When it comes to hunting, I'm a wilderness addict. The more remote the country, the more I love it. But the older I get, the more my pack and rifle seem to weigh, making me value lightweight rifles, such as the new Weatherby Vanguard S2 Back Country.
There are those who will argue that at 6 pounds, 12 ounces the Back Country is not a true lightweight, and they are correct. There are production bolt-action hunting rifles (Kimber) and custom rifles (Rifles Inc., Ultra Light Arms, MGA, and others) that weigh in at less than 5 pounds. But I'll contend that for the average guy, and even the expert rifleman, a 6-plus-pound rifle is much easier to shoot accurately under field conditions. The Weatherby Back Country bridges the gap between too light for best accuracy and too heavy to carry.
The Heart and Soul
Clearly, a good deal of thought went into the design of the Back Country. (Properly, it's a redesign, since in years past the Vanguard line included a model dubbed the Back Country.) The nicely contoured barrel is fluted to reduce weight, but most of the savings in ounces comes in the stock. It's an excellent Bell and Carlson (a company that specializes in fiberglass, Aramid, and graphite), but rather than going with the popular — and heavy — full-length aluminum bedding block, the designers opted to use the much lighter all-composite stock and pillar bed the action.
A full-length aluminum bedding block is an excellent way to provide a rigid, strong stock with a reasonably successful drop-in fit. However, machining tolerances can vary, both in actions and in bedding blocks, and riflemen and gunsmiths serious about accuracy contend that even a bedding block must be "skim bedded" to achieve the best consistency. A pitfall that occasionally accompanies bedding blocks is misalignment; a block can be built into a stock a fraction of a degree off, and as a result, when an action is bolted into it, the barrel runs off center at the tip of the fore-end. It's only fair to add that this fault is rare, and when it occurs, stock companies are usually very good about sending a replacement.
Pillar bedding, on the other hand, is more work (often a lot more), achieves a more perfect fit through the necessary glass bedding of every individual action, and allows a gunsmith or hobbyist more control over the way the action and barrel lie in the stock.
In the end, both bedding methods achieve the same result: a solid, noncompressible foundation for the action screws and a consistent action-to-stock fit. But pillar bedding is undoubtedly lighter. Circling back to the design of the new Vanguard S2 Back Country, Weatherby opted for the more work-intensive method to benefit weight-conscious hunters.
The actual glass bedding uses a minimalist approach — bedding just the recoil lug — but judging by the accuracy of the samples I've fired and witnessed being fired, it works well.
Stock color is black with a subtle gray spiderweb pattern that reminds me of granite. It's also textured prior to painting to give it a pebbled or orange-peel surface that aids gripping and positive handling. It has the classic Weatherby high comb and rakish angle on the fore-end tip, and the butt is fitted with Pachmayr's outstanding Decelerator recoil pad.
The barrel and action are chrome-moly steel, finished in Tactical Gray Cerakote. I'm a fan of Cerakote. It's an incredibly durable corrosion- and friction-resistant, ceramic-based finish that won't flake around the muzzle crown or scratch like most Teflon-based finishes do. It's applied to the Back Country with a nice nonglare satin surface. The Cerakote protects the exterior of the metal parts from weather and abuse, but not the bore, as it has a rather detrimental effect on accuracy if applied there. Here, I have one of my only two quibbles about the Back Country: I'd prefer to see at least the barrel made of stainless steel. While cosmetic protection to the exterior is nice, the bore is where the soul of a rifle lives, and stainless steel stands up to the rigors of wilderness use better than chrome-moly. I think savvy wilderness hunters would have cheerfully paid the extra dollars for stainless.
That said, my preference is admittedly driven by laziness. I always keep a compact Otis cleaning kit in my pack, along with clean patches and oil, but a stainless barrel just allows me to ignore it with a cleaner conscience.
Speaking of the barrel, Back Country rifles are fitted with a sleek, No. 2-contour, 24-inch tube. That's a perfect length for the standard calibers, such as .270 Winchester and .30-06, but I'd like to see a 26-inch barrel on the Magnum calibers.
The mechanics of the action are unchanged from the standard Vanguard S2. The bolt is a two-lug design with a Sako-style extractor and spring-loaded plunger ejector, perforated by three gas-venting holes to direct hot propellant gases away from the shooter's face if a cartridge were to rupture. The bolt release is a stamped but very functional part, located at the left rear of the action, and is activated by depressing it. The safety is a three-position lever located at the right rear of the action — forward to fire, rearward to engage the safety and lock the bolt, and the center position to engage the safety while leaving the bolt unlocked.
The bottom metal is sleek and classic. A hinged, low-profile floorplate lies snug to the stock and is released by a button-like lever located in the front of the well-contoured trigger guard. Inside the magazine box is the only plastic piece I could find on the rifle: the follower. It's constructed of naturally lubricious, high-impact polymer, and while I prefer no plastic in a bolt action, it will no doubt give decades of trouble-free service.
The action screws employ large Torx heads, which are less susceptible to damage than traditional flat-head slots. Those on my rifle came from the factory torqued to 40 inch-pounds.
The S2 trigger is a two-stage design, adjustable down to 2.5 pounds. Each trigger is handhoned and tuned at the factory. If I understand correctly, using a two-stage design allows Weatherby to provide a lawyer-approved, incredibly safe trigger with a pull like that of a high-dollar aftermarket match trigger without a safety-enhancing lever imbedded within the trigger itself. My .240 Weatherby rifle came with the trigger factory-set at 3 pounds, 3 ounces, with only 3 ounces of variation over a series of 10 pull measurements with a Lyman digital trigger gauge.
Weatherby guarantees 0.99 MOA accuracy out of the Vanguard S2 Back Country, which is pretty good considering the lightweight, No. 2-contour, fluted barrel. All metal parts are coated with Tactical Gray Cerakote.
As on most Weatherby rifles, the stock is by Bell and Carlson; however, the Back Country is pillar bedded into a Carbelite model (to save weight) rather than a Medalist model with bedding block.
The Back Country's floorplate is sleek, and the release is protected. Also, the Torx-style action screws are less likely to get 'buggered up ' than standard slot-type screws.
The bolt is a two-lug design with a Sako-style extractor and spring-loaded plunger ejector, perforated by three gas-venting holes to direct hot propellant gases away from the shooter's face if a cartridge were to rupture. The bolt release is a stamped but very functional part, located at the left rear of the action, and is activated by depressing it.
Worth Every Penny
Excellent design and good looks are worth nothing if a rifle doesn't handle well and perform reliably and accurately. Not to worry. The Back Country feels great in the hands and comes to the shoulder naturally, courtesy of the classic design features pioneered by Roy Weatherby over a half-century ago. The stock is slender enough at the balance point to carry comfortably in the hand, the action runs smoothly with the rifle held at the shoulder, and the high comb does a reasonably good job of lining the shooter's eye up with the crosshairs.
I mounted a lovely compact 3-9X 32mm Leupold riflescope in lightweight one-piece aluminum mounts (made for Weatherby by Talley), bringing overall rifle weight to around 7.5 pounds. The first factory load I tried featured a 100-grain Nosler Partition, and the very first string out of the rifle grouped under an inch, as did the next string with the 85-grain Barnes TSX. Later, I returned to the range for formal accuracy testing with those loads and a handload. The excellent results are listed in the accompanying chart.
The Vanguard S2 Back Country retails at $1,399. Though the price at your local gunshop will likely be lower, that's still a significant chunk of change to shell out for a rifle. Is it worth it?
I think it is. It offers a well-built, well-finished barreled action that's properly mounted into a strong stock that is impervious to the elements. Every Back Country is guaranteed to shoot 0.99 MOA or better. I think the rifle has just enough weight to be stable in field positions, and the outstanding trigger makes it easy to shoot well. Whether you opt for a capable but common caliber, such as the .270 Win., or a sizzling Weatherby Magnum, I think the Vanguard S2 Back Country will give a lifetime of reliable, accurate service.