Friday, November 13, 2009
One of the biggest problems facing gun owners today is lack of available ammunition. Recently, a member of our staff was shopping the hunting department of a big-box store and overheard a customer say he was going to buy a gun based on whatever ammunition was still on the shelf. Always pragmatic, our interest in one such round, 7mm Remington Magnum, actually began last March. This was when a SWAT recruit for a major metropolitan police force sought training for USPSA 3-Gun competition from a member of our staff. The officer mentioned that his family has been hunting with bolt-action rifles chambered for 7mm Remington Magnum since the cartridge was introduced in 1962. Often described as being housed in a 338 Winchester case necked down to 7mm, characteristics such as an abundance of power and a flat trajectory were at the center of the family’s appreciation for the round.
But we learned of another application that really piqued our interest. According to acclaimed law-enforcement trainer Brian Hoffner (hoffners.com), we learned that the 7mm Remington Magnum bolt-action rifle was also a key weapon in tandem with dart gun and shotgun for ZDART, acronym for Zoological Dangerous Animal Response Teams. This means providing lethal force in an emergency to stop “medium”-size animals such as lions, tigers, and bears in an urban setting.
Enthusiasm for the test prompted our roster of bolt action rifles chambered for 7mm Remington Magnum to include no fewer than four rifles. They were the $862 Ruger Hawkeye Sporter No. HKM77RBZ, the $1127 Remington 700 CDL SF No. 84016, the $1150 Steyr Mannlicher Pro Hunter No. 26.753.3G, and Browning’s $1019 X-Bolt Medallion No. 035200227. None of our rifles arrived with sights, but all four receivers were drilled and tapped for scope mounts. The Browning and Ruger rifles arrived with proprietary mounts and rings. The Steyr rifle was constructed with a synthetic stock. The Ruger rifle was stocked with laminate wood, and both the Remington and Browning rifles were built with stained walnut. The Remington and Ruger rifles utilized an internal magazine with hinged floorplate. Our other rifles featured removable box magazines. Barrels lengths and barrel profiles were comparable, but the execution of the triggers and the bolts represented different ways to get the job done.
Our test ammunitions were Winchester’s 150-grain Super X Power Point and two rounds from Federal. They were Federal Premium Vital Shoks featuring Nosler’s 160-grain Accubond bullet, and Federal Classic ammunition topped with Sierra’s 160-grain Pro Hunter soft point.
Our test procedure called for five-shot groups fired from a distance of 100 yards with the rifles supported upon a bench rest. We consider this plan to be standard procedure. But in speaking with even the most avid hunters, they expressed that firing more than two consecutive shots at prey was unlikely. One extra shot at an elk scurrying away may even prove to be the full extent of the day’s shooting. But we weren’t about to report on two-shot groups. Another comment we heard was that considering the recoil of magnum ammunition and the expense (about $1.75 to $2.50 per round on average), the average hunter wouldn’t be spending a lot of time on the practice range, either.
Each rifle was treated to a brief but careful break-in regimen. Dedicating 20 rounds of ammunition for each rifle, we cleaned and lubricated the barrels after the second, fifth, ninth, fourteenth and twentieth round. We then proceeded with our shooting of groups, cleaning the barrel after every two groups. However, we were forced to work under extreme conditions. Houston, Texas was in the middle of a drought with record temperatures that simply would not go away. Using a Kestral 4000 weather station from Sinclair International (sinclairintl. com), we measured temperatures at our shaded bench that ranged from 90 degrees to in excess of 102 degrees. Occasional winds gusting to about 8 mph were easy to wait out. All four guns were shot in the same weather, during the same time of day, at the same shooting range and by the same shooter from the same shooting bench. The fact that conditions were harsh is what prolonged our tests for no less than eight days. First shots each day at American Shooting Centers (amshootcenters.com), began at approximately 9:30 a.m. Each firing session lasted 20 minutes. Working under these constraints we fired a shot about every 3 minutes. Overpowered by the heat, we ended each day’s session by about 1:30 p.m. We used Caldwell’s Tip Top Targets for their ability to cut a sharply defined bullet hole and fit neatly into a ring binder for later reference. Here is what we learned.
Ruger Hawkeye Sporter No. HKM77RBZ 7mm Rem. Mag., $862
The appearance and construction of the Ruger Hawkeye Sporter was both distinctive and familiar. The matte stainless finish of the metal parts was blended gracefully into the brown-laminate wood stock. The lines of the laminate grain and the taper of the fore end matched the sweeping lines of the 24-inch barrel (1:9.5-inch right-hand twist). The stock was seated tightly against the barrel to the fore end. When the action was closed, the flat-stemmed bolt lever was buried deep inside a relief in the laminate wood. The stock offered wraparound checkering at the fore end with checkering on each side of the slender pistol grip. Sling studs were in place front and rear. The rubber butt pad was soft but very slim, measuring only about four-tenths of an inch thick at its center.
The Ruger manual describes such action features as a one-piece bolt with a non-rotating Mauser-type controlled-feed extractor. During our tests we lubricated each bolt with Pro-Gold grease ($6, from sinclairintl. com). Feeding from the internal magazine was flawless, but we did notice some polishing of the bolt in places we would not expect. The polishing appeared in rings midway along the bolt. We couldn’t point to any flaws in performance connected to this, but we couldn’t explain it, either. The trigger in our rifle was Ruger’s LC6 design. The LC6 felt like a single-stage trigger in that no takeup was necessary. Grit-free, we could sense only the very slightest bit of compression before breaking. We measured trigger pull weight to be about 5 pounds on average.
The Ruger rifle had a three-round internal magazine with hinged floor plate. The release button was located on the outer face of the trigger guard. Some hunters like the safety of being able to completely remove the magazine, but Ruger’s three-position safety system may be just as preferable. The safety can be used to lock the bolt and also load and unload with the safety engaged. Fully forward was the firing position. The fully rearward position of the safety lever locked the trigger and prevented the bolt from being moved or rotated. The middle position, about 90 degrees to the bore, also locked the trigger but allowed for the bolt to be opened or removed by pulling the release, mounted on the left side of the action. We noted that when replacing the bolt, it could be pushed into place without pulling open the release.
The M77 Hawkeye Sporter arrived with a set of Ruger’s proprietary rings for use with a 1-inch tube scope. These rings were easy to apply and perfectly matched to the slots machined into the top strap. For those wanting more variety, we found rings suitable for the Ruger integral mounts made by Warne and Leupold in Brownells latest catalog, number 62, (800-741-0015). We also tried a set of two-piece mounts by Burris that provide a Weaver-style base just to see if they afforded more versatility than the factory setup. Depending on the length of available tube fore and aft of the adjustment dials, we found that the extra slots provided by the Burris mount could place the scope closer to the shooter’s eye. But for our tests we chose to utilize the supplied rings and mount a Nikon Titanium 5.5-16.5 power 44mm AO HT scope.
Recoil from the Ruger was, in our view, the highest among our test rifles. We would blame this on the thin recoil pad. It seemed odd to us that the pad installed on this magnum rifle was actually much thinner than the pad found on a Ruger rifle we tested last year (September 2008, “Varmint Bolt Actions in 204 Ruger”). But our M77 was the lowest-priced rifle in the test, and perhaps this was a cue for the shooter to spend the money saved on a bigger recoil pad. Or a shock-absorbing system incorporated into the butt like Ken Rucker’s Bump-Buster Hydraulic Recoil Reduction System (starting at $360, from speedbumpstockworks.com).
At the range we learned that our fouling shot, that is the first shot after cleaning and lubricating the barrel, tended to be lower than those shots fired afterwards. Measuring our shots on target we found that the Ruger would deliver five shots of each choice of test ammunition into a group measuring about 1.4 inches across. But such figures do not tell the entire story. Having left the barrel to cool to ambient temperature, we found we could group the first two shots of each test round right next to each other. Then, as temperature raised so did our point of impact. One extraordinary group best illustrates this point. Firing six shots of the Ruger’s favorite load, Winchester 150-grain Super X Power-Point rounds, we landed the first two hits almost as one, little more than one-half inch below our point of aim. Our next two hits were also touching, but at proper elevation, slightly left of center. With the barrel now well heated, our final shots printed in a tight pair about 1.2 inches above our point of aim. If one’s point of view is that two consecutive shots is likely the maximum output when game is in sight, then perhaps the Ruger M77 Hawkeye Sporter higher should be rated higher than our accuracy data would project.
Our Team Said: The Ruger M77 Hawkeye Sporter was a solid, good-looking rifle, but we think the lack of an adequate recoil pad wore us out and prevented us from recording better accuracy.
Remington 700 CDL SF No. 84016 7mm Rem. Mag., $1127
The CDL SF is perhaps the most striking of all the Remington Model 700 rifles. Its 26-inch stainless-steel barrel (with 1:9.25-inch twist) was deeply fluted beginning about 1 inch from the muzzle and continuing to the point at which the barrel widened to meet the action. Remington touts the matte-stainless-steel action as being machined from solid bar stock. The bolt showed a handsome jewel surface with an integral extractor set into a groove inside the rim of the bolt face. The internal magazine held three rounds, and the release for the hinged floorplate was located inside the trigger guard. The stock featured wraparound checkering on the fore end, where we found minimal separation between the stock and the barrel. We were able to slide three dollar bills in between the stock and the fore end. But the gap only extended about 2 inches back from the tip of the fore end. There were checkered panels on each side of the pistol grip. The fore end was capped with darker wood, and the butt stock was fit with a thick recoil pad (about 1.2 inches thick at its center). This pad was made from Remington’s trademarked SuperCell material and carried distinctive lettering and logo. The left side of the stock was built up, favoring the right handed shooter. Remington does offer a left-hand model CDL, but we could find no mention of a left-handed CDL SF or the CDL SF Limited Edition rifles.
The Remington’s receiver was drilled and tapped for scope mounts. The single-piece mounts we shopped for showed prices as high as $180. But parts for Remington rifles are plentiful, so finding a two-piece Weaver mount for about $20 was our final choice. Mounting our Nikon scope, we headed to the range. Before loading the rifle we practiced by dryfiring from the bench to become accustomed to the new X-Mark Pro adjustable trigger. To cock the action with an empty chamber, we lifted the bolt and then locked it down. This was sufficient to set the trigger of our other rifles, but the Remington demanded that we let the bolt shift rearward about 0.25 inch to set the trigger. The X-Mark Pro trigger was set at a remarkably consistent 4.7 pounds. The movement was crisp, with the trigger resetting tightly against a solid break point each time. The manual safety consisted of a simple lever, to be thrown forward for fire and rearward for on-safe. The bolt could be removed from the action by pressing upward on the release located inside the trigger guard directly forward of the trigger. The release was a sheet-metal part that jiggled around in a manner that seemed out of place on this otherwise solid rifle. Installing the bolt did not require manipulation of the bolt release.
In terms of recoil, the Remington SuperCell pad did a good job of dampening kick. But we still needed to wear a recoil shield. Of our three choices of ammunition we felt that the Federal Classic 160-grain Sierra Pro Hunter SP was the only round that really suited the Remington CDL SF. Our best group measured about 1.2 inches across. But the Remington’s consistency never let our groups stray to larger than about a 1.4-inch diameter. Firing our remaining two rounds, the Remington was not as accurate, but it was just as consistent, with groups measuring from about 1.4 to 1.7 inches across for both the Federal Vital Shok and Winchester ammunition. We began our evaluation stating that we found a variety of 7mm Remington Magnum ammunition on store shelves. We would bet that several choices beyond our test roster would have provided more impressive data for our accuracy chart.
Our Team Said: The Remington CDL SF’s handling, mount, trigger, feeding, and operation felt superior. But we were unable translate its features and good looks into a better performance on target.
Browning X-Bolt Medallion No. 035200227 7mm Rem. Mag., $1019
In viewing our Browning rifle we were immediately reminded that each of our four rifles was markedly different in terms of look and feel. The X-Bolt Hunter Medallion cut a slender profile with tapered barrel and a glass-like finish upon its stock. We learned throughout our tests that the sleek finish was as durable as it was refined. The fore end offered wraparound checkering that was decorated on the bottom but only covered about halfway up the sides of the stock. Above the fore end the 26-inch barrel (with 1:9.5-inch twist) was separated by a gap about four dollar bills thick that ran all the way back to the receiver. Checkering also graced the sides of the pistol grip. The safety consisted of a sliding lever located atop the pistol grip. Currently there are no left-handed X-Bolt rifles, but the safety was easily accessible to both right- and left-handed shooters. Furthermore, the forward edge of the comb was relieved on each side and a matching contour was carved into the bottom of the butt stock. Quick-release sling swivels were in place front and rear. A cushy rubber buttstock measuring about 0.8 inch thick at its center was in place. This was Browning’s Inflex Technology butt pad. The Inflex recoil pad did a good job of moderating recoil, but we still preferred to wear a shoulder pad for added protection.
The action was accented by a gold-colored trigger. This was Browning’s adjustable Feather Trigger. We left it at its factory setting of about 4.75 pounds. Removing the bolt required pressing inward on the release lever located on the left side of the receiver. The bolt was mirror-finished chrome and showed virtually no wear points at the conclusion of our tests. The bolt could also be removed with the safety on by pressing the Bolt Unlock Button located on the bolt lever itself. The button was inconspicuous and did not interfere with the Medallion’s styling. It blended nicely with the flat contour that ran along the right side of the receiver.
Lockup was accomplished by three visible lugs forming an A-pattern, which had us wondering why this rifle was referred to as an X-Bolt. According to Browning the term X-bolt does not refer to a physical attribute such as the shape of the bolt or a pattern formed by its lugs. It was more a matter of marketing a rifle with a collection of extra features, including the new X-Lock Scope Mounting System. The X-Lock was a two-piece mounting system consisting of CNC-machined scope rings with an integral base that bolted directly to the drilled and tapped receiver of the X-Bolt rifle. Made for Browning by Talley, a widely respected name, each mount connected to the receivers with four Torx screws. The X-Lock mounts proved to be an excellent fit. It felt like we didn’t even have to tighten the bolts completely for a secure fit. The X-Lock mounts are available in a variety of heights and colors fit for both 1-inch and 30mm scopes. Cost of the X-Lock system was $60 from browning.com.
The Medallion fed from a three-round removable box magazine of polymer construction. The magazine release was found at the forward edge of the magazine. Actually, the latch was a part of the magazine and not the rifle.
The technique for loading rounds was similar to filling a pistol magazine. Rather than press each round downward directly through the feed lips you first depressed the follower, (or the last round loaded), and slid the next round into the magazine from front to back. Bolt action and feeding was flawless.
At the range we learned that the X-Bolt Medallion was consistent when firing the Winchester 150-grain rounds, but much more accurate firing the heavier 160-grain bullets found atop the Federal ammunition. The Federal Vital Shok ammunition fired a 0.8-inch group on the way to a computed 1.1-inch average. The Federal Classic ammunition kept all groups within the 1.1-inch to 1.3-inch range. We think the free-floated barrel on the X-Bolt helped it maintain accuracy throughout the extreme heat.
Our Team Said: Given the Browning’s penchant for heavier bullets, we couldn’t help but wonder what kind of accuracy would have been delivered by the 175-grain rounds preferred by the ZDART teams mentioned earlier. Nevertheless, the Medallion was a beautiful rifle that inspired confidence with each shot. From the standpoint of looks and performance, we can’t imagine anyone being unhappy with an X-Bolt Medallion.
Steyr Mannlicher Pro Hunter No. 26.753.3G 7mm Rem. Mag., $1150
The Steyr Mannlicher Pro Hunter stood out in more ways than being built on a synthetic stock. The trigger had a short but well-defined takeup leading to a second stage that offered a brief sense of compression. Steryr refers to this as the Direct trigger. An adjustable Set trigger may also be retrofit to this rifle. The exterior of the 25.6-inch-long barrel (with 1:9.0-inch twist) showed twirling ridges. Steyr prefers to leave this pattern visible for two reasons. Not only has the appearance become firmly associated with the brand, but the ridges serve as high points from which heat can more easily escape. The barrel was coated with Steyr’s MANNOTM finish, which is guaranteed 100% weatherproof anywhere in the world. Featuring a full-float barrel, the fore end was completely separated from the barrel fully to the receiver by as much as 0.10 inches at the tip.
The buttstock was fit with two spacers that could be removed to alter length of pull. Extra spacers are available from steyrarms.com in Trussville, Alabama, for $23 each. The recoil pad was far different from the rubber and composite found on our other rifles. We could compress it using only the edges of our fingernails. The consistency was somewhere between plastic and hard rubber. The receiver was drilled and tapped for a scope mount, but we rarely see mounts for the Steyr Mannlicher listed in catalogs. A call to the company assured us that the bolt pattern was the same as the Browning A-bolt. Two-piece mounts for the A-bolt are easy to find and cost as little as $12 per pair.
Our Steyr rifle fed from a removable box magazine that held three rounds. Rounds were inserted straight downward over the follower. The magazine was constructed of polymer, and like the Browning, the release latch or in this case, latches, were mounted on the magazine itself. Referred to as Snap Latches, pressing the magazine into place produced a snapping sound, alerting the operator to proper seating. If silence was preferred, the magazine could be loaded without a sound merely by compressing the latches while pushing upward. Removing the magazine for safe handling of the rifle was not absolutely necessary. By pinching the latches on the magazine, the box could then be lowered to a second locked position about one-quarter inch below the receiver. In this position the chamber could be emptied and the bolt closed without extracting a round from the magazine. One magazine was supplied and additional three-round magazines cost $42 each. Eight-round magazines ($75 each) were also available, but installation of a $59 conversion kit was necessary. In addition, once the high-capacity conversion kit is in place, operation was limited to using only the higher capacity magazines.
The stem on the high-polish chrome bolt continued with the visual theme of the Steyr rifle, which we were tempted to refer to as high-tech/low-profile cosmetics. It appeared to have been hammered into shape, although we doubt that was the case. The safety was located atop the pistol grip immediately behind the bolt. Referred to as a rotary safety in the owner’s manual, the switch consisted of a wheel with knurled edges that was rolled forward to fire. Rolling the safety toward the butt offered two safe-on positions. The first position was indicated by a stop that revealed a white dot. In this position the trigger was seized, but the bolt could be moved for safe-on loading. Rolling the safety further toward the rear allowed a gray-colored spring-loaded tab to pop up. The trigger remained frozen, but the bolt was now locked down as well. To remove the bolt from the receiver required rotating the safety to the first safe-on position indicated by the white dot and lifting the bolt. This part of the process can also be performed with the safety off. The next step was to rotate the safety to the second safe-on position and pressing down on the spring-loaded tab. Now the bolt could be removed. We liked this system, but it probably takes longer to explain than it did to remove the bolt. Installation of the bolt required that the safety be in the second on-safe position.
At the range we were able to dispel our misconceptions of the Steyr Mannlicher Pro Hunter. We thought that due to its synthetic stock and minimal recoil pad that it would weigh the least and prove the most punishing to shoot. But the Steyr actually turned out to be the friendliest shooter of the four. The Steyr was actually the heaviest of our test rifles, weighing more than 8 pounds unloaded. But more than just gross weight dampening kick, the ABS and fiberglass composition of the stock served to absorb shock. In addition, the wide round face of the recoil pad did a good job of distributing impact. This was not to say we shot the Steyr without a recoil shield in place, but overall we experienced less distraction from felt recoil.
Firing the Federal Vital Shok ammunition topped with a 160-grain Nosler AccuBond bullet, we landed our best single group of our tests, measuring about 0.7 inches across. The Steyr also landed a 0.8-inch group firing the Winchester ammunition. But we also printed a 1.5-inch group with this same ammunition. In our view, the Steyr was the overall winner on our accuracy charts.
Our Team Said: We think the Steyr Pro Hunter was the rifle most likely to be found in the hands of the guide on your next hunting trip. We think the generous gap provided by the full-float barrel helped minimize degradation of accuracy due to heat. We also found the Pro Hunter to be easily managed. Once it was shouldered, we seldom needed to adjust our mount. It slid into position willingly and filled the shoulder pocket. The bolt felt eager to cycle, and even our least experienced staffer said that the trigger was most forgiving. No matter how we engaged the trigger initially, we found it easy to find the control for a good press.
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