The Best Rifles of 2017
The Outdoor Life Gun Test reveals some amazing values and high quality knockouts in our largest-ever rifle test
The fever has broken. The red-hot demand for black guns and defensive handguns that dominated the shooting market for the past several years has cooled off, largely due to shifting political and economic winds. This has created some uncertainty for firearms makers, who have seen gun sales fall and stock prices drop. For the most part, the manufacturers have responded by introducing new products in a variety of categories and by cutting prices. It’s enough to bring a tear to the eye of any red-blooded fan of free-market supply-and-demand capitalism. As a result, we’re seeing more new guns in 2017 than we have in many years—and the scope of our rifle and shotgun test reflects this.
Several interesting trends are evident. The most significant is the presence of hybrid firearms that are meant to have crossover applications in more than one niche. With respect to rifles, the most vivid expression of this is among long-range tactical hunting rifles. Everyone has their own take on what this means, but typically we’re seeing heavier, longer barrels, detachable magazines, bulkier stocks with more adjustment, and Picatinny rails. Unscoped and empty, these guns usually weigh between 9 and 10 pounds, about 2 to 3 pounds less than true tactical rigs, and 2 to 3 pounds more than traditional hunting rifles. Another trend that complements this is the rise of the 6.5 Creedmoor, which is a standout target and hunting round. Though the cartridge has been around since 2007, and has been gaining steadily in popularity, this is a breakout year for it, in which nearly every new long gun is being offered in the 6.5. With shotguns, the hybrid movement is reflected in guns that cross over between hunting and shooting clays, or between different clay-shooting disciplines.
These guns—meaning both rifles and shotguns—serve a couple of purposes. One is to entice consumers into trying new types of shooting. The hybrid tactical-hunting models, for instance, give hunters a chance to experience long-range shooting, the hot trend of the moment. They also deliver value. A firearm that provides extra utility by crossing between shooting disciplines can theoretically save a shooter money.
Which brings us to the last major trend of 2017—falling prices. We’ve seen no shortage of smartly priced guns in recent years, but now good values are to be found at every price point, from entry-level firearms to semi-custom guns. With the collapse of the panic purchasing of ARs, black guns that would have sold for $2,500 or more a few years ago are going for nearly $1,000 less. It’s a welcome correction, and a sign that it is a very good time to be a shooter in what is unquestionably a buyer’s market.
This rifle was undeniably fun to shoot off the bench. It is built on Browning’s X-Bolt action and has been fitted with a 28-inch bull barrel and is nestled in McMillian’s excellent A3-5 stock. The rifle’s 9 ½-pound weight, combined with an effective muzzle brake, keeps the crosshairs rock-steady before the shot and during recoil. Chambered in 6.5 Creed, it is a natural for long-range targets.
The rifle’s heft diminishes its utility for hunting, and its limited magazine capacity doesn’t make it viable for competition. This lack of versatility cost it some points, especially in light of its $2,799 price tag.
Given the gun’s narrow focus on accuracy, we also thought it would shoot a bit better than it did. Its .945-inch group average wasn’t shabby, but we expected it to shoot at least .3 inch tighter.
The 22 Nosler is one of the year’s hottest new cartridges, and Colt Competition is one of the first gunmakers to chamber for it. Here’s what the round does: It jacks up .22-caliber performance in AR-15-sized receivers by necking down the 6.8 Rem. SPC. The performance boost versus the .223 Rem. is impressive. With 77-gr. bullets, the 22 Nosler gains about 400 fps over the .223. In our rifle, the round also happened to be extremely accurate. We got several groups in the .6s, and the overall 5-shot group average was .849 inch, making it the second most accurate rifle of the test.
The rifle has a crisp 3 ½-pound trigger, a well-designed muzzle brake, and a comfortable handguard.
This versatile rifle would work well in competition, and for staking out coyotes and stalking deer.
Bergara B-14 HMR Nathaniel Welch
Bergara has been in the zone for the last couple of years and has produced another winner with the B-14 HMR, which took the Editor’s Choice award in the rifle category. We liked everything about this rifle, and as a tactical-hunter hybrid, it debuted at the right time.
Chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor, this is a tack-driver with a lot of nice features at a really good price.
It was the most accurate rifle in the test, with the average 5-shot group measuring .833 inch. It especially liked Winchester’s 140-gr. Sierra Match King load, which turned in 5-shot groups that averaged .474 inch—legit ½ MOA performance with factory ammo.
The stock has an adjustable cheekpiece with a simple knob for making quick changes in the field and comes with spacers the shooter can use to alter length of pull. We appreciated the narrow dimensions on the vertical pistol grip, and found the trigger geometry to be excellent. The inclusion of flush-mounted cups on the stock for QD sling attachments is a smart feature, but Bergara should add a third cup on the underside of the forend (replacing the rear swivel stud) for maximum flexibility and utility.
We were able to run the gun quickly, thanks to the oversize bolt handle and smooth two-lug B-14 action. And since the rifle weighs about 9 ½ pounds, we could drive the gun easily and maintain the sight picture through recoil.
We had no issues with the 5-round AICS detachable magazine. The rifle has a Sako-style extractor and plunger ejector, and cycled all ammo with no failures.
As with all rifles of this type, the weight is a bit of an issue for hunting. But since this is a rifle that one can legitimately use in competition after purchasing additional 10-round magazines, it is not a stretch to picture someone adopting it as his one-and-only long gun, mastering it at the range, learning to use it under pressure in competition, and confidently taking it afield to tag a trophy.
We knew this little .17 HMR with its appealing $329 MSRP was going to be a strong contender for a Great Buy award based on its price alone. That was confirmed as soon as we started shooting. By the end of the test, there wasn’t any doubt in our minds. This sweet little bolt gun is a heck of a value for anyone looking for a fun rimfire plinker, and it earned the award amid some stout competition. All judges commented in their notes on how smoothly the rifle ran. We were able to cycle the action rapidly after each shot, seemingly by instinct, as we quickly ran through its 10-round rotary magazine in a matter of seconds. None of us had any issues with the rifle feeding, extracting, or ejecting. It ran flawlessly with every type of ammo we put through it.
At just a touch over 6 pounds, the rifle is very handy to wield, and it earned high marks for its good ergonomics. The stock, with its raised comb and semi-vertical pistol grip, had a comfortable and natural fit, the top tang safety is easy to manipulate, and the user-adjustable trigger broke at a satisfying 2 pounds 10 ounces, which is about ideal for a rifle of this type.
The 20-inch barrel features button rifling and delivered very good accuracy. At 50 yards, the average 5-shot group measured .675 inch, with the best groups coming from the CCI A17 17-gr. load, which for me averaged .398 inch. With accuracy like that in a fast-handling configuration, squirrels, varmints, and other small game have good reason to worry.
The rifle is built to take a beating. The metalwork isn’t fancy, so getting a few scratches on it won’t bother anyone, and the composite stock will survive hard use whether it is stashed behind the seat of a pickup, leaned up against a barbed-wire fence, or shot off a pile of rocks.
As the name suggests, the Backcountry is a rifle bred for the mountains, and a good mountain rifle needs to be light, durable, and accurate. This Cooper checks all those requirements. Plus, it balances like a fine shotgun.
Unscoped, our .30/06 weighs just under 6 pounds. The carbon-fiber stock is stiff and ultra light. The deep spirals in the bolt body and hollowed-out bolt handle save grams. The 24-inch barrel is tipped with an effective spiral-patterned muzzle brake. The Jewel trigger, with a 1-pound 2-ounce pull, is too light for a hunting rifle, however.
I was able to wring .7-inch groups from it with match ammo from Federal and Hornady, which provides the kind of confidence a hunter needs when a trophy is on the line.
Montana Rifle Company prides itself on its Western cred, turning out stylish, hard-working guns at a fair price. So when it builds a rifle that looks like a pair of Lee Miller cowboy boots, you know folks are gonna tip their hats back and wonder if it can deliver the goods.
Well, the MSR has a lot of promise, seeing as how it’s chambered in the hot 6mm Creedmoor, and it delivered some excellent accuracy off the bench. But we had some feeding and cycling issues with the way the cartridges fed from the detachable box magazines we used—which was roughly, requiring a lot of effort at times to chamber rounds. This put a crimp in our otherwise enthusiastic response to this gun.
Apart from that, the rifle’s construction is top notch.
This rifle revealed its magic when we pulled the scope off and used its outstanding open sights to shoot small metal targets offhand at 100 yards. We all felt like Steph Curry draining deep 3s with each successive impact as we rapidly worked the smooth action and emptied the 4+1 magazine. This rifle ups your shooting game.
It was no slouch with the scope on either, turning in a couple of ½ MOA 5-shot groups for me with 168-gr. match bullets. It is chambered in .30/06 and is a new action size from Anschutz that has been many years in the making—the company, known for its gold-medal standards (having won more medals in Olympic competition than any other gunmaker), delayed introduction until it was ready.
The way this rifle comes up and points (and hits) makes it an expert hunting tool. With a good scope mounted with QD rings, you’ll be ready to take on everything from hunting in thick timber to long shots in open country.