February 20, 2020
By John Barsness
Around the turn of the 21st century, I was invited on a prairie dog shoot by a bullet company, and one of my shooting partners was a pretty well-known gun writer named Jim Carmichel. Back then—before faster rifling twists and heavier, high-BC bullets became widespread—many prairie dog shooters thought a zippier cartridge than the .223 Rem. was necessary for shots longer than 300 yards.
The most frequent choice was the .22-250 Rem., and Jim brought a heavy-barreled, custom .22-250 made by a pretty well-known gunsmith named Kenny Jarrett. Of course, the rifle was very accurate and weighed more than 15 pounds. The weight not only helped in steady aiming but also reduced recoil to about as much as a typical heavy-barreled .223 weighing 10 pounds.
While .22-250 recoil may not seem like a big deal, a 10-pound .223 allows shooters to spot their own shots even through a high-magnification scope, a major aid in typical high-plains breezes. Instead of depending on somebody else standing next to you, looking through an 8X binocular and saying, “Uh, that one was a few inches left, and maybe a little low,” a shooter can see exactly where the bullet landed, then make a correction before the wind changes, which it often does while a so-called spotter semi-describes a miss.
After launching a few prairie dogs skyward, Jim suggested I take a few shots. The rifle worked so well I decided a really heavy .22-250 was a good idea. At the time I couldn’t afford a Jarrett rifle, but I did own a very accurate factory .22-250 with a heavy barrel and injection-molded synthetic stock. After getting home, I unscrewed the recoil pad and filled the hollow buttstock with lead shot. I took it on my next prairie dog shoot.
It didn’t work nearly as well as the Jarrett rifle because, to put it bluntly, the balance sucked. The lead shot shifted the weight so far to the rear the rifle was actually harder to aim steadily. I always bring a set of gunsmithing screwdrivers along on prairie dog shoots, so I removed the recoil pad and poured out the shot.
Generally, big game hunters desire less rifle weight, at least to a certain point. When super-light synthetic stocks appeared a few decades ago, many older hunters warned that really light rifles couldn’t be aimed steadily. This was because the lightweight bolt-action rifles they were familiar with had wooden stocks, and the only way to reduce weight significantly was use a shorter, slimmer barrel. This shifted the center of balance rearward, like the butt-load of shot in my .22-250.
On the other hand, some traditional lightweight hunting rifles with short, slim barrels balance quite well, including lever-action carbines with old-fashioned outside hammers and tube magazines under the barrels. A magazine full of .30-30 or .35 Rem. ammo shifts the balance forward, allowing deer hunters sneaking through the woods to carry a lightweight rifle ready in their hands, rather than slung over a shoulder, and to aim offhand quickly but steadily.
The rifles Americans called Mannlicher style (and Germans call Stutzen) have fore-ends extending to the muzzle. This also shifts weight forward in carbines and is one reason the 6.5x54 Mannlicher-Schoenauer carbine became one of the most popular bolt-action hunting rifles in the early 20th century.
Before looking closer at rifle balance, we should define our terms. One thing I’ve noticed over the decades is that many hunters express a preference for rifles balancing “at the front action screw.” In fact, on a recent Internet discussion, close to half mentioned this apparently magical screw.
However, this attitude is not only “boltist”—darn few rifles other than bolt actions have front action screws—but also doesn’t indicate anything meaningful because placement of the screw varies considerably.
I recently measured the differences in the location of front action screws in a bunch of my centerfire bolt actions, using the trigger as a benchmark because it’s the most consistent point of reference on any rifle. The shortest distance to the front screw from the trigger was 3.9 inches on a Brno ZKW 465 chambered in .22 K-Hornet, while the distance on various other “short” actions ran from 4.8 to 6.5 inches.
On most long-action rifles the screw was at least seven inches in front of the trigger, including several rifles based on standard 98 Mauser actions (or variations of the 98, like the CZ 550) and my Nosler Model 48 Liberty in .26 Nosler. This occurred partly because the front action screw hole goes into the recoil lug in 98s and the Nosler 48, rather than behind the lug, as in most (but not all) long bolt actions developed since the 1930s, such as the Winchester 70 and Remington 700.
Based on these measurements, saying you prefer a rifle to balance on the front action screw is kind of like saying you prefer a trigger pull of four to seven pounds. Plus, it excludes single-shots, lever actions, pumps, combination guns and double-barreled rifles.
It makes more sense to measure “balance” in relationship to the trigger—or the front trigger on two-trigger firearms, as we do with double-barreled shotguns. Of course, fans of double shotguns often talk about “balancing on the hinge pin,” which are almost as moveable a reference point as the front action screw. (I own doubles in gauges from 28 to 10, and the hinge-pin varies from 3.2 to 5.5 inches in front of the trigger.)
So where should a hunting rifle balance in reference to the trigger? Darned if I know, but I do know what works for some shooters doesn’t work for others, since we vary considerably in height, arm length and strength. My wife, Eileen, is five feet, eight inches tall and weighs 135 pounds. She’s no weakling, regularly hunting on her own and getting deer out of the woods, but she prefers lighter-weight big game rifles.
From 1992 to 2002, her main rifle was a New Ultra Light Arms Model 24 in .270 Win., which with a 22-inch, No. 1 contour Douglas barrel and a 2-7X Bausch & Lomb Compact scope weighed exactly six pounds. To many men, this would seem too light to shoot offhand, but Eileen regularly offhanded deer out to 150 yards. In fact, she didn’t like to shoot her 11-pound .223 offhand at ground squirrels because she didn’t have the arm strength to hold it steady. But the lighter .270 “just seemed to hang right there.”
These days, due to becoming susceptible to recoil headaches, she primarily uses another NULA in .257 Roberts. The balance point is seven inches in front of the trigger, which turns out to be pretty far forward for centerfire rifles with “sporter” contour barrels. This is because the Model 20 NULA action weighs only 20 ounces (hence its name). Most commercial bolt actions weigh 35 to 45 ounces, so naturally shift weight farther to the rear.
In fact the farthest-forward balance point on any of our rifles with “sporter-weight” barrels is 7.3 inches, and that’s on my Model 48 Liberty .26 Nosler, which not only has a 26-inch barrel but also has a 10x42mm SWFA scope. One of the interesting things about the trend toward dialing scopes for longer-range shooting is many are not only heavier but also longer. Such scopes average around 20 ounces, minimum, as opposed to the 12 to 14 ounces of 3-9X and 3-10X non-dialing variables with one-inch tubes. The Model 48’s 10X scope extends about a foot in front of the trigger, just about where I normally hold the fore-end when taking an offhand or sitting shot.
The M48 Liberty is also the only one of our rifles that balances right at the front action screw, and with its scoped weight of 9.5 pounds would certainly work for offhand shooting, though obviously that’s not its intended use.
Quite a few hunters prefer heavier, weight-forward rifles these days, partly because so many shoot from prone at longer distances. One acquaintance always flips his bipod down and goes to his belly even at ranges under 100 yards.
However, there’s more to rifle balance than a single point a few inches in front of the trigger. Shotgunners often discuss both static and dynamic balance, which refers to the distribution of weight on either side of the static balance point.
Dynamic balance noticeably affects handling, the reason many shotgunners describe fine British double shotguns as feeling “alive” in their hands. More of the gun’s overall weight is concentrated between our front hand on the fore-end and our rear hand on the grip, with the slim barrels and buttstock weighing considerably less than on most repeating shotguns.
Another aspect of dynamic balance is barrel length. If a double’s barrels are too short, it won’t swing as smoothly or steadily as it would with equally light but longer barrels. Both of these factors also affect rifles—and not just double rifles, although doubles are often considered the best-handling of all hunting rifles.
A good example of this dynamic difference is a pair of classic walnut-stocked bolt actions in my collection. One is a Kilimanjaro Rifles 7x57 on the Montana 1999 action, a sort of cross between the pre-’64 Model 70 Winchester and Model 98 Mauser. It has one of Kilimanjaro’s Stealth laminated stocks made of American walnut. The other is a 6.5x55 custom rifle built on a commercial FN Mauser 98 action, with a stock made of European walnut, which usually weighs less than American walnut.
Both have 21-inch barrels and weigh exactly eight pounds scoped, but the 7x57’s barrel contour is a copy of the Winchester Model 70 Featherweight’s, measuring 0.58 inch at the muzzle, and the 6.5x55’s barrel has what most barrel makers call a No. 4 contour, measuring 0.67 inch at the muzzle.
As a result of stock wood and barrel contours, the 7x57’s static point of balance is only 4.7 inches in front of the trigger, while the 6.5x55’s static point of balance is 6.3 inches in front of the trigger. The 7x57 feels more alive in my hands, while the 6.5x55 feels slightly clumsy—but also noticeably easier to shoot offhand.
While doing all this measuring, I decided to select a few of my rifles preferred for offhand shooting. It turned out two rifles primarily used for small game or varmints had relatively heavy but not long barrels: a CZ 452 .22 Long Rifle with a 20.5-inch barrel measuring 0.86 inch at the muzzle, and a CZ 527 .17 Hornet with a 22-inch barrel measuring 0.75 inch at the muzzle. A third preferred small game/varmint rifle is a Ruger No. 1B .22 Hornet, with a 26-inch, 0.62 inch at the muzzle barrel.
All three of these weigh between 8.5 and 9.5 pounds and have static balance points 5.8 to 6.1 inches in front of the trigger. None of them feels alive in my hands, but they sure hang steady.
I’ve probably taken more big game offhand, either unsupported or off shooting sticks, with my NULA Model 24 .30-06 and CZ 550 9.3x62, partly because they’ve been used for a lot of my hunting over the past 20 years. The .30-06 weighs seven pounds exactly with a 3-10x42 Nightforce SHV, another one of those dialing scopes weighing about 20 ounces—although it’s short enough not to affect the static balance point, 6.2 inches in front of the trigger. The 9.3x62 weighs exactly eight pounds with a 4x33mm Leupold, with a six-inch balance point.
Both feel pretty lively but still hold well offhand. Apparently, from the evidence demonstrated by my favorite small game and big game rifles, I like a static balance point about six inches in front of the trigger for shooting from the variety of possible field positions.
Putting a suppressor on the muzzle or an ammo-holder around the buttstock obviously changes balance considerably, though whether it’s enough to affect handling and shooting depends on the rifle, its intended use and you. Taller hunters tend to use longer buttstocks, which bring the balance rearward, but they also tend to grip the fore-end farther forward. The opposite is true for shorter shooters.
It’s certain, however, that the front action screw has nothing to do with any of this, partly because it doesn’t even exist on many hunting rifles.