March 2007

Medium-Bore Hunting Ri?es: Savage’s 116FHSS Gets an ‘A-’

The $602 Savage .338 Win. Mag. only needs a better buttpad to be superb, and we also favored Rugerís Hawkeye, $749, in the same chambering. We give a ďCĒ to Browningís .325 WSM.

The idea of using just one caliber for all oneís hunting and fun shooting may best be met by what we call medium-bore rifles. These include the various .325s, .338s and some .35s, but not the .375 H&H Magnum and its like, which are a lot more powerful. Of all these over-.30 and under-.375 Mag calibers, one of the most versatile is the .338 OKH, also called the .338-06. The new .338 Federal is the .338 on the .308 case, and while weíre very interested in it, we havenít been able to obtain test rifles yet.

Medium-Bore Ri?es

These three medium-bore ri?es will do a whole lot of shooting for anyone. From top, Rugerís new Hawkeye and Savageís new 116 in .338 Win Mag, and Browningís A-Bolt in .325 WSM. The A-Bolt had blued steel and walnut, but the two .338s took a bad-weather approach of stainless metal in synthetic stocks. The Ruger and Browning are available in the alternate ?nishes, though the A-Bolt cost more in stainless. We could not ?nd a wood-stocked Savage cataloged in .338 Win. Mag.

In the meantime, we chose two .338 Winchester Magnums to go against one .325 WSM in this report. We picked a new Ruger Hawkeye ($749) and the Savage 116FHSS ($602) in .338 Win. Mag; and the Browning A-Bolt ($824) in .325 WSM.

Reloaders like the medium bores for their versatility. There are plenty of good bullets out there in .338, ranging from 185 up to 300 grains if you look hard. A variety of powders can make the .338 Mag talk about any talk a shooter might need, from fun at the range to taking big game. The .325 WSM, on the other hand, is a short cartridge with no belt. The case is a short .404 Jeffery size, and takes bullets of 0.323-inch diameter, the same as various 8mm cartridges. Bullets ought not to be a problem for the reloader. The .325 case held 83 grains of water, filled to the top of the case. The .338 Win Mag held 89 grains, which is 7-percent greater capacity. But how do they fare against each other?

Ruger M77 Hawkeye

All-Weather .338 Win. Mag.

HKM77RFP, $749

Ruger has a brand-new bolt-rifle design. Itís called the Hawkeye, and our test sample was the stainless/plastic-stock version. There is a walnut-stock version called the Hawkeye Standard, with new matte bluing, at the same price. Thereís even an exciting new caliber in the .375 Ruger, offered at higher cost in either the African or Alaskan Hawkeye, and weíve got a report on the walnut-stocked African coming soon. Biggest news of all is that Ruger now has decent recoil pads on their hard-kicking rifles at least on some of Ďem. The Hawkeye name used to be applied to a single-shot handgun produced by Ruger, but hasnít been used in many years. The Hawkeye rifles have new contours to the stocks, both wood and synthetic, and a few nice cosmetic touches here and there. The Hawkeye has a new trigger design, which we hoped was readily adjustable. Out of the box the pull broke at 4.7 pounds, too heavy for us, though it was remarkably clean.

Our test rifle came with Rugerís scope rings, a great added value. We consider Rugerís rings to be some of the best in the business. The rifle had no iron sights, which some of us miss. The Alaskan and African versions of the Hawkeye come with iron sights, and weíd like to see them offered on all Ruger Hawkeyes.

The second thing we noticed (the big, soft recoil pad was the first) was the matte finish to the stainless. This was even less glossy than the flat-finished Savage in this report. The floor plate had a tasteful logo. There was no plastic on the rifle, other than the stock. The stock had pronounced checkering that worked very well. Each checkering panel held a Ruger logo. There was another logo on the pistol-grip cap and one on the recoil pad for a total of seven logos. The stock was not free floated. The hammer-forged, 24-inch barrel had one turn in 10 inches.

More good news is that the full-length extractor is retained. The action now has a larger radius to the joint between the left action rail and the front ring. There were exactly no sharp edges around the ejection port to cut the fingers. The safety was the usual Ruger three-position device on the right-rear corner of the action. We would like to see the resurrection of Rugerís tang safety, but this one worked. The hinged floor plate came open only with difficulty, as it ought to. Inside the stock we found the new trigger to be non-adjustable, though it would be the work of seconds to clip a coil or two off the trigger-return spring and thus reduce the felt pull. We left it alone.

We mounted the 12X Leupold and took the Hawkeye to the range. We tested the .338s with Winchester 200-grain Power-Point, and with Remington 250-grain Core-Lokt ammo. The first thing we noticed was that the Ruger, which we shot last in this report, was the most comfortable to shoot of the trio. The Ruger weighed 8.8 pounds with our scope mounted, the heaviest setup of the group, and that undoubtedly helped cut its kick. We noted that our extended shooting with 250-grain Remington ammunition didnít leave us numb and shivering, as previous heavy-kicking Rugers have done. Kudos to Ruger for finally providing a recoil pad that works.

Savage Model 116FHSS

.338 Winchester Magnum, $602

The stainless Savage came with scope bases already mounted to the receiver. We strongly suggest other rifle makers (except Ruger) take serious note here. These scope bases are very inexpensive, and save the buyer of the rifle the agony of searching for scope mounts, and perhaps several trips to the gun shop because the first choices were not quite right. Savage gets lots of points from our staff for taking the time and effort to supply functional scope bases. If that werenít enough, the Savage website (www.savagearms.com) has an extensive table of numerous makersí scope mounts with part numbers of exactly what bases fit which Savage rifle, complete with contact info and web links to each maker.

The Savage was a good-looking rifle. The lower line of its action blended perfectly with the stock, just about unique in the firearms world. The metalwork was all muted stainless, though not as dull as the Rugerís steel. The action was long, like that of the Ruger, and the bolt was even smoother in its operation. The ejection port was enormous, nearly an inch longer than the Rugerís large opening.

The Savageís AccuTrigger offers a perfect trigger pull, which we note other makers are at least trying to match. A decade or so ago you could not buy a rifle with a trigger pull under about 5 pounds. Thanks to innovators like Savage, and probably also to disgruntled riflemen, a few makers today will give you a rifle with a pull of around 3 to 3.5 pounds. But none can match the excellence of the Savageís fine trigger pull (2.6 pounds) with its Glock-like tab.

The Savage, adorned with our 12X Leupold in Weaver mounts, tipped the scales at 8.2 pounds, which would have been enough weight with a better pad. The balance was superb, and weight was enough for lots of shooting, we thought. But the recoil pad was not soft enough to let us shoot the Savage in complete comfort. Our test crew wanted a softer pad. It would be possible to build a lighter .338, which would work better as an all-around rifle. But for lots of shooting with heavy loads, more rifle weight is called for. Bottom line, the Savage weighed enough but needed a better pad.

The magazine held three rounds, same as all the rifles in this report, and they fed smoothly from magazine to chamber. Another nice feature of the Savage was its new hinged floor plate. It was of steel. In fact the only non-steel parts on the rifle were the stock and the magazine follower, both of which worked perfectly. The lever that opened the floor plate was pivoted so that recoil tended to secure the latch, not release it. On rifles that can kick, thatís mighty important. The unassuming black-plastic stock had workable checkering. It had sling swivel mounts, but no cheekpiece. The 24-inch barrel had 1:10-inch twist, a decent-looking crown, and was floated back to the front action ring. The action was secured in the stock with two Allen-headed bolts in a pillar-bedding system.

The action had pressure-relief holes on both sides. The bolt had a recessed head, plunger ejection, and a sliding extractor that looked like what used to be on Winchester rifles, right after 1964. The bite on the fired case is thus not huge, but worked well for us. The A-Boltís was similar. The safety was Savageís useful tang-mounted button, clicking all the way backward to lock the bolt, then sliding silently halfway forward to permit cycling the bolt, or all the way forward to fire. We like this setup. In fact, just as some of us consider the Savage AccuTrigger to be the finest in the firearms industry today, we feel the tang safety is on just about as lofty a level.

We checked the action screws and mounted our 12X Leupold, which went onto the Savage with sufficient clearance at the objective, and mounted far enough forward to clear our eye and forehead on recoil. On the range we found the recoil to be acceptable, but with heavy bullets it sure gets your attention. The too-firm, sticky recoil pad helped keep the butt in place during rapid-fire shooting. Accuracy was more than acceptable, three-shot groups hovering around 1.5 inches, with many of them having two shots touching. The 200-grain bullets struck about 5 inches higher than the 250s. It was easy to short-stroke the rifle from the bench when we pulled back the bolt just far enough to eject the empties, and then shoved it forward without picking up the next cartridge. Normal operation eliminated that.

Browning A-Bolt Hunter FLD

.325 WSM 035017277, $824

The Japanese-made (Miroku) A-Bolt was attractive enough with its dark walnut stock, matte-blued steel and palm-swelled pistol grip. We quickly found one limitation of shorter actions, however. Our scope, just removed from the Savage, had its forward mounting ring a long way farther down the scope tube than required by the A-Bolt. This shorter coupling can never give as sturdy a setup as that provided by a longer action.

Although bullets wonít be a huge problem, cases may be difficult to obtain if this cartridge fades away. The base diameter is that of the .404 Jeffery, which is used by various cartridges today, notably those that bear the Dakota name. There are many cartridges that compete with the .325 today, such as the new .338 Federal, the old .338 OKH (or .338-06), and of course the .338 Winchester Magnum itself. Yet the .325 is no slouch. Its 220-grain .325 bullet has a sectional density not far behind that of the .338 with 250-grain bullets. And the velocity of the .325ís 220-grainers is about 2750 fps, about 100 fps faster than the 250-grain Remington bullet from either of the other two test rifles. So the .325 can clearly hold its own on a ballistic level.

The A-Bolt held three shots within its magazine, and fed them smoothly into the chamber. The short, quick bolt lift of 60 degrees required a bit more force to work than a conventional bolt, and some riflemen never get used to this. There are three rails along the bolt that need to be aligned with the bolt head before the bolt can be inserted. Once in place, the bolt shows a shiny, highly polished, mirror-like face on the bolt opening that we felt was out of place.

The bottom of the magazine could be opened by depressing a button in the front of the trigger guard, which causes the entire box to swing downward. This box, containing the three rounds, can then be pulled off of the rifle and pocketed, a handy feature, we thought. We noted the box magazine stuck out well below the line of the stock, unlike the slick Savage, which had far cleaner lines. The A-Boltís magazine cover and the trigger guard were aluminum alloy. The trigger was gold plated, more glitz that didnít really belong here, we thought. The remainder of the metalwork was muted or matte black, which blended well with the muted, oil-like, and well-done finish.

The stock fit right-handers well, and most of them liked the slight palm swell on the pistol grip. Although the stock had a cheekpiece, lefties could use this rifle with relative comfort. The checkering was well done, but we didnít like the recoil pad. It was much too hard, and though it stayed on the clothing well it did nothing to block the pronounced kick. The rifle weighed 7.7 pounds with our scope mounted, the lightest setup of the three.

We liked the tang safety. The trigger pull was pretty good, breaking cleanly at 4.2 pounds. Itís an adjustable one, so change it if you like. Twist rate was 1 in 10 inches with a 23-inch barrel. The Browning data indicates the action is glass bedded. The barrel was free floated back to the front ring. We got no scope bases with the rifle, so we used our trusty Weavers (#47 front and back) to mount the Leupold 12X in Weaver rings, and it was off to the range.

We tested with three bullet weights, all from Winchester . These were 180-grain Ballistic Silvertip, 200-grain AccuBond (similar to the old highly-effective Jensen J23 bonded-core bullets), and 220-grain Power-Point loads. The 220s were the worst for recoil, though that load seemed to kick less than the two .338s. They were also the best for accuracy, averaging just under an inch, best of this test. After settling in, the A-Bolt tried hard to shoot, and succeeded pretty well. We shot it in Elmer Keithís manner, like we did the other two test rifles. The forward hand was bedded onto the machine rest. The rear controlled the rifle and pulled it solidly into the shoulder, and the rest of our shooterís body tried to relax fully. This kept the kick reasonable, and also got the maximum out of each rifle.

Savage Model 116FHSS

.338 Win. Mag., $602

We could not fault the Savage in any way except for that hard recoil pad. Feeding was slick and positive, as was ejection. We liked the rifleís looks, feel, balance, perfect trigger, and acceptable accuracy, though we would have liked more of that. Some hunters will want iron sights, and they can be added. We liked the price too.

Gun Tests Grade: A-

Ruger M77 Hawkeye

All-Weather .338 Win. Mag.

HKM77RFP, $749

Our best results were with the Remington 250-grain loads, which averaged about 1.5 inches and seemed to be getting smaller the more we shot. We were severely hampered by cold weather, but we felt that more shooting and a search for the best ammo would pay off with better accuracy here. But the same might be said for all three rifles.

As it was, the Ruger gave decent accuracy with the 250-grain bullets, and acceptable groups with the 200-grain ammunition. We particularly liked its extractor, which was the largest of the trio. Although this is similar to the old "controlled-feed" extractor design, it was easy for the extractor to jump over the rim of a cartridge chambered ahead of it. We liked the look and feel of the Ruger very much, and thought it was the most shooter-friendly of the trio. Its trigger would be too heavy for some shooters, but that looks like a very easy fix.

Gun Tests Grade: B+

Browning A-Bolt Hunter FLD

.325 WSM 035017277, $824

We liked the look and feel of the A-Bolt, and also liked its performance with the 220-grain loads, by far the best of this test series. Note that our test version may not be available from all Browning dealers.

Our qualms about this rifle are about the continued availability of its ammunition, and the greater cost of the A-Bolt over the other two test rifles. However, clever reloaders can make any rifle work, even though ammo may not have been available for a century.

We were impressed with the performance of this cartridge and with the rifle that used it. This is one of the better A-Bolts weíve seen, but its cost puts it behind the Savage for value received, and the Ruger was far more comfortable to shoot.

We like to test apples with apples, so weíll note that the A-Bolt is available with stainless metal and plastic stock as the Stainless Stalker (SA 035008277), but at a cost of $945. If we had chosen the A-Bolt with stainless metal and synthetic stock, its greater cost would have given it a Donít Buy rating.

There are also versions of the A-Bolt with camo stocks, and for left-handed shooters, though lefties canít get the .325 caliber for some reason. There are also versions of the A-Bolt available in .338 Win. Mag.

Gun Tests Grade: C

RUGER M77 HAWKEYE ALL-WEATHER.338 WIN MAG HKM77RFP

SAVAGE MODEL 116FHSS .338 WIN MAG

ACCURACY & CHRONOGRAPH DATA: .338 WIN. MAGS.

BLOCK THAT KICK

BROWNING A-BOLT HUNTER FLD .325 WSM 035017277