September 2008

Bolt-Action Varmint Rifles: We Would Buy Ruger’s MKII .204

Rugerís KM77VT MKII rifle chambered in 204 Ruger does it all, for less money. Also, Kimberís 84M is a beauty thatís easier to carry, but we would pass on Savageís malfunctioning Model 12.

In November 2003 Sturm, Ruger & Co. announced that it would introduce five different rifles chambered for a new cartridge, the 204 Ruger, which was developed in conjunction with Hornady Manufacturing. The 204 Ruger would share the same overall length of 223 Remington ammunition, but with greater case volume. The purpose was to deliver the same stopping power for varmint or small game with less recoil, muzzle report, and barrel wear than similar high-velocity rounds such as 22-250 Remington and 220 Swift. Ruger claimed higher velocity and flatter trajectory would be achieved while burning less propellant, a major source of barrel wear.

Ruger KM77VT MKII

Our all-round pick was the $935 Ruger KM77VT MKII. The Ruger did the best job of adapting to heat, and its new Varmint Target trigger delivered MOA accuracy. For optics we liked the $337 Burris Timberline 4.5X-14X Ballistic Plex scope. A Versa Pod 54 steadied our aim ($114, from versapod.com).

In this evaluation we will test three bolt-action rifles chambered for 204 Ruger, including Rugerís $935 KM77VT MKII, the $1224 Kimber 84M Varmint, and the $1208 Model 12 Long Range Precision Repeating rifle from Savage Arms.

Each of our test guns was designed with the varmint hunter in mind. Perhaps the most popular game in this category would be the prairie dog. Prairie dogs live in "towns," and they are likely to stick their heads up or run from one mound to another at any time. Opportunities to take a shot are oftentimes so plentiful that the rifles are challenged to maintain accuracy and function despite high operating temperatures. Some rifle tests only require a three-shot group, but in this case we felt justified to test for accuracy over the course of five five-shot groups.

In addition we looked for smooth bolt action operation and a magazine that was easy to load to full capacity. We also looked for smooth operation when chambering one round at a time.

Another attribute we checked for was flexibility in terms of mount. Many outfitters supply a shooting bench. But if the dogs start hiding in one field, the rifle should not be so heavy that slinging it over the shoulder and moving to a more active location is not an undue burden. In addition, each rifle was judged for its ability to be shot prone and from the seated position.

None of the rifles arrived with open sights. We chose to mount a scope that members of our staff had found to be a winner on a recent prairie dog hunt in North Dakota. This was the $337 Burris Timberline 4.5X-14X power scope with Ballistic Plex reticle No. 201344. In the field we used the lowest power to scan for our next target. Once a prairie dog was located, we zoomed in with full 14X power. If we came up short, we raised our sights to one of the three horizontal lines below the crosshairs of the Ballistic Plex reticle and tried again. Our accuracy tests were performed with our scopes set at 14X power from the 100-yard line at American Shooting Centers located on the western edge of Houston (amshootcenters.com). Each rifle was tested over a two-day period, one day for sighting in the scope and breaking in the barrel and another for shots of record. For support we used a Caldwell Tack Driver bag under the forend and a beanie bag under the buttstock. Seated at ASCís sturdy benches our operators clinched the beanie bag to set elevation while aligning the crosshairs for each shot. Weather conditions for each session were compared via readings from our Kestrel 4000NV Pocket Weather Meter, ($273 from sinclairintl.com).

The prototypical bullet weight for 204 Ruger weighed 32 grains. As such we tested with Federalís 32-grain Nosler V-Shok Ballistic Tip ammunition. We also tested with Winchesterís 34-grain Lubalox-coated Super X JHP rounds and 40-grain V-Max Varmint Express ammunition from Hornady. Would one round prove supremely accurate, or would we find one rifle that shot all three equally well? Letís find out.

Ruger KM77VT MKII 204 Ruger, $935

Each of our three rifles showed distinctive style and characteristics. All metal parts of the KM77VT MKII rifle were finished in Rugerís trademark Target Grey. This affords a high level of scuff protection and dampens reflected light. The stock was constructed of the companyís sleek brown laminate material devoid of any checkering. The fore end was very wide on the bottom, and the stock was broad and tall. Height at the rear top of the stock was almost in line with the bore of the 26-inch barrel. The angle of the grip was steep. The overall impression when holding the Ruger was that the action was buried deep inside the wood. The six-groove barrel was tapered from a diameter almost as wide as the action itself to about 0.75 inches across at the muzzle, which had a recessed crown (as did the other two guns). The fore end did not touch the 1:12 righthand twist barrel over its entire length.

The top of the receiver was machined for Rugerís proprietary rings, which were supplied. This area was also grooved to disperse light. On the left side of the action was the bolt release that worked by being pulled outward. The stem of the bolt was contoured inward to clear the eyepiece of the scope. The end of the bolt was a smooth round ball.

Just to the rear of the bolt on the righthand side was a three-position safety. Pushed forward, the trigger was free to release the firing pin. Pulled one notch back, the bolt was free to move but the trigger was locked. Ruger refers to this as the Load-Unload position. Moved fully to the rear and the bolt was seized as well.

The internal magazine held five rounds. The release for the hinged floorplate appeared in the forward outer contour of the trigger guard. From this position we found it easy to control the floorplate as it opened and keep the rounds from falling away from our hand.

The trigger on this rifle was the new Varmint Target Trigger. Listed as a two-stage design, we thought it had more of a hybrid feel to it. The press began with a short free swing to a broad heavy resistance that broke evenly at 2 pounds each time we measured it. Our staff was split regarding two-stage versus single-stage triggers. Remarkably, each faction had something good to say about the Rugerís trigger.

The wide fore end of the Ruger was ideal for sandbag support from a bench rest. It also afforded a comfortable hold for offhand shooting despite the gunís 9.35-pound weight. But we liked shooting from the ground best. Prone position was steady, but we often needed to be higher off the ground and away from tall grass and vermin. In the field we would have liked to have had two points of sling attachment beneath the fore end, one for the sling and another on which to connect a bipod. We solved this problem by choosing the Versa Pod system. The Versa Pod system connected a quick detachable unit to the fore end swivel. This unit carried its own sling swivel on the underside. Once the forward assembly was in place any number of different Versa Pod bipods can be quickly attached or removed. Since we preferred the seated position we chose the Versa Pod Model 54 bipod, which enabled us to raise the bore from 20 to 31 inches ($114 from versapod.com). Any time we chose to change location we either folded the legs or removed the bipod completely. We felt that the weight of the Ruger with its beefy stock and heavy barrel was more than enough to steady shots and fend off the negative effects of constant shooting. Yet, slinging the KMVT77 MKII over the shoulder still felt natural.

The bolt action was smooth and light. Maybe even a little looser than we thought it should be. Lockup was nevertheless very tight. The sounds of the bolt being worked reverberated through the laminate stock. We had no problem loading the magazine to capacity but found ourselves single loading most often. The three-position safety came in handy especially when shooting in a group. It seemed like more companions meant more distractions. Being able to lock the bolt down or show an empty chamber with the trigger locked simply afforded an additional level of safety.

Of our three rifles the Ruger was tested under the least desirable conditions. Our test location was 60 feet above sea level, humidity was 78% and temperatures ranged from 88 to 97 degrees during our tests. There was no chance of the barrel cooling off even when we ran patches and oil through the bore. We did our best to avoid the 7-12 mph crosswinds by timing out the lulls.

Nevertheless, we discovered there wasnít any need to worry about which ammunition we would find at the store. The Rugerís magazine loaded with ease every round we tried, and it would chamber them all, too. Despite each choice of ammunition being markedly different, either in weight or profile, results were the same throughout. All three test rounds produced one-inch groups (minute of angle accuracy) or better. We were most impressed by the versatility and consistent performance of the Ruger KM77VT MKII.

Kimber 84M Varmint 204 Ruger, $1224

Once we received the Kimber 84M Varmint, we realized that it was not only beautiful but it was also different in conception from our other two rifles. If the Savage was like a huge defensive tackle and the Ruger was like a heavyweight boxer, then perhaps the Kimber was the nimble karate master. Its walnut stock was gracefully cut with a traditional pattern of checkering, 20 lpi. The pistol grip was long and lithe. Not exactly like an English shotgun stock, but the grip had more lateral area than vertical drop. The action was listed as being matte blue. The 24-inch stainless-steel barrel was fluted with a six-groove bore turning right at a rate of 1:12.

Listed at 7 pounds 5 ounces, the 84M Varmint was by far the lightest of our trio. Whereas the action of the Ruger was broad and overbuilt, the Kimberís action was slender and round matching in diameter to the barrel before it began its taper to the crown. Without a doubt the gun was a joy to look at and a pleasure to mount.

Apart from looks and build, there is much more that separates the 84M from the Ruger and Savage products. The adjustable trigger was a true single-stage design. The trigger on our 84M broke at a crisp 3 pounds. We donít think anyone will be dissatisfied with this trigger. Despite its trim shape the 84M topped our trio with a magazine capacity of six rounds. The release for the floorplate was located inside the trigger guard at the lower forward arc. We found the best way to control the emptying rounds was by pushing the release with our thumb while placing our fingertips beneath the floorplate.

The safety lever had two positions, forward to fire and to the rear for on safe. The bolt release was on the left side and was operated by pushing it in toward the action. We found this awkward unless the shooter used his thumb to press in while gripping with his fingers on the other side of the action. Atop the receiver was a set of Leupold rings that seated into their mount with a key-like motion. We found the forward ring needed to be turned with a wooden dowel before it was properly aligned to receive the scope. The rear mount was adjustable for windage. This allowed us to get a head start on our adjustment. By beginning our windage adjustment via the rearward ring, we were able to minimize how far we had to adjust the crosshairs inside the scope.

Given the slender profile of the stock, we would rate this rifle as slightly less suitable for the benchrest shooter. But in terms of mobility or shooting from field positions, its lighter weight was a plus. In terms of feeding from the magazine, the 84M proved tight, making single loading balky at first. But by the time we reached our final sessions, we were surprised how much the loading procedure had broken in.

For field use we tried attaching our Versa Pod. But due to the minimal shape of the fore end, the connecting unit was wobbly even after being properly tightened. We added two common washers to act as spacers to solve the problem. Even with the big pod left in place, the Kimberís light weight and profile, which reminded us more of a deer rifle than a varminter, made this rifle convenient to pick up and move.

From the bench the Kimber 84M Varmint produced its best groups when loaded with the Hornady 40-grain V-Max ammunition. In fact, all three rifles preferred this ammunition. With a smallest group of 0.6 inch, our five-shot average computed to a width of 0.8 inch. Our best groups in each session were the first when ambient temperature had not yet reached 90 degrees. By the time we began shooting the remaining ammunition, the temperature was again hovering in the mid-90s. Checking the gap between the stock and the barrel we noticed that about the first 2 inches of barrel were flush with the stock. The first gap appeared in line with the start of the fluting on the barrel. Wind was mild on test day. Of our three rifles we would judge that the Kimber was more susceptible to heat than either the Ruger or Savage rifles. However, even at its least, the level of accuracy from this handsome rifle was consistent and predictable.

Savage Model 12 Long Range Precision Varminter

(Repeater) 204 Ruger, $1208

Our Savage Model 12 was obviously the most purpose-built of our three rifles. To see our three-person staff arriving at ASC each with a different rifle in their respective Plano Air Glide case it was easy to tell which one held the Savage Model 12. It was the one with the front of the case scraping the ground. Thatís because the weight of its 26-inch extra-heavy barrel easily overcame the ballast of its synthetic composite H-S Precision stock. Barrel twist was 1:12 inches. The 1-inch-outer-diameter stainless-steel barrel was free floated all the way back to the heavy stainless-steel action, which was bedded using molded alloy. It also carried an oversized bolt handle. The bolt was decorated with scrolling. Directly behind the bolt was a safety switch that slid rearward for on safe and forward to fire. Loading was from a removable box magazine with a capacity of four rounds.

Atop the action was a two-piece scope mount. We used medium-height Burris Zee rings to attach our scope. The trigger was Savageís own AccuTrigger. The weight of the trigger pull was listed as being adjustable from 6 ounces to 2.5 pounds. The trigger on our Model 12 broke at 20 ounces. We remarked that this rifle had all the attributes of a custom rifle. Therefore, we werenít surprised that it led the way in accuracy. It also didnít hurt that shooting conditions on its test day were ideal. With the 40-grain Hornady ammunition, five-shot groups ranged in size from only 0.6 inch to 0.8 inch across.

But we were having difficulty closing the bolt on a loaded chamber. Furthermore, our Savage rifle was very picky in terms of ammunition. Accuracy firing the 32-grain ammunition placed the Model 12 behind both its competitors. That one round was vastly superior in performance was not a deal breaker for us, but several other issues were. Feeding problems persisted. We chose not to continue firing the 34-grain Winchester hollowpoint rounds after we discovered the bullets were being set back into the cases after impacting the feed ramp. Firing them would likely have caused damage due to the increase in pressure.

The application of a box magazine can definitely be advantageous. But only one magazine was supplied, and we found it difficult to insert. It was actually less trouble to load the magazine while it was already seated inside the action. Single loading was possible, but we had to actually insert the round into the lips of the magazine. When single loading our other rifles, we could just float the individual round across the follower in front of the bolt.

As we continued our tests, the bolt became more and more difficult to close. We found ourselves having to pull the stock towards us and push the bolt lever away from us as we swept it downward into the locked position. Furthermore, closing the bolt did not always release the trigger. The only way to be sure the trigger was going to operate once the bolt had been closed was to try pressing in the safety lever that was hinged inside the face of the trigger. As you might expect, testing the condition of the trigger in this manner led to an unintentional discharge, but, of course, the rifle was seated firmly in the folds of our rest pointing down range when this happened. One final frustration was that there was no evidence of this problem when working the bolt with the chamber empty.

Taken as a sum of its parts, the Savage Model 12 should be ideal for the varmint hunter who shoots exclusively from a bench, portable or otherwise. The trigger was excellent. The H-S Precision stock was a very good choice for this application. So was the extra-heavy barrel. But both the bolt and the magazine were poorly fit, leading to a dangerous condition, in our opinion.

ACCURACY AND CHRONOGRAPH DATA

RUGER KM77VT MKII 204 RUGER

KIMBER 84M VARMINT 204 RUGER

SAVAGE MODEL 12 LONG RANGE PRECISION

GUN TESTS REPORT CARD