May 28, 2013
There are few places in Europe that look today much as they did 10,000 years ago, but Finland does. It is the last great wilderness in Europe, a boreal landscape that was flattened by massive glaciers so heavy that the country is still rising out of the sea today. Far from the traffic snarls, noise and pollution that have come with the urbanization of the European subcontinent, Finland still remains wild and largely unpopulated. The majority of the Finnish population lives in the southern portion of the country around the capital of Helsinki, but the remote northern regions remain virtually untouched.
The Finnish people remain connected to the wilderness, and the nation boasts a tremendous variety of game, from the oversized black capercaillie grouse to moose, deer and bear. Finnish sportsmen are proud of their hunting heritage and equally proud of the guns they carry.
Finland's national firearms manufacturer, Sako, has been producing military and hunting rifles since the late 1920s, and since that time the company has earned a reputation for producing high-quality, accurate bolt-action rifles.
In 2000, the company became part of Beretta Holdings, and under the leadership of the Beretta, Sako introduced the latest in a long line of high-end production rifles built to exacting quality standards: the Model 85. Like Sako rifles past, the 85 is built to exacting standards, and Sako took a bold step by guaranteeing its production rifles would produce a sub-m.o.a. five-shot group at 100 yards. Even for Sako that was a lofty promise.
There are a variety of different Model 85 bolt-action rifles available today, but the newest iteration is the Model 85 Arctos, so named for the brown bear that is the national animal of Finland. This new offering gave me a great reason to do a Sako Model 85 Arctos review. Mechanically, the Arctos is like all other Model 85 rifles and incorporates the same three-lug, round bolt with a front-mounted claw extractor and receiver-mounted ejector.
While the Model 85 is sometimes referred to as a controlled round action, this is not exactly true. The Sako bolt doesn't include a full-length claw extractor like the Winchester Model 70 and Mauser 98, and the action performs as a push-feed rifle would. Any shooter hoping to watch the empty cases whir off into the brush when the bolt is worked is apt to be disappointed, but the good news is that the Sako bolt allows cartridges to be dropped directly into the chamber without problems because the extractor doesn't lock onto the rim until the action is closed.
The bolt travel is Sako-smooth, and throughout the test there were no problems with feeding and ejection. The bolt shroud is enclosed to protect the shooter, and there is a cocking indicator that protrudes just below the shroud. A large red dot on the indicator is visible when the rifle is cocked.
The two-position, side-mounted safety on the Arctos is the same variety found on other Model 85s, and there is a small bolt release button located just in front of the safety and behind the bolt handle. While three-position wing-type safeties found on rifles like the Winchester Model 70 and Ruger Hawkeye are popular, the two-position safety with the bolt release isn't a bad option because the shooter touches the safety only when he or she is ready to fire the gun. When loading and unloading the rifle there is no need to touch the safety at all, and with a little practice it becomes natural to press the button with the thumb while lifting the bolt.
Long before the current trigger revolution, Sako rifles had a reputation for arriving from the factory with triggers that broke cleanly and lightly, and the current line of 85 rifles has superb triggers that are adjustable from two to four pounds. The Arctos I tested came with a trigger that consistently broke just below three pounds, which is the kind of performance you'd expect in a rifle that promises to place five shots under an inch at 100 yards.
The 23.1-inch barrel is fluted and sports a barrel-band swivel stud, which is handy for the harder-recoiling chamberings. The fore-end is nicely set off with a rosewood tip.
The Arctos comes with a finely figured walnut stock with shadow-line cheekpiece. It's a looker for sure, but features such as fine checkering and a right-hand palm swell bring functionality as well.
The bolt release is a small lever in front of the two-position safety, and there's a loaded chamber indicator as well. The bolt lift is a short 70 degrees.
The Arctos easily met its sub-m.o.a. guarantee, and it proved a fast, sure-handling rifle perfect for a wide range of applications.
Like other 85s, the Arctos has a detachable box magazine that is locked in place — eliminating the possibility of accidentally dropping the magazine at an inopportune time (as if there's a good time for your magazine to fall out). Sako refers to the system as the Total Control Latch, and you can bet you won't be accidentally dropping any magazines because it's difficult to remove even when you're focused on the task.
The magazine must be pressed up into the receiver before the button will release the steel box, and even after a few days practicing on the range it will probably take a concerted effort to remove the magazine. I spent most of my time loading cartridges through the action, which worked just fine.
(Ed. note: I have to differ with my colleague here. Having hunted with and shot a number of Model 75s and 85s, I much prefer the Total Control Latch on the 85. Once you learn the trick of pushing in on the mag before operating the release, it's simple and quick, and I think it adds a confidence-building measure of security. — JSR)
For all the purists who curse the scourge of plastic magazine boxes, the Arctos just may be the rifle you've been waiting for. The Sako's two row staggered box is good old-fashioned steel. The .30-06 I tested held five rounds.
The Arctos comes with a finely figured oiled walnut stock with a straight American comb and a shadow-line cheekpiece. The wood on the test rifle was superb, and it certainly looks like it belongs on a rifle costing even more than the Arctos. A pair of large crossbolts secure the action in the stock, and the fine checkering provides excellent grip without biting into the hand.
The rifle had a right-hand palm swell, another feature rarely found on production guns but a nice touch that helps the shooter (well, a right-handed one) grip the gun more naturally. Length of pull is a rather long 14.5 inches, which fit me well but might be a bit of a stretch for shooters with short arms.
The fore-end has a rosewood tip, and the pistol grip has a cap bearing the Sako name. The black recoil pad is thin but dense, and the fit and finish is just what you'd expect from a premium rifle such as the Arctos.
If you like owning a rifle that draws attention at the range, the Arctos is a show-stopper. It looks more like a high-end safari rifle than a workaday deer slayer. And when chambered in calibers like 9.3x62 Mauser and the powerful 9.3x66 Sako (also known as the .370 Sako), the Arctos is a legitimate dangerous game rifle — capable of handling big stuff such as grizzly bear, lion and buffalo.
The Arctos wears a fluted, cold hammer-forged barrel that is 21.3 inches in length and sports a barrel-mounted sling stud. The sights are something like you'd find on a rifle designed for close encounters: a V-shaped rear and large, hooded white dot front that allows for rapid target acquisition in low light.
The rear sight adjusts for windage by loosening a hex screw and moving the sight left and right as needed, and the front sight can be raised and lowered for elevation adjustments via another hex screw located at the front of the sight. The front sight can be adjusted without removing the hood.
The barrel and action of the Arctos are blued and brightly polished, adding to the Arctos' custom gun look. The overall weight of the rifle is 7.9 pounds unloaded, with an overall length of 40.3 inches in the medium action model I tested.
The receiver is milled with a conical dovetail rail that is narrower behind the action than in front, a system that is unique to Sako. If you were planning on picking up a generic set of rings for this rifle forget about it. I used Leupold's QD mounts, which lock to the Sako rails like a vise.
With Leupold's new VX-2 3-9X scope mounted on the QD rings I could quickly remove the scope and use the iron sights, then remount the scope and return to zero in a matter of seconds. Unless you consider iron sights a fashion accessory, quick-detach mounts such as the Leupolds I used are an important and useful feature.
With the Leupold in place and a couple boxes of '06 ammo in tow, I headed to the range to see if Sako's latest 85 could live up to the hype. Just as our rifle-making friends in Finland had promised, the Arctos had no trouble placing three shots in a one-inch group at 100 yards, and five-shot, one-inch groups were achieved with all three ammunition types tested.
It took some time to become accustomed to the two-position/bolt unlock mechanism, but it wasn't long before I came to like the setup. The trigger was, as I mentioned, darn near perfect, and with the excellent Leupold aboard it is a hunting rig par excellence.
Nosler's 168-grain E-Tip ammo produced the best groups, edging Hornady's Superformance SST 165-grain ammo by a marginal .04 inch on average (averaging 0.89 and 0.93 inches, respectively). Winchester's budget Power Bonded 150-grain ammo came in third, but it averaged just over one inch, which is far from subpar performance. Just for fun I decided to mix all three loads into a single five-shot group, which measured 1.3 inches in diameter. Not bad.
From a handling standpoint the Sako is fantastic. The short barrel and relative heft of the rifle make it a natural pointer, and the iron sights align perfectly when the gun is mounted. The generous rounded fore-end and palm swell fit my hands well, and the checkering provides plenty of grip.
After finishing the accuracy testing, I flipped the tabs on the scope bases, lifted the Leupold off the gun and spent some time shooting targets with the iron sights — practicing keeping the rifle on the shoulder while working the action. The short 70-degree bolt lift (thanks to the trio of locking lugs) and the smooth, rounded bolt made it easy to fire aimed second, third and fourth shots at the target.
I must say, I'm a fan of the Finn. However, in a market loaded with synthetic rifles that will shoot about as well and that cost under $500, is there a place for the Arctos?
If getting the most accuracy for the least amount of money is your game, then this just isn't your rifle since the Arctos' suggested retail runs close to $3,000, which is a lot of money for the majority of hunters.
Then again, you aren't just paying for accuracy with the Arctos, though that is an important consideration. This is a rifle that is well-built and solid from muzzle to recoil pad, a "wear it in not wear it out" kind of rifle that will last a lifetime.
To many shooters this rifle promises custom-gun build quality at a price point below what it would cost to have a comparable gun built. No matter your feelings about the Arctos, it is a quality gun that will preserve Sako's reputation for building top-quality production rifles.