December 2000

Gun Tests Guns Of The Year 2000

Here's our annual recap of top-ranked pistols, revolvers, rifles, and shotguns we've tested in the past year - many of which we've bought for ourselves.

[IMGCAP(1)] When the annual odometer turned over from 1999 to 2000, many shooters had plenty of ammo, dried fruit, and bottled water on hand for what they thought would be a time of unrest and, possibly, civil disunion. Instead, the coming of this new year saw only headaches resulting from overconsumption, as the world continued on its merry way, unsullied by the end of civilization as we knew it.

Naturally, once the first couple of weeks of January 2000 passed by uneventfully, everybody relaxed, shot up some of their ammo stocks recreationally, and the natural rhythms of day-to-day living resumed. For the gun industry, this standing-down had an expected, but nonetheless unpleasant, downside: Sales dropped as millennial paranoia decreased. The gun-buying public bought heavily in the latter half of last year, and that left fewer dollars in our pockets to buy cool new guns in 2000.

Pity, because from our perspective at Gun Tests, the year of 2000 saw solid innovation and performance in all areas of gun production, including revolvers, pistols, rifles, and shotguns. And as we tracked these developments over the past year in the critical head-to-head format found only in the pages of Gun Tests, we advised you on what guns we believed were worth buying, and what ones weren't. And with a full year of testing behind us, we're able to look back and see what guns delivered superb price/performance value that earned Best Buy rankings, and to note those guns that were simply too good not to own, irrespective of their price tag.

So if you were too busy to read the magazine over the last 11 months, you can scan this Guns of the Year recap and buy any of the guns mentioned here with the confidence you're getting your money's worth.

-Todd Woodard

 

Pistols
In our reviews of year-2000 semiautomatics, we found an increasing emphasis on improved ergonomics and operation, a continuation of a decade-long improvement of existing designs. Three guns that typified this trend in 2000 were a 9mm, a .40 S&W, and a .45 ACP that took existing ideas and adjusted them for the better. The Taurus PT99AFS brought cocked-and-locked carry to the 9mm Beretta 92 design; the Glock 22C's compensator tamed the sharp .40 S&W round's recoil, and the Wilson CQB 1911 custom gun showed what every .45 ACP aspires to be.

Taurus PT99AFS
Copying the Beretta 92 design is a no-brainer-this resulting gun works well. Throw in the Taurus lifetime guarantee plus the option of cocked-and-locked carry, and this $547 pistol is arguably the best value in self-defense 9mm handguns.

Click here to view the Taurus PT99AFS features guide

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The $547 AFS is the top of the line for Taurus's Beretta 92-based pistols. It is two-tone stainless steel, brushed on the top end and bright on the frame. Ours did not arrive with the Brazilian wood stocks, but it did have a rear sight featuring two white dots and adjustment for windage and elevation. The basic pistol in this series, the PT92B, is a blue-steel pistol with fixed sights, but purchasing the base model only saves you $39. In our view, the PT99AFS is a better buy.

Many of the PT99's parts are interchangeable with the Beretta pistols, but you shouldn't interchange them, of course. At first glance even the top ends will interchange, but the difference in safety mechanisms prevents them from functioning without modification. Included with the PT99AFS was a polymer trigger lock/block that hoods the trigger and secures the action with a Master-brand wire hasp lock.

In terms of feel, the Taurus PT99AFS's ("A" for adjustable sights) front strap is flatter than the Berettas, lacking the flare at the bottom. Also, the grip doesn't have a channel from the beavertail undercut to the mag release. We are accustomed to rolling a pistol in the hand to connect with the mag release, but the front edge of the grip tends to block such a maneuver.

The primary difference from the Beretta pistols is the Taurus's ambidextrous slide safety, which locks the slide and prevents the trigger from operating in both the single and double action mode. The Taurus's safety lever was available to the strong-hand thumb without a change of grip, even for those with medium-sized hands. We feel this is key to combat readiness.

In defensive-gun tests like this one, we try a more Practical approach, requiring our testers to shoot the guns more reflexively under draw-and-fire conditions. Drawing and firing from any position made it painfully obvious there was no way a Beretta 92-series could defeat the Taurus. Why? Because the Taurus PT99 series pistols may be holstered safely with the hammer back, requiring only a short, single-action trigger press. The Berettas, on the other hand, offer a long double-action pull on the first shot or the challenge of thumbing back the hammer during the draw. While all three guns may be carried with a loaded chamber and hammer down by activating the decocker, only the Taurus PT99 offers a third carry option of hammer back, safety on.

Glock 22C
The ported 22C .40 Smith & Wesson Glock, $646, really took advantage of the hot round's gas discharge to soften recoil. Unless there was some compelling reason not to buy the ported gun, we'd opt for the 22C over the similar but unported Glock 22.

Click here to view the Glock 22C features guide

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The latest model from Glock includes the new and genuinely improved grip frame that features a deeper undercut at the top of the backstrap. It is accented and rounded to help fill the palm. Three checkered but mild finger grooves adorn the front strap, with a nice degree of undercut where the trigger guard meets the grip. A rail for a lighting device has been molded in on the full-length dust cover.

The 22C includes some features the plain-tube 22 lacks. The 22C's barrel sports the addition of two 0.40-inch-long ports placed side by side at about 1 o'clock and 11 o'clock approximately 1.2 inches back from the muzzle. A corresponding set of vents have been cut into the slide, and they are angled to the outside and run forward about twice the length of the ports when the slide is fully forward in battery.

In particular, porting the Glock pistol makes a lot of sense because without any rounds in the mag, all the weight is in the steel slide. A little downward muzzle pressure (actually the pressure is expressed in a V for stability) is a welcome addition, especially when the latest hot defense load in .40 S&W is chambered.

Wilson Combat CQB
This $1,650 gun was done exactly right. It is the only 1911-type handgun we've seen that had all the necessary features we put on our personal .45s. It's one of the best .45 autos we've ever seen, and well worth its cost.

Click here to view the Wilson Combat CQB features guide

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We immediately noticed the Wilson had a feel of having been put together by someone who had been heavily involved in competition or combat with no-nonsense handguns. To begin, these included breaking all edges (dehorning) for ease of handling, holstering, and shooting. Also, the appearance of the Wilson CQB (Close Quarters Battle) was all business.

The frame was finished in dark green, with matte black slide. This is Wilson's Armor Tuff finish, and it seemed to be durable. All attached parts except for the barrel bushing and barrel were matte black. The barrel and its hand-fitted bushing were match-quality stainless. The wood and metal checkering were perfect, as was the slide-to-frame fit. The front strap and flat mainspring housing were checkered 30 lines per inch. The gun had fixed sights that included Wilson's Night Eyes inserts. These tritium inserts, green in front and yellow in back, glow in the dark. Because most gunfights take place at night or in reduced visibility, self-defense handguns ought to have night-visible sights.

The Wilson package included two magazines, a video on disassembling and cleaning the gun, a trigger lock, and a soft, practical, zippered carry case with fitted compartments for four magazines, the gun, and a few accessories. Also included was a voucher for ear protectors, various tools, the videotape, a shooting hat, lube and ammo, all of which comes with the gun at no extra cost. The instruction manual had a list of recommended ammunition that the company felt would provide the highest reliability and best street performance, and some recommended handloads for practice.

Shooting the CQB was a joy. The trigger pull was 3.25 pounds, very consistent, and entirely free of creep. Overtravel was minimal. The first two rounds we fired at 15 yards were touching. Then the brand-new Wilson spat out a double-tap, with both shots on target. Slow fire again put round after round nearly touching, so we moved back to 25 yards. From this range, we had all we could do to keep up with the Wilson's accuracy. The gun printed about four inches high at 25 yards. Some prefer a six-o'clock hold, but we personally prefer a gun to hit dead center of the sights at 25 yards. That is the only change we'd make to this handgun, but we could live with it with absolutely no changes.

The Wilson shot groups of 1.2 to 1.3 inches average for us with the 185-grain Cor-Bon ammo. With the Black Hills 230-grain JHP (one of Wilson's recommend loads), we got groups as small as 0.6 inches and as large as 1.7 inches. With the Federal American Eagle, groups averaged 1.4 inches. We knew the gun would do better; our groups reflected only our ability to shoot well.

As important in a test of this type are the field-related questions. The rapid-fire handling and performance were superb, we thought. We engaged three targets as fast as we could present from concealment and shoot, and the gun made us look good. The excellent trigger pull and fast sight acquisition helped immensely. There were no problems or malfunctions with any ammo tried.

Revolvers and Single Shots
Though the trend toward lighter and lighter self-defense guns continues unabated, we noticed some surprising shortcomings in the increasingly prevalent titanium models. Without much mass in the gun, defense loads can be unpleasant to shoot-a real downside for proper training or just recreation. Also, certain bullet weights and styles can cause malfunctions when they're "pulled" out of their casings during recoil, possibly impeding cylinder movement.

Though there were some such guns in this class we recommended, we wound up favoring some time-tested steel-frame .38 Specials in 2000, along with some fun single-action guns and a hunting handgun that offered good field performance.

Ruger GP100 GPF-340
The $423 GPF-340 is the plain Jane of the GP100 lineup, but we can't fault its simplicity. This gun was all business.

Click here to view the Ruger GP100 GPF-340 features guide

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The GPF-340 has a heavy barrel with just enough underlug to shroud the ejector rod. The front sight is serrated and ramped, but it proved too high for correct elevation adjustment. A change of blade (it is pinned in place) or a simple filing down is called for, we think. The top of the barrel is flat and lined to reduce glare and the rear sight is a simple notch cut into the stop strap. As crude as this sounds, the relief is actually very good and the sight picture is fast and clear. The advantage here is it cannot be damaged with rough use. The lack of adjustability, however, can limit the bullet weights that can be used accurately.

The gun's grip is similar to the Pachmayr American Legend series, rubber with a wood insert. The rubber on the grip looks almost like modeling clay. Recently, we rated these grips inadequate when used on the 454 Casull Super Redhawk, but they are perfect for this .357 Magnum revolver. We were able to index the trigger accurately and easily, but these grips do favor the right-handed shooter, having an indentation for the right-hand thumb.

Elsewhere on the gun, we liked the push-button cylinder release and the smooth, rounded trigger. Regarding cylinder to bore alignment, our range rod test yielded 12 clean passes from muzzle to breech face. Ruger's lock-up system does not include the ejector rod, but adds a detent lockup in the frame that should keep everything aligned. Thus, in terms of overall durability, we'd guess that the Ruger would have a long, trouble-free life span.

Shooting the gun double-action, we thought the Ruger had a heavy lockup feel with more torque-over than we expected from a mid-size revolver. We'd radius the edges off the trigger for comfort and have the chambers polished because they didn't always want to eject spent cartridges. The single action had a little grittiness to it, and a mild action job on the DA trigger would be welcome. The gun has a heavy barrel but no real underlug. This makes the gun slim, which we like, but porting would be the one option to really speed up a string of fire.

Smith & Wesson Magnum Plus 686-5
The 4-inch Combat Magnum Plus is a seven-shot version of S&W's most popular revolver. The Smith & Wesson action is just a joy to shoot in DA or SA. You always know where you are. The 686 series revolvers are substantial in the hand and reassuring, but the rubber grip could grab clothing, and it doesn't exactly do the job of killing recoil. That would need changing if you bought this gun.

Click here to view the Smith & Wesson Magnum Plus 686-5 features guide

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The $542 L-framed Magnum Plus revolver had a heavy, full-lug barrel, shrouded ejector rod, pinless CNC-machined ejector star, relieved cylinder latch, and Hogue Monogrip with exposed backstrap. Sights were a black, serrated ramp, pinned into place, with an orange insert. The rear sights were fully adjustable with a white-outline notch. The hammer spur was somewhat abbreviated both in height and width, and the trigger was moderately wide, rounded, and smooth. The finish was a natural-buff stainless steel.

The trigger was controlled by tension from a single torsion bar mainspring. The Smith & Wesson double-action trigger also presented the shooter with the most consistent feedback by way of two distinct clicks. This made firing predictable every time. The movement of the single-action trigger was almost imperceptible. Checking bore-to-cylinder alignment with the Brownells match-grade range rod, we found two chambers to be slightly out of time.

We found the Hogue Monogrip offered a very good hold for shooters with smaller hands due to the thinning of the grip, especially in the circumference from the uppermost finger groove to the backstrap. However, it was also our observation that recoil seemed to be magnified along this path as well.

R&D Gunshop 1851 Navy
The $1,400 R&D Gunshop Conversion by Kenny Howell had a 4.75-inch barrel and extra-cost real ivory grips. This handgun felt and looked exactly right. It gave a feeling of great integrity, as though the gun were built correctly to last a long time. It was a fine-looking and fine-handling winner. We'd buy it if we wanted the best conversion available today.

Click here to view the R&D Gunshop 1851 Navy features guide

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This one began life as a 2nd Generation 1851 Colt Navy, which Howell converted to .38 Long Colt. In the process, Howell not only shortened the barrel but installed his personal preference of real elephant-ivory grips. These were carved with an eagle and shield on the left side, and remained smooth on the right. They added some weight to the gun but the balance was just right. The hammer had a firing pin inserted from the front, and double-pinned in place. Howell had rebuilt the gun from the ground up, in cluding reshaping many of the parts and completely refinishing the gun.

Several things about this handgun came immediately to our attention. It looked and felt very good. It had quite a bit of weight, and we thought-correctly-that it would have almost no recoil. The fit and finish of this handgun were very well done. Howell had replaced the small square-backed trigger guard with a later-style rounded guard to give more finger room, and the worn silver plate on the grip and guard indicated this gun had seen considerable use. However, it was still very tight, and indexed perfectly. The flats on the barrel were indeed flat, and the case coloring was nicely done.

The gun shot about 2 inches high for us at 15 yards, but was perfect for windage. It was pretty accurate, too. Our best five-shot group was 1 inch at that range, and average groups were 1.5 inches. The Black Hills ammo that came with the gun sent its 158-grain LRN bullets across the chronograph at all of 613 fps, which gave a muzzle energy of 132 ft.-lbs. Recoil and report were very light.

Cimarron Open Top
The charcoal-blued $494 Cimarron Open Top .38 Special was well worth its price. The gun looked great, had a nice "hang" in the hand, shot well, and was reliable. We believe it would provide the modern cowboy with a fine alternative to the usual SAA.

Click here to view the Cimarron Open Top features guide

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The Cimarron Open Top had extremely well-fitted, well-finished, one-piece, modestly fancy walnut grips that perfectly complemented the light-blue color of the steel. Every steel part except for the case-colored hammer and frame was finished in charcoal blue. The true-blue color of the steel is the result of heat oxidation, not hot dipping. We cannot imagine a more attractive or appropriate finish for a handgun of this type. However, it seemed to be not very durable. It cannot be touched up with cold blues, and the use of cleaning fluids such as lacquer thinner or acetone will remove the finish. We had the gun in a drawer for a few days, with the barrel in contact with a flexible electrical wire. The action of opening and closing the drawer caused a slight blemish in the bluing. Another normally blued handgun had previously been in that drawer in the same position for over a month, and its bluing was unharmed.

Although we thought the Open Top was somewhat heavy for .38 Special, it had a solid muzzle-heavy balance that gave it a good feel in the hand. It gave stability and pointability that Cowboy Action shooters should be able to put to good use.

The trigger guard and back strap fit the frame perfectly, with no polishing depressions. This was high-quality work. The fit of the frame to the barrel was nearly, but not quite, as good as the fit of the trigger guard and backstrap. We rated the fit and finish as excellent overall. The details were also pleasant to note, with the correct 1871 and 1872 patent dates on the left side of the frame, the proper contour to the loading gate, and "38 CAL" on the top left flat of the trigger guard, although this probably would have said "44 CAL" on originals. The steel grip strap was polished flat on the bottom, and the screw holes showed no dishing.

As on original Open Tops, the Cimarron's cylinder was roll engraved with Ormsby's naval battle scene of 1843. This was very evenly and cleanly done, with all the action and details visible. Solely judging the gun on its looks, we'd be proud to own it.

But we also like it when a gun shoots well, and the Cimarron didn't disappoint. We found the trigger pull to be quite good. There was no creep, and it broke at 3.5 pounds.

Thompson/Center Encore
At $546, this gun is pricey, but we found it compact and easy to operate. The Encore is fun to shoot and holds well even while standing unsupported.

Click here to view the Thompson/Center Encore features guide

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This single-shot design is available in a variety of larger cartridges, including .50-caliber black powder, but for some shooters, the .22-250 Remington may be approaching the limits of comfort. The barrel release needed a little use to wear in, which we were happy to provide. The Encore proved addictive, and we soon dreaded any interruption of the shooting drill: Break open using the middle and ring finger to pull down on the trigger guard, insert a round, close, thumb the hammer back, aim and fire. Repeat as necessary. There is no arguing with simplicity.

While this gun did recoil the most, we would not classify it as unpleasant. For larger calibers, porting from the Thompson/Center custom shop is available. The Encore comes with a set of adjustable iron sights that, when removed, uncover tapping for a one-piece base and ring assembly. Thompson's dual-ring mount sells for $61. The barrel hinges on a stout pin that is captured by the walnut fore end. The barrel and grip frame arrived in two different boxes and can be purchased separately, accenting the interchangeability of this design.

While the grip is pistol-like, we were more comfortable placing our weak hand on the forend than wrapping it around the strong hand, as with a traditional pistol hold. From the bench, we placed two hands on the grip, however, and took advantage of its flat bottom to steady the gun.

The trigger face is gently rounded, with a sheer vertical drop. Cocked or at rest , the trigger position and relation to the hand is the same. There is no take up, just a very smooth, crisp release. The hammer is blocked from the firing pin and sits almost one-eighth inch away when at rest. The Encore was the only gun to take full advantage of the PMC ammunition, firing its best groups with this 55-grain round. Five-shot groups ranged in size from 0.8 inch to 1.0 inch. The Encore averaged 1.0 inch per five-shot group for all rounds fired.

Rifles
Our rifle choices for the best guns of the year represent such a wide range of styles and cartridges, nearly every shooter will be able to find a hole in his collection for one of them: an accurate .22, a field-ready .223, a gorgeous .270, or hard-working .45-70s.

H&R CM12 (CMP)
At $300 or less, this one's a bargain. As a training rifle for adults, an accurate plinker, or a trainer for young shooters, the CM12 is worth every penny. Supplies may be limited from the Civilian Marksmanship Program, so if you snooze, you lose.

Click here to view the H&R CM12 (CMP) features guide

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The CM12 is a heavy piece of equipment (12 pounds 9 ounces) and is long to boot (46 inches). Still, it is relatively easy to handle due to its balance and fully inletted walnut stock, which is flat on the forend.

Without doubt, the H&R CM12 was the accuracy champ from the rest. Consistency was the word of the day, as it showed narrow deviations in group sizes ammo to ammo and even identical averages of 0.60 inch from the Lapua Dominator. This type of performance puts the onus on the shooter, which is ideal for training.

Once we had determined the CM12 would whip the others in baseline accuracy, we worked up an appetite for tighter groups. Enter four more brands of ammo we knew from experience would likely shoot well. We tried Fiocchi's Pistol V 300 Super Match and were rewarded with 0.4, 0.6, and 0.7-inch groups. Federal's UM1 also dialed in an average group size of 0.6 inch. Eley's Tenex shrank the average size to 0.5 inch, but the 40-grain RWS R50 round from Dynamit Nobel said pass the dice to me and shot average group sizes of 0.3 inch, including groups of 0.5, 0.3, and 0.2 inch.

In our view, the CM12 is accurate because the barrel and action float far enough from the stock so that there is enough room for the wooden stock to expand and contract without touching the barrel. This also insulates the barrel from deflection due to stress presented by the use of a tight sling. The gun incorporates an oversized forend that fills the shooter's hand in prone and kneeling, a full-length handstop rail, a big handgrip, and a high cheekpiece. The supplied Redfield aperture sights are a marvel in themselves, crisp and easy to adjust. The gun's 21-ounce trigger reacts immediately. This single shot has a generous opening at the chamber, which makes loading easy, and the oversized bolt's double extractors crisply throw rounds out and away from the shooter.

ArmaLite M15A2
This attractive, green-stocked $992 rifle (or black stock for the same price) stole our hearts right out of the box. Good looking because of its color and muzzle brake, this one also had a great trigger pull. It came with a single seven-round magazine, black carry strap, and an excellent manual. It also had a lifetime warranty.

Click here to view the ArmaLite M15A2 features guide

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Our test gun's fit and finish were very good. The black matte-finished metalwork was somewhat better finished overall than the Bushmaster's, in our view, and the adjustable-sight clicks were more positive, we thought. The ArmaLite's excellent trigger broke cleanly at 5 pounds and had minimal overtravel. There was no apparent creep. It was by far the best trigger of the test, and we're sure it went a long way toward biasing our test shooters toward this rifle.

There were what looked like polished-out moulding marks visible on the sides of the ArmaLite's green buttstock, but they could not be felt on the face. The seven-shot magazine left little of itself sticking out the bottom of the action, and if it ever were to get stuck, the shooter would have a hard time ripping it loose. However, it always came out easily in our testing.

The screwed-on ArmaLite muzzle brake helped keep the sights on target after the shot, but by no means was it a flash hider. We fired the rifle at night and had no trouble seeing the flash. The brake made the rifle louder, but not a lot more so than the GI flash hider on the Colt. By comparison, the Bushmaster made the least noise from the shooter's viewpoint, directing its entire blast downrange. In rapid fire, the effect of the ArmaLite's brake was noticeable. The rifle didn't budge from the target, making double-taps very fast and effective.

On target, the ArmaLite shot best with the Winchester ammunition. It has been our experience that military-type semiautomatic rifles shoot best with best-quality ammunition, and all three of our test rifles shot best with the Winchester premium ammo. The ArmaLite averaged 1.4-inch groups. It also did well with our 75-grain bullet handload, putting them into 1.9-inch groups on average.

Browning White Gold Medallion A-Bolt
This rifle was light enough, shot well enough, and was certainly attractive enough to our shooters, though some didn't like the shine. Yet even they couldn't fault the rifle's function. This was a totally useful hunting rifle that we feel will win lots of fans.

Click here to view the Browning White Gold Medallion A-Bolt features guide

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The $855 White Gold Medallion Browning fairly screamed "glitzy" at us, but we confess we liked the overall look of this rifle a lot. The stock finish was glassy and shiny. It was fitted with a rosewood forend tip and pistol grip cap, and a black rubber buttpad. All three add-ons had contrasting white-metal spacers that were probably aluminum. The trigger was gold-plated. The floorplate and trigger guard were aluminum alloy. Both had engraving, the trigger guard having the gold-filled Browning deer logo. All the metal work was white-finished, most of it matte.

The hand-cut checkering was close to perfect, was very attractive and fully functional. There was a slight palm swell (right side) and a modest Monte Carlo-style cheekpiece. The wood itself was a magnificent, tiger-striped piece of walnut with perfect grain throughout. The stock finish was extremely hard, glass-smooth, and flawlessly applied, with no grain showing whatsoever. The stock was so shiny it nearly glowed in the dark, however, and a serious hunter might not be happy with that.

The stock had white-finished QD sling swivel studs, and these came fitted with Browning's Super Swivels. The 22-inch barrel was free-floated for its entire length, and had no iron sights. The bolt handle was polished very shiny, like chrome plate. The three-lug bolt head was recessed, and held a wide extractor and plunger ejector.

The bolt was initially sticky in its operation. When we first tried it, it galled badly. We cleaned and oiled it several times, and that pretty much made the problem go away.

This was a very lively, well-made and attractive rifle. Everyone who saw it thought it looked great. The rifle was light enough at 7.0 pounds without scope, and the static balance was, like that of the Sako, right at the front of the magazine. The trigger broke at 4.3 pounds and had minuscule creep, with minor overtravel.

We mounted our 3-9X Artemis scope and proceeded to the range. Our first impression was that this rifle had more than enough weight for the cartridge, since felt recoil was very slight. This was also a function of correct stock design. The Browning had some sharp edges inside the action and magazine that needed minor attention, but feeding and function were flawless.

The White Gold Medallion got smoother the more we shot it, and accuracy with two of the loads was right around 1.5 inches for three shots. The Browning really liked the Federal 150-grain round-nose ammo, averaging just under an inch. That told us careful load selection would pay big dividends with this fancy A-Bolt.

Wild West Guns Co-Pilot
This lever-action .45-70 costs $2,800 as tested. Is it worth it? If you need all the fine fitting and special features of a custom-built rifle, and it has to be a takedown, then yes, the Co-Pilot makes sense.

Click here to view the Wild West Guns Co-Pilot features guide

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Wild West Guns' full-bells-and-whistles Co-Pilot offers many nice features, the biggest being its takedown feature. Some other important features are the bullet-proof stock, a rust-free finish, and a superb trigger pull. If you need the takedown feature you've got to go with the Co-Pilot, but you don't necessarily have to spend $2,800. The cheapest way to get that feature is to have Wild West Guns turn your rifle into a matte-blued takedown, with many of the custom features of our test rifle, for $975. Include the cost of a rifle and the package costs $1,395. The Kevlar stock alone, $575, will set you back about the total cost of a Guide Gun. The Scout scope, including QD rings and WWG base, costs $480, and if this were to be our only serious survival rifle, we'd have this option on it. For fun or casual use we'd go with an aperture sight and no scope. The matte hard-chrome finish is $225. The big-loop lever costs $125. With all the above, the Co-Pilot as tested costs $2,800.

This custom rifle came in a box that totally threw us. The box was so small and light we thought someone had sent us a Contender. When we opened the box and took out the little (21 inch long by 9 inch wide by 2 inch deep) carrying case, not much bigger than a pool-cue bag, we still didn't know what we had. When we unzipped it and saw the short barrel with its 2.5x Leupold IER (scout-type) scope fitted, and realized this was the Co-Pilot, we grinned from ear to ear. Putting the little Co-Pilot together and handling it gave us quite a rush. A week later we still grinned every time we picked it up.

Weighing in at 6.7 pounds without scope, or 7.3 pounds with QD scope attached, the Co-Pilot was finished in matte-finished hard chrome. This, says, Wild West, keeps the well-fitted parts from wearing into the sloppy-handled configuration so common to well-used lever guns. The finish, fit, tightness, and the joint between action and barrel were still extremely tight. Wild West told us this rifle had never been worked on since it was built. The hard-chrome finish apparently added significantly to this rifle's durability. We thought the tough, attractive, non-glare finish would be right at home in the torrential rains of Africa or on the humid salt-air beaches of Kodiak Island.

The stock was gray-painted (Glacier Kote; optional black) and specked Kevlar, and it fit the metal like it grew there. There were forend and buttstock QD studs for a sling. The buttpad was a black Pachmayr Decelerator. The semi-pistol-grip stock was slightly pebble-grained for traction, and there was no checkering. The rough surface of the painted Kevlar gave us a good grasp on the rifle. With gloves on, it stuck like glue.

The forward-mounted Leupold M8 2.5X IER "Scout" scope took our hearts immediately. First, the balance of this little rifle was such that we could wrap our hand around the action behind the scope for easy carrying. The scoped Co-Pilot hung naturally with the muzzle pointing slightly down. The scope was quickly detachable via Kimber rings. The Weaver-type base was a dedicated one custom made by Wild West specifically for this application. It, like all the metal parts on the rifle, was finished in matte hard chrome. The Co-Pilot also had useful iron sights. The front sight was a fiber-optic orange light-gathering rod that was protected by an open-topped hood, which let in ambient light to illuminate the bead. Even against a black background in poor light, our test shooters could easily see the glowing bead.

Wild West gave the rifle a superb trigger job, and also made sure ejection and feeding were slick. We appreciated the lack of burrs around the loading port. The trigger broke at 2.75 pounds with zero creep and minimal overtravel. The Co-Pilot's 16.5-inch barrel was drilled with three holes on each side of the front sight ramp, forming a very effective and by no means obnoxiously loud brake.

Marlin Guide Gun
The $562 Marlin Guide Gun came with an 18.5-inch barrel. Twelve small holes drilled into the top and sides of the muzzle formed an effective brake. Like the Co-Pilot, it held four rounds in its tubular magazine. Attractively cut-checkered, well-inletted walnut graced our blued-steel test rifle, and we thought it was a mighty fine alternative to the high-dollar Co-Pilot.

Click here to view the Marlin Guide Gun features guide

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The Guide Gun weighed 6.9 pounds without scope. With a conventional scope it went 7.7 pounds. The trigger pull was heavy, though crisp, at 5 pounds, with minimal overtravel. The heavy trigger pull hindered fast and accurate shooting, and was the one outstanding fault of this rifle.

The straight-hand stock was fitted with a hard black trestle-style rubber pad with no white-line spacer. We'd replace it with a Pachmayr Decelerator, following our experience with the Co-Pilot. The wood was well inletted, and fit tightly to the steel. We found a tiny splinter of wood missing from the buttstock where it met the right rear of the action. We rated overall fit, finish, and inletting as excellent.

The Guide Gun had the same rear sight as the Co-Pilot, but the front sight was a white-faced bead covered by a hood. This was next to useless in low light, we thought, especially when compared with the outstanding setup of the Co-Pilot.

All the metal parts had excellent bluing on top of fine polishing. The top and bottom surfaces of the action were matte finished, while the sides of the action and the barrel were semi-gloss. There was not much difference in the function of the lever between all three of the test rifles, the Co-Pilot having a slightly slicker movement than the other two, but this difference could easily be overlooked. We would like to see Marlin offer a protective finish on this rifle, such as hard chrome or Robar's NP3.

We could feel little recoil difference between the Co-Pilot and the Guide Gun with the standard ammunition, but with the hot Buffalo Bore fodder the harder buttpad of the Guide Gun was less friendly than the Co-Pilot's Decelerator. Shotguns

Year to year, scatterguns show fewer model and design changes than other gun categories. However, some guns we tested in 2000 were still worth the money-and in some cases, very little money.

Browning Gold Classic Stalker
This 3-inch model is available only through Browning Full-Line and Medallion dealers. Browning introduced the $722 Classic Stalker last year, and it differs most prominently from the Gold Hunter/Stalker line in the shape of its aluminum alloy receiver, which is more squared. Also, its stock dimensions can be changed somewhat.

Click here to view the Browning Gold Classic Stalker features guide

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Browning features a host of autoloaders, but fewer of them with the Classic shape. There are two 3-inch 12-gauge Classics listed in the Browning catalog, one 28-inch and one 26-inch barrel, and the line comes in wood/blued and synthetic finishes. There's also a Classic High Grade 12 gauge and two 20 gauges. We tested the 28-inch gun, which came with three chokes (Improved Cylinder, Modified, and Full).

The Classic was 48.5 inches long and weighed 8.2 pounds. It had a 14.25-inch length of pull, and dropped 111/32 inches at the comb and 2.25 inches at the heel. Unlike other Brownings we've tested, the stock drop was adjustable by using spacers supplied with the gun. The spacers allow the shooter to select a minimum comb drop of 15/16 inches to a maximum of 13/8 inches. The heel drop varies between 2 inches and 213/32 inches. The shooter changes the spacers by removing the buttpad and buttstock and selecting the spacer he wants.

Using the Estate Mighty-Lite Target Load, we saw intermittent failures to eject. But Winchester AA No. 71/2s and Remington Nitro Mag 3-inch steel No. 4s worked fine separately or mixed. The Classic can't accept 31/2-inch shells. Shooting the Classic on clays, we first noted how heavy it felt. The balance point of the gun was at the chamber mouth. Normally, we'd prefer a faster-handling gun, but we consistently shot three to four birds a round better with the Classic than with other autoloaders.

A lot of little things can account for that margin, we think, but the big one would be weight. The Classic's mass forced the shooter to move its barrels to catch up to targets, and this action may have helped follow-through as a result. We seemed to hit crossing targets better with the Browning. Also, the Browning had a half-decent trigger. The Classic's trigger broke much more cleanly than the Benelli's, even at 6.25 pounds.

The safety on the Classic was also a triangular button on the right rear side of the trigger guard, but the shooter had to first operate the safety and then slide the fingertip onto the trigger. We wouldn't mind a little more room inside the Classic's trigger guard either.

The Browning had a clean sighting plane, with a set of recessed grooves on the receiver leading to a ramp and the rib. The Browning's rubber buttpad needed to be ground down, since the top of it caught on clothing. Browning provided sling attachments on the forearm cap and buttstock. We also like the Browning's loading system, which included a magazine cut-off switch.

Mossberg Model 835 Ulti-Mag
This $300 gun would be a good pick for turkey hunting. The ported barrel would let us shoot even the hottest, most pellet-filled loads with relative comfort, and the sights-while they lasted-gave an excellent picture in the dimmest light. We'd find some way to protect the sights or fit a low-powered scope if we owned this gun. Also, we'd shorten the pull-a simple job-and try to improve the trigger pull.

Click here to view the Mossberg Model 835 Ulti-Mag features guide

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This Mossberg pump was a solidly made shotgun. The mechanism worked smoothly. The forend had twin action bars extending to the bolt, and the twin extractors did a good job of hauling empties out of the chamber. This gun would handle just about any 12-gauge shell you could find, from 2.75-inch target loads up to 3.5-inch Roman candles. The 25-inch barrel was fitted with a ventilated rib, and some of the best fixed sights we've seen.

The sights were fiber optics that gathered all the available light and displayed to the shooter's eye a prominent green front bead and two red beads bracketing that. It did all this without electrics, the plastic sight pieces simply gathering in any and all ambient light. They were visible by the dimmest sundown light outside. Unfortunately, the sights were not adjustable for either windage or elevation. Also, the rear sight either blew off the gun after very few shots, or fell off when the gun was inadvertently bumped. A fine sighting idea like this one needs to be very well mounted and then well protected, and Mossberg failed in this respect.

The action had a sliding tang-mounted safety that worked very well. It was handy to the shooter, ambidextrous, and very fast in operation. The action was of aluminum alloy, as was the trigger guard. The trigger was steel as was the magazine tube. The entire gun was covered in wavy camouflage. The "checkering" was roughened areas on pistol grip and forend, which didn't offer much stickiness to a bare hand, but seemed to help a gloved hand get a grip. The buttpad was solid black rubber, quite hard, not rounded at the top, but reasonably well fitted to the stock. The butt stock had a QD sling swivel stud. The front of the barrel nut was drilled and tapped for another stud, which was supplied with the gun.

The barrel porting consisted of 16 holes drilled in the upper surface of the barrel some 6 inches back of the muzzle. It seemed to help considerably in recoil taming.

All the gun's controls were easily manipulated while we were wearing gloves. The Mossberg had a great recoil advantage from its ported barrel, and that, combined with the slick action, permitted very fast follow-up shots. The handling was relatively fast, in spite of the gun's muzzle heaviness.

The trigger pull was just over 6 pounds with very little creep. We could live with this pull, but would prefer it a bit lighter. At the 40-yard range, the Mossberg Extra-Full "Ulti" choke put 17 pellets in a turkey target's head and neck area. The pattern was centered somewhat too high, but the bird would have been killed cleanly.

Winchester 1300 Black Shadow Field
Our first impression of the 1300 was quite favorable. A $269 Winchester like this had not been seen or handled by our testers, and the first thing we noticed was the very smooth action of the pump mechanism. Second was the presence of two bolt rods.

Click here to view the Winchester 1300 Black Shadow Field features guide

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The lack of weight in the receiver combined with the long barrel gave the Winchester a muzzle-heavy feel that could either detract from fast upland shots or aid in tracking passing birds. The flat-black vent-rib barrel told us that this was a Winchester 1300 chambered for 2.75- and 3-inch 12-gauge shells. The 0.375-inch wide rib contained only a flattened brass bead at its forward end for sighting, which was adequate. The rib and the top of the receiver had very nicely done longitudinal serrations that cut glare well.

The buttpad was a trestle style with a ribbed rear surface that gave good traction on the clothing. It helped cut recoil but could have been softer. One excellent point about this buttpad is that it was slightly rounded and smoothed at the top, and that made a world of difference in speed of mounting. The checkering was cleanly done at pistol grip and forend, adequately large, and worked well. The front of the buttstock fit into a pronounced notch at the rear of the receiver, which will perhaps help keep it tight over the years.

Although the buttpad was a very slight mismatch to the buttstock, the plastic work was smoothly and evenly finished with no visible blemishes. Ditto the metalwork throughout. We especially liked the lack of sharp edges anywhere on the gun where your hands normally touch it, like around the ejection and loading ports.

The bolt locked into the rear of the barrel by means of a rotating head. There was one extractor, and it was enough to do the job. Ejection was positive. Although the action worked very smoothly when racked normally, if we attempted to close the bolt slowly, it required noticeable force to get the bolt to rotate into place.

The trigger pull had a bit of creep and no overtravel. It broke at 7.5 pounds, which sounds awful but wasn't that bad. The four-round magazine loaded easily from the bottom port. Feed and ejection were perfect. In fact, the pump slide came so easily rearward that follow-up shots were extremely fast, much more so than with either of the other two guns tested here. We were able to empty the magazine very quickly.

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