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Blackhorn Powder
Rifle Magazine
September - October 2000
Volume 32, Number 5
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 191
On the cover...
The SIG SHR 970 .280 Remington is outfitted with a
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An ultralight rifle could increase your hunting success in a big way. They have mine. I’ll give you an example.

 My guide and I had been climbing and glassing the Alaska Range for roughly 14 hours on the third day of a Dall sheep hunt. The little hand was on the 10, the big hand on the 11, and clouds were piling in from the southwest. We needed food, rest and a level spot on which to build a crude shelter from the coming storm, but there was one more peak before us, and I had just enough gas left to tackle it. What do you suppose we spied on the other side? That’s right, the 39-inch ram currently staring down on me in glassy-eyed defeat. I don’t know if you’ve ever pushed to the shaky edge of endurance, but if you have I’m sure you’ll realize how an extra 2 to 4 pounds of dead weight can wear you down. Had I been packing my old Ruger Model 77 .270 Winchester instead of my new Ultra Light Arms Model 20 .284 Winchester, I honestly believe I’d have been lying under a tarp on a low grassy ledge instead of shooting at that big, wonderful white sheep. Moral of the story: ultralight was just right.

Here’s another Alaska sheep story. This time I’m running on a mountain slope covered deep with scree, those small rocks that spill out from under your boots like a big pile of shelled corn. Step up two feet, slide down one. There is a 20-pound pack on my back, a 6-pound Rifles Inc. Strata Stainless .280 Improved rifle in my hands and a marvelous Dall ram fleeing around the corner. I must clear the roll of earth before my quarry disappears into cliffs and ledges beyond. Mind you, I’ve already backpacked nine miles to the site, slept on rocks and climbed a few thousand feet, and I’m past 40 with no history as a star athlete. Well, the sheep has enough manners to wait. When I puff to the crest of the ridge, that splendid animal is standing across a side canyon and high above among towering spires, feeling pretty safe. He hadn’t reckoned on my Strata Stainless. I laid that 11-ounce, wasp-waisted synthetic stock across a flat-topped boulder, steadied the crosshairs on white, and applied about 2.5 pounds of index finger pressure. A satisfying whap floated back across 350 yards of pure mountain air. Once again, if I’d been lugging a 10-pound rifle, I don’t think I could have survived the run up that scree with enough energy left to steady myself for the shot. I was gasping the way it was.

Lest you think ultralights are useful for nothing but running sheep, here’s a whitetail story. A buck that appears to have lodged a section of picket fence in its antlers has secreted himself in a brush thicket with an estrus doe at dusk. The hourglass is sifting down to its last few grains, so I rise from my hiding place to sneak across an open flat. The doe spooks up a distant grass hill, the buck follows, figures out there’s trouble afoot and kicks into warp drive, angling just slightly right. Despite the fact this is the largest whitetail I’ve ever fired at, that I’ve stalked a half mile to get this close to him, that I’d lain watching him so long I could pick him out of a police line-up if he were wearing a fake beard, and that he is now 200 yards away and about to run out of my life forever, I calmly raise the Ultra Light Model 20, send a 140-grain Nosler Partition on its way and dump him.

Credit my superior skills with a rifle? Don’t flatter me. I once missed a standing pronghorn at 80 yards. No, credit reasonably good marksmanship and a light, responsive, familiar rifle that fits perfectly, flies into action without conscious thought on my part and places its bullets so dependably that I fire it with complete confidence. I mean I just knew that buck was mine. No question, no doubt. All I had to do was take him. There was no long hike this time, no endurance test. Nevertheless, I credit the minimal weight of that rifle with aiding me in a nearly instinctive shot. I compare it to hitting a baseball with     a properly sized bat. I would not do well with Mark McGwire’s stick.

Mule deer hunting. Montana. Another buck of a lifetime. Hey, it happens. This time he’s only a mile away, but he’s walking toward a “No Trespassing” fence. If he crosses, he’s safe. So I run, even though I haven’t jogged so much as a half mile in months. My legs burn. My lungs hurt. I wonder if a deer is worth a heart attack. Then I lay the superlight Strata Stainless across the Steady Stix, concentrate on keeping the Leupold crosshair on the neck and press the magic button releasing the Barnes X-Bullet. Bingo! The buck collapses two steps from the fence. Oh, I love those ultralight rifles.

By this point you may be arguing that I’m overdoing all this climbing and backpacking and running. A good hunter doesn’t have to sweat so much. Hunt with your brain and eyes instead of your feet. You never run after giant bucks or climb after giant rams, do you? Perhaps you would if you didn’t carry such a heavy rifle.

Now before you write me a nasty note or call me out behind the bar, allow me to acknowledge something. You or your buddy or your uncle or nearly anyone else you know is quite likely stronger, faster and smarter than I and probably a better hunter and shot too, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t become an even better hunter and better shot if you switched to a lighter rifle. Like they say in the commercials, if it worked for me, imagine what it could do for you.

I’ve heard the arguments about mass contributing to accuracy. This is basic physics, and there’s no use fighting the laws of nature. If heavy rifles weren’t more accurate than light rifles, heavy rifles wouldn’t win all the benchrest competitions, but hunting isn’t target shooting. Different factors come into play, two of them being human endurance and responsiveness. Exactly when does the ease of carrying and throwing into action a light rifle more than compensate for the steadiness of a heavy one? I don’t pretend to have an objective, scientific measure of the quantitative difference in stability of the human shooter over 200 yards when carrying an 8-pound rifle versus a 6-pound rifle over 5 miles at 57 degrees 5,000 feet above sea level on an empty stomach with the sun in his eyes. All I know is how well ultralight rifles have worked for me in the hunting fields for 15 years. I shoot better with them than with heavy rifles under most hunting conditions. Like everyone, I’ll take a heavy sniping rifle for stand hunting.

As for pure accuracy potential, I can offer some controlled tests. Representative groups from four light to ultralight hunting rifles I’ve used over the years are listed in the table.

As you can see, these groups aren’t bench winners, but they aren’t dog dandruff either, and they carry their accuracy afield. None of these guns has felt whippy, ungainly, flighty or uncontrollable in wind, rain, snow or desert heat. Quite the opposite. If anything, the slightly muzzle-heavy balance of the Rifles Inc. Strata Stainless and Ultra Light Arms Model 20 make them feel as if they “hang” on the target.

I first noticed this during a coyote hunt one December. I was alternating a slightly butt-heavy Ruger Model 77 .22-250 Remington with the muzzle-heavy Model 20. I went five for five with the Model 20 but missed several shots with the .22-250, and at the time I felt like one of those cartoon characters who has a light bulb flash overhead. Ureka, I’d found it. Since then my only complaint with my Model 20 is that it isn’t chambered in .22-250 or 6mm Remington.

My latest light rifles have been the Weatherby Ultra Lightweights in .270 Winchester and .30-06. They weigh right at 5 3/4 pounds naked, which is a pound more than the Strata Stainless and Ultra Light Model 20, but I’ve been so impressed with them that I’ve ordered one in .300 Winchester Magnum, guessing it could be just about the ideal elk-moose-bear rifle. This magnum version weighs 6 3/4 pounds because it uses the beefier Mark V nine-lug magnum action. Standard calibers use the lighter six-lug standard bolt. Despite their extra weight these Weatherbys offer several advantages over most standard production “lightweight” rifles:

·          They retail for about $1,300 less than the Strata Stainless and Ultra Light Arms.

·          They are between 1/2 and one pound lighter than most company’s lightweight rifles in comparable chamberings.

·          They are the only light rifles from a major manufacturer available in magnum chamberings. Most companies limit their light rifles to short-action cartridges.

·          They offer 24- and 26-inch barrels for maximum velocity potential from all calibers. Most major manufacturers put 20- to 22-inch tubes on their light rifles.

·          The stock (one pound, 11 ounces) is hand-laminated glass with integral aluminum bedding plate.

·          The stainless steel barrel reduces chances of rusting on long mountain hunts.

 Weatherby’s major departure from other major manufacturers in the designing of ultralight rifles is its willingness to lighten its own action by skeletonizing the bolt handle and bolt sleeve and cutting deep flutes into the bolt itself. Since the bolt lugs secure the cartridge and gases in the chamber, removing metal from the bolt behind the lugs does not compromise its strength. Such metal removal is what Lex Webernick does to Remington Model 700 actions to create his Strata Stainless. He goes farther than Weatherby, however, cutting metal from the rear bolt shroud and even the action walls. “You could cut the bolt off behind the lugs and throw it away without compromising locking strength,” Webernick once told me.

Mel Forbes took this weight reduction to its logical conclusion when he designed his ultralight actions in short, long and magnum lengths. Instead of paring down someone else’s action, he designed his own by matching thickness to the strength of modern steel. Despite their diminutive size, Models 20, 24 and 28 actions have withstood exhaustive testing pressures double that of the highest acceptable chamber pressures for modern centerfire cartridges.

The folks at Browning, Remington, Ruger, Savage and Winchester make fine light rifles, but no truly ultralight rifles in my estimation. Forgive me for saying so, but where’s the feather in a 7-pound Featherweight? I think this Winchester is one of the best looking and best performing walnut/blued rifles on the market, but I don’t classify it as a lightweight. To me its just about perfect for a general-purpose, traditional-weight rifle. Winchester actually offers a lighter option in its 6-pound Classic Compact but in short action only.

I will not limit my criticism to Winchester. Remington’s Mountain Rifle, another classic design that catches my eye, is in my humble opinion overweight (for a true mountain rifle) at an advertised 6 1/2 pounds (actual rifles never seem to match the optimistic numbers in the catalogs, but we’ll take Remington’s and everyone else’s word for it here). The Model Seven at 6 1/4 pounds sounds better, but that specimen, like the Winchester Compact, wears a trimmed-down, 20-inch barrel. Ditto the 6-pound ultralight Savage Model 10FCM, 6-pound Ruger Ultra Light Model 77 Mark II and the Browning Micro-Hunter at 6 pounds, 4 ounces. Admittedly these rifles have been shaved considerably from their 7 1/2- to 8-pound predecessors, but they remain a far cry from the likes of the Ultra Light Arms Model 20 at 4 3/4 pounds with a full-sized, 22-inch tube.

The biggest flaw in these pared-down, big-name rifles is the way in which they’ve been pared. Instead of removing superfluous weight from the action or stock, they lop useful mass off the barrel. A 20-inch tube balanced to the right stock can make a perfectly adequate, quick, natural-pointing woods rifle, but it isn’t state of the art for long-range work. Why not keep those 2 ounces of barrel and the 50- to 100-fps velocity they represent and instead lose 8 ounces of fat from the action and another 8 ounces from the stock? We have fiberglass/graphite materials stronger than steel at a fraction of the weight. Why not use them?

The short-action chamberings available in these lighter guns also limit their versatility, or at least popularity. In a subculture gone gaga over super magnums, the .308 Winchester class of cartridges isn’t going to be voted Prom Queen. Of course, you know as well as I that any .284-inch bullet, or even .264-inch bullet, launched at 2,600 fps is more than adequate for deer and sheep, and learning to hold a bit higher than usual beyond 300 yards is no impossible dream. A practiced, dedicated hunter could take any game animal in North America and most in Africa with one of these 20-inch barreled, short-action rifles. But that doesn’t put them in the same league as a 4 3/4-pound Rifles Inc. Strata Stainless long action all dressed for the big dance in a 23-inch barrel. Hunters know this, and I’m certain that more than fear of recoil and inaccuracy, this sacrifice in power keeps ultralights near the bottom of the pop charts.

Here we return to that problem of price. True, there are ultralight rifles with all the durability, punch and accuracy of heavy rifles. To claim one, however, you’re going to lay something like $2,500 on the counter, maybe a couple hundred less, maybe a few more. Prorated over a 25-year hunting career and measured against the likes of a B&C elk or mule deer, that might be more than a fair price. I find it to be. On the other hand, a more practical hunter might simply put up with the 8-pound rifles his daddy used and invest the $2,000 he saves at 10 percent interest to pay his kid’s college tuition (good luck on that).

I also believe Weatherby is on the right track and might start a trend. Look what happened after it became the first major manufacturer to put a synthetic stock on a big game rifle in the mid-1980s. However, even though its Ultra Lightweight retails for considerably less than an Ultra Light Arms or Rifles Inc. gun, it remains significantly higher than the low-end traditional bolt actions most average hunters buy for around $600 to $700. I’m guessing the first manufacturer to produce a true, full-sized ultralight (say 5 3/4 pounds, long action, 22-inch barrel) for roughly the same price as its traditional rifles will jump-start this market, but don’t hold your breath waiting.

If you have caught on to the advantages of an ultralight hunting rifle, don’t wait. Act now. If you only hunt eastern deer or bear and have no plans to roam the Rockies, you’re in the driver’s seat. Grab yourself a 6-pound Savage, Ruger, Winchester, Browning or Remington and hit the woods. You’ll benefit immediately from the trimmer package, lighter weight and more responsive handling over that 8-pound, long-barreled Model 700 or 70 you’ve been carrying, or that big pump or autoloader, for that matter. If you just sit in a box and shoot across big fields, keep your 10 pounder. You’re dialed in.

However, if you yearn for adventure, if you plan to hunt as long and hard as you can in as many wild and wonderful places as you imagine, study today’s ultralight rifles long and hard. Take every opportunity to lift them, mount them, test fire them. Hunt with one if possible. Feel the difference. Feel the advantage. Then scrape your pennies together and buy one. You won’t regret it. These are the best all-around hunting rifles ever made.

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