January 03, 2011
The American handgun icon jumps headlong into the bolt-action fray, introducing a rifle with plenty of innovation.
The Smith & Wesson name is synonymous with handguns, everything from handy little J-Frames and Military & Police service revolvers and pistols to the most powerful revolvers on the planet. One can hardly think "handgun" without the intertwined "S" and "W" logo flashing through the mind.
But America's premier handgun manufacturer has dabbled with long guns on and off throughout its 155-year history. In the late 1880s, Smith & Wesson produced 125 or so double-barreled shotguns. After a 100-year lapse, the company tried its hand at long guns again, importing Howa shotguns and rifles. Those guns were favorably received, but by 1986, the company was moving in a different direction and got out of the rifle and shotgun business altogether.
A few years ago, Smith & Wesson's new management team decided to take on the long-gun market again. S&W hired long-gun veteran Steve Skrubis as the long-gun product manager to guide the company into manufacturing rifles and shotguns. In just two years, Skrubis oversaw the introduction of AR-style rifles and a complete line of semiautomatic, over-under, and side-by-side shotguns.
"Every company wants to grow, and our market research demonstrated that Smith & Wesson is a very powerful brand," Skrubis said. "We wanted to take advantage of that, but our CEO has a 'no dabble' rule. If we do something, we give it 110 percent. We took a long, hard look at this project and decided it was something we wanted to do."
Smith & Wesson i-Bolt Bolt-Action Rifle
|Smith & Wesson
|None, receiver drilled and tapped, Weaver rail provided
|Length Of Pull:
|Drop at Comb:
|.88 inch, Monte Carlo height .5 inch
|Drop at Heel:
Now is a good time to get into the rifle business. Winchester is no longer producing the Model 70, several other manufacturers are in trouble financially, and there hasn't been much in the way of design innovation since the '98 Mauser. Smith & Wesson first considered buying a rifle company or improving on existing designs, but it finally settled on creating its own rifle from scratch.
"We know there are a lot of traditionalists out there, but we wanted to give existing rifle shooters some great new benefits, and we wanted to create a new rifle that brings in a new customer," Skrubis said. "Everything was tossed out the door--it was a free-for-all--nothing was off the table from a design standpoint. The result is a rifle that has a lot of innovative features. We didn't reinvent the wheel, just made it a lot better."
The design team was able to create a concept and deliver prototypes in just a year and half. The Smith & Wesson i-Bolt made its debut at the NRA Annual Meetings in St. Louis, Missouri, in April. The name came from the original codename for the project--the "i" stands for innovation.
Mass-producing centerfire rifles takes more than good ideas and a few mechanical drawings. Smith & Wesson made a substantial investment in new machines and stock molds. One major hurdle to overcome was producing high-quality barrels. Skrubis joked that the Springfield, Massachusetts, plant could only produce pistol and revolver barrels but not rifle-length tubes.
"We looked at a lot of OEM barrel manufacturers and really liked Thompson/Center Arms," Skrubis said. "We liked T/C so much, we ended up buying the company."
The purchase of Thompson/Center Arms was finalized in January and was the final piece of the puzzle. With 40 years of experience and a tremendous capacity to produce barrels, T/C would allow Smith & Wesson to get into the rifle business in a big way. The i-Bolt's initial offering will be a long-action rifle chambered for .25-06, .30-06, and .270 Winchester. The gun has two stock options: black synthetic or RealTree AP HD camo.
The i-Bolt receiver (T) is very similar to the Remington Model 700 receiver, as seen in this comparison with a short-action Model 700 (B). Both utilize tubular designs and sandwich recoil lugs between the receiver and barrel. Note that the trigger, barrel, and recoil lug of the Model 700 are aftermarket items.
S&W plans to offer the rifle in a stainless version as well as .300 Win. Mag. and 7mm Rem. Mag. chamberings by year's end. Expect to see a short-action, numerous other chamberings, wood stocks, and a law-enforcement version also in the near future.
"i" Stands For Innovation
Shooting Times was able to test one of the first-run production i-Bolts. The gun tested and pictured will probably undergo slight modification before the final die is cast, but this report gives the reader an in-depth overview of Smith & Wesson's first centerfire rifle.
The bolt consists of three different sections and is machined from 4140 carbon steel. The bolt handle is not welded on; it's machined from one piece and that section is threaded onto the body of the bolt.
The tubular receiver is machined from a solid billet of 4140 carbon steel and is finished in matte blue. The i-Bolt logo is laser etched on the receiver between the bolt-handle cut and the ejection port, and "Smith & Wesson" is laser etched on the receiver's left side. The S&W logo is also found on the bolt handle. The long-action receiver measures 8.625 inches from rear tang to recoil lug and is a constant 1.357 inches in diameter.
Though new receiver designs from other manufacturers have contoured or flat bottoms, Smith & Wesson stuck with the tubular design. Externally, the i-Bolt's receiver looks a lot like the Remington Model 700, especially the rear tang, gas vent, and the magazine opening. The gas vent is in the same place, and many of the receiver cuts are similar. Skrubis admitted there are significant similarities between the two, but he reiterated that the design team "improved the wheel, not reinvented the wheel."
Model 700 bases will fit the i-Bolt's receiver contours, but oversized 8/40 screws are required. With each rifle, Smith & Wesson provides a Weaver-style, one-piece rail machined from 6061 aluminum alloy. A small recoil lug extends down into the ejection port from the rear of the forward base. This Posi-Lug feature will share the shear forces generated by recoil.
The bolt has three lugs and utilizes a Remington-style ejector and Sako-style extractor. There were no failures to feed or extract during the test, and cartridge ejection was brisk.
The rifle's bolt is radically different from the majority of existing designs. It consists of three different pieces. All three pieces are machined from 4140 carbon steel. The shroud is matte blued, but the parts sliding inside the receiver have an extremely durable titanium-nitride finish. Three evenly spaced lugs decrease the bolt throw to 60 degrees, and the full-diameter design prevents binding. A plunger ejector sits at the two o'clock position on the boltface. A Sako-style extractor guarantees a positive grip on the case head and sits at the seven o'clock position.
Designers were not satisfied with the conventional method of welding or soldering the bolt handle onto the bolt body, so the i-Bolt's bolt handle is a separate piece that's threaded into the main body of the bolt. The bolt shroud is then threaded onto that piece.
Timney expressly designed the i-Bolt's trigger unit to be adjusted for weight of pull without taking the gun apart. Using a special included tool, each click of the screw in front of the trigger reduces the pull weight by one pound. The safety stamping has three holes that correspond with the three different safety positions.
When the rifle is cocked, a small beveled pin protrudes from the rear of the bolt shroud. This feature was not in the must-have section of the design criteria, but it gives shooters a very tactile way to check the rifle's condition.
"From a design perspective, we hated the bolt release," Skrubis said. The final version is one of the rifle's most innovative features, and it is the one that will lead to the most discussion. "We couldn't find one that was durable enough. One day, I went down to the engineers' office, and they said, 'Take a look at this.' It was radical, but we loved the design. It was also very durable. We did 16,000 bolt drops, and nothing changed--there was no excessive wear on any of the parts."
"It" is the E-Z Turn bolt release and starts with a continuous channel at the bolt's rear and extends the length of the bolt body, stopping short of where the bolt steps down to accommodate the locking lugs. The track makes a 90-degree left turn (if viewed from the bottom) perpendicular to the bolt's axis. Shortly thereafter it makes another 90-degree turn to again run parallel to the bolt body. The track is .052 inch deep and mates perfectly with the sear, which protrudes from the trigger group and up into the receiver's bolt channel.
To remove the bolt, pull it completely to the rear. Push the bolt forward about 3/8 inch, then rotate the bolt handle down another 70 degrees or so and remove it from the receiver. It's as simple as that; there are no buttons, levers, etc. To replace the bolt, just repeat the steps in reverse, first matching the beveled end of the track with the sear.
The hinged floorplate is released by a small tab located in the front of the trigger guard. The trigger guard was enlarged for gloved fingers, and the trigger bow was reshaped to fit.
The i-Bolt's Tru-Set trigger offers shooters another first--a fully adjustable trigger that doesn't require removing the action from the stock for adjustment. A small screw sits ahead of the trigger, and shooters can adjust the pull weight from 6 down to 3 pounds by turning the screw counterclockwise with the provided tool. Just like a riflescope, there are clicks caused by a ball detent that represent one-pound increments. Monotonous tests with a Lyman digital trigger-pull gauge proved the system worked as advertised. There was also generally no more than 4 ounces of variance between resets. The adjustable trigger proved to be one of the biggest design challenges of the entire project.
"I had this idea in my head for years and never could make it happen," Skrubis said. "We tried to design it on our own at first, but then quickly turned to an outside source. Timney is the first name that c
ame to mind, and we called up owner John Vehr and said, 'Can you make one?' We were thrilled with the results."
A three-position safety is part of the trigger group and is operated by way of a lever that sits on the right side of the bolt shroud. Conventional lever designs did not provide a positive stop at each position, so Timney designed a lever that moves on a linear plane instead of an arc. There are corresponding holes for each position in the safety stamping that are locked in place with a ball detent. When pulled to the rear, a small arm on the stamping comes up through a cut in the receiver and into a notch between two sections of the bolt, locking it in place. That position also locks the sear in place.
The cross members in the stock's forend strengthen this critical area while reducing weight. S&W calls this network of cross members X-Bed, which also increases stock-to-stock consistency.
The bottom metal is an anodized aluminum casting. The enlarged trigger guard easily accommodates a gloved finger, and the trigger bow has been reshaped to fit. Hinged at the front, the floor plate is released by a small, serrated tab inside the front of the trigger guard. The magazine spring is captured between the floorplate and plastic follower, and an aluminum stamping forms the magazine box. The two action screws are at the front and back of the bottom-metal assembly and hold all the components together when tightened.
|THE .30-06 i-BOLT'S 100-YARD FACTORY-LOAD GROUPS
|GROUP 1 (inches)
|GROUP 2 (inches)
|GROUP 3 (inches)
|GROUP 4 (inches)
|GROUP 5 (inches)
|AVERAGE ACCURACY (inches)
|Federal Fusion 150-gr. Pointed Softpoint
|Remington Core-Lokt 150-gr. Pointed Softpoint
|Winchester Supreme Elite 150-gr. XP3
|Federal Premium 165-gr. Nosler Partition
|Hornady InterLock 165-gr. Boattail Softpoint
|Remington Premier Accu-Tip 165-gr. Boattail
|NOTE: Each group is for five rounds fired from a Caldwell Lead Sled DFT at 100 yards
The Monte Carlo stock was designed by Smith & Wesson and is pretty standard in most dimensions--length of pull, etc.--but the wrist is exceptionally small. It is injection molded and made of long-fiber polypropylene with a 20-percent glass fill. Unidirectional checkering panels are found on both sides of the pistol grip and forend, and the sling studs are molded in to be flush with the stock. The Smith & Wesson logo adorns the grip cap.
There is a chamber in the buttstock for a recoil reducer. At press time, the final design of the reducer had not been decided, but the weight will be around 15 ounces. Instead of mounting on a threaded rod, the unit will use rubber friction washers so it can never rattle loose.
The i-Bolt's 4140-carbon-steel light-profile barrel is button rifled. It measures 23 inches long, 1.205 inches in diameter at the chamber, and tapers down to .665 inch at the muzzle. The ream tolerances are +/- .00035 inch. This tight tolerance is what drives barrel performance and assures consistency from barrel to barrel and in bore and groove diameters. Barrels are pin or air gauged, depending on caliber.
A match-grade crown that is recessed .030 inch from the muzzle is machined perpendicular to the lands and grooves and then slopes at 45 degrees to the edge of the barrel. The crown is double checked for burrs after the process.
The stock features unidirectional checkering that provides a good grip in wet conditions. The grip cap is adorned with the Smith & Wesson logo.
Shooting The i-Bolt
Inevitably, prototype rifles are shuttled around from writer to writer, giving each just a few days for testing. We were first in line, so our i-Bolt was put through the wringer in a marathon, 6-hour range session. Six different factory loads were tested, and the total round count approached 200. With ambient temperatures hovering in the high 80s, the barrel was seldom cool enough to touch. No time was taken to allow the barrel to cool between shots, though the barrel was cleaned between loads.
Across the board, the average five-shot group measured 2.105 inches. The best group was always the first fired of a given ammo type, and it was a direct result of cooler barrel temperatures. The light barrel profile is meant for a lot of walking rather than a lot of shooting, though it performed reasonably well under the extreme conditions.
The rifle did not have any problem feeding, extracting, or ejecting cartridges, though three different brands experienced misfires, a problem experienced by other writers using this test rifle at a recent seminar. Two Hornady, two Winchester, and three Remington cartridges failed to fire despite indentations on the primers
. The rounds were rechambered, and two fired on the second strike. Since S&W engineers have been alerted to this issue, it's highly unlikely that production rifles will exhibit this problem.
Produced by Thompson/Center Arms, the rifle's light-profile barrel has a target crown.
Occasionally, when chambering a round, too much downward pressure was applied to the bolt handle at its rearmost position, and it would rotate down as if being removed from the receiver. Sometimes a slight bump was felt as the change in track direction slid over the sear--other times it caught just right, dumped the bolt down, and stopped the process in mid stroke. This hiccup seldom occurred on the bench, happening mostly from field positions.
A roll pin in the trigger group drifted out of place and locked the safety in the forward position towards the end of the range session. A quick tap with a punch corrected the problem. But overall, from the rough treatment it saw during this and previous tests, the i-Bolt gets good marks for durability and performance under tough conditions.
Even with a heavy scope, the i-Bolt was lively in the hands and handled well. The stock fit most everyone who shouldered the rifle, and the simple, familiar controls were much appreciated. The i-Bolt would be right at home on any big-game hunt and most any continent--exactly what the design team at Smith & Wesson intended.
Production i-Bolts will soon appear in gunshops across the country. With a ton of innovative new features, it will be interesting to see how the shooting public responds to a bolt-action rifle stamped "Smith & Wesson."