Old World Style: Steyr SM12 Review


Europeans have long held a different notion than Americans of what a big-game rifle should be. Or perhaps it's the other way around, since they came first. Steyr Arms, an Austrian company best known in the New World for its tactical firearms such as the bullpup A.U.G., has recently brought out a refined bolt-action SM12 with features that will impress a lot of traditionally minded hunters, Americans as well as Europeans.

Style in Spades

I had the opportunity to spend several days earlier this year hunting hogs in Texas with a new SM12. At first glance, it has a lot of Germanic influence—a Roman-nosed comb, "double flame" flutes in the scalloped Bavarian cheekpiece, rosewood-tipped schnabel fore-end, and fish-scale (or dragon scale, or snakeskin, or whatever you prefer) double-bordered "checkering" on the grip and fore-end.

The styling extends throughout the metalwork. A small ejection port leaves plenty of action-stiffening metal in the receiver; the bolt has a spoon-type handle; and the rifle wears iron sights—a feature much more common these days in Europe than in America and one that I approve of thoroughly. Less visible, but still deeply Continental, is a single-set trigger. Push it forward until it clicks, and it becomes a hair trigger that must be measured in ounces, not pounds.

American-style features are more subtle. For one, the bolt locks up in the front receiver ring rather than in the rear of the barrel as many foreign designs do. For another—and important to the easy mix-and-match versatility demanded by Americans—the design uses plain, easily available scope bases by Talley, Weaver, etc.

Whatever the influences that inspired the SM12's design, any shooter who handles and shoots one can't help but be impressed by its ergonomics. It carries well in the hand, shoulders nicely, points naturally, and balances beautifully. The fish-scale checkering provides an adequate no-slip grip, and the slenderness of the fore-end and a mild palmswell at the pistol grip position a shooter's hands comfortably.

It's good-looking, too. The cold hammer forged barrel appears round from a distance, but a closer look reveals that it has 16 flats machined in a spiral pattern, lending a highly finished, sophisticated look. The rosewood schnabel fore-end has lovely lines, and the grip is capped with matching rosewood inlaid with the Steyr target logo. The whole rifle has an appearance of functional quality.

The aforementioned iron sights are unique, capable, and, in one aspect, slightly disappointing. I say disappointing because the windage-adjustable rear sight blade is made of a high-impact polymer or glass-filled nylon rather than metal. It's strong and usable but, well, not metal. Other than that the sights are of great quality and are beautifully fitted to the barrel.

Windage adjustments are accomplished by loosening a tiny setscrew and drifting the rear sight in its dovetail. Elevation adjustments are made with the front sight. Nope, not with a file. Think M16 front sight, and you'll understand how—though the Steyr front is a blade that pivots on a central pin rather than rises or lowers directly a la the M16. Dialing the front screw block down raises the rear of the blade; dialing it up lowers the blade. The complex but outstanding arrangement is housed in a beautifully machined ramp, striated on the top surface to reduce glare.

I hunted with an SM12 in .308, but the rifle I received later on loan for accuracy testing and detail photography was chambered for .270 Winchester. Interestingly, though the .308 had the classic 1:12 rifling twist rate, the .270 was rifled with a unique rate of 1 turn in 8.6 inches. Both had four lands and grooves. While I only shot Hornady's American Whitetail ammunition through the .308, average accuracy was just outside of 1 inch for three-shot groups at 100 yards.

Action length is the same for short- and long-action cartridges: just shy of 8 inches from the front of the receiver ring to the rear face of the rear receiver bridge. It is pillar and glass bedded into the stock.

Of opposing lug design, the SM12's bolt sports dual locking lugs on each side, making it a quadruple-lug system. Close examination revealed that all four lugs appear to be bearing equally—quite a feat of precision manufacturing. Extraction is accomplished via a sort of Sako-style pivoting claw, and ejection is by a plunger-type rod in the face of the bolt.

Of full-diameter design, the bolt rides smooth as silk in its raceway, as full-diameter bolts do. I've rarely functioned a smoother action. However, with a full magazine of cartridges and some windblown grit in its action, the .270-caliber version developed a bit of chatter as it ran forward and fed a fresh cartridge into the chamber. It moved, but felt somehow rubbery. The .308 ran cleanly throughout the time I hunted with it, and it got plenty dusty, too.

A deep, straight groove in the bottom of the bolt mates with a boltstop located just in front of the trigger. The boltstop is actually activated by the trigger. To remove the bolt, hold the trigger rearward and draw the bolt out. A long oval groove is machined into the surface of the bolt opposite the boltstop groove, and for the life of me I couldn't figure out a practical reason for its existence. Fouling collection? Weight reduction? Aesthetics? Beats me.

Two gas ports are located in the body of the bolt, fore and aft in the ejection port when the bolt is in the closed position. In case of a blown primer or ruptured case, they provide a margin of protection to the shooter.

Steyr's Hand Cocking System graces the tang and acts as both safety and decocker. Press it forward to load the firing pin spring and deactivate the safety; push downward to release it and allow it to slide rearward to decompress the spring and engage the safety. Unlike some competing safety/decockers that can be hard to manage without practice and a strong thumb, the SM12's is easy and intuitive. Such designs are in fact a real improvement on most typical safeties—no matter if the safety function fails, the cartridge can't fire if the firing pin has no juice behind it.

I'm no fan of single-set triggers, but they are very popular in Europe and have a small but loyal following in America. In the case of the SM12, the standard trigger—without using the single-set function—is beautifully light and crisp, measuring 1 pound, 12 ounces with less than an ounce of variation over a series of five tests. Set, the trigger breaks at 7.5 ounces.

In a fit of brilliance, the SM12 engineers designed the trigger so that it can't be set when the safety/decocker is in the "Safe" or released position, and if a shooter decocks the safety with the trigger already set, it releases the set trigger. It's a nice precaution against potential hair-trigger-induced negligent discharges.

Four rounds are contained in the polymer magazine. The floorplate and follower are polymer, which to me contrasts poorly with the beautiful wood and satin bluing of the rest of the rifle, but it does have a unique, useful latch system. Dual, independent latches are located at each side of the floorplate and are accessed via cutouts in the stock (a cosmetic nuance I dislike). The great thing about the magazine is that it has two positions: one fully inserted and functioning; the other a quarter of an inch or so out, which lowers the cartridges in the magazine out of reach of the bolt. It allows the owner to disengage the ammo supply from the rifle without the risk of misplacing his loaded magazine. A slap of the palm will seat the magazine into functioning position, making it useful for riding around in a truck (where legal) with the magazine at the ready but not engaged.

Permanent, machined old-school sling swivels are affixed at the fore-end and buttstock and add panache and a sense of highly finished refinement. The buttstock itself is padded with a hard, thin recoil pad that would make even the stalwarts of yesteryear twinge. It's useful for keeping the rifle leaned in the corner on a slick floor, but not for dampening the felt effect of recoil.

A True Thoroughbred

While hunting with the SM12 for several days, I shot six hogs, all dropping to a single 150-grain bullet from Hornady's new American Whitetail ammo line. The last two pigs were a fast right and left; a proper double on a pair of running porkers at about 40 yards, testifying to the fast cycling and responsive pointing attributes of the rifle.

Shortly after the hunt, I persuaded Mike Nischalke of Hunter Outdoor Communications—the PR group that represents Steyr in the U.S.—to loan me a rifle for accuracy testing and photography. After mounting a Swarovski 3-10X 42mm Z3, I shot groups with several factory loads and a couple of favorite handloads. Of the factory offerings, two out of five averaged under an inch at 100 yards; my handloads did even better, both averaging at or under an inch.

The Steyr SM12 is a thoroughbred hunting rifle in every sense. It's beautifully built, handles well, and shoots accurately. At $3,499 the suggested retail price is high by most standards, but the complex, precision machining and excellent performance justify it, especially if you're a shooter with an appreciation for European class and ergonomics.

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