April 16, 2012
On most mountain hunts the first night in camp is generally spent around a campfire discussing which rifles and cartridges are the best for long shots and tough conditions. Theoretical and statistical arguments are presented for or against various makes and models of rifles and bullet/load combinations. And, as the last of the hunters head to bed in anticipation of the morning's hunt, no consensus will be reached.
Twelve hours later and several thousand feet higher you are watching your guide hiking steadily up a seriously steep slope. You can't recall most of the ballistics you recited the night before; you're devoting what little oxygen that remains in your addled brain to remembering the warning signs of hypoxia. You don't care about your pet handloads or how light and creep-free the trigger pull is anymore. All you can think about is how much that gun weighs and how much farther it is to the top.
Enter the Kimber Montana. At less than six pounds, it is designed for those who relish the challenge of hunting at high elevations where a rifle must be durable as well as lightweight. Unlike other companies that simply chop a few inches off the barrels of their regular sporters and market them as lightweight mountain rifles, Kimber started from the ground up to design what might very well be the best production ultralight production rifle available today.
The heart of the Kimber Montana is the company's Model 84 action, which incorporates a full-length claw extractor that ensures reliable feeding. A three-position Model 70-type wing safety is mounted on the rear of the receiver and has a large red dot that is visible only when the safety is in the Fire position.
The match-grade chamber of the Montana rifles are designed to "minimal dimensions," which allows for major reductions in the overall weight of the rifle. The deeply curved trigger is adjustable and comes from the factory set between 31/2 and four pounds. My test rifle in .280 Ackley Improved had one of the best production triggers I've tested; it broke cleanly at 3.9 pounds without any creep or overtravel.
The action and trigger assembly are mated to a 24-inch stainless steel barrel. In standard calibers the barrel has six grooves and a 1:10 twist ratio, but in .280 AI that changes to four grooves with a 1:91/2 twist. The action and barrel are both made of stainless steel finished with a low-luster satin silver. Cartridge capacity is four rounds in the internal box magazine.
The stock is a gray Kevlar/carbon fiber blend that further reduces weight without forsaking structural rigidity. Pillar and glass bedding in the stock make for a solid foundation, meaning the Kimber Montana has not sacrificed accuracy-enhancing features in an effort to cut weight. In addition, stainless construction and a nearly indestructible stock means that the Kimber Montana can absorb serious punishment from the terrain and the elements without damage.
The Kimber looked and felt good, but the most important question was how well it shot. The .280 Ackley Improved has long been a favorite round among handloaders, but it has only recently started to break into the mainstream shooting market. There are no doubts about the merits of the round and its long-range capability nor its potential as an all-around cartridge for big game, and it is a perfect match for light mountain rifles like the Montana.
For my test I mounted a Leupold Vari-X III 3.5-10x40 scope on the Montana and tried out three different loads of differing weights, two of which were factory ammunition. Nosler provided me with 140-grain AccuBond loads and 160-grain Partitions (it offers 150-grain E-Tip ammo as well, although none was available for this test). The last load came from Superior Ammunition in South Dakota. The Superior ammo was loaded with 150-grain Barnes TSXs.
The Superior loads produced the most uniform velocities and, accordingly, the best overall accuracy, but the Nosler ammo wasn't that far behind. Two groups in the test were under an inch (one three-shot group of Superior loads with Barnes TSXs measured 0.88 inches) and none of the loads averaged over an inch and a half from 100 yards off the bench. Pretty impressive stats, especially considering that the rifle weighs just under seven pounds when scoped and fully loaded.
The worst part about the Kimber Montana is that many shooters will look past it if they aren't in the market for an ultralight mountain rifle. That's a shame. The Montana is accurate, lightweight and durable, and that's a combination that makes sense no matter where you hunt.
Type: bolt-action centerfire
Caliber: .25-06, .270 Win., .280 Ackley Improved (tested), .30-06
Capacity: 4-round blind internal box magazine
Barrel: 24 in. stainless, 4-groove 1:9.5 twist (as tested)
Overall length: 43.75 in.
Weight: 5 lb., 10 oz.
Stock: Kevlar/carbon fiber blend, pillar and glass bedded, 13.63 in. length of pull, 1-in. Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad
Finish: satin stainless
Trigger: 3.5-4 lb. adjustable; 3.9 lb. as tested
Sights: none; drilled and tapped for scope