In these tough and uncertain times, gun company executives don't require much prompting to gnash their teeth and pull their hair as they express frustration at the difficulties they face when selling to us sportsmen--a notoriously budget-conscious and tight-fisted lot even under the best of economic circumstances. But trial and adversity aren't necessarily bad things, as this year's new selection of sporting guns demonstrates. In a Darwinian fashion, we're witnessing the survival of the fittest. Some gun companies whose firearms you don't see in this test are in a state of hibernation, hoping to ride out the economic storm before investing in new products. And some famous gunmakers are teetering on the brink of extinction and likely won't be with us when better times finally do return. But those companies that are introducing new guns are coming out with models that are remarkably strong. Smart Guns Taken together, these new guns exhibit a degree of innovation, performance, value and practicality that wasn't nearly as evident during the fat times we had a few short years ago. Gone are the head-slapping clunkers that seemed to crop up regularly. If one word can be used to describe the new guns we're seeing now, it is "smart." The herd has been thinned. Make no mistake, though--these guns are not cookie-cutter products. They occupy a variety of niches, from high-end, purpose-built firearms for specific target and hunting applications, to value-driven, entry-level guns, to some that fall somewhere in between.
Shotguns Is the domestic shotgun market dead? No, but the only truly new shotgun that can claim to be made in the U.S. is the Remington Versa Max, a solid waterfowl gun built on a cleverly simple gas-recoil system. Its prospects look good. The other shotguns in the field are imports, either from Europe or, in a couple of cases, from Turkey. Despite their offshore origins, these guns have been intelligently configured with American shooters in mind, though the quirky CZ autoloader might have a difficult time fitting in. Two are high-end Italian over/under guns that are a very good value despite having price tags north of $5,000. The field is rounded out by a number of semi-autos, including a couple of new 3 1⁄2-inch guns that have good features for the price and are free of any fatal flaws that sometimes go with European imports. Thank you, Darwin. Rifles The eclectic mix of rifles in this year’s test offers something for nearly everyone. For sheer versatility, the Ruger Gunsite Scout is a rifle that lives up to its billing as a do-everything, go-anywhere .308, and is proof that the quality of Ruger’s hammer-forged barrels has improved dramatically. The Sauer 303 is frightfully expensive, yes, but this .30-06’s speed and handling can make you forget the $4,500 price. For lovers of classic bolt guns, the introductions from Sako and Montana Rifle Company offer good news, while Savage continues to expand into new markets, thanks to its innovative and aggressive approach. Small-game hunters also have a couple of new rimfires–one from CZ and the other from Marlin–to look forward to. As different as they look on paper, all the new guns of 2011 have been forged in the fires of hardship, and from my point of view shooters and hunters are the better for it. Photo Caption: The cold and snow during the test presented a challenge, but reflected actual hunting conditions.
Ammunition The answer to the question of why we need so many thousands of rounds for the gun test By John B. Snow A rifle is only as good as the ammunition that’s run through it, and what works well in one gun might perform dismally in another. By the same token, when you come across a rifle that seems to shoot all bullets within a given caliber well–from the lightest to the heaviest, including both target and hunting loads–you know you’re looking at something special. Multiple Loads: This is why ammunition makers are the unsung heroes of our evaluation. In order to honestly state that our test is thorough and complete, it is critical to shoot multiple loads with each gun. And by multiple, I mean just that. Consider our one .30-06 in the test, the Sauer 303. We used 10 different loads in that one semi-auto, shooting multiple 5-shot groups with each, in bullet weights from 150 to 180 grains, from seven ammunition makers. We ran that 303 with match bullets, hunting bullets, jacketed lead bullets, monolithic bullets, new bullet designs, old standards, premium stuff and cheap-o loads–the full spectrum of what you might find on a well-stocked gun dealer’s shelves. By the end of the test we had put hundreds of rounds through every gun, each seeing more use in a week than a typical hunting gun sees in its lifetime. Best Selection: This year’s selection of ammunition was also the broadest ever. We had a full range of products from Black Hills Ammunition, which is new to the test this year, as well as some select samples from Barnes, which is now offering loaded ammunition for the first time. In addition, we had generous support from Federal, Remington, Winchester, Nosler and Hornady, all of which supplied both match and standard loads in numerous bullet weights and styles, as they’ve done in years past. The assistance of these companies is a key reason why Outdoor Life’s gun test stands out in the industry as the most thorough, accurate and honest firearms evaluation.
Where We Tested Montana’s Eastern Front is an astonishing place. This is where rolling high plains end abruptly at the base of towering cliffs and imposing peaks. It’s where grizzly bears roam the prairie and mule deer graze above the tree line. Bighorn sheep gaze down on whitetails, and elk share space with pronghorns. The Boone and Crockett Club owns a 6,000-acre working ranch here devoted to research and demonstration of integrated wildlife/livestock conservation ( The ranch hosted this year’s Outdoor Life gun and optics tests, combined in one venue for the first time. It’s hard to imagine a more suitable place to put firearms and optics through rigorous evaluation. For starters, cell phones don’t work here, so we were undistracted by the buzz of the outside world. The ranch’s shooting range accommodated both bull’s-eye shooting from benches and rapid-fire rifle and shotgun shooting from various positions. Because the ranch is home to hundreds of head of wintering deer and elk, optics testers were never without real-world “targets.” And this year we endured nearly every weather situation a hunter might encounter, from brittle cold to strafing wind to blinding sun. Plus, the ranch has a commodity that’s increasingly rare in today’s world: evenings free of electric light. Those pitch-dark nights are critical for our low-light optics test. The ranch’s expansive lodge houses the world-class Rasmuson Wildlife Conservation Center, providing hands-on resource education to students from pre-school through graduate school. Available for rental, the lodge accommodates up to two dozen guests, who often have the same problem we did: getting distracted by the scenery.
How We Test: Guns Hands-on fieldwork, data gathering, measurements and expert observation are critical components in Outdoor Life’s shotgun and rifle tests Like proud parents watching Little League tryouts, the Outdoor Life test team wants each rifle and shotgun under our care to hit a home run during the gun test. Alas, it isn’t always so. But it isn’t for lack of preparation. Inspection: The moment a new gun arrives at my workshop, it is taken apart, inspected and carefully reassembled, with data gathered along the way. That’s before a scope (in the case of the rifles) is ever mounted. This involves extra time, but it’s worth it. Two of the rifles submitted this year had guard screws that were improperly secured (too loose) and their accuracy would have suffered had we not fixed the problem prior to shooting.
Accuracy Data: We gather data at the bench, shooting a variety of loads according to established Outdoor Life protocol–a minimum of four 5-shot groups with each load, with ample time in between to cool down, as well as a cleaning every 20 rounds. Keeping the barrels cool this year was not difficult, as temperatures at the range hovered just above zero. Once the accuracy work is done, we put the rifles through a series of drills, shooting rapidly from field positions, timing how long it takes to load the magazines, analyzing the ergonomics when the shooter is wearing gloves and myriad other items on our checklist. With the shotguns, we do much the same thing, making sure to mix up target presentations while judging handling from high and low mounts.
Copious Notes: In between shooting sessions, each judge carefully goes over each submission, making note of the details of its construction. The metal fit-and-finish is scrutinized, as is the quality, shape and inletting of the stock. We rate each gun on its ergonomics, how well it meets the standards of its type of firearm, the ease of operation and whether it represents a good value. Testers score each gun from 60-100 in several categories, and these form the basis for the overall score (in stars) and the “report card” letter grades. The shotgun and rifle that get the top value scores are eligible for the “Great Buy” award–though we don’t give this out automatically. The rifle and shotgun that earn the highest overall score, based on a calculation that looks at all the judged criteria, is anointed with our coveted “Editor’s Choice.”
Innovations Two of this year’s notable innovations on the firearms we tested help improve the handling of the guns. Perfect Balance Shotgunners with a serious addiction to breaking clays love to fiddle with the balance of their smoothbores, and Zoli has provided these souls with a fix in the form of what they call the BHB–for “between the hands balance”–system. It consists of two components. One is a modular stack of weights that screws into the grip of the shotgun to put some extra heft directly into the palm of the shooter’s trigger hand. The other is an interesting set of rare earth magnets that can be attached to the ribs on either side of the barrels underneath the forend. The total weight of the magnets isn’t much–just a couple of ounces–but they can give the gun a more muzzle-heavy swing, which many shooters desire.
A Lighter Stock Another innovation is one that strips weight away. The stock on the Savage M11 Lightweight Hunter has been whittled down to 28 ounces, and a good bit of that came out of the forend, where a significant plug of wood has been milled out. In its place, the Savage has a thin lattice of wood to give the shooter’s hand something to hold on to.
A Better Gas System The final innovation is one we’ve talked about in the magazine before (December/January 2011) but it deserves another mention. The self-regulating gas system on the Remington Versa Max is a brilliant bit of engineering that helps regulate the amount of gas used to cycle the shotgun based on the length of the shell. The longer the shell, the more gas ports get covered up. Clever.