September 10, 2019
By J. Scott Rupp
When the .224 Valkyrie arrived on the scene, I understood why everyone was so jazzed about the latest attempt to outdo the tried-and-true .223 Rem. But like the .22 Nosler before it, most of the attention initially focused on the AR platform, and deep down I’m a bolt-action guy. So when the Valkyrie came out, I waited in hopes of seeing something other than a gas gun.
And I got it in the form of the new Savage 110 Prairie Hunter, which is chambered solely in .224 Valkyrie. (If you want the full background on the cartridge, read David Fortier’s review at RifleShooterMag.com). It’s built on Savage’s renowned 110 action, and while an action is an action for the most part, this one has some tricks up its sleeve.
It retains the familiar bolt shroud, the gas-blocking lugs behind the twin locking lugs and the sliding two-position tang safety that locks the bolt on Safe. But in this case, the ejection port is semi-enclosed, which increases action stiffness and also the chances the rifle will be accurate. Atop that you’ll find a 20-m.o.a. optics rail installed.
The action is paired with a stout 22-inch barrel. Diameter measurements are 1.03 inches at barrel nut, 0.89 at fore-end tip and 0.75 behind the 1/2x28 muzzle threads. A knurled thread protector caps things off.
Savage hasn’t made a big deal of its AccuStock lately, so you may not be up to speed. It’s basically an aluminum skeleton that runs from the mag well forward to near the fore-end tip—providing a ton of stability while adding only a few ounces to Savage’s standard synthetic stock.
The stock also features the company’s AccuFit design. Length-of-pull adjustments can be made by installing one of four inserts ranging from a quarter-inch to one inch. Savage also supplies different lengths of screws to accommodate the different spacers, and a handy guide describes which screws go with which spacers.
Pulling the recoil pad/spacer also provides access to change comb heights. There are five heights to choose from as well—from a straight-flat comb to rising combs providing heights in roughly quarter-inch increments close to nearly an inch.
In this case I had a Bushnell Nitro 4-16x44mm scope with a 30mm tube installed on the rail in Tasco low mounts, and I went with the highest comb module. (For more on the Nitro and the mounts, check out the article on RifleShooterMag.com.)
The highest comb is quite narrow at the top, but it was fine for a light-recoiling cartridge like the .224 Valkyrie and didn’t cause any discomfort over long sessions. It does prevent a direct line to the bore for cleaning. My .22 rods are flexible enough to get around the comb—using a bore guide to prevent chamber wear—but you might have problems with stiff steel rods.
The stock has a fore-end just made for resting on a bag. Savage calls it a sporter beavertail, and it’s got a flat bottom and has two swivel studs so you can slap a sling on it to carry the gun while being able to have a bipod mounted at the same time. There’s good-looking impressed checkering on the fore-end.
The Savage AccuTrigger comes standard. It’s an adjustable trigger with an integral trigger shoe safety that permits a light pull weight without sacrificing safety. My sample arrive with a pull of one pound, 14 ounces and exhibited excellent consistency. No way was I was going to mess with a trigger pull that good, so I left it alone.
I’d heard that the Prairie Hunter had been out in the field on some writer hunts, and my sample was evidently an attendee at one of these shoots, because it was probably the dirtiest rifle I’ve ever received for testing. I’ll get back to this in a sec.
After several bore-scrubbing sessions with Bore-Tech copper cleaner, I finally got it clean, and at the range it shot quite well, as you can see in the accompanying accuracy chart. Single-group champ for the day went to the Federal/Nosler Ballistic Tip load at 0.31 inch, but the prettiest groups and smallest average went to the Federal/Barnes TSX load—including a 0.36-inch group.
My testing did turn up one major issue: Some thin-jacketed bullets fly apart. Hornady’s V-Max, for instance, didn’t make the cut—at least in this particular rifle. I fired 10 of them, and only seven managed to hit an 8x8-inch target at 100 yards. I also had one Berger shed its jacket, which I found 20 yards shy of the target. Because the .224 Valkyrie isn’t exactly a speed-burner, it seems it would have to be a twist-rate issue.
This is a black mark for the Valkyrie, in my opinion. Yes, the appeal of the Valkyrie is its ability to handle bullet weights that make it a more capable long-range cartridge or put it in deer hunting territory, but I think any .22 centerfire should be able to be used as a varmint rifle for prairie dogs and the like—and varmint shooters crave the terminal performance thin-jacketed bullets provide.
However, you’ll note the Nosler Ballistic Tip Varmint bullet shot really well, and I didn’t get to test every factory load in existence, so all is not lost. Still, it’s not ideal that shooters can’t avail themselves of the V-Max, which provides great performance at a good price.
And here it’s worth noting that the term “prairie hunter” includes quarry such as coyotes. If I were heading out for coyotes, I’d be grabbing a box of the Federal/Nosler Ballistic Tip Varmint or the Hornady Black boattail hollowpoint and be super-confident.
If I were inclined to hunt deer with a .22 centerfire, the Federal/Barnes TSX load would be the ticket, and in fact Federal is marketing it specifically as a deer load. Barnes designed this 75-grain bullet just for the Valkyrie, and it boasts a sectional density (a yardstick of penetration potential) of .222. To put this into perspective, a 150-grain .308 has an SD of .226.
As Craig Boddington points out elsewhere in this issue in his article on whitetail ammo, he no longer puts a whole lot of stock into through-and-through penetration—except in cases where you’re using light calibers. Like the .224 Valkyrie. I love the Barnes TSX because it can be counted on to penetrate, so if .22 centerfires are your thing for deer, the Barnes is a perfect match.
By and large I really like this rifle, but it’s got a few things I don’t care for. The magazine, which has a sheet-steel body and a polymer base, holds only three rounds. That’s pretty slim if you’re on a prairie dog town or shooting long-range targets. While I don’t care for magazines that stick out below the stock on a hunting rifle, in this case I’d like to see Savage develop a magazine holding at least five rounds.
Seating the magazine in the action requires a bit of technique. I found that inserting the back portion first, then pushing up firmly in the center produced the best results, but I did fail to get it in there correctly several times even after I figured out the trick.
I mentioned earlier the rifle was really dirty when I got it, and after the initial cleaning session, I checked the barrel with my Hawkeye borescope. While I discovered I had gotten all the copper fouling out, I also found the bore had more machining chatter marks than I think it should.
I compared the Prairie Hunter bore to my Savage 116 in .300 Win. Mag. My .300 barrel is 10 years old, and it shows significantly fewer machining marks than this current 110. This is based on observation, not quantifiable data, so take it for what it’s worth.
Why does this matter? Copper fouling. I gave the gun a pass for showing up so dirty when I first received it because I know writers never clean their guns on media shoots—which typically have round counts in the hundreds—but my own testing showed this Prairie Hunter bore to be fairly susceptible to copper fouling.
How much does it matter? I’m not sure, although I admit I obsess over this probably more than I should. Following my last group of record for the day, and without cleaning the gun, I moved right to a box test on the Bushnell scope using the Hornady Black that had performed so well in the accuracy test.
The test involved 18 shots—six three-shot groups without cooling or cleaning—and this was on top of the previous 10 rounds I’d fired during the accuracy test that preceded it. After 28 shots, groups did not open up due to increased fouling or barrel heat.
Further, my limited testing at 200 yards a week later seemed to indicate this bore actually likes being a little fouled, as the first groups out of a squeaky clean barrel were not as good as subsequent groups. I didn’t notice this so much at 100 yards, and that’s the beauty of shooting longer distances.
For the 200-yard test, I shot prone off a bipod, and instead of using a rear bag, I opted to shoot with one of those old-school shooting mitts on my support hand, resting the toe of the stock on that. It’s a trick I picked up from my friends at FTW Ranch and their SAAM shooting school. It may not be as rock- solid as a bag, but it’s a practical and handy field expedient. I fired three five-shot groups—cooling but not cleaning between groups, then cleaning when I changed ammo.
The Ballistic Tip load that shot so well at 100 yards performed great at 200, too. It averaged 0.98 m.o.a. and included a group measuring just 1.6 inches or 0.8 m.o.a. The Berger load, which I shot because I wanted to see if these heavier bullets stabilized better at long range, turned in a 1.42 m.o.a.—in line with its 100-yard performance, considering there was more shooter error at 200 yards due to bipod versus bench, as well as five-shot groups versus three.
After that, I moved to steel targets, beginning at 400 yards. I got first-round hits on 12-inch plates at 400, 500 and 600 yards. The rifle’s excellent weight distribution made it easy to get locked on target fast, and its 11-pound, nine-ounce weight (bipod and scope aboard) kept recoil in check to the point that seeing my hits was cake.
It took me three shots to dial it in at the 16-inch plate at 700 yards, and at 800 the best I could do was the big 20-incher. I struck out on the 900-and 1,000-yard steel.
Savage was recently sold to an investor group headed by the president and CEO of Savage when it was owned by Vista Outdoors. Under the latter company, Savage was active in coming out with purpose-built guns like the Prairie Hunter, and I hope this trend continues because I think it has a lot going for it.
For a gun at its price level, you’re getting high-tech stock with lots of adjustment, a great trigger, plenty of accuracy, and a .22 centerfire with a wide range of capabilities.
The rifle wouldn’t be my choice for a walking varminter due to its weight, but I’m sure there are tougher readers out there who won’t mind hiking long distances with it. But for short jaunts—say, run-and-gun coyote setups—it would be ideal. And the combination of the relatively short 22-inch barrel and the rifle’s stability would make it right at home in a deer blind.
I’m not sure it’s the best option for high-volume shooting for ground squirrels or prairie dogs because of the magazine capacity and the issue it has with some bullets. But those looking for a fun rifle for long range might find the Prairie Hunter to be the ticket because of its heavy match-bullet loads. I’d say it’s the very definition of versatile.