One Man's Perfect Rifle
September 23, 2010
Wish upon a list of stocks, locks and barrels to create the ultimate.
The Mauser bolt (left) has its left locking lug bisected for passage of the ejector. The Ruger (center) does not and is a better solution. At right is a Remington 700 bolt, which completely encircles the case rim but is incompatible with controlled-round feeding.
Borrowing from Jeff Foxworthy's schtick about "knowing you're a redneck when'¦," I say, "You know you're a rifle crank when you can't look at a gun without wanting to change something about it." That's about as succinct a definition as I can come up with, and believe me, no one can better recognize or relate to this affliction than I. I'm the worst.
I cannot remember a time when, after examining a rifle, I didn't mentally redesign some feature in some fashion. From the most subtle alteration in the bend of a bolt handle to a major reshaping of the stock, nothing is sacred. No bottom metal unit, magazine system, bolt release, follower, trigger, safety, extractor, ejector, barrel contour or stock design is out of bounds.
When I say "redesign," I don't mean actually re-designing a component. No, what I mean is mentally taking a component from one gun and incorporating it into another--a composite rifle, if you will. I'd think, I like this rifle, but I wish it had the bolt handle of a Model 70 Winchester, the tang safety of the original Ruger 77, etc. That's the kind of redesign I'm talking about.
Now, I'm not presumptuous enough to think that every feature I like would represent a qualitative improvement. Hell, many of the changes I'd wish for would be purely subjective, things I'd change simply because I prefer the way this component works over that one, how this cosmetic feature looks compared to that one.
Injection-molded stocks are inexpensive and can duplicate every line and contour of the finest hand-crafted wood stock, but they're not as stiff as ones of laid-up fiberglass.
So what would my hybrid rifle look like? Well, let's start with the most subjective component, the stock. Regardless of what stock style you prefer--straight-comb classic, Monte Carlo, thumbhole or whatever--there are elegant and ugly examples of each out there. Say what you will about beauty being in the eye of the beholder; I doubt most of us would have to be told which is which when shown an example of each.
Me, I like the straight-comb classic stock on a general-purpose hunting rifle. There are many elegant examples of this style to be found, but some real standouts, to my mind, are those of Remington's African Plains Rifle and Lazzeroni's Short Action Magnum. Both of these stocks have cheekpieces, which I prefer. Though really not that functional, a cheekpiece lends interest and depth through asymmetry; otherwise, a stock would look the same from both sides (boring).
In real-world terms, barrel flutes are far more cosmetic than functional, but the author likes them anyway and would have one on his dream rifle.
Some other excellent examples, stock-wise, found on production rifles are Remington's new Model 700 SPS and the Winchester Model 70 Shadow. I could do without the rubberized grip panels in both cases, preferring a traditional point pattern be molded into the stock in their place, but the lines, contours and dimensions of these stocks are nigh-on perfect to these eyes.
OK, so I know how I want my stock to look, but what about its composition: walnut, synthetic or wood laminate? As much as I appreciate fine walnut, to me it belongs on presentation-grade guns, not hunting rifles. I base that solely on functional practicality: A chunk of walnut is not as stable as a laminate or synthetic; therefore, it doesn't make as good a gunstock, period.
The author prefers scope mounts where the rings attach directly to the receiver, as on the Ruger. However, he'd like the front dovetail to be tapered and with no recoil slot so that the ring could be slid back and forth to accommodate varying scope-body lengths. Only the position of the rear ring would be fixed.
As to which of the two alternatives I prefer, I'm afraid I've got to cop out here because I like and use both about equally. I much prefer the appearance, warmth and feel of a laminate because, after all, it's real wood. It's just that it's 34 pieces of real wood. As for synthetics, they have almost no aesthetically redeeming qualities, but their strength and stability exceed those of laminates, and they're lighter. When I say "synthetics," I mean the laid-up kind of Kevlar- or graphite-reinforced fiberglass, not the injection-molded jobs, most of which are not nearly as stable, strong or stiff. I've no doubt that someday they will be able to match the light weight, strength and rigidity of laid-up stocks with injection molding, but that day is not yet here.
Now we come to the heart of the rifle, the action. This one's really tough because there are features I like that are incompatible with other features I like equally well. Take controlled-round feeding, for example. I like Mauser-type actions, but controlled-round feeding is incompatible with a recessed bolt face. However, I like a recessed face, like that of the Remington 700, for gas containment in the event of a case rupture. I also like the shorter 60-degree handle lift and added clearance between the hand and a scope's ocular bell that a three-lug action like the Browning A-Bolt, Sako 75 or Weatherby Mark V provides, but then it's easier to cock an action with a 90-degree bolt rotation than one with a 60-degree handle lift--an important consideration when operating the action with the rifle shouldered.
I prefer inertia or Mauser-type ejection, where it's up to me as to whether I want to pluck the spent case out of the loading port manually or send it flying, depending on how I work the bolt. But then Mauser-type ejection requires that the ejector blade contact the spent-cartridge rim through a slot on the side of the bolt head, so you can't have an uninterrupted rim encircling the cartridge head like on the Remington 700.
On the Mausers, this required a slot in the bolt head that bisects the left locking lug--not the ideal solution. To my mind the Model 70 Winchester, the Howa and the CZ 550 have a better solution. By moving the ejector to the 7:30 position beneath the left locking lug, it negates the need to bisect it. You just couldn't envision a simpler, more reliable bolt stop/release, and simple is what I ultimately gravitate to.
The author says he appreciates fine walnut as much as anyone, but it doesn't make as good a hunting-rifle gunstock as a wood laminate or laid-up synthetic.
As for the receiver, it can be a forging or an investment casting--no matter--but I want a flat bedding surface and a large, integral recoil lug. This, of course, eliminates tubular receivers that employ separate, washer-type recoil lugs sandwiched between the barrel shank and the receiver ring. I mean, there's nothing wrong with doing it that way--after all, the Remington 700, Savage 10/100 series, Kimber, H-S Precision, Lazzeroni and Ed Brown are just a few riflemakers using tubular receivers. But we're talking personal preference here, and to me that means a flat-bottomed receiver with an integral recoil lug. One of the best examples can be found in the Howa/Weatherby Vanguard action. It's got a flat bedding surface and a huge integral recoil lug. So, too, do the Model 70 and CZ-550.
Though tubular receivers like the Remington 700 (above) with separate, washer-type recoil lugs have certainly proven themselves in the hunting fields as well as in competition, the author prefers a flat bedding surface and an integral recoil lug, as seen on the Ruger.
And while we're on the subject of the Howa, I'd want the bolt handle to be integral with the bolt body, as it is on the Howa 1500 and the Ruger 77 Mk II, i. e., machined from the same chunk of steel rather than being brazed or collared onto the bolt body. Though it's almost purely academic, what would you prefer, particularly if the root of the bolt handle turns down into a slot in the floor of the receiver to serve as a nonbearing safety lug?
My ideal receiver would also have integral dovetails for direct attachment of the scope rings. It's another example of simplest being strongest and best because direct ring attachment eliminates two separate bases and the four screws that hold them on. That's four less chances of something coming loose. Three such systems are found on the Ruger, Sako and CZ, and of those, I like the Ruger best, but only marginally. I like the fact that the rear ring mounts as far forward on the bridge as possible. However, I wish the front ring were on a tapered dovetail like on the Sako. Then the ring could be slid fore and aft for scope-mounting latitude instead of the fixed position now dictated by the one recoil slot the ring must engage. I think one recoil lug on the rear ring and a tapered dovetail up front would preclude any forward movement of the scope under the most severe recoil.
A flat bedding surface and integral recoil lug are two features the author would want on his perfect rifle.
Shape of the bolt handle? Strictly a subjective thing, but for me it's the Model 70 Winchester. Close behind would be Ruger's dogleg; both are elegant and distinctive.
For my fire-control system I'm torn between the Model 70 and the Ruger. If I were considering triggers only, I'd go with the Winchester because other than a military Mauser, it's the simplest, most compact unit I know of. There are equally good triggers but none as simple; everything is out there in plain sight for you to see and understand how it and its adjustments work.
Ideally, the bolt's handle should be integral with the body, even though on most rifles it is either silver soldered or collared on.
The reason the Model 70 trigger is so simple is because there's no safety mechanism involved; it's up on the bolt sleeve where it cams the striker assembly out of contact with the sear. What I don't like is that the safety doesn't block trigger movement, and in that respect, the Model 70-type safety is no different from a lot of others out there. If the trigger is pulled with the safety on and for some reason--like dirt, a foreign object or swelling of wood--prevents the trigger from returning to its forward position, releasing the safety will discharge the firearm.
So though I like the Model 70 trigger, for the overall fire-control system I like a safety that blocks the trigger. For that reason I've always liked the safety on the Ruger 77 Mk. II. Engaging it rotates a robust steel shaft to where it not only blocks the trigger, but in its fully rearward position, the firing pin and bolt are also locked. Given the mechanics of the aforementioned systems, it's impossible to meld them into one, but if it were possible, I'd go with the Model 70 trigger and the Ruger safety. And while I'm wishing for the impossible, I might as well specify that the safety be located on the tang, shotgun style, where it naturally falls under the thumb and can be released at the last possible moment with the least amount of gun movement.
The author's idea of a stock of perfect design, line and proportion is Remington's Model 700-APR (African Plains Rifle).
When it comes to storing cartridges, I like the economy of space the Mauser-type staggered-column box magazine provides, but there's no question that the smoothest and most reliable feeding of cartridges is achieved when they're perfectly aligned with the chamber and fed from the exact same central position. There's also no question in my mind that the best Mauser-type magazine is the original, which has the triggerguard bow, magazine box and floorplate frame as one integral unit of steel.
For economy's sake, most production rifles today break the bottom metal unit into two or three separate components. To get a genuine Mauser-type bottom metal unit you have to go to Brownells or Midway for an all-steel Sunny Hill unit for ar
ound $400 or get an aluminum job by Paws that goes for around $110.
Though I prefer the fixed box with hinged floorplate, I have to admit to the convenience of detachable magazines, and I'm getting to like some of them more and more. Of the many variations of DMs I've seen, I find the Sako to be the sturdiest, best looking and among the best functioning of the lot.
Winchester's Model 70 Shadow is another excellent example of what the author believes is the perfect stock for a general-purpose hunting rifle. You can take or leave the shadow lines, he says, but they don't affect silhouette or proportion.
Last but not least we come to the barrel. I'm not a fan of ultralight rifles and therefore of thin, whippy barrels. For general-purpose hunting of nondangerous game, I want a 24-inch pipe that measures around .600 to .625 at the muzzle. That's for both standard and magnum calibers. And make it fluted, mostly because I think flutes look cool. Depending on caliber, and thus wall thickness, a fluted barrel can be of slightly heavier contour.
So there you have it, a rifle that's impossible to build because some of the features I personally would want are incompatible with others. For the sake of brevity, I stayed within a universe of rifles whose features most of us are familiar with. Had we included out-of-production and the lesser-known European guns, many of which depart drastically from the basic Mauser design, it would have been just too unwieldy a topic for a single article. Even at that, you've got to admit it's fun to fantasize about just what kind of rifle you'd come up with if you could borrow features from a handful of different designs, let alone dozens. What would your hybrid look like?