel lengths, 24-inch standard weight and 26-inch heavy weight. With the lighter of the two barrels it was rated at 61?2 pounds, which meant well under eight pounds with a scope of reasonable size. I have not seen all that many VarmintMasters through the years, but every single one I have examined wore the lighter barrel.
This leads me to believe that many who bought the rifle chose it for walking the varmint fields rather than sitting and shooting from one spot. I move around a lot when calling coyotes, and the little Weatherby is my all-time favorite rifle for making plenty of tracks between setups because mine weighs a mere 71?4 pounds with scope, which is darned light for a rifle with a wood stock. The VarmintMaster was light long before a light rifle was the thing to have, and even today few other rifles can match it in that department.
Along with Roy Weatherby's new varmint rifle came his equally new varmint cartridge. Called the .224 Weatherby Magnum, it was the first pure varmint cartridge to have a belted case. It also had its own unique case-head diameter of .429 inch, which was in between the head diameters of the .222 Remington (.378 inch) and the .22-250 (.473 inch).
The author's conversion of a VarmintMaster to 7mm SGLC, which he used on a hunt in Rhodesia during the 1970s, eventually led to the introduction of today's standard-size Weatherby Mark V rifle.
To me, the .224 Magnum looks like a scaled-down version of Roy's extremely popular .300 Magnum, and my guess is that this was no accident. Loaded to a muzzle velocity of 3,750 fps with a 55-grain bullet, it pretty much duplicated the performance of the popular .22-250, and this caused some to question its existence. The .224 Magnum was developed for no reason other than the fact that Roy Weatherby insisted that his rifles be chambered for cartridges of his design, and the new varmint rifle was no exception. I agreed with Roy back then and still do: When possible, a Weatherby Mark V should be chambered for a Weatherby cartridge simply because the two go together like apple pie and vanilla ice cream. By the time I got around to adding a VarmintMaster to my varmint-shooting battery it was also available in .22-250, but I chose the .224 Magnum instead. Unprimed cases were more expensive, but I really did not need great quantities for bumping off groundhogs, foxes and coyotes.
The original VarmintMaster was discontinued in 1994, and while I have no idea of the exact production numbers I doubt if very many were built. To the lover of fine rifles who wanted something a cut above the rest to use on varmints it had many things going for it, but for those who desired to get into varminting for the least amount of money possible, its price most definitely went against it.
When introduced it was priced at $295, which was the same as for the Mark V rifle in .300 Weatherby Magnum at the time. In comparison, the Winchester Model 70 Varmint in .225 Winchester went for $165 and the Remington Model 700 ADL in 22-250 was only $130. The competition became even stiffer in years to come. During the year it was dropped from production the littlest Weatherby sold for twice as much as heavy-barrel varmint rifles from Winchester and Remington. The fact that the VarmintMaster was never offered in .222 Remington or .223 Remington probably did not help sales a lot either.
|THE STRETCHED VARMINTMASTER ACTION|
|The original Mark V action is ideal in size and weight for big magnum cartridges, but it is a bit much for standard-size cartridges such as the .270 Winchester and .30-06 Springfield. This is why Weatherby rifles are now built on two actions, the original magnum-size Mark V and a smaller action that weighs 10 ounces less. How the original Mark V action came to be has been well documented through the years, but not a lot of people know the story behind the development of the standard action. Here, then, is how it happened.|
While attending a gu
n show in 1975 I bought a used Weatherby VarmintMaster in .22-250 at a very good price. In those days most factory rifles tipped the scale at well over nine pounds with scope, so lightweight big-game rifles weren't exactly hanging on every bush. I had never owned a centerfire rifle as light as the VarmintMaster, nor one that handled anywhere near as nicely. So I shot a few deer with it. Despite the fact that the little rifle killed whitetails like lightning, there were no .224-caliber Nosler or Swift deer bullets in those days so I knew I was asking too much of the .22-250 cartridge. What the hunting world needed, I figured, was that same rifle chambered for a cartridge of larger caliber, one powerful enough to use on deer. With the help of gunsmith Wally Strutz of Eagle River, Wisconsin, I came up with just that. I knew what I wanted to do, and Wally had the talent and machinery to make it happen.
What we came up with was a Weatherby VarmintMaster modified to handle a wildcat I called the 7mm SGLC. This was a .308 Winchester case necked down and blown out to minimum body taper and a 40-degree shoulder angle. This, by the way, took place prior to Remington's introduction of the 7mm-08 cartridge.
Not long after the project was completed I loaded up a batch of ammo and traveled to Rhodesia, where I used it to bump off various and sundry game up to the size of sable and greater kudu. After returning home I filed a report on the rifle and cartridge in one of the gun magazines, and soon thereafter Roy Weatherby called and asked me to ship the rifle to him for evaluation. As it turned out, Roy was intrigued by the idea, but he was in the business of selling not only rifles but magnum ammunition. As he saw it, selling a Weatherby rifle chambered for non-Weatherby cartridges would put money in somebody else's pocket instead of his.
Fast-forwarding through a few decades, Roy Weatherby's son, Ed, who was running the company by that time, ran across my article while cleaning out some old files. In the meantime I had made my VarmintMaster into a switch-barrel rifle, and in addition to its .22-250 and 7mm SGLC barrels it also had a barrel in .250 Savage Improved. Making another short story even shorter, Ed liked the idea and decided to offer the VarmintMaster in a version called the Whitetail Deluxe in .250 Savage. A page in the 1993 Weatherby catalog was devoted to the new rifle, and I also recall seeing a couple of those rifles on display at the SHOT Show. Not many people buy rifles in .250 Savage anymore, so Ed wisely took my idea a step further by increasing the length of the VarmintMaster action by about an inch and introducing it in 1997 as the standard Mark V. This made the action long enough to handle not only short cartridges such as the .22-250, .243 Winchester and .308 Winchester but longer best-sellers such as the .30-06 and .270 Winchester as well. My favorite chambering of all in this rifle is the .240 Weatherby Magnum. Too small for the magnum Mark V action in which it was once available, the .240 Magnum is a perfect match in size and performance for a rifle built on the trim little scaled-down Mark V action.
With styling that was once considered quite radical, the VarmintMaster looked the way I always thought a Weatherby Mark V rifle should look. Plastic stocks and stainless steel barrels are nice to have for use in rough weather, but they don't get a second glance at the gun club, nor do they receive much attention in hunting camps. Uncasing a Mark V today does not attract as much attention as it did back when John Wayne posed with his for the Weatherby catalog, but it continues to stand out in a world where most big-game rifles have been made to look alike.
Everything considered--and this includes metal and wood finish, wood-to-metal fit and overall appearance and workmanship--I consider the original Weatherby Mark V Deluxe with its nicely figured walnut stock, hand-cut checkering and flawless polishing job beneath that shiny blueing to be the finest standard-production rifle ever built in its price range. The VarmintMaster was nothing less than a small chip off the old block.