It is easy to ascribe two qualities to all the Savage rifles that have earned a place in my gun safe–accurate and heavy as hell. From a heavy-barreled, thumbhole-stocked .17 HMR varmint rig to the 14-and-some-pound Model 12 LRPV and my favorite coyote rig, a Model 10 Predator, the rifles shoot lights-out sub-MOA groups and all have heavy barrels and overbuilt actions. So when Savage marketing manager Bill Dermody handed me the latest Savage creation, I nearly tossed it over the booth walls at this year’s SHOT Show. The little bolt gun was, in a word, light.
The new short-action Model 11 and the soon-to-be-introduced Model 111 long-action rifle wear the moniker of Lightweight Hunter, and at 5.5 and 6 pounds respectively they are just that–as light as a rifle this side of custom and carbon fiber can get. So it was apparent that Savage can build a lightweight rifle, but my question was, would it be accurate?
For a lot of reasons, heavy rifles are generally more accurate than lightweight rifles. The first quality sitting in their corner like an ace cut man is inertia. Simply defined, inertia is resistance to change, and the heavier a rifle, the more it wants to sit still on the sandbags. In addition, factors like sweaty palms and wind are less likely to move it off target. In fact, many benchrest competitions are classed by rifle weight because that weight can provide such an advantage.
Overbuilt receivers–svelte is not a word I have ever heard used to describe Savage receivers–with beefy external diameters and minimally sized ejection ports are extremely rigid and better resist accuracy-killing torque applied by stock screws and barrel vibrations. Heavy stocks with glass bedding or full-length bedding blocks sit pretty in the bags, add overall weight, and help tame the vibrations and undue pressures that send shots astray.
Bull barrels might be the most critical component on an accurate rifle. Several barrel makers have led me to understand that, depending on the rifling process, there is little difference between heavy and light barrels in terms of manufacturing. Tight tolerances, concentricity, and a smooth interior finish are not affected by the outside barrel diameter. But heavy barrels act as a heat sink and better resist the warping that is sure to follow the heat generated by tremendous amounts of friction as bullets get squeezed into the lands and grooves and pushed out of the muzzle against their will. A big, fat barrel can take the punch as a bullet crashes down its bore, and the whip and vibrations that run up and down its length are less severe.
When you start removing material to make rifles lighter, all these things come uncorked. The sedentary becomes lively, receivers torque, and after a few shots that skinny barrel starts to gyrate like a go-go dancer in white boots. There are some very talented custom rifle makers that produce absurdly light, tack-driving rifles utilizing carbon fiber, Kevlar, and exotic metals. And you can bet the lighter the rifle, the higher the price.
Most big manufacturers have given light rifles a go and met with varying degrees of success. I have a couple really lightweight, rack-grade rifles that shoot great and have sold or traded more than a few that would not shoot worth a damn.
A few years back, Savage kicked open the door and entered several rifle categories like an out-of-control SWAT team and figured sheep and backpack hunters need an option with Savage stamped on the barrel just like F-Class and tactical shooters. On top of that, the company wanted to build a lightweight rifle that the average Joe could afford. It was no easy task, and it took over a year to perfect a prototype that met weight and accuracy goals. Keep in mind that a standard naked Model 14 Classic with a walnut stock and fairly light barrel taper weighs 7.5 pounds.
"We locked an engineer in a room with a rifle and milling machine and told him he wasn’t coming out until it weighed 5.5 pounds," Dermody said.
Initial short-action chamberings will include the .308, .243, .223, 7mm-08, .260 Remington, and my personal favorite, the 6.5 Creedmoor. Unfortunately, no Creedmoors were available at press time, and I got stuck with the .308 for testing.
The long-action Lightweight Hunter will be chambered for .270 and .30-06. Dermody said Savage, in theory, could produce a Lightweight Hunter in magnum calibers, but the rifles would obviously weigh more than the short- and long-action rifles currently in production.
I had a long list of questions about which exotic series of steel alloy was used here and what carbon fiber part was used there to drop my sample .308 down to 5.5 pounds sans scope. The answer was none and none. Both the receiver and barrel are good old 4140 chrome-moly.
The barrel is an obvious place to start. The 20-inch barrel measures just 0.550 inch at the muzzle and slightly over an inch at the barrel nut. Someone, very likely that engineer locked in the room with the milling machine, argued for an 18-inch tube, but I am glad no one listened. The extra 2 inches is important for two reasons–10
0 or so fps in additional muzzle velocity and more importantly, balance.
Turning down a barrel is no big engineering feat, but trimming weight off of a receiver so that it does not rapidly and dramatically disassemble itself when fired is. Savage receivers are round, mostly because you can buy round bar stock, machine it just a little, and have a great receiver. If you view the Lightweight Hunter receiver from the rear with the bolt removed, the upper and lower radii have not been touched. This gives the action the same stock footprint and makes the new rifle compatible with all those old scope bases already on gun store shelves.
But one quickly notices that flats have been milled along the receiver sides and another flat milled between that flat and the top radius. Inside the flats along the receiver’s left side and on the right side flats behind the ejection port, more metal was removed. The receiver walls were not milled all the way through in order to keep debris out and maintain rigidity. Critical areas around the locking lugs were left alone, and as far as I and a set of dial calipers could tell, the ejection port and tang dimensions were left alone. The tang was not altered so that Savage’s most excellent AccuTrigger could be mounted without delay or modification. Receivers are induction hardened on both ends, a process that reduces warping.
Surprisingly, I was unable to find any bolt modifications other than spiral fluting. The body diameter is similar to other bolts I had on hand and all the same parts are there, including the rear baffle and floating bolt head. Dermody said designers had originally envisioned plain longitudinal flutes in the body, but when said bolt was rotated down over a magazine full of cartridges it would grind and pop as the rounds caught on the flutes. Spiral flutes shaved some weight and solved the problem.
Just to be on the safe side of things, Savage engineers shot cases of proof loads through the modified receiver and utilized both destructive and endurance testing. Since the critical receiver dimensions had not changed, things like headspace and bolt lugs were unaffected.
The choice of oil-finished walnut over plastic for a standard stock material came down to a dollars-and-cents decision. Stock molds run about $100,000, and walnut can be milled into any shape needed by a machine, a smart engineer, and computer software. And the results are just plain sexy, probably the best looking stock ever to wear the Savage logo on its pistol grip. The straight comb, checkering panels, and pistol grip are all very traditional, but tucked away under a slim fore-end are a series of four parallel cuts to lighten the load. The action sits on steel pillars, and two cross bolts add strength. Sling swivels and a Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad round out the stock features.
Traditionalists and purists can start the gnashing of teeth here, since the trigger guard and bottom metal are bottom plastic. Savage stole the Axis magazine, which was first designed to lock into the stock, and built a plastic insert that was both inexpensive and lightweight to hold the magazine in place. The magazine has a glass-filled nylon bottom plate and follower, while the sides are stamped metal. It does not rattle, fits perfectly flush for easy carrying, and should be durable. (I did not hit it with a hammer just to see what happened.)
So the Lightweight Hunter, at just 5.5 pounds, earned the first part of its name–the rifle is light. But did it earn the hunt in Hunter? I took my sample .308 and paired it with a nice, compact Nikon 2-8X 32mm Monarch; tossed a bunch of ammo into the truck; and hit the range. The conditions that greeted me were horrid. It was cool, at least for south Alabama, but the wind was highly variable and gusting up to 25 mph. Groups were fired rapidly between gusts, but I left the barrel to cool for five minutes between shot strings. The results are in the chart, and I would go so far as to declare the Lightweight Hunter a 1-MOA rifle with ammo it likes.
What will a lights-out flyweight Savage set you back? The MSRP is $875, and my guess is that street prices will hover around $800.
"From the start, it was our goal to produce an accurate, safe, 5.5-pound rifle," Dermody said.
"And if it wasn’t an accurate rifle, it would have never seen the light of day."
The sun is shining brightly for this new bolt-action rifle, and when Model 11 Lightweight Hunters chambered for 6.5 Creedmoor start rolling off the production line, the big boys in my safe will get a new lightweight friend.