August 16, 2013
By Layne Simpson
I first met Melvin Forbes at a trade show in 1985. He was there to introduce a revolutionary new rifle, and I was amazed at what I saw. Like a number of other gunsmiths, Melvin had through the years built lightweight rifles by whittling ounces from various factory rifles, but his new Model 20 was built from scratch. It was pretty much a scaled-down version of the short Remington Model 700 action, and it weighed an astounding 4.75 pounds.
The rifle got its name from its action weight of 20 ounces (the Remington action weighs 35 ounces). For a number of years the .284 Win. was the most popular chambering, and Melvin may have built more rifles in that caliber than Winchester ever did. The one I used on a mule deer hunt would consistently average close to half an inch at 100 yards with the Sierra 140-grain spitzer boattail pushed along by 58.0 grains of H4831. It weighed a mere 6.25 pounds when outfitted with a scope, a lightweight sling and three cartridges in its magazine.
Rifles with longer actions were eventually introduced, and while weight increased a bit, it was not by much. The Model 24 for the .30-06 family of chamberings tips the scale at 5.25 pounds while the Model 28 in medium-length magnums such as the 7mm Rem. Mag. and .338 Win. Mag. weighs half a pound more.
Alaskan bear guides got their wish when a shorter version of the Model 28 action called the Model 28S in .350 Rem. Mag. was introduced. It is now also available in .300 WSM and its littermates. The various actions are scaled in size for specific families of cartridges, and their model designations are quite descriptive since they correlate to action weights; the Model 40 action in .416 Rigby is the heaviest at 40 ounces.
Melvin Forbes' decision to sell Ultra Light Arms to Colt Mfg. Co. in 1999 may have looked like a good idea on paper at the time, but it didn't turn out that way. So in late 2000 he took the company back, changed its name to New Ultra Light Arms and once again began building rifles in his Granville, West Virginia, shop.
Just like in the old days, all rifles are built to exact customer specifications, so they have never been inexpensive. When I first discovered the Model 20 back in the 1980s, it was priced at $1,300 while at the same time a Remington Model 700 BDL went for $475. Today a Model 20 will set you back $3,500.
The good news is Forbes has teamed up with Titan Machine Products of Westbrook, Maine, and formed Forbes Rifle LLC to build production versions of his hand-built rifles at more affordable prices. It is a simple and straightforward working arrangement; Forbes shares his design and manufacturing criteria and technology while TMP builds the barreled actions and fits them to Kevlar-reinforced carbon fiber stocks made by Forbes.
Using his stock is important. Colt made the mistake of reducing production cost of its Light Rifle by going with a cheap injection-molded stock built by an outside contractor, and both accuracy and aesthetics suffered.
Each Forbes rifle is being built to the exact same specifications as the custom version, but a 40,000 square-foot factory filled with CNC equipment that also makes parts for a number of military weapon systems speeds up the process with no sacrifice in quality or precision. And since time is money, the difference in price will get your attention.
Order a custom Model 24 in .30-06 from New Ultra Light Arms and it will set you back $3,600. Order a production version of the same rifle called Model 24B from Forbes Rifle LLC and the tab runs $1,399. For the price of one Model 24 you can own two Model 24Bs, with both wearing very nice scopes.
All parts between the two rifles are interchangeable. From what I see, the metal finish on the Forbes rifle is not as durable as a New Ultra Light Arms rifle and attention to a few details falls a bit short, but those are minor criticisms considering the price difference between the two. Having shot both, I'd just as soon depart for a sheep hunt with one as with the other.
The Remington Model 700 long action is a bit longer and larger in diameter than it has to be for the .30-06 family of cartridges, so in addition to being smaller in diameter, the Model 24B receiver is about an inch shorter as well. And yet it is plenty roomy for the .30-06 and its offspring.
Magazine box interior length is 3.42 inches compared to a maximum overall cartridge length of 3.34 inches for the .30-06. Bolt throw is 413/16 inches for the Remington action and 4.5 inches for the Forbes. Respective receiver ring diameters are 1.36 and 1.22 inches.
The bolt is machined from Type 4340 heat-treated steel and finish-ground to ensure precise fit and smooth functioning. Bolt rotation is 90 degrees, which is standard for dual-opposed locking lugs. The face of the bolt is deeply counterbored, and its wall is interrupted by a Sako-style extractor. The ejector is the familiar spring-loaded plunger.
A washer-type recoil lug is sandwiched between the face of the receiver and a shoulder on the barrel. Lightweight mountain rifles often have extremely skinny barrels measuring no longer than 22 inches but the button-rifled tube on the Model 24B is 24 inches long and has a muzzle diameter of .620 inch. It is actually a heavier contour than the barrel of my Remington Model 700 Mountain rifle, which measures only .560 inch at the muzzle.
When accuracy-testing rifles I often take several to the range and rotate them on the bench in order to give barrels time to cool down a bit between strings. One of the other rifles I took along when shooting the Forbes was a Remington Model 783 with a 22-inch barrel, also in .30-06. When the same loads were shot in the two rifles, velocity ranged from 66 fps to 75 fps faster in the longer Forbes barrel.
Made for Forbes Rifles by Timney, the trigger is fully adjustable for weight and overtravel. The one on the rifle I shot broke crisply at an average pull weight of 5.25 pounds, with a maximum variation of three ounces. Due to a bit wider than usual fingerpiece, the trigger felt lighter than it actually was. There was no detectable creep or overtravel.
The rifle's bolt handle and shroud are trimmed for weight savings, and the safety is a two-position, three-function lever.
The 24B is essentially a scaled-down Model 700 — right down to the size of the bolt. At top is an M700 bolt that weighs 14 ounces; the 24B's weighs just eight.
The 24B proved to be quite accurate, with one of the author's handloads featuring 168-grain MatchKings grouping down to .31 inch. Hunting factory loads averaged under an inch as well.
The safety, designed by Melvin Forbes during the 1980s, is described by him as a two-position, three-function design. The safety is disengaged by pushing it forward. Pulling the lever to its rear position engages the safety and locks the bolt from rotation. Pushing down on the lever while it is in its rear position allows the bolt to be rotated for removing a cartridge from the chamber while the safety remains engaged. A Model 70-style bolt release is located on the left side of the receiver tang.
The Model 24B has an advertised weight of 5.5 pounds, and my postal scale failed to dispute the claim. Adding a brilliantly clear Meopta 3-9x42 scope (15 ounces) in the included Talley two-piece aluminum mount (two ounces), three cartridges (2.5 ounces) and a nylon carrying sling with quick-detach swivels of steel (3.5 ounces) brought its field-ready heft to an ounce shy of seven pounds.
Lightweight rifles can be quite finicky, and they often show it by delivering wide spreads in group sizes from load to load. The accuracy of a mountain rifle from another company I tested not long back ranged from just over an inch with its best load to almost three inches with the load it liked least of all, and with that particular gun. I had to work hard to find something it liked. I never found this to be the case for the Ultra Light Arms rifles I tested years ago, and the new Forbes rifle proved to be just as easy to get along with.
I sometimes kick off the accuracy test program for a new rifle by first trying a match load I have found to be accurate in a number of rifles. For the .30-06 it is straight from the Sierra reloading manual: Federal GM210M primer, 168-grain MatchKing and 52.0 grains of W760 in any good case.
In the Model 24B, it averaged .564 inch for four five-shot groups at 100 yards. Just as impressive, the rifle averaged less than an inch with all four factory loads I tried, with the best just about equaling the accuracy of my handload.
A number of groups measured less than half an inch. That's long-distance prairie dog rifle accuracy from a rifle light enough to tote up the steepest mountain and powerful enough to handle most of the world's big game.
There are a number of reasons why rifles with the Melvin Forbes touch shoot as accurately as they do: a high level of concentricity in the bolt, receiver and barrel high on the list in importance. The use of a top-quality barrel with a medium-weight contour is important, as is properly chambering and fitting it.
When it comes to bedding a barreled action into its stock, Melvin has long marched to the beat of a different drummer. Whereas others sweat and fret over free-floating versus pressure points and other technicalities, Melvin simply rests the action atop pillar bedding and beds the barrel to full-length contact with the fore-end of the stock. After a stock is fitted, the serial number of its barreled action is stamped inside to prevent mix-up.
The Model 24B comes with a lightweight Tally mount in your choice of one-inch or 30mm rings. Available chamberings are .25-06, 6.5x55 Swedish, .270 Win., .30-06 and .35 Whelen. The standard rifle comes with a blued steel barreled action, but for $152 more you can get a stainless steel barrel. Add another $32 for an all-stainless barreled action, which should become available soon.
As I write this, a left-hand action is said to be only a few weeks away, and sometime this year you should also find a short-action Model 20B in .243 Win., .260 Rem., 7mm-08 Rem., .308 Win. and .338 Federal. For now charcoal is the only stock color offered, but others may be in the works.
They will sell lots of these rifles.