The Truth About Lightweight Rifles
January 03, 2011
Greg gives us his take on lightweight bolt rifles.
I was never a fan of lightweight rifles, and until I started sheep hunting a few years ago, I didn't see how any true rifleman could be. To me, the pound or two a light rifle saved wasn't worth losing the stable, muzzle-heavy feel of a real rifle. Now, thanks to advances in technology--stocks and metallurgy--and some good old-fashioned ingenuity on the part of the gun industry, I don't have to choose between light weight and that "real rifle" feel.
The first lightweight rifles were virtually identical to their standard-weight brethren, with the exception of their pencil-thin barrels. Those thin barrels certainly helped those rifles shed a pound or two, but they moved the balance point way back, resulting in rifles that didn't point naturally and were difficult to hold steady. That lack of balance was exaggerated by heaving chests and nerves--two things that always seem to be abundant at the moment of truth.
Later, some custom makers began skeletonizing standard rifle bolts and actions to save weight. The combination of lightweight, synthetic stocks and thin barrels made these rifles balance a bit better, but they had their share of faults. In the field, they were still more difficult to hold steady than sporter-weight rifles. They also kicked like mules. Most got around that with muzzle breaks, but that was at the cost of grumpy hunting guides who weren't too thrilled by having their ears blown out because their clients couldn't handle recoil.
My biggest beef with such rifles has to do with safety. I cannot see the wisdom of removing steel from an already-heat-treated pressure vessel designed to contain an explosion next to my face. I am not aware of any safety issues with such modifications, but those holes in the action are unsettling to me.
It wasn't until some better options came along that I willingly gave up my sporter-weight rifles.
The Custom Route
My first lightweight rifle was a custom .260 Remington built on a Model 70 action by the guys at Hill Country Rifles. The M70 action is no flyweight, but Hill Country shaved weight by using good components like a McMillan synthetic stock with the new lightweight Hunter's Edge fill. They also used Talley's ultralight mounts and a quality No. 2-contour barrel. Although the barrel is a bit thinner than I like, it still has a slight muzzle-heavy feel, despite weighing just 7.75 pounds with a Swarovski 3-9X riflescope and a sling attached.
Despite its light weight, that little rifle pounds those 6.5mm 140-grain pills into sub-half-inch groups with astounding regularity. And thanks to a good, straight-line stock design and quality recoil pad, it doesn't kick a bit. I was so pleased with it, I ordered an identical rifle in .300 WSM last year.
A European Solution
My Hill Country rifles are great, but they aren't as light as I would like in some situations. In preparation for a mountain goat hunt in B.C., I happened upon the little Blaser K-95. This sleek .270 single-shot has a 23.6-inch barrel yet weighs only 5.3 pounds. It has gorgeous wood, balances beautifully, and shoots like a house afire. Its faults are few--it's almost too pretty to tote up the mountains, and it kicks a ton. In fact, I didn't even think the .270 Win. kicked at all until I shot that little Blaser.
Still, that dainty rifle is a joy to carry. The fact that it is one of the most accurate rifles I've ever owned also inspires a great deal of confidence. Truth be told, I was not expecting sub-quarter-inch accuracy from a break-action single-shot, but I am not about to throw it away either. Still, I am not that adept at reloading it quickly, and it really is almost too pretty to hunt with, so I kept looking for other options.
The major manufacturers have also thrown their hats in the ultralight rifle ring. Ruger, Sako, Kimber, Remington, Browning, and Weatherby are some of the makers that offer lightweight rifles with thin barrels and synthetic stocks. In fact, I will have been on a Dall sheep hunt in Alaska with my lightweight .257 Weatherby by the time you read this.
Remington and Browning chose the high-tech route to really shed some pounds. Remington's Alaskan Ti employs a titanium action, trim synthetic stock, and thin barrel to get the weight of its short-action models down to 6 pounds. Using similar technology, Browning's Mountain Ti weighs in at a trim 5.5 pounds. Both rifles balance well, shoot great, and are easy to carry. But titanium isn't cheap, and neither are those rifles. Both are priced north of a thousand bucks, which is considerably more than you'll pay for a standard A-Bolt or Model 700 at your local gunshop.
A Perfect Solution
I've long heard of Melvin Forbes's New Ultralight rifles. In fact, as I told Mel when we first spoke, I first became interested in his rifles when I was a junior in high school. That comment didn't go over so well, but Mel got me back. He talked me into placing an order before I got off the phone.
I ordered the Model 24 in .30-06, and it is a beauty. Its most striking feature is its tiny proprietary action. Forbes designed seven different action sizes to fit different cartridge families with minimal wasted space. Made from a solid bar of 4140 steel, the action is trimmer than Remington's Model 700 action, but it retains the exact same wall thickness. The result is a lighter gun of equal strength.
The Forbes actions are built to exacting tolerances; they are smooth and lock up tight. Everything is built to scale, including the diminutive bolt handle, which settles nicely in the hand yet is small enough that it's out of the way.
The New Ultralight Arms action has a Sako-style extractor and a three-function, two-position safety. By pushing down on the safety while it is in the "Safe" position, you can work the bolt. A Timney trigger and Douglas Premium Grade barrel are other welcome departures from the standard factory-rifle recipe.
With its classic lines, the M24's stock is one of its most unique features. It is scaled perfectly to the diminutive action. There is minimal drop, a Pachmayr Decelerator pad helps tame recoil, and a finished weight of 14 ounces helps keep the overall package light.
Unlike most custom shops who free-float their barrels, Forbes full-length beds his rifles. I've heard differing opinions on full-length bedding versus free-floating, but I have no complaints. My gun shoots under a half-inch with the CorBon 168-grain TSX load.
I fell in love with this rifle the first time I threw it to my shoulder. The action is exquisite, the stock fits me perfectly, and it balances like a real rifle should, despite the fact that it weighs about 6.5 pounds scoped and ready to roll. Recoil is noticeable but not bad given its light weight. I would not want to shoot a much bigger cartridge in the same package, but the old '06 is plenty of gun for almost everything on this continent.
On its maiden voyage, I used my New Ultralight Arms M24 to take a 1000-pound meat eland on the South Texas ranch of my good friend, Irvin Barnhart. Although it wasn't difficult terrain, the Model 24's light weight and exceptional handling qualities were noticeable. I am certain they'll be greatly appreciated when I carry this rifle in the mountains.