December 2005

Gun Tests Guns Of The Year 2005

Which firearms offer the best combination of performance, price, and value? We look back at the previous 11 months of Gun Tests and tell you what we would buy for ourselves.

Every December I take a step back and survey the work Ray Ordorica, Roger Eckstine, Ralph Winingham, Ben Brooks, Joe Syczylo, and Kevin Winkle have done in Gun Tests, with an eye toward selecting guns the magazine’s staffers have endorsed wholeheartedly. From these evaluations I pick the best from a full year’s worth of tests and distill summary recommendations for readers, who often use them as year-end shopping guides.

These “best of” choices are a mixture of our original tests and other information I’ve squirreled away during the year. After the magazine’s product coordination editors sell high-rated test products to readers, I try to keep track of how those guns do over time, and if the firearms continue performing well, then I have confidence about including them in this year-end wrap-up.

Also, new this year, we’ve named what we think are the “best-in-class” firearms and accessories for 2005. All of the guns in this roundup are worth your consideration, but the BEST IN CLASS guns are can’t-miss products for the Gun Tests reader.

-Todd Woodard

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BEST IN CLASS: PISTOLS

Sigarms P220 .45 ACP, $600
(factory reconditioned)
Reviewed: February 2005

Many gunowners who want the benefits of a big bullet like the .45 ACP don’t necessarily want the cocked-and-locked single-action design of a 1911. For them, single-stack guns such as the Sigarms P220 offer a double-action first shot that transitions to single action.

Because new Sig P220’s can be too pricey for many shooters, we tested a less expensive factory-reconditioned P220. The pre-owned program by Sigarms gives public access to guns turned in by law-enforcement personnel, and the manufacturer services those guns as necessary by to bring them to nearly new condition.

The resulting price break is substantial. A new P220 is $800 MSRP; street prices of used P220s we found were around $600.

The only limitation is availability. The used P220 we tested came in a black case marked Law Enforcement; otherwise, we saw few signs of wear or other dings that would mark the gun as a used product.

Therewith, we put the used P220 through the same battery of tests as a new P220. The used gun’s double-action trigger pull was 1 pound lighter. Compared to the new gun, the pre-owned gun’s trigger response was very close in terms of consistency, a judgment borne out during the rapid-fire transition test.

The used 220’s drill results were nearly identical to the new model’s tally. We counted 18/20 rounds in the A zone when the used gun was fired in transition from double to single action. The single-action-only shots to paper target’s head showed 4/10 holes in the middle, with four shots low and two shots high.

Elsewhere, slide-to-frame fit appeared to be every bit as tight as on the new gun. The bench results at the 25-yard line showed the used gun shot best with the Federal Hydra-Shok 165-grain JHP ammunition.

Gun Tests Recommends
Sigarms P220 .45 ACP Pre-Owned, $600. Best In Class ‘05. Among the pistols we tested this year, this model showed a superior mixture of accuracy, fit, dependability, and reasonable pricing.


PISTOL RUNNERS-UP

Smith & Wesson 908S
Carry Combo 9mm, $603
Reviewed: January 2005

One of the oldest and most concealable ways to carry a handgun is to use a bellyband. But to work as a deep-carry gun in a bellyband, the gun needs to be flat and light weight. One gun, the Smith & Wesson 908S 9mm, $603, did well in this specialized test.

The 908S Carry Combo had an alloy frame, and this pistol operated with a traditional double action (TDA) trigger with a combination decocker/safety lever on the left side of the slide. The lever can be changed to the right side for left-handed shooters. The 908S Carry Combo differed from a standard 908S only by the inclusion of an Uncle Mike’s Kydex belt-slide holster. This holster was smartly shaped with the contours of the pistol and was a stylish addition, even if it did not provide the deepest concealment.

According to the manufacturer’s website, the 908S with its stainless-steel slide and its brother the 908 with carbon steel slide each weighed 24 ounces. Ours weighed 22 ounces without a magazine, 24 ounces with.

The polymer grip panels that wrapped around the back strap of the 908S provided a comfortable grip but did not add unnecessary width. We liked this because the narrow profile helped to provide a natural index in the hand. The frontstrap was smooth, and most shooters will be able to fit at least two fingers beneath the trigger guard with the pinky resting on the lip of the base pad extension supplied on the magazine. The magazine release was slightly extended and easy to find. The decocker was readily available to the thumb, making one-handed operation an easy chore. We used a downward stroke to decock to the safety-on position. Safety-off, ready to fire, a first shot double action required a separate upward stroke of the lever.

Return to single action fire required manually moving back the slide with the danger of ejecting a live round. Thumbing a spurred hammer would solve this problem, and replacing the flush-fitting hammer with a spurred model is an aftersale option available from Smith & Wesson. This gun would not fire without a magazine in place.

The sights were a three-dot Novak design, and we liked the fact that both the front and rear units were dovetailed into place. The slide featured rear cocking serrations and an externally mounted extractor.

We measured the weight of the single- and double-action trigger pulls at 7 and 12 pounds respectively. The double-action trigger had a much shorter take up, approximately 0.025 inch, but its break point required rearward travel of 0.5 inch (at a trigger span of 2.4 inches). Overtravel was 0.05 inch. From its most rearward position (a trigger span of 2.35 inches), the trigger then reset at the 2.4-inch mark ready for single-action fire.

We found operating the 12-pound double-action trigger on the Smith & Wesson wasn’t as tiring as DAO triggers on other guns.

We began our 7-yard practical test of the Smith & Wesson with a double-action first shot to the center mass A zone. We quickly followed up with a single-action second shot to this same point, and then transitioned to the head, or B zone, firing one shot single action.

Out of 18 A-zone shots, we placed only one shot wide left of the A zone, and we dropped one shot out of nine well below the B zone. Overall, however, we registered our best results with the 908S, with a count of 25 out of 27 rounds landing inside the intended target areas.

From the sandbag rest, we recorded groups single-action only. With smallest and largest groups measuring from 1.4 to 2.4 inches for all shots fired and an overall average of 1.9 inches, the 908S handled 15-yard shots with ease.

Gun Tests Recommends
Smith & Wesson 908S 9mm, $603. Our Pick. The 908S offered smooth transitional fire for close quarters work and adequate longer-range accuracy. In the compact 9mm world, it’s a winner.


Taurus Millennium Pro
PT 745C .45 ACP, $484
Reviewed: June 2005

While the .45 ACP cartridge has proven its worth as one of the very best self-defense cartridges, the guns that handle it are often too big to be easily carried, much less concealed, at least for some shooters. The solution is to make the guns smaller and lighter, like the Taurus Millennium Pro PT 745C.

This all-matte-black pistol had a slim, comfortable grip concealed a single-stack magazine of 6+1 shots, and had molded-in serrations on the gripping surface that went a long way toward helping us control this little powerhouse. The pistol was striker fired, and the long trigger pull broke just before it touched the frame at the very back of the trigger guard.

The three-white-dot sights were highly visible and could easily accommodate tritium inserts if desired. The gun was well set up for clearance drills, there being no sharp edges anywhere on it.

Each pull of the trigger dropped the striker. There was a safety lever, easily operated by the right thumb, that blocked the trigger. The gun would fire with the magazine removed. Because of the gun’s short grip, the Taurus’s magazine didn’t always drop free. The mag release, in the same position on all three guns, was a button on the left-rear corner of the trigger guard. The magazine extension provided a comfortable rest for the little finger of the shooting hand. Overall fit and finish of the Millennium Pro was excellent.

On the range we found no problems with this Taurus. As with the 24/7, there’s not a lot to learn. The trigger takes practice, but the gun delivers all the accuracy anyone would want from such a gun.

Gun Tests Recommends
Taurus Millennium Pro PT 745C .45 ACP, $484. Our Pick. The 8-pound trigger was controllable and consistent. We think you’ll find the PT 745C to be a trusty friend, especially in light of its street price of $375 to 400.


Beretta Model 96 Vertec
.40 S&W, $785
Reviewed: April 2005

Alloy .40 S&W pistols have a well-earned reputation for packing plenty of power in their lightweight frames, but they are also well-known for being vicious kickers for the training shooter. However, the Model 96 Vertec was an exception.

The Beretta Vertec models (92 and 96 in 9mm and .40 S&W respectively) share some simple changes to the basic design that we found to be very helpful. At the center of this was the new vertical grip design that, combined with the thinner grip panels and short-reach trigger, has made this pistol much friendlier to shooters with smaller hands. We liked it because its flat-sided feel and more rectangular shape were easier to index. This meant our hands were able to pick up proper alignment that much faster. This also meant better access to the decocker/safety levers. Despite its size, we were able to operate every aspect of the Vertec 96 with one hand. Three-dot sights were dovetailed in place, front and rear. Our pistol arrived with two 10-round magazines, but 11-round magazines are available from Beretta.

In our rapid-fire transition test, the Vertec recorded 20 of 20 A-zone hits into a solid 5-inch group, and 9 of 10 B-zone hits, with one shot centered but low. The extra sight radius was a real luxury. Our single-action-only 15-yard bench rest session resulted in a 2-inch average or better with each choice of ammunition.

Gun Tests Recommends
Beretta Model 96 Vertec, $785. Best Buy. This medium-weight .40 S&W pistol kills recoil, likes to be shot with one hand, reloads quickly, and points like a cue stick.


Springfield Armory
XD 45 XD9504, .45 GAP, $514
Reviewed: August 2005

Having tested the Glock GL37 in .45 GAP against standard .45 ACP guns and ammo, we wanted to test another maker’s arm chambered for the GAP. The Springfield Armory XD 45 XD9504, $514, is the first pistol chambered for .45 GAP to be built by a company other than Glock.

Our XD 45 was a Service model with carbon-steel slide and stainless-steel barrel. A 5-inch model is also available, and options include a stainless-steel slide and an olive-drab green frame. The two supplied nine-round magazines featured polished stainless-steel bodies. The sights were big and bold, showing a three-dot design. Our first impression was that the sights were too open, showing a wide front sight surrounded by plenty of light, but they proved to be quick to find and easy to track. The sights front and rear were dovetailed into place, so making changes should be simple.

By including a safety in the face of the hinged trigger, the XD mimicked a Glock. When the XD was cocked, a pin could be seen extending from the striker through the rear of the slide, protruding about 0.05 inch. As the trigger was pulled, this safety indicator could be seen moving rearward an additional 0.01 inch before the shot broke, barely visible to the naked eye. Despite this movement, the XD 45 is considered to be a single-action pistol.

Much like the Sigarms pistols, a block directly beneath the chamber provides lockup and barrel support. In the case of the XD pistol, this was the only point of metal-to-metal contact between the frame and slide. The rear of the frame employed polymer rails to regulate slide movement, but rails on either side of the support block bore most of the stress.

The XD 45 does not have a decocker. To relax the firing mechanism, we had to press the trigger. Making sure the magazine was out of the gun and there was visual confirmation of an empty chamber even during reassembly was the safest procedure.

Once loaded, two safety devices became apparent. The aforementioned striker extension protruded from the rear of the slide, and a loaded-chamber indicator that runs parallel with the bore popped up at the rear of the barrel hood. In reduced light these parts might be invisible, but running the trigger finger across the top of the slide is one safe way to check the condition of the chamber. The XD 45 also borrows from the Browning 1911 pistol because the gun will not fire without compressing the grip safety with the web of the strong hand.

Although the XD ejects to the right, the left-handed shooter has not been forgotten. The magazine release appeared on both sides as well as an indentation at the upper portion of the grip. The front strap offers a predominantly flat surface, but the rear strap was fashioned with a palm swell. A grip pattern similar to checkering was molded into each of these surfaces with a pebble finish on the sides of the grip. Our staff felt that the XD offered a very natural grip to the shooter.

From the bench we found that due to the short dust cover, setting up the XD 45 on sandbags was more difficult than working with a true full-size pistol. But we also found that the single-action trigger helped us concentrate because we didn’t have to steer the sights over the course of a long trigger press. We like to see groups averaging less than 3 inches across and closer to 2.5 inches. We were able to achieve this level of accuracy with both the 200-grain Speer Lawman FMJ rounds and the Winchester Ranger JHPs.

Gun Tests Recommends
Springfield Armory XD 45 XD9504 .45 GAP, $514. Best Buy. The .45 GAP was made for the polymer pistol, and in our opinion, the XD offers one of the most natural-feeling grips to be found.


Springfield Armory Custom
Loaded Long Slide 1911-A1
No. PX9628L .45 ACP, $1049
Reviewed: March 2005

The long-slide 1911 pistol has distinct advantages that should interest many shooters. Barrel length for this model is typically 6.0 inches, and the slide that houses the longer tube serves to stretch the pistol’s sight radius. This makes life easier for older eyes and offers a better sight picture. As a result, Police Pistol Course competitors and Bullseye shooters favor long-slide pistols.

Though usually the province of custom-gun builders, two major manufacturers offer long-slide 1911s in .45 ACP, one of which is Springfield Armory. The Springfield Armory Custom Loaded Long Slide 1911-A1 No. PX9628L is Springfield’s only 6-inch-barrel production pistol. We’ll refer to it as the “Long Slide.”

The Long Slide offered a number of heretofore aftermarket features in what we felt was a handsome, understated package. The 6-inch non-ramped barrel utilized a full-length two-piece guide rod. The barrel hood included a very small cutout to the rear that served as a loaded chamber indicator. The slide offered cocking serrations front and rear. The rear sight was a neat copy of the Bo-Mar design, and was adjustable for windage and elevation. The rear face of the sight was grooved to reduce glare, as was the front-sight blade, which was cleanly dovetailed and pinned into place. The ambidextrous thumb safety was slightly thinner on the right side. The grooved slide release and the magazine button sat on the left side of the frame. The fancy wood grip panels, covered in diamond-shaped cuts, stayed in place with the help of stainless Torx screws. The ventilated aluminum trigger allowed for overtravel adjustment, and the skeletonized hammer sat above a smooth beavertail grip safety, which had a high contour and a boldly raised contact platform. The gun fit our hands nicely as a result. The smooth front strap lacked checkering, but grooves on the backstrap/mainspring housing improved that grip surface.

A hard-to-spot feature, Springfield’s Integral Locking System (ILS) worked by freezing the mainspring. The bevel on the magazine well presented a big hole for the magazine to slide into, and it looked like it would easily accept a magazine guide The gun came with two seven-round magazines, but we also fired the Long Slide with 8- and 10-round magazines from Wilson Combat and Metalform without malfunction.

In the hand the Long Slide did indeed feel muzzle heavy. The gun also had a very narrow feel to it, and if you are accustomed to checkering on the front strap you will notice the reduction in grip immediately. But we liked the look of the sparkling matte finish that adorned the front strap as well as the underside of the frame and slide, which contrasted with the gun’s polished vertical surfaces. This matte treatment was also applied to the relieved portions of the cocking serrations on the slide. After spending time with the STI Target Master, we thought the front-sight blade on the Springfield Armory Long Slide seemed positively fat. But there was plenty of room for light between the front and rear sight, even if personal preference would demand otherwise. We weighed the trigger pull to be one-half pound less than that of the STI pistol, (6.0 compared to 6.5 pounds). But the Long Slide’s trigger felt heavier to us — a likely result of the Springfield’s trigger being less crisp than the STI’s.

Results from our accuracy session showed that shots fired from a sandbag rest at 25 yards produced an overall average five-shot group measuring 2.2 inches. The best choice of ammunition proved to be the Black Hills 230-grain JHP round, with groups measuring from 1.5 to 2.0 inches across.

Gun Tests Recommends
Springfield Armory Custom Loaded Long Slide 1911-A1 .45 ACP, $1049. Best Buy. We think this gun is a bargain because it provides a healthy head start on becoming a good Bullseye, PPC, or IPSC pistol shot.

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BEST IN CLASS: REVOLVERS

Smith & Wesson Model 60-18
.38 Special/.357 Magnum
No. 162440, $671
Reviewed: September 2005

Despite a spate of new revolver materials, many consumers look at the high prices for new wheelguns and turn back to stainless steel for its durability, timelessness, and comparatively low cost. Once such stainless gun is the S&W 60-18, which sported a 5-inch barrel. S&W’s description of the 60-18 revolver is right on: The “perfect target revolver for the shooter with smaller hands.”

The gun includes a 5-inch semi-lug barrel, rosewood grips, extended sight radius, adjustable sights, a thin hammer tang, internal firing pin, key-operated hammer lock, shrouded ejector rod, contoured trigger and round-butt frame.

Our main complaint with the 60-18 was the front sight. Instead of being a black and serrated ramp, it featured an orange plastic insert. The longer sight radius, almost 7 inches, was a plus, but the glare produced by the smooth plastic insert was a negative, often negating the color of the insert.

The 60-18’s 5-inch-long barrel produced a lot of velocity, especially when firing more powerful rounds. When firing the most powerful ammunition in our selection, the Federal Hydra-Shok 158-grain .357 Magnum rounds, the result was an average velocity of 1307 fps and muzzle energy of a whopping 600 foot-pounds. Thankfully, we had been able to remove the two-piece rosewood grip and replace it with Pachmayr Decelerator grips. These grips did an excellent job of providing comfort and control, and if we were to buy this gun, we would certainly buy the Decelerators.

The single-action trigger weighed in at approximately 3.2 pounds. A look at the results from our accuracy test session told us that this gun would be a good choice for NRA Bullseye competition. Virtually every group fired single action from a sandbag rest at 15 yards was well under 2.0 inches. The Black Hills 148-grain Match Wadcutters (factory reloads) rang up an average group of only 1.0 inch.

Tempted by this performance, we then tried shooting the model 60-18 from a sandbag rest at a distance of 25 yards. Results at 25 yards showed more variation in group size, but we did manage to land a 1.0-inch group.

Returning to our 15-yard targets, the accuracy we achieved firing .357 Magnum ammunition was also impressive. With the Pachmayr grips in place, we were able to center our shots on the bull and print groups that averaged 1.3 and 1.4 inches across for the Winchester and Federal magnum ammunition respectively.

Gun Tests Recommends
Smith & Wesson Model 60-18 .38 Special/.357 Magnum No. 162440, $671. Best In Class ‘05. This is perhaps the closest any manufacturer has ever come to producing a gun for everyone. For the beginner, it has the size to make shooting pleasant. For the expert, it has the accuracy. For self-defense, it has the power. The Model 60-18 is a jewel of a mass-production gun.


REVOLVER RUNNERS-UP

Taurus 851SSUL Ultra Lite
Protector .38 Special, $461
Reviewed: June 2005

There’s not always something new in snub-nose revolvers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t discover something good amongst the old. To wit: The Taurus 851SSUL.

This five-shooter is chambered for the .38 Special round in the smallest frame available from the manufacturer. Constructed with aluminum alloy, the gun nonetheless has a stainless-steel-like finish over a shrouded-hammer design. Unlike “hammerless” models, such as the Smith & Wesson Centennial and the Taurus CIA small-framed revolvers, we were able to thumb back the shrouded hammer for single-action only fire.

With the purpose of last-chance self-defense in mind, we tested the Taurus with .38 Special +P hollowpoint ammunition out to 15 yards. But we followed up with a rapid-fire test of “two to the body and one to the head” at 7 yards to get a feel for the gun’s close-quarters capabilities.

Its rubber grip completely covered both the front and rear strap and cushioned the space to the rear of the trigger guard. The bottom of the grip was cut short even with the frame to aid concealment. The checkered cylinder latch was contoured to assist loading and removal of spent cartridges.

Of note was the addition of a spring-loaded detent in the crane and the subtraction of the ejector rod from the function of cylinder lockup. This added strength to the lockup and removed stress and friction that adds to trigger pull weight via contact with the tip of the ejector rod. Also, should the ejector rod become bent, there was less likelihood that it would interfere with cylinder rotation. This could be significant because the ejector rod of the Taurus 851SSUL was enclosed on three sides beneath the barrel.

The front sight was the typical ramp design machined as part of the barrel shroud and lined to prevent glare. But if the shrouded-hammer snubbie is an old invention, then the adjustable rear sight on the Ultra Lite Protector is the latest innovation. Adjustment is by a small screw on the right side of the frame. We turned it clockwise to move the sight blade left and counterclockwise for shifting it to the right. At the range we found that point of impact could be moved more than 2 inches left or right at a distance of 15 yards.

Aside from the value of windage adjustment, we found that the rear blade, which was blued in contrast with the frame, afforded a much better sight picture than a simple notch in the top strap. In fact, we found the sight picture to be so superior, we would have been satisfied had it been merely a static insert.

At the range our first recorded data came from single-action only shots from a sandbag rest at 15 yards. The lined hammer tang, which due to the shroud appeared to be more of a sliding button, also contained the key-operated hammer lock. But the lock was unobtrusive and did not interfere with pulling back the hammer.

We found that consistent hits upon the target were a direct result of controlling recoil. Nothing new here, but some guns help you more than others. Smaller-framed guns with limited grip surface demand closer attention to follow through.

We scored five-shot groups that measured an average size of 2.8 inches with both the Black Hills 125-grain JHP +P ammunition and the 110-grain JHP Federal Hydra-Shok rounds. Our rapid-fire test started from low ready, then we simply engaged a Hoffners ABC16 training target (hoffners.com) with two shots to the chest, or A zone, and one to the head, or B zone, in rapid succession. Ten separate strings for a total of 30 shots were fired. For this test we used the Black Hills 125-grain JHP+P rounds exclusively. After ten strings of aggressive shooting, we found only two shots printed outside of the 7.8- by 5.5-inch A zone. Twelve of the A-zone shots formed a 5-inch group nearly dead center. In the B zone, all the shots were in line straight up or down, but one shot was missing completely. Only four of the shots were in the actual B zone, which formed the head of the humanoid silhouette, but the remaining hits would have registered a deadly score.

Gun Tests Recommends
Taurus 851SSUL Ultra Lite Protector .38 Special, $461. Our Pick. A new snagproof rear sight that provides windage adjustment and a superior sight picture enhances this gun’s versatility.


Cabela’s Millennium
Revolver .45 LC, $280
Reviewed: March 2005

Getting into Cowboy Action shooting can be an exercise in frustration, considering only the selection of the handguns needed for that lively game. But Cabela’s Millennium revolver with brass frame is a good start. We first tested this revolver in the April 2001 issue. At the time its price was $200, and the gun got our highest rating. It was accurate, well made, and despite its brass grip straps and vapor-blast surface finish, we thought it looked authentic enough to grace the holster of any Cowboy Action shooter.

The Millennium is available only in .45 LC with a 4.8-inch barrel. The hammer was case-colored and held the firing pin. The Cabela’s gun had nice hammer checkering. We have put a few hundred rounds through the Millennium revolver since our first test, and it still shoots well and shows no signs of shooting loose. Lockup on our sample is still very tight, and to our joy there are no flip-up hooky-dookers inside it to make it go bang. It’s a basic single-action revolver.

With that caveat in mind, never load six rounds unless you’re in a gunfight. Keep the hammer down on the empty chamber, because a blow to the hammer will cause a loaded round to fire. These features are just like you’d expect from a Colt made a century or more ago.

Gun Tests Recommends
Cabela’s Millennium Revolver, .45 LC, $280. Best Buy. In short, there were no flies on this revolver, and at $280 we think it’s one of the best bargains in the shooting world, an ideal first choice for assembling your Cowboy Action equipment.

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BEST IN CLASS: RIFLES

Kimber .308
Montana 84M, $1124
Reviewed: April 2005

One great way to cut down on your hunting burden is to pack a lighter rifle, and it’s getting easier every year to get lighter rifles. But what do you give up? If you buy the Kimber Montana 84M with synthetic stock, nothing, we found.

This rifle felt totally great the second we touched it. We loved the muted look of the gray composite stock and the matching matte-stainless steel. Kimber reduced the weight everywhere we looked. The magazine was blind, eliminating a floorplate. The bolt was noticeably small and light. The Kimber action looked like a miniature Model 70 Winchester, but still with controlled feed and all the other attributes that riflemen want, cone-shaped breech and all. The blind magazine held four rounds down, and another in the chamber as required. With the safety in the middle position it was easy and safe to get the unfired rounds out of the rifle.

The gray stock had no checkering. Instead, the surface of the stock was slightly rough all over, which made an excellent substitute for checkering, even when wet. The black recoil pad was a full inch thick (Pachmayr Decelerator) and absorbed recoil well. It also provided a non-slip grip. There were stainless sling studs fore and aft.

The Kimber had a 22-inch mostly free-floated barrel, 0.560-inch diameter at the muzzle. The Kimber weighed 5.5 pounds without scope. Pull length was 13.8 inches, yet it fit us all. The rifle came with extra-cost scope bases, which we feel was the best way to go, because these Kimber bases came with larger-than-normal mounting screws, and those go a long way toward keeping your scope attached over the repeated pounding of many rounds of ammo

Our first groups with the delightful Kimber Montana were nothing to rave about. They ran around 1.2 to 1.4 inches. Then we applied Montana X-treme’s 50 BMG cleaner, and used some of the same company’s Bore Cleaning and Polishing Compound, and tried the rifle again. This time we got consistent half-inch groups with the Winchester Match ammo and with the Hirtenberger 150-grain soft nose, and around an inch with the X-Bullets in PMC’s ammo.

This rifle had several things that endeared it to us, besides its superlative accuracy. The trigger was outstanding, breaking cleanly at 3.7 pounds. The rifle had marvelous balance. The Kimber’s good recoil pad also was much to our liking.

Gun Tests Recommends
Kimber .308 Montana 84M, $1124. Best In Class ‘05. Not many rifles of any weight or price will match its accuracy and its features. We believe it’ll satisfy the most picky rifleman.


RIFLE RUNNERS-UP

CZ 452
Scout Rifle .22LR, $242
Reviewed: February 2005

The .22 rimfire rifle has started the shooting careers of many serious gun owners, and, thankfully, many aspects of .22LR rifle design have improved over the years. Our favorite youth bolt action (which could still do duty as a camp gun) was a CZ 452 Scout, $242. To test the gun, we used adults to collect accuracy data, and adults monitored kids shooting. But we leaned heavily on the kids’ opinions of what they liked (or not) when they were shooting.

Our evaluation stretched over a year. Our test crew included a 7-year-old boy, an 11-year-old girl, a 12-year-old boy, and a 14-year-old teenager, plus a variety of adults. Our test ammos included Federal .22 LR High Velocity 36-grain copper-plated hollowpoints; Remington .22 LR High Velocity 36-grain lead hollowpoints; and Eley .22 LR Match EPS 40-grain lead solids. We used open sights throughout the test, including shooting accuracy groups at 25 yards.

During plinking sessions, we interviewed the youth shooters and recorded their criticisms without comment. If there were questions about certain issues, we came back for further discussion. We did our best not to color their impressions as they shot.

Nonetheless, we asked about the same areas we grade adult guns on: trigger, balance, fit, and sights.

The Scout is one of eight 452-model .22LRs made by Ceska Zbrojovka Uhersky Brod. The Scout is a magazine-fed action with a walnut stock. The CZ 452 actions are manufactured from steel billets, and the barrels are hammer forged. The trigger is adjustable for weight, and the safety is located above the rear of the bolt and provides a positive firing-pin block. We got a blind magazine for our gun that effectively installed a ramp for single-shot use, but five- and 10-round magazines are available.

The CZ 452 came with a hooded blade front sight and rear notch sight. There was no checkering on the walnut forearm or pistol grip. The stock had a matte urethane finish that filled the wood pores completely. The buttstock incorporated a straight cheekpiece and black-plastic buttplate.

This was a heavier gun than many other youth rifles, a function of it having both a thicker walnut forearm and pistol grip and a more substantial steel receiver. The steel trigger guard was roomy enough for adult fingers, and the bolt head was standard size.

The hooded front sight offered protection for the tall steel blade. The trigger broke at a crisp 4 pounds, a there was no side-to-side movement of the trigger shoe. The ramp allowed easy cartridge feeding, and having a magazine-feed option means the gun could grow with the child. The bolt had a big-gun feel, requiring only 2 pounds of lift to unlock. The blued-steel barrel was flawlessly finished and tightly fitted to the stock, but it wasn’t free-floated.

The gun was 32.8 inches long with a 16.2-inch barrel. Length of pull measured 12 inches, and the stock had a lot of pitch (the buttstock fell away from the boreline) and seemed to have a mild cast-off bend, which allowed the sights to come to the eye better. This receiver was dovetailed to accept scope rings. We shot 0.5-inch groups using Eley ammo.

The bolt-mounted safety locked the action closed, but it was very stiff to put on Safe. The safety tab had to be pushed forward with some force to get the gun on Safe. Pulling the tab backward to Fire was easier. The walnut stock had good grain, but the urethane finish was fairly slippery when wet, in our opinion. Checkering would have helped some, but skateboard tape could be applied to solve the problem inexpensively. This rifle had a slightly longer length of pull than other youth rifles, which for our test team wasn’t a problem.

Gun Tests Recommends
CZ 452 Scout Rifle, $242. Our Pick. Well made, shot accurately. We think it is good enough to buy for the most important shooter you know—your kid.


Fulton Armory
Service Grade .30-06, $1400
Reviewed: September 2005

Interest in shooting, collecting, or just having an example of the Garand is still very high, partly because of its history. As can be read at the Fulton website (http://www.fulton-armory.com/), the Garand has seen a lot of action: “First adopted in 1936, the M1 Rifle served the U.S. in World War II, Korea, a host of ‘police actions’ and interventions, and, in the hands of allies, in the Vietnam War. Even there the U.S. Army fielded accurized sniper M1 rifles even though the M1 had by that time been supplanted by the M14 and, later, the M16.” There are many more valuable bits of info at that site, not only about the Garand, and it’s worth a long visit. We visited the FAQ area at the Fulton website and immediately clicked on a dozen items to find out more about the rifle, its care and feeding. We found a trove of information.

Fulton rifles are all newly manufactured products using thoroughly checked original actions and other GI parts, all reworked and refinished as necessary. They have new barrels, and new walnut stocks and handguards. They are essentially Garands rebuilt to absolutely new specifications. Many fine accessories such as a chromed bore, NM trigger, NM sights (which Fulton notes are not legal for official “Garand Matches”), and other items can be added to your rifle as your desires and pocketbook dictate. In each rifle package you also get The M1 Garand Owner’s Guide, by Duff, a sling, and guaranteed accuracy that gets better with price: 2.5 inches with the Service, 1.5 inches with the Competition, and sub-one inch with the Peerless grade. These accuracy guarantees are based on the use of Black Hills match ammo.

Our first impression of the Fulton Garand was very positive, the new and somewhat fancy black walnut dully gleaming around the fresh metal in the stout and well-padded shipping box. There was no looseness anywhere on the rifle. The fine wood was proud of the metal everywhere, much as original Garands must have been.

Our test rifle had a trigger break at a total of 4.9 pounds, with 3.6 needed to overcome the first stage. There was no creep. The action was by Springfield Armory in the 1.5-million range, and all the metalwork was crisp, well finished, and precisely fit. The rifle was ready to go, so we ran a patch through the bore and repaired to the range.

We were immediately treated to a three-shot group of 1.2 inches, with an average of just under two inches. We had no doubt this rifle would fulfill the maker’s claim of “sub-2.5” groups with top-notch match ammo, and do it all day long. Heck, it did better than that with our surplus GI fodder.

Gun Tests Recommends
Fulton Armory Service Grade, $1400. Our Pick. We liked this rifle very much. It was attractive, had a great trigger, good wood, and was very accurate. Most of us felt it was probably the best M1 available today.


Marlin 336W
.30-30, $295
Reviewed: June 2005

There’s a segment of the hunting population that never left .30-30s as workhorses in the field. It has been said, probably with some accuracy, that more deer have been taken with the venerable .30-30 than any other cartridge, and by extension, lever-action rifles.

We took a close look at the Marlin 336W, a gun suitable for close-in hunting, where scopes are optional and fast handling is desired. The company says the 336W was “created for the no-nonsense deer hunter.” It has a six-shot tubular magazine underneath a 20-inch-long Micro-Groove barrel (1:10 right-hand twist). The gun has side ejection and a solid-top receiver, and its metal is blued throughout, save for the gold-plated trigger. The receiver is tapped for a scope mount. The sights are screw-adjustable open rear with a white front bead under a Wide-Scan hood. The walnut-finished Mar-Shield–coated birch stock has cut checkering and comes with sling swivels and a Realtree-camo padded nylon sling. The gun weighed 7 pounds and measured 38.25 inches in overall length.

Our 336W’s fit and finish were very good. Its steel barrel and action had an evenly blued finish with a medium polish. We noticed no sharp edges on the ejection port or the bolt, but we would probably knock off the edges of the squared hammer, which gouged us a couple of times. The lever had very little side-to-side play, either open or closed. It had a firm lockup when snugged against the stock.

At the range, the 336W functioned flawlessly with the ammunition we used. We felt this Marlin’s handling was more than satisfactory for its intended use. It wasn’t too heavy, and the gun balanced between the hands, much like a shotgun. Shouldering was fast and consistent, and the buttplate fit the shooter’s shoulder well, though we would replace the plastic buttpad with a softer rubber one. All of our shooters could readily cock the external hammer with the thumb of their firing hand. However, the crossbolt safety’s operation was better for right-handed shooters than southpaws. The movement of its ungrooved 0.25-inch-wide trigger was acceptably clean and light. After no noticeable creep, its pull released at 5.1 pounds.

Gun Tests Recommends
Marlin 336W .30-30, $255. Best Buy. This gun was well put together, shot accurately, and handled well. For the price, it’s a great buy.

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BEST IN CLASS: SHOTGUNS

Winchester Defender
Model 1300 Pistol Grip & Stock Combo 12 Gauge,
No. 512907308, $354
Reviewed: September 2005

The Winchester Defender Model 1300 Pistol Grip & Stock Combo, No. 512907308, $354, employs an 18-inch fixed Cylinder-choke barrel, removable front Truglo fiber-optic sight, non-glare matte finish, and 7+1 capacity.

The gun we tested measured 39.5 inches in overall length. The receiver was aluminum. It had an LOP of 14 inches, a drop at comb of 1.5 inches, and a drop at heel of 2.5 inches. We didn’t notice any cast in the buttstock.

Winchester claims its Speed Pump design is faster than other systems, and after testing this gun, we might agree. Winchester says that after the gun is fired, the lugs of the rotary bolt begin disengaging from the barrel extension. Then, recoil forces assist the slide in moving rearward.

Held with the muzzle up, an empty, unloaded Defender would unlock itself. To begin cycling forward, the unloaded Winchester needed 7 pounds of force. In shooting three quick shots, we were marginally faster with the Defender, but individual pumping action and strength might negate any speed advantage, we think. Also, the molded-in checkering provided a better grip surface on the Winchester, we thought. The Winchester had a good buttpad, in our view. Its ventilated design was much softer, and the edges were already rounded off.

The Defender Speed Pump’s disconnector release button sat behind the trigger guard. Its safety was a crossbolt-style block, but it was located in front of the trigger guard. The Defender’s button was too hard to find and depress with the middle finger for righties.

Out front, the Winchester had the shortest forend, a 6-inch-long ribbed composite piece. When the action was closed, 4 inches of naked slide were exposed. The Winchester buttstock included molded-in studs for rear sling swivels and a screw-in stud on its magazine cap. The Winchester Defender employed an 18-inch Cylinder-choke barrel, measured 39.5 inches in overall length and had an LOP of 14 inches.

The Winchester’s green fiber-optic front sight proved to be very fast in the dark, and because it could be snapped on and off, it gave the shooter flexibility to use it or not. If not, there’s a gold front bead for aiming. The top strap is not prepared for a scope mount.

Gun Tests Recommends
Winchester Defender Model 1300 Pistol Grip & Stock Combo 12 Gauge, No. 512907308, $354. Best In Class ‘05. This combo offered the best mix of speed, capacity, and resistance to jamming, and this package also came with a pistol grip, which makes it a smaller, lighter payload.


SHOTGUN RUNNERS-UP

Browning Cynergy Sporting
28 gauge, No. 03231812, $3,080
Reviewed: July 2005

The Browning Cynergy Sporting is made in Japan and distributed by Browning USA. In addition to featuring the same radical design changes of its 12-gauge counterpart, this sub-gauge shotgun is easy to handle and seems to help put the shooter right on target.

Billed as the smallest low-profile sub-gauge shotguns on the market, the Browning test gun was 47.25 inches in overall length, with a 30-inch barrel and a length of pull of 14.25 inches. Only the 12- and 20-gauge Cynergy shotguns come with ported and back-bored barrels. Tipping the scales at 6.5 pounds, the balance of the Cynergy was very good between the shooter’s hands. Both triggers fired with about 5 pounds of pressure, and because of the reverse striker system (more like a rifle than a shotgun) there was a very pleasing quickness to the second shot.

The drop at the comb was 1.75 inches, with the drop at the heel of 2.25 inches. None of our test shooters experienced problems adjusting to the unusually shaped stock.

Smooth handling ability was one of the first observations of all the test shooters, whether the testing was conducted on the clays course or over dogs pointing quail.

Because of its overall balance, even clay targets at ranges more appropriate for 12 gauge guns were not a problem for the tiny 28. Recoil, which is not normally a factor with 28 gauge shotguns, was absolutely no problem with the new Cynergy. As stated by the manufacturer, the shotgun’s inflex recoil pad system (the pad is much larger and features more open spaces in the half-moon shape that curves back into the stock) reduces felt recoil by as much as 25 percent. Our testers found that claim to be correct.

By aligning the center white bead over the chartreuse-colored light pipe of the HiViz Pro-Comp sight, as recommended by Browning, our test shooters were surprised by the pointing ability of the shotgun. Being able to get and stay on target by properly looking down the rib were big pluses for our test group.

Gun Tests Recommends
Browning Cynergy Sporting 28 gauge, $3,080. Our Pick. Its radical new look and excellent handling ability are a winning combination for this sub-gauge shotgun, both on the clay course and in hunting situations.


Winchester 1300 Ranger Compact
20 gauge, No. 512036631, $367
Reviewed: January 2005

The shorter stock on this gun, which is a large part of its designation as a “youth” or “compact” model, fits current urban law-enforcement tactics, which call for shorter stocks. A shorter stock is needed to offset the presence of body armor, which can add up to 1 inch of material at the shoulder.

For the home owner, police handling techniques still apply: The butt of the shotgun is locked in place over the pectoral muscle instead of inside the crook of the shoulder. With the shoulders rolled forward and elbows down, the shooter in this stance can fire quickly, handle recoil, and present a smaller profile. Pulling the elbows in creates the tactically correct use of cover.

The Winchester shotgun’s forend was ribbed and tapered, giving it a different look. The slide release was above and to the rear of the trigger guard. Equipped with Winchester’s Speed Pump action, the gun was smooth and crisp, and the distance between the buttpad and the rear of the slide measured 15.75 inches at rear lock open. The crossbolt safety was mounted in the trigger guard and operated from right (safety on) to left (safety off). We liked the forward placement of the safety on the Winchester because our training dictated the trigger finger should be outstretched along the receiver.

The trigger on the Winchester shotgun required 9 pounds of pressure to break a shot, but this didn’t concern us as much as usual. In rapid action, firing fast requires hammering the trigger and aggressively racking the slide. Our largest group measured 1.3 inches center to center and our smallest was just short of one clean hole, which measured slightly more than 1 inch edge to edge but only 0.5 inch center to center.

Firing at IPSC targets, the Winchester 1300 Ranger Compact placed 18 of the 20 Winchester buckshot pellets on paper. Six pellets found the A zone, 7 more were in the C Zone, and 4 more were scored as D zone hits with one pellet hole in the head area.

Gun Tests Recommends
Winchester 1300 Ranger Compact 20 gauge No. 512036631, $367. Our Pick. The best-looking 20-gauge shotgun was also the most accurate. It produced a deadly pattern of buckshot and had one-hole accuracy with slugs.

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BEST IN CLASS: ACCESSORY

Montana X-Treme 50 BMG Copper Remover
Reviewed: February 2005

Montana X-treme 50 BMG. Contact Western Powders, P.O. Box 158, Yellowstone Hill, Miles City, MT 59301, (406) 232-0422 or (800) 278-4129. The BMG product is available in 4- or 16-ounce bottles. It is a new concentrated blend of ammonia oil. It is supposed to be barrel safe.

To try to learn something about copper fouling and its removal, we tried several modern copper solvents, all acquired from Brownells, (800) 741-0015, http://www.brownells.com/. Our choice was the Montana X-treme 50 BMG Copper Remover ($8.50 for 4 ounces). It removed copper from barrels better than the other solvents we tried, we thought. Caveat: The instructions for 50 BMG caution you to work in an area with adequate ventilation, to which we add, “Amen.”


ACCESSORY RUNNERS-UP

Surefire X200A, $250
Reviewed: July 2005

We evaluated five different lights designed to be attached to a rail on a pistol’s dustcover. Our Pick was the popular Surefire X200A, $250. We found several significant differences that set the X200A apart. First, illumination was provided by an LED, not by a lamp, bulb or filament. Further, the Surefire X200A was the only product constructed of aluminum instead of polymer. The profile of this unit was narrow and flattest top to bottom.

The X200A went on and off our pistols smoothly and held fast without fail. One other feature that set the Surefire apart from other models was its ambidextrous operation and the ways in which the light could be activated for momentary flash.

The beam was white hot, brighter than all the rest. The beam, which was not adjustable, covered little more than 3 feet of target at a distance of 12 feet. At this distance the returning glare was bothersome, but when we bounced the Surefire beam off the ceiling, the room was awash with light.

Overall, the Surefire X200A proved to be the easiest to apply and remove from our weapons, produced the brightest light, and offered the most variations in deployment. It also provided the least distraction to the process of aim, fire and preparation to reengage.


Winchester 125-grain
Hollowpoint No. USA38JHP
$8.99 per/50
Reviewed: May 2005

A good halfway measure for the .38 Special shooter who wants more oomph in his defensive ammo is the choice of shooting higher-pressure +P ammo. The Winchester 125-grain JHP penetrated 12 inches of water and retained an estimated 100 percent of its weight at 124.5 grains. The bullet measured 0.64 inch. This round achieved optimum penetration. This ammo was accurate (1.4 inches at 25 yards) and had ideal penetration of 12 inches, with expansion as good or better than most of the other loads. It was also the lowest cost by far. It was perfectly reliable in our test gun. Its standard deviation of 16 fps was within our test range.


Hoffners’ Hybrid
Ultimate Shirt Tucker, $65
Reviewed: June 2005

The shirt-tucker holster is an inside-the-waistband (IWB) holster that allows the shirt to be tucked into the pants over the gun, thereby hiding the weapon from view. Shirt-tucker design calls for the gun to be encased in a holster that is connected to the waistband or belt in such a way that creates a narrow V-shaped channel between the outside of the holster and the inside of the pants. The shirttail is tucked into this channel, hiding the holster and gun. Of the shirt-tuckers we tested, we preferred the Hoffners’ $65 Hybrid Ultimate Shirt Tucker.

The Hoffners Ultimate Shirt Tucker is referred to as a “hybrid” because it contains both leather and Kydex construction.

The holster body was connected to Kydex belt loops by a leather shield that helped the unit conform to the body. Each loop could be raised and lowered to adjust depth in relation to the waistband and angle of cant. Our choice was to wear the Ultimate Shirt Tucker forward of the right hip with the butt of the gun canted slightly forward. This hid the butt of the gun and pretty much pasted the pistol to the body of our tester. From this position, the left hand did not have to reach completely across the body to lift the shirt and expose the weapon.


Zeiss 10X42
Victory FL Binoculars
Model 524522, $1,450
Reviewed: August 2005

In a two-part test, we tested six models of binoculars. All of the models were 10X42, which means the image is magnified 10 times, and the objective lens diameter is 42mm. Of the six, we preferred the Zeiss 10X42 Victory FL Binoculars Model 524522, $1,450, over the others.

From the packaging to the way this model feels when put to use, there is an element of quality that stands out above the rest, in our view. Crystal-clear images at all ranges, from bright colors on the stuffed birds’ feathers to rust spots on the long-range view of the deer blind found favor with our test group. The Zeiss model weighs just 26.8 ounces, making it one of the lighter binoculars in our test collection. Our group was very impressed with the handling ability and the bright, crisp quality of images seen through the lens. The model was quick and easy to focus for both our testers who wore glasses and those who did not, with a simple twist required to adjust the eye cups. Interpupillary adjustments were also very simple.

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