.243 Hunting Rifles: We Find A Trio of Lefty and ‘Ambi’ Winners
In this battle of southpaw bolt rifles from Tikka and Savage and a lever action from Browning, we test three easy-to-shoot products.
While many left-handed shooters have accepted their fate of living in a right-handed world, the cross-dominant shooter is yet another kind of victim. Being cross dominant means the hand of greatest dexterity is on the opposite side of the body from the dominant eye.
Are you cross dominant? Here’s a test. If you are right handed, for example, make a circle by connecting the tip of your right thumb to the tip of your right index finger. Hold it at arm’s length and then bring it slowly to your eye so that you can see clearly through the circle. If it comes naturally to your left eye, you are cross dominant.
For the left-handed rifle shooter who is cross dominant, life behind the stock may not be as bad. Mount a right-handed rifle and shut the left eye. Arguably, it should be easier for the left-handed shooter to train the opposite trigger finger than it is for the cross dominant right-handed shooter to stretch the neck across the stock to get the dominant eye lined up with the sights. Learning to shut the left eye or blocking it out is an alternative.
In either case, both left-handed/left-eye-dominant shooters and right-handed cross-dominant shooters have a paucity of southpaw products to choose from. In fact, we found only two left-hand bolt guns in .243, and a single .243 lever-action that ejects away from the sight line, so it’s practically ambidextrous, to choose from. The bolt guns were the Tikka M595LH, $615, and Savage Model 11FL, $419. The lever action was Browning’s box-fed BLR, $649, whose detachable magazine allows it to shoot spitzer bullets safely.
How We Tested
Certainly we had no complaint with the caliber. The high velocity and minimal bearing surface of the .243 cartridge makes for exceptional power with comfortable recoil. This last characteristic was important because the cross dominant shooter was required to mount the rifle on the left shoulder, which in this case was naturally less muscled than the right side and not as accustomed to impact.
Our target distance was 100 yards. Test apparatus included a Ransom rifle rest under the forends and a Protektor Bag under the buttstock. An Oehler 35P chronograph measured velocity. To avoid faulty readings due to muzzle blast we moved the chronograph screens an additional 2 feet downrange to a distance of 12 feet.
Our choice of ammunition was an 80-grain-topped cartridge from Winchester (pointed soft point number X2431) and two 100-grain rounds from Federal and Hornady. Federal calls its round the Hi-Shok soft point (243B) and Hornady’s cartridge goes by the name of BTSP Interlock Bullet number 8046. Two scopes were used, the new Weaver Grand Slam 4.55-14X 40 and the Nikon Titanium 5.5-16X44. To save time and simplify the test procedure we used scope bases and quick-release rings from Warne Manufacturing, (503) 657-5590. The Warne scope bases were two-piece affairs, so we had to change the distance between rings for each scope. We found the Weaver Grand Slam scope to be more adaptable here because its longer tube allowed it to be moved forward or back to adjust the distance between the shooter’s eye and the lens.
What we like the best about these mounts is the way they mated with the top of each rifle and how snug the mounting bolts fit. At no time did we feel the need to add a locking compound to ensure they stayed in place. A Torx wrench was supplied to snug up the bolts.
The use of quick-release rings was helpful during our chronograph session. When we chronograph ammunition from a scoped weapon, the safest way to ensure that we do not inadvertently shoot the light diffusers above the sensors is to dismount the scopes. Removing magnification and the bore-to-sight differential made close-range shots over the chronograph easier to judge. The key to using quick release rings is to limit the final tightening to two turns or less of the side keys. The Warne rings proved to be precise, introducing little or no change in our zero no matter how many times we put them on or took them off. Quick-release rings also enabled us to quickly try different setups with both the Weaver and Nikon Titanium scopes. Actually, we found both these scopes to be very close in ability despite the difference in cost. While we couldn’t say that this evaluation tapped the true potential of the ultra-light bodied heavily glassed Nikon, we felt there was enough information to judge the Weaver Grand Slam to be an excellent buy.
For quick boresighting we tried Alpec’s laser bore sighting system, (800) 854-6686. We chambered the Alpec “dummy” round that contains a laser; closing the bolt turns on the laser, allowing us to see the orange dot on a black surface at 15 yards. Then we used the windage and elevation adjustments on the scope to overlay the reticle with the laser dot. We found this to be a pretty good shortcut, one that can be done in the backyard before leaving for the range. The directions that come with the Alpec say the dot can be seen at a much greater distance, but we found this requires a spotter and just the right amount of light. At the range we continued our sight in at 50 yards before moving to 100 yards.
We were looking for accuracy, and our objective was to land the best possible five-shot groups. Some testers cool the chamber and barrel after every shot, but we wanted to know how much effect heat would have on the performance of these rifles in the field. So we shot strings of fire ranging from two to five continuous shots with rests in between. (Our group averages are five-shot groups, however.) Here’s what we found out about the guns.
Savage Model 11FL, $419
The 11FL, like the Tikka M595, offers a straightforward design, featuring a walnut stock with free-floating barrel and rubber butt pad. One major difference is the Savage utilizes an integral magazine rather than the removable box as found on the Tikka. While this type of magazine can be balky, we found loading and unloading the Savage was smooth and consistent. There is no trap door, however, so if the magazine needs to be cleared from the bottom, the stock must be removed. This is not a difficult task, but it is an inconvenience that requires a wrench should the need arise. Capacity of the magazine is four rounds.
Another feature that separates it from the Tikka is that the Savage comes with sights instead of merely a drilled and tapped receiver. The stock is flat from heel to comb and allows the shooter to get down low and make good use of the supplied sights, which are adjustable for windage and elevation. This also allows the shooter to use a combination of low-mount rings and bases to minimize bore-to-sight differential.
The long, flat bottom of the forend provided an ideal hold for all three shooting positions. The Savage rifle shot the only sub-minute-of-angle group in our test, 0.90-inch. But in review of our accuracy statistics, the Tikka and the Savage were otherwise locked in a dead heat. The most glaring variables included the wind and light changes between guns, yet the average difference we found in group size for all shots fired was 0.1 inch when firing the Hornady round. Both the Tikka and the Savage preferred the Hornady Interlock bullet, with the Savage winning on average group size of 1.1 to 1.2 inches. The Savage also produced the most velocity and muzzle energy.
Two other characteristics, we feel, set the Savage apart from the Tikka. For one, we felt the trigger was heavier than it needed to be. Several times we lined up a shot at the bench and began a controlled press. But the weight of the trigger slowed the process and made us back off without breaking the shot when our eyes fuzzed over. We could find no hint of creep, grit or false take-up in the Savage trigger. We just feel the trigger was not as responsive as it could be.
The other characteristic we found helpful was the Savage’s ability to handle heat. In our experiments with strings of fire, we feel that the Savage actually performed best when it was hot. It was our distinct impression that the Savage shot its best when it had been brought up to temperature after three or four shots. Accuracy did not seem to be affected until the barrel was substantially hotter, say after nine or ten shots. While this may not be an issue in the field where more time is spent stalking than shooting, this could make the Savage rifle more satisfying to take to the range.
Tikka M595LH, $615
For years Tikka rifles have been looked upon as budget versions of the more expensive Sako (pronounced SOCK-o) rifles. While this is accurate, the Tikka still has the feel of an exotic rifle.
Beretta USA now imports both brands from Finland, but the Italian firm left them alone save for stamping “Beretta” unobtrusively on the barrel. This is a good thing, because while the Savage offers a decidedly American feel, handling the Tikka is like turning the dance floor with the daughter of a foreign ambassador.
The stock is more delicate in the forend and the raised comb is delightfully sculpted. Checkering of the stock on each rifle is similar, but the difference in price is evidenced in little things like the buttpad, which is finished and embossed, whereas the Savage buttpad has merely been cut and shaved. Both the Tikka and the Savage come with swivel studs, but the trigger on the Tikka is serrated and chromed. The bolt handle on the Tikka is also chromed. Trigger-pull weight is only 0.75-pound lighter, but in comparison to the Savage, the Tikka’s trigger is match-grade, in our view.
The Tikka loads from a removable box magazine that holds three rounds. We like a removable magazine because multiple mags can be loaded ahead of time. Of course some may argue that they can also be misplaced, but in the event of malfunction it is also an inexpensive part to replace that will not incapacitate the rifle.
Another feature that can be argued back and forth is the integral scope base. The Tikka base is narrower than the standard Weaver system, much like what’s found on CZ rifles. There are two ways of dealing with this. One is to install a Weaver adapter, which overlays the integral rails, or use rings made especially for Tikka. We chose the latter. The Warne forward ring for the Tikka indexes via a stud to the portion of the rails just ahead of the ejection port. The rearward ring position is more open to adjustment. For some shooters needing the scope farther back to offer true eye relief, an adapter rail might be a better choice. But at the bench, getting a good, clear sight picture of the full-diameter field was not a problem.
With accuracy a tie and velocity a little lower compared to the Savage, the Tikka displayed a couple of other characteristics that set it apart from the Savage. In the standing position some staffers found it necessary to place the right hand (the support hand) underneath the trigger guard. This is not critical, but the Savage won out here.
Strangely, when these rifles were mounted on the opposite (right) shoulder, the same testers who placed their support hands (left this time) under the trigger guard of the Tikka were more comfortable than with the Savage. We credit this difference to how the gun is mounted or precisely where the butt is indexed in the shoulder.
Elsewhere, we felt the bolt operation of the Tikka was smoother than the one on the Savage. Also, bolt removal differed from the Savage in that there is a release lever that does not require touching the trigger. The trigger on the Savage is in effect the bolt release. Pull back the bolt, depress the trigger and the bolt can be removed.
In terms of general performance we enjoyed shooting and handling the Tikka rifle more than we did the Savage. But we also found that the Tikka was more affected by heat than either the Savage or the Browning lever-action rifle. The Tikka preferred ambient temperature, and after three shots of the magazine it was best to let it cool. Each rifle fires from a barrel measuring 22 inches in length. But the Tikka barrel was slightly wider in outer diameter. The Tikka was 0.628 inch thick compared to the Savage’s 0.572-inch measurement. We would have expected the heavier barrel to be more resistant to stringing or flyers, but that wasn’t the case here.
Browning BLR Lever Action Rifle, $649
The BLR sneaked into this comparison almost by default. Unable to find a third bolt-action rifle, we still wanted a rifle that would serve the left-handed shooter and also allow the cross-dominant “righty” the option of firing from the left. Since cycling a lever-action rifle is a straight downward motion, we felt it would lend itself well to ambidextrous use. What sealed the deal for our consideration of this rifle was that ejection, albeit from the right side, does not threaten the left-hander as spent shells exit briskly not just to the side but slightly forward as well.
The BLR, like the Tikka, feeds from a detachable box magazine. But in this case the magazine is steel, not plastic, and capacity is four rounds. The physical dimensions and shape of the .243 ammunition makes feeding from a tubular magazine such as those found on most lever-action rifles unfeasible. Also, since this lever action rifle was such a willing repeater, we felt it was completely in character to make a quick mag change and continue rapid fire. This may not be necessary but we found doing so was quite frankly, a blast.
Of the three rifles, the BLR is easily the fanciest looking. It features a glossy wood stock with fancy grain and fine checkering, plus a chromed bolt and gold serrated trigger. Remaining metal finish is high gloss blue. The rubber buttpad is checkered, and the supplied sights include not only a fully adjustable rear assembly but also a gold bead up front. We only wished the front sight was a little more bold. Even so, we had good results plinking with the supplied sights.
We found the Browning to be very easy to index at the bench, and we did not find it necessary to stand between shots to work the lever. The action was very smooth, but we did notice that without the magazine in place the hammer would not always go to full cock, staying high enough to grind against the teeth on the bottom of the bolt. Evidently the presence of the magazine was partially supporting the bolt. This can be avoided by thumbing back the hammer before working the lever. The BLR does not offer an external safety lever, but due to an internal firing pin safety, the rifle will not fire unless the hammer is all the way back and the trigger is pressed. Still, the hammer can be lowered onto a loaded chamber for 4+1 capacity. This takes some care, and we don’t recommend it, but the presence of a wide, serrated hammer tang took a lot of the worry out of doing so. For added safety, once the hammer was down we pulled the hammer back about one-third of an inch to a first click. The tang will then swivel forward and down to support the hammer in this position without danger of contacting the firing pin. The trigger is now deactivated. To reactivate, the hammer needs to be pulled back to full cock without the finger on the trigger.
The action of the BLR locks up at the front of the case and utilizes a rotating bolt. Velocities recorded by the BLR were lower than from our bolt-action rifles, partially because the barrel was 2 inches shorter. Other factors that can affect velocity are bore roughness and size of the chamber.
Shooting this gun, we averaged groups of five shots measuring 1.6 inches with all three test rounds. Heat buildup in the barrel did not seem to cause any change in accuracy. Since our ammunition varied in weight and composition, we would have to say that the BLR is both versatile and consistent.
Gun Tests Recommends
Savage Model 11FL, $419. Best Buy. The Savage offers a very solid mount and holds up to heat and hard use. The trigger was heavy, but it moved without creep or grit. The price makes it a Best Buy.
Tikka M595, $615. Our Pick. You may have to work around the integral mount (which saves money) but its trigger is a treat. The Tikka handles with ease and grace.
Browning BLR, $649. Buy It. This had a beautiful stock, and its accurate open sights are out of the way and allow for mounting a scope. We would also rate it a “Most Fun” buy. This is a classy lever-action rifle for those who don’t like lever actions.