January 08, 2014
A sizable portion of hard-core rifle shooters are traditionalists, reminiscing about the days when every gun wore a wooden stock, when white-line spacers were in vogue and when every rifle had iron sights and shooters knew how to use them. They scoff at all things plastic and synthetic, and they still appreciate the value of a piece of well-figured walnut. Bluing is acceptable, stainless is pushing it, and these new baked-on finishes are the pits. The good old days were, well, good. Nothing produced today could ever match the guns of yore.
I don't reject the idea that there were some excellent guns produced in years past, and one needs only to attend any gun auction to understand that old guns are worth money. Perhaps it's partly because of sentiment, but some of the best engineering designs in modern firearms originated in the early 20th century.
However, over the past decade production rifles have seen tremendous improvement in overall quality — in large part because companies are finding more economical methods to build rifles, and the average consumer has grown weary of bad triggers, poor finishes and sub-par accuracy even in entry-level rifles. Today, some of the least expensive rifles carry accuracy guarantees or are certainly capable of producing sub-m.o.a. accuracy.
Indeed, the good old days were good, but right now even the most basic rifles have features that were once reserved for only the finest guns. Here's a list of the 10 best things to happen to rifles in the last decade.
Inaccurate rifles have become unacceptable, even at the bottom of the price range. This is a good thing for consumers, and while these companies duke it out to build the most accurate rifle for the least amount of money, we reap the rewards. Weatherby
threw down the gauntlet with the accuracy guarantee on its Vanguard 2
rifles, promising that these entry-level guns will shoot as well as custom rifles did 20 years ago. Tikka
also offers the promise of m.o.a. accuracy, and this has prompted other gun makers to improve their guns as well.
It's not just the rifles with accuracy guarantees that shoot well, though. The Savage Axis
, Remington 783
and Ruger American
have all shot sub-m.o.a. groups for me, and they are all inexpensive guns. As hard as it is to believe, the American rifle shooter has come to expect m.o.a. accuracy from this group, and I don't care how much you pine for the good old days, no budget rifle 20 years age carried that promise.
Much of this is due to the advent of CNC machining. Now parts can be cut to extreme tolerances, and their extremely high level of uniformity translates to more consistency of production and better accuracy. This is also important for optics, as a very tight fit between the rifle, bases and rings promotes accuracy (and will help keep your scope locked securely in place as well).
Bedding and Free Floating
Once upon a time, a rifle that had a wooden stock that fit closely against the barrel was considered to be of top quality. But there's a problem with that; when fired, a barrel actually vibrates, and even though we can't see these undulations, they do occur — and they have a negative effect on accuracy if that barrel keeps bashing into the wood.
For years, the simple answer to fix the problem was to bed the rifle using epoxy, and that worked well. But why should you have to bed your own rifle stock? Shouldn't the gun maker help you out on this one?
Today, it's virtually impossible to purchase an off-the-shelf rifle that isn't bedded or free-floated in some manner. Yes, there's sometimes a visible gap between the stock and the barrel, but that means that the barrel harmonics won't be impeded by pressure points on the stock. The result is improved accuracy.
Short Bolt Lift
You can't really call yourself a rifle crank until you've bashed a few knuckles against scopes when lifting the bolt. Most bolt guns a decade ago had two opposed locking lugs that required a long (usually about 90 degrees) bolt lift for cycling. Today's rifles often incorporate fatter bolts with three lugs that help reduce the bolt lift by quite a bit.
This isn't a new concept per se, as Weatherby's Mark V
with its six- or nine-lug design was one of the original short-lift bolts. But today more rifle makers are developing guns that incorporate the wide bolt/three lug design. Chief among these is the Ruger American
, which offers a 70-degree bolt lift with its three-lug design. The bolt fills the one-piece receiver and runs effortlessly and securely through the receiver. Browning's X-Bolt
uses three lugs as well, and it requires just 60 degrees of lift to cycle the action.
You've probably heard that old joke about Henry Ford's Model T wherein someone asks Ford what color the car comes in and he replies, 'Any color you want, as long as it's black. '
For years, the same thing applied to sporting rifles. What type of finish do you want? Anything you want as long as it's blued. The advent of stainless actions and barrels provided at least one additional option, but there are many rifle finish options available today, most of which are virtually impervious to the elements.
One of the most popular is Cerakote
, which can be found on a variety of firearms. The baked-on ceramic finish is extremely durable and is virtually impervious to corrosion or chipping. In addition, Cerakote finishes don't have the game-spooking glare of traditional bright stainless steel guns.
I tested Weatherby's new Back Country
rifle recently and was very impressed by the smooth, durable Cerakote exterior of the metal parts. Between the Cerakote metal and the synthetic stock, the Back Country was immune to weather. Nosler
also uses Cerakote on its Model 48
Other popular from-the-factory finishes you will find these days include TriNyte (Remington)
and Weather Shield (Thompson/Center)
Traditionalists quickly become shake-your-fist mad about new rifles with polymer or plastic magazines, and they impugn them with the same enthusiasm they do synthetic stocks. But before you pile all of the polymer mags in the street and set them afire, keep in mind that while they are indeed less expensive, polymer magazines do have some advantages.
First, they're light and durable. I've heard a lot of shooters malign polymer magazines, but I've never heard of anyone that actually had one fail. Additionally, molded polymer allows gun makers the opportunity to add some creative touches when designing the magazine — a la the Ruger American's
round-bottom rotary magazine. Browning's X Bolt
also incorporates a rotary magazine, and both designs work extremely well.
Polymer magazines don't make noise every time they bounce against something, so you can carry them silently in your pocket even if there are keys and change in there as well. And as any traditionalist will tell you, they're cheap, so you can buy a couple extra magazines to keep with your other gear.
Despite the amazing capabilities of most modern centerfire rifles, all it takes is a small disruption during the firing process to ruin a rifle's accuracy. One of those minute details that can spoil a day at the range is damage to the rifling at the end of the bore.
Target shooters have known for years that it was important to protect the rifling at the muzzle where it was most exposed to the elements, and the most common method to accomplish this was by recessing the muzzle or cutting a 'target crown, ' which usually meant angling the muzzle so that the end of the rifling was protected by damage from the outside world by a ring of steel. In today's ultra-competitive entry-level bolt-action market, where every company is trying to squeeze the most accuracy out of every rifle, virtually every rifle maker on the market has barrels that are crowned or recessed to protect the rifling.
Better Optics Mounting
Every mechanical system has a weakest link, and on rifles that link is all too often how the optic attaches to the rifle. That's not to say that scopes a decade ago were barely hanging onto the rifle, but there are far more options in mounting optics than there used to be.
CZ's 550 and 557
rifles come with factory bases machined into the action itself for a secure mount, and Ruger
has a similar system — and includes one-inch rings with Hawkeye-based rifles as well.
rifle employs the company's patented X-Lock system, which incorporates four screws instead of the traditional two, and Howa rifles
come with a Picatinny-style top rail that allows for maximum mounting options. In addition, today's lightweight, alloy scope rings and bases help minimize weight and yet are durable and rigid enough to provide a consistent shot time after time.
From a convenience standpoint, small ejection ports seem counterintuitive. They don't offer easy top loading, and it's harder to tell what's going on inside the action. So why do guns such as the Remington 783
, Tikka T3
and Savage Axis
all have small ejection ports? Simple. The one-piece receiver is more rigid, and more rigidity typically equates to better accuracy.
Flex and movement are the enemies of every rifle, and the guns I just mentioned are all very accurate. This isn't entirely due to their receiver construction, but the rigid platform helps make superb accuracy possible.
When I tested Ruger's new American rifle
, which also has a minimized ejection port, it produced groups at or under an inch. Same for the Remington 783, which I tested in a past issue of RifleShooter. The one-piece receiver may look odd, but it's functional, and it makes achieving sub-m.o.a. accuracy that much easier.
Recoil negatively impacts accuracy, and all of us have a recoil limit — a level of kick that precludes us from shooting well over extended periods at the range. The less abusive a gun is, the better you'll shoot because no matter how hard we try to deny it, our brain is programed to avoid pain. Serious target shooters, whether they spend their time on the trap range or the 1,000-yard line, find myriad ways to reduce recoil so they can improve their shots. Now rifle companies are taking it upon themselves to make their guns kick less.
Winchester offers Model 70
rifles with its proprietary WinSorb pad, and Remington has its SuperCell
. The Browning Inflex
recoil pad directs recoil downward away from the shooter, and the steep cant of Sauer's 101
does the same thing. Today's rifles have thicker pads made of better materials that don't break down over time, ensuring comfortable shooting for years to come.
I don't think anyone can argue this one because there was a time when having the 'crisp, clean break ' about which gun writers love to wax eloquently meant buying an aftermarket trigger. Then Savage
developed the clever AccuTrigger
, which holds the sear in a narrow notch at the end of the trigger lever and requires only a light touch to release and yet is nearly impossible to accidentally discharge.
That essentially ended the days of creepy, heavy triggers, and other companies were forced to follow suit. Ruger
developed the LC6 and Marksman Adjustable
the MOA, Remington
the CrossFire and Mossberg
the Lightning Bolt Action (LBA). Once that happened, consumers would no longer accept a terrible, heavy trigger on even the cheapest production rifles. Today's youth won't ever know the feeling of gritting their teeth and enduring the slow creep of a miserable trigger on a centerfire.