January 26, 2022
Many modern firearm manufacturers offer a mountain rifle in their lineups, but when Kerry O’Day founded MG Arms in 1981, the pool of dedicated mountain rifles was much smaller. O’Day’s Ultra-Light, which he introduced in 1985, was one of the first go-to high-country bolt guns for dedicated high-country hunters.
Despite the proliferation of mountain guns that followed the Ultra-Light, the MG Arms rifle remains a popular choice—and with good reason. Most MG Arms Ultra-Light rifles are built using a modified Remington 700 action, which O’Day and his team fine-tune for improved performance and reduced mass.
Being a true custom rifle, the Ultra-Light also can be built on other actions. O’Day has a cache of remaining Model 700 actions that he still uses to build these rifles—with quantities limited, if you want one, you’d better pick up the phone right now—and he’s also had good luck with the Howa 1500, which other rifle builders sometimes shy away from because of its metric threads.
Stiller actions are also an option on Ultra-Light rifles, and they make excellent mountain guns, but MG Arms will build you an Ultra-Light rifle using most any action, including the Model 70 action. As for the latter, he will use only post-’64 actions because O’Day says he’s had issues with cracking on pre-’64s.
Once an action is selected, the action goes to MG’s gunsmithing shop and receives a long list of custom upgrades. O’Day began work as a gunsmith, and his mentors included such notables as P.O. Ackley and Ron Freshour, so the MG treatment goes far beyond simply slicking the action. Ultra-Light Model 700 actions are skeletonized, fluted, blueprinted and come with other custom upgrades that includes replacing the standard Remington extractor with a more robust AR-style extractor. A left-handed version is also available.
Ultra-Light actions are paired with premium barrels like the Pac-Nor lightweight stainless National Match, but that’s not the only option, and the customer has input into what is used for the personal build. There are four fluting options available, and barrel lengths—16 to 28 inches—and twist rates are customized to customer specs.
MG’s Super Eliminator muzzle brake is a worthwhile addition to the custom Ultra-Light rifle. These radial brakes are trim and fit even the thinnest barrels, and they have a reputation for dampening the recoil of light rifles. Brakes are threaded so they can removed and replaced with the included thread protector. Of course, customers can choose not to have a brake, but since these rifles can be built as light as 4.75 pounds, having a removable brake makes sense, especially if your rifle is chambered in a heavy-recoiling round.
Ultra-Light rifles come with Jewel triggers that are adjustable from one to three pounds. Barreled actions—in your choice of Cerakote or PTFE finish—are mated to MG’s own 13-ounce Kevlar stock. These stocks are available in four different styles, including thumbhole and reduced length of pull. Aluminum pillars and glass bedding are standard, and the stocks can be had in several colors and patterns.
“We like to do things that are different,” O’Day says. “Customers don’t want a black or a brown rifle.”
With so many color options, every Ultra-Light will stand out at the range and in the field. Textured epoxy covers the stock, and pattern options include Titanium, Military, Dark Forest and Metallic Chocolate camo as well as special prints like MG’s Giraffe, Bronze Kudu and South Texas Zebra.
Metalwork finish options include Tan Zebra, Titanium Blue and Charcoal Camo for PTFE finishes and a wide array of Cerakote colors. Since you can also customize these rifles with names and logos, piecing together your perfect mountain rifle will take some time, but in the end you’ll have a one-of-a-kind gun.
Cartridge selection is another major decision, and these guns can be chambered from .17 Rem. to .458 Lott. When I asked O’Day what he liked, his answer was simple: .300 Win. Mag.
“It’ll kill any game animal in North America and almost everything else around the world,” O’Day said. “I love building them.” The .300 Winchester Magnum has been a popular chambering for Ultra-Lights for years, although he did mention that 2020 was “the year of the 6.5s.”
Another of O’Day’s favorite chamberings is the .375 Ackley Improved, a big bore that allows you to shoot not only .375 Ackley ammo, but also .375 H&H Mag. and .375 Weatherby Mag.
Base price is $3,295 with a customer supplied action or $3,995 without. That’s not inexpensive, but a one-off gun of this quality never will be. There is simply too much time and effort put into each gun, and by the time you end your phone consultation with MG, the guns of your dreams will be in the works.
If you think custom rifles are all just about color and caliber selection, consider this: O’Day had a client who had lost vision in his right eye and needed a special rifle built so he could still shoot right-handed. O’Day cut away a sizeable portion of the top of the stock on a right-handed rifle and mounted a scope on extra-high rings so that the client could shoot right-handed using his left eye. You may not require that level of customization, but if you do, only a company like MG Arms can accommodate your needs.
The Ultra-Light I tested was a gun the company had on hand. It is built in a right-handed configuration using a customized Remington 700 action and chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor. The Kevlar stock has a painted tan camo finish, and the metalwork features a graphite black Cerakote finish.
The 25-inch barrel comes with a fixed Super Eliminator brake in place. The gun’s overall weight is just under 5.5 pounds unscoped. With a pair of Talley lightweight mounts and a Leu-
pold VX-3HD 3.5-10x40 scope, the rifle weighs in at a hair under 6.5 pounds. That’s probably about average for these rifles, but again, that depends on the options and which action you use. For example, the Model 70 action adds a bit of extra weight.
Like most Ultra-Light rifles, the test gun came with a two-round internal box magazine. That is a weight-saving feature, O’Day says, but a hinged floorplate and a box magazine are also options. The adjustable Jewell trigger came from the factory set at one pound, nine ounces—not specs you’re going to read in a production gun review. Not surprisingly, the trigger break was crisp and clean without take-up.
It’s worth noting the two-round magazine will hold three rounds, but you won’t be happy with the results. When two rounds are properly placed in the magazine it functions flawlessly. The owner’s manual—which is mercifully laconic, skipping much of the usual day-one stuff and diving into useful info on barrel break-in, trigger cleaning and extreme cold climate maintenance—says as much. However, I wanted to see what would happen if you did jam a third round in there. Sure enough, it won’t function.
If having only three rounds on tap when hunting concerns you, allow me to alleviate your fears. The MG Ultra-Light I tested was a legitimate half-inch gun with factory ammunition, so three shots should do the trick on caliber-appropriate game as long as you have the skills to put the bullet where it needs to be.
Some groups were considerably better than that, too, including one three-shot printed with Hornady ELD-X 143-grain bullets that measured just 0.39 inch. When I became bored shooting half-inch three-shot groups (that’s a lie; it never gets old), I moved to five-shot groups, the smallest of which was 0.61 inch. Tack-driver.
Those groups didn’t come quickly, though. The Ultra-Light has a slender barrel that heats up in a hurry. So to give the rifle a fair shake in the accuracy evaluation, I waited at least two minutes between shots and 20 minutes between groups.
When I shot five-shot groups, I fired three times, waited the 20 minutes prescribed in the owner’s manual, and fired twice more. It made for a long day, but at the end of it an older gentleman who occupied the bench next to mine stood with his hands on his hips staring at the paper targets that I had laid out. Perhaps not surprisingly, his parting words were, “I’ll have to check out the MG Arms website.”
MG Arms makes no secrets about which rounds work best in your rifle, either. When I received the gun, it was accompanied by a target with a three-shot group (0.29 inch) and a recipe for the handload that had produced that cluster: a 140-grain Barnes boattail match bullet over 41 grains of H4350. That just goes to show the level of commitment MG invests in each of its rifles—and in each of its customers. MG Arms even sends you a box of custom ammo for your rifle, and its guns are backed by the company’s Infinity warranty.
The control layout on the test gun Ultra-Light was straightforward Remington Model 700. There’s a rocker-type two-position safety on the right side of the gun, and the action can be cycled with the safety engaged. There’s also a button in front of the trigger that, when pressed, allows the bolt to be removed from the receiver.
The action is smooth, and reliability was perfect. I like the addition of the robust AR-style extractor and wouldn’t have misgivings about hunting dangerous game with one of these rifles.
I’m also a fan of the internal box magazine, although it doesn’t suffer fools. Load two cartridges down in the proper manner and you won’t have problems with your rifle. Load the rounds improperly—usually by tilting the rear of the cartridge down into the magazine so that the bolt passes overtop—and you’ll have to contribute money to the swear jar.
I’ve found that the simplest fix to ensure that doesn’t happen is to place a bit of pressure on the shoulder of the cartridge with my finger before closing the bolt. That levels the cartridge and ensures the bolt will grab it on the forward stroke.
The surface of the stock has texturing that makes these rifles easy to grip with wet hands. It’s not overly aggressive, but it could cause cheek irritation, which I’d remedy by purchasing a slip-on cartridge holder. The stock is fitted with a one-inch Microlight recoil pad. The recoil-pad-to-stock fit, like everything else on the gun, is clean and even.
The Ultra-Light is ultra-accurate, but at close to $4,000 is it worth the money? I think so. For starters, these guns are made one at a time in the United States. Kerry O’Day and his wife, Carol, who handles the checkering and finishing on wood-stocked rifles and the painting on Kevlar stocks, employ about a dozen people at the MG Arms office in Texas. In the late 1980s, MG Arms was producing about 25 rifles a year, but today the company has figured out how to produce 350 guns a year—in addition to the 5,000 or so custom gunsmithing projects MG tackles annually—without sacrificing quality.
Even producing north of 300 guns a year, MG Arms is still having trouble keeping up with demand, which is telling. They were popular before the pandemic, but the lack of raw materials—primarily good Canadian steel—has slowed production of these rifles. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a superb, lightweight hunting gun that shoots incredibly well, you’ll appreciate what the Ultra-Light offers.
Because of my vocation I’m often asked which hunting rifle is my favorite. My answer is simple: any rifle that I put to my shoulder knowing I can place the bullet exactly where I want to. I’d heard that the Ultra-Light was just such a gun, and it turns out everything I’d heard about MG Arms over the years is true.
MG Arms Ultra-Light Specifications
- Type: built on Remington M700 bolt-action centerfire action
- Caliber: .17 Rem. to .458 Lott; 6.5 Creedmoor tested
- Capacity: 2+1
- Barrel: 25 in., Pac-Nor stainless, Super Eliminator brake
- Overall Length: 483/8 inches (as tested)
- Weight: 5 lb., 7 oz.
- Stock: Kevlar with tan camo epoxy paint (as tested)
- Finish: Graphite Black Cerakote (as tested)
- Trigger: Jewell adjustable, 1 lb., 9 oz. pull (measured)
- Sights: drilled and tapped
- Price: $3,295 base (with customer action), $3,995
- Manufacturer: MG Arms, mgarms.com