Rifle Test '09

CZ-USA/Brno Effect In an era in which gunmakers are rushing to add plastic and camouflage and accessory mounts to their firearms--and otherwise bolt from anything that gives off the faintest whiff of tradition--it seems quaint, if not downright quixotic, to bring a single-shot deerstalker rifle to the American market. But that is what CZ-USA has done with the Brno Effect, a trim and light break-action that is chambered in the decidedly un-hip .30/06.
At $1,585, the Effect is not cheap, though its price compares well to similar single-shots from overseas. We appreciated the Effect's lively handling and portability, with one test team member observing that it would make a good backcountry rifle or could be used on game hunted in heavy cover, where a fast shot is likely. That it's so easy to handle would make it a smart choice for a young shooter as well, at least in theory. I say in theory because our test rifle had some design issues, with an action that was difficult to open (attributable in part to its newness) and, more seriously, a heavy trigger pull that tipped the scales at 5 pounds 3 ounces. Given that the rifle weighs only an ounce above 6 pounds, a trigger pull that heavy is bound to have a detrimental effect on its accuracy in the field. Nonetheless, with careful technique, our rifle shot a 1.47-inch group off the bench, which shows it can deliver adequate performance for big game. ($1,585; cz-usa.com) Testers' Comments: Good backcountry rifle. * Trigger pull hurt this rifle. * Fun to shoot. * Like the trim lines and in-hand feel. Overall Rating: 2 1/2 stars Workmanship: C+ Performance: B Price/Value: C+
H&R Pardner Pump No, your eyes aren't tricking you. There is something vaguely familiar about this slug gun from H&R. Actually, that's a bit of an understatement, as the Pardner Pump is, in fact, a Chinese-built Remington 870 clone. It is such a faithful reproduction that at one point Remington was contemplating legal action, but with the consolidation of Remington and H&R under the same corporate umbrella, all was forgiven. In essence, Remington has said, welcome to the family, kid. This is good news for sportsmen looking for a budget-priced rifled slug gun. It works just as you might suspect, which is to say our sample went bang every time we tugged on the 6-pound 13-ounce trigger. The gun's design is basic, but quite functional. The 
cantilever extension jutting off the barrel, with its Weaver-style mounts, makes adding a scope simple, and the raised cheekpiece helps get your head into position. Recoil with slugs is, as you would suspect, stout, but the accuracy of our sample with Remington's Buckhammer load was good enough for 100-yard shots on game. A front swivel stud to help affix a sling would be a welcome addition to the package, and one that wouldn't add much to the shotgun's $296 price. Of course, given that some rifled slug barrels cost more than this entire shotgun, it is hard to complain too loudly about that minor shortcoming. ($296; hr1871.com) Testers' Comments: Not a bad gun, considering the price. * Good utilitarian beater of a pump gun. * Wish it had a better trigger. Overall Rating: 3 stars Workmanship: C Performance: B Price/Value: A
Marlin 338MX From the perspective of a flint-hearted accountant, it's difficult to see the merit of the .338 Marlin Express. Any new cartridge starting with a caliber greater than .30 is almost certainly doomed to niche status, let alone one designed for a platform as antiquated as a lever gun. But then, 30 years ago, who would have guessed that the beginning of the 21st century would be a time of stubborn vitality for lever-action rifles? Though sportsmen haven't been rushing to trade in their bolt guns or, increasingly, their ARs for lever-actions, the fact remains that these old-style repeaters appeal to more than just the cowboy dress-up crowd. What these aficionados gain in the 338MX is a hard-hitting and fairly flat-shooting 200-grain bullet that is more than adequate for any North American game in Marlin's handy and reliable M1895 platform. With a published muzzle velocity and energy of 2,565 fps, and 2,922 foot-pounds from a 24-inch barrel, the bullet is still carrying 1,762 foot-pounds of energy at 300 yards, with only 7.9 inches of drop given a zero of 3 inches at 100 yards. As a practical matter, shots on game with our test rifle would be limited to 200 yards, given its 2 1⁄2-inch accuracy. Everyone on the test team appreciated the snappy way the Marlin 338MX shouldered and cycled, though the rifle would benefit greatly from a better recoil pad. ($610; marlinfirearms.com) Testers' Comments: Surprisingly good trigger. * Wish it were more accurate. * Great carry balance. * Love the rifle's classic lines. Overall Rating: 3 stars Workmanship: C+ Performance: B+ Price/Value: B+
Marlin XS7 The arrival of the XS7 was as unsurprising as it was welcome. On the heels of last year's successful introduction of the Marlin XL7, which marked the company's reentry into the bolt-action market after a seven-year hiatus, it was simply a matter of when, and not if, Marlin would develop a short-action version of the rifle. The qualities that made the XL7 so appealing--affordability, no-frills utility in a design that incorporates cost-conscious and accuracy-enhancing features--are evident in the XS7. One such example is the "floating" head on the bolt, which is less expensive to produce than a one-piece unit and can align itself within the chamber as the action is closed, which is a boon to accuracy. The same goes for the use of a screw-down barrel nut. It isn't very attractive, but it makes it easy to set the head spacing with extreme precision. Overall, the test team had good things to say about the blade-style adjustable trigger, which despite visual similarities does not operate like Savage's AccuTrigger. With the trigger set to break at just under 3 pounds, the XS7 demonstrated its accuracy potential, with its eight best 5-shot groups averaging 1.403 inches using six different types of .308 ammunition. While keeping costs down was clearly a priority for the XS7's designers, the rifle's aesthetics weren't forgotten. The fluted bolt and handsomely shaped (albeit plastic-y) stock, with clean, sharp checkering and raised cheekpiece, both look good, while the faux skeletonized grip cap with "inletting" and the checkering offset by a bold "M" give the rifle panache. That you get all this for $341 explains why the XS7 was our consensus choice for this year's Great Buy award. ($341; marlinfirearms.com) Testers' Comments: Awesome price. This gun is an incredible value. * Marlin made no missteps in the design of this gun. * Great trigger. * Lots of clothes-gripping edges on the rifle. * The position of the trigger and safety in relationship to the grip seems to custom-fit my hand. * The blade doesn't come flush with the trigger when depressed. * The blind magazine is easy to load. * Good, clean lines on the stock. Overall Rating: 3 1/2 stars Workmanship: C+ Performance: B+ Price/Value: A+
Merkel KR1 Merkel's KR1 is a refreshing new rifle. Not only is it a fine hunting arm in its own right, but it also bucks the disappointing trend exhibited by many German gunmakers, who roll out overly complicated sporting rifles under the guise of innovation. These rifles are engineering marvels loaded with features designed to answer questions no American sportsman would ever ask. That's not to say the switch barrel KR1 is austere or simple--far from it. But its high-tech elements, such as a trigger assembly that is mounted on the magazine floor plate, don't keep the rifle from being user-friendly. And more than just intuitive, the rifle functions very smoothly, from loading to firing to cycling the action, all of which contributed to its high performance score. The trigger was one of the best in the test, breaking consistently at just over 2 pounds, though the amount of take-up it required (it also functions as a set trigger) took some getting used to. The KR1's profile is distinctly European, with an angular housing covering the action and a hogs-back comb on the stock. The squared-off bottom of the stock and action was a benefit when shooting off the bench, but makes the rifle less comfortable to carry in hand than a rounded design. The only other quibble was the so-so checkering on an otherwise handsome rifle that's a joy to shoot. ($1,995; merkel-usa.com) Testers' Comments: Has lots of really nice touches. * Has good, but not great, wood. * Slick action. * Accurate and fun to shoot. Overall Rating: 3 1/2 stars Workmanship: B Performance: A Price/Value: B
Mossberg 4X4 The Mossberg 4x4 is not your grandfather's--or even your father's--deer rifle. With the gun's non-traditional lines (to put it mildly), it's clear the powers that be at Mossberg are hoping the 4x4 will strike a chord with young shooters. Attracting new blood to the hunting and shooting sports has taken on an importance for gunmakers akin to King Arthur's quest for the Holy Grail, and Mossberg is placing a significant bet that the extreme styling of the 4x4 will do the trick. The laminate stock--with its deep contours, slots for ventilation and rakish cheekpiece--is meant to make a bold statement. There are very few continuous lines on the stock, another deliberate effort to break with tradition. Some of these design elements found favor with the test team, such as the notably thin grip, which one shooter said worked well with his small hands. Other elements, such as the fit-and-finish around the detachable box magazine, lost points from test team members for being a bit rough, though the magazine itself earned high praise for being easy to load and functioning reliably. However, the new trigger was the highlight of the gun. The adjustable unit, with a lightning-bolt-engraved center tab, broke at 3 pounds 7 ounces and was the best trigger we've seen on a Mossberg. The 4x4's accuracy was certainly acceptable for big-game hunting, with 5-shot groups averaging just over 2 inches. ($654; mossberg.com) Testers' Comments: Trigger represents huge improvement for Mossberg. * Functioned reliably. * Good magazine, easy to load. Overall Rating: 2 1/2 stars Workmanship: C Performance: B Price/Value: C+
Remington R-15 The evolution of the big-game AR rifle has taken an interesting step forward with the introduction of the Remington .30 AR. Despite the recent enthusiasm to 
create AR-style rifles for deer-size and larger game, the concept isn't without its problems. At the top of the list is the weight of the rifles chambered in rounds adequate for the task. Compared with similarly configured bolt guns, they are bulky and uncomfortable to carry. One way to address this is to try to shoehorn more cartridge into the smaller .223-size action (versus the bulkier .308 size), and that's exactly what the engineers at Remington and sister company DPMS did with the .30 RAR. The upshot is a legitimate 300-yard deer cartridge in an 8 1⁄2-pound rifle. We had only one of the three factory loads available for our evaluation--the 123-grain FMJ--but it was the right one. The accuracy of the R-15 impressed the entire test team. It shot several sub-inch 5-shot groups and, just for fun, I put one 20-shot string downrange as quickly as I could reload the five-round magazine, which measured only 1.70 inches--all this was despite a noticeably rough trigger. If the soft-shooting R-15 is able to deliver this kind of performance with the .30 RAR hunting loads as well, then Remington and DPMS have created a winner. ($1,199; remington.com) Testers' Comments: This rifle is a shooter! * Super-accurate and has low recoil. * Would love to see it with a better trigger. Overall Rating: 3 1/2 stars Workmanship: B Performance: A Price/Value: B
Ruger M77 Predator Though there was some disagreement among the test team members regarding the looks of the multi-hued laminate stock on the new Ruger M77 Predator, there was no doubt in any of our minds after shooting it that this is a predator rifle worthy of the name. Hunting Editor Andrew McKean proved that with a .434-inch 5-shot group with Hornady's 32-grain V-Max bullet in .204 Ruger, only to be followed by Senior Editor John Taranto's .497-inch group with Hornady's 40-grain V-Max load. With performance like that, shots out to (and beyond) 400 yards are well within the capabilities of the rifle. Obviously, a good barrel is a key ingredient to getting that level of accuracy, but we also gave credit to the excellent two-stage trigger on our sample. The wraparound checkering on our rifle was well executed, though one tester found it too sharp for his comfort. Weighing in at about 81⁄2 pounds, the M77 Predator is still light enough to qualify as a walking varminter for backcountry treks afoot in pursuit of coyotes or prairie dogs, yet has enough heft to help settle the crosshairs on distant targets. The dull matte finish on the metalwork is particularly appropriate for a firearm of this type, and it was touches like this, along with the overall craftsmanship evident in the wood-to-metal fit, that contributed to the rifle's solid scores in every category. ($935; ruger.com) Testers' Comments: Really like the matte finish. * Like the color of the stock. * Don't like the color of the stock. * Great trigger. Overall Rating: 3 1/2 stars Workmanship: B+ Performance: B+ Price/Value: B
Sako 85 Finnlight A mountain rifle is a curious thing. We ask more of it than we do of other hunting rifles. We expect it to have the accuracy of a varmint rifle for long shots on what are potentially once-in-a-lifetime hunts, to be durable enough to survive the rigors of mountain hunting and, at the same time, to be light and easy to carry--a quality that is most often in direct conflict with the first two. The rifle that excels in all three categories is a rare and valuable creature indeed, one that deserves a place of honor in the gun safe. In the case of the Sako 85 Finnlight, it also deserves to be named this year's rifle test's Editor's Choice. Perhaps the word that best sums up this rifle's appeal is "security." The redesigned grip, with its palm swell, solidly fills the shooter's hands. The inserts in the synthetic stock provide a sure gripping surface, and the rest of the stock is made from a decidedly non-slip 
material, too. Snow, water and ice are not going to pry the Finnlight from your grasp. Likewise, nothing but a deliberate effort will remove the flush-mounted box magazine from the action--though the technique can be a bit tricky to master at first. The proven Sako 85 action is as slick and reliable as they come, and the accuracy of our test sample (in .308 Win.) was impressive, especially in light of the rifle's unscoped weight of 5 pounds 6 ounces. One of my 5-shot groups using Hornady 168-grain A-Max ammo measured a scant .581 inches. The Finnlight is a rifle you can trust your hunt to, which is about the highest praise of all. ($1,600; sako.fi) Testers' Comments: Butter-slick action on the bolt throw and lock-up. * One of the easiest-loading magazines in the test. * Rifle feels like it wants to group. * Great mountain gun. * This light-handling rifle goes easily to the shoulder. * Palm swell on stock a nice addition--for righties, at any rate. * Because the gun is so light, the recoil bites a bit when shooting off the bench. * Love the fit, finish and feel of the stock. Overall Rating: 4 Stars Workmanship: A Performance: A Price/Value:B
Savage Arms M11 FHNS When Savage introduced its AccuTrigger in 2003, it sent shockwaves through the gun industry. The message was clear: No longer was there any reason to tolerate a creepy, heavy, "lawyer-proof" trigger on a production rifle, no matter its cost. Since then, nearly every major gunmaker has either redesigned or upgraded the triggers on its firearms, to the benefit of all shooters. Savage hopes its latest innovation will prove as significant. Called the AccuStock, it is an aluminum bedding surface molded within a synthetic stock that's designed to squeeze the action from the front and sides as the guard screws are tightened. At the same time, the aluminum bedding block provides additional strength and rigidity to the stock. In theory, all this should make for a more accurate rifle. Not surprisingly, the Savage turned in the second smallest group among the big-game rifles in the test, with a .803-inch 5-shot group. The redesigned barrel nut, with its lower profile and better looks, is another welcome improvement to the Savage line, as is the new and innovative magazine floor plate, which has its release incorporated into the front of the trigger guard. The plain-yet-functional looks of the stock include sharp checkering and a cushy recoil pad. With these features incorporated into its newest rifles, Savage continues to enhance its reputation for affordable accuracy. ($656; savagearms.com) Testers' Comments: The action is tight and the bolt travel is very smooth. * A solid performer at a fair price. * Innovative stock. Overall Rating: 3 1/2 stars Workmanship: B Performance: A Price/Value: B+
Stag Arms M7 Unlike the .30 Rem. AR, which was expressly designed for big-game hunting, the 6.8 Rem. SPC started life as a military cartridge--but that didn't stop sportsmen from dragooning it into service as a deer and predator round as soon as it became available. Today, the 6.8 Rem. SPC has a small but devoted following, who appreciate its mild recoil and capability as a moderate-range big-game round. In its new Model 7 Hunter, Stag Arms has assembled a high-quality rifle around this cartridge, with some features it hopes will find favor with hunters looking for an AR for their deer stands. We certainly liked the in-hand comfort of the rounded hand guard and the sure grip provided by its textured rubber coating. Ditto for the contoured Hogue pistol grip. And while two-stage triggers are not common on sporting rifles, the trigger on our sample earned points for its consistent take-up and crisp break. The flat-topped receiver, with its integral rail, makes scope mounting an easy task, and while the A2-style stock is comfortable for shooting, the rifle would be better served with a stud for detachable sling swivels. The accuracy of our rifle was acceptable for the 250-yard effective range of the 6.8, but it did have some difficulty cycling back into battery from time to time, making it necessary to use the forward-assist plunger more often than we would have liked to get the action locked up. ($1,055; stagarms.com) Testers' Comments: Love the look of this gun--very sexy. * No felt recoil; easy to shoot. * The textured handguard is nice. Overall Rating: 3 stars Workmanship: B Performance: C+ Price/Value: B
T/C Precision Hunter When Thompson/Center rolled out its first-ever bolt-action rifle two years ago, we noted that features such as its integral Weaver-style bases would be aptly suited for varmint and tactical configurations. The introduction of the Precision Hunter confirms that our observation was on target. The rifle's heavy fluted barrel, oversize bolt handle knob, crisp adjustable trigger and beefy stock with its flat forend all complement the stout Icon action to create a capable and attractive varminter. One of the original criticisms of the action--the difficulty of single-loading cartridges through the ejection port, an especially important feature in a varmint rifle--has been addressed by the addition of a sculpted bit of plastic that the shooter can insert into the magazine, which makes the procedure much more convenient. Of course, a varmint rifle is only as good as its accuracy, and here Thompson/Center has raised the bar by guaranteeing .5-inch 5-shot groups at 100 yards. Our test rifle's smallest group measured .531 inches using Winchester's 50-grain Ballistic Silvertip load in .22-250 Rem., and several other brands of ammunition produced varmint-caliber sub-MOA groups. The high level of workmanship and the stylish lines on the rifle earned praise from the test team, though we wish the trigger could be adjusted to break at less than 3.5 pounds. ($1,299; tcarms.com) Testers' Comments: Stylish and pretty; feeds like a dream. * Wish the magazine were metal. * Love the bolt handle and flat forend. Overall Rating: 3 1/2 stars Workmanship: B+ Performance: A Price/Value: B+
T/C Venture Few things warm the heart of the Outdoor Life gun test team like a good value, which is why we took an immediate liking to the Thompson/Center Venture. What T/C has done is to take the expensive action from the Icon and eliminate some of the more costly manufacturing processes, such as the interchangeable bolt handles and the machining of the flat-bottomed receiver and corresponding bedding block in the stock. Instead, the Venture uses a synthetic stock with no special bedding block, and incorporates a round action design, which is simpler to make. The result is the stripped-down and more affordable Venture, which nonetheless retains some of the best performance-oriented features of the Icon. Specifically, the Venture's barrel is of the same quality as the Icon's and has the the same adjustable trigger, which in our rifle broke nicely at 2 pounds 15 ounces. The accuracy of our rifle, while not superb, was more than sufficient for hunting big game at any reasonable distance. The best 5-shot group printed at 1.128 inches, and several different loads grouped at 1.5 inches or less, which is quite good given that our sample was chambered in .300 Win. Mag. The stock's good ergonomics and effective recoil pad helped tame the magnum's kick and made the Venture a pleasant shooter, despite the potent chambering. The sub-$500 price also makes it one of this year's best buys in a new gun. ($499; tcarms.com) Testers' Comments: A lot of gun for the money. * Safety was a little sloppy. * Shot consistently even with a hot barrel. Overall Rating: 3 1/2 stars Workmanship: B Performance: B+ Price/Value: A

If variety is the spice of life, then hunters have a savory selection indeed of rifles to take afield.