June 2009

Head-to-Head Shootout: Bolt Rifles from Savage and Marlin

When we pitted Marlin’s XL7 Walnut and Savage’s 111FCNS in 30-06 Springfield, the latter shot lights out with two of our test ammos and otherwise behaved like a top-quality hunting gun.

It has been said that if you can’t do it with a 30-06, you probably can’t do it. That little saying is likely more right than wrong. It has been over a century since the U.S. Military recalled the (.30-03) M1903 Springfield rifle and modified it to accept the 30-06 in the form of the M1906. The most popular hunting cartridge in North America has spawned numerous variations, being necked up in the form of the .35 Whelen and necked down as in the 25-06, with the 270 Winchester perhaps the most successful of its many offspring.

Walnut-Stocked Marlin XL7 Rifle

On the left is the new walnut-stocked Marlin XL7 rifle, which was outshot by the polymer-stocked Savage 111FCNS. The Marlin is pillar-bedded, but the barrel wasn’t free-floated like the Savage’s. All in, the Marlin XL7 wasn’t particularly wonderful at anything, but it wasn’t horrible at anything, either. The Savage, on the other hand, had an outstanding Accu-Trigger that broke at 2.5 pounds, a soft P.A.D. recoil pad, and an advanced AccuStock. It would have earned an A if part of the grip hadn’t fallen off.

Newly introduced for 2009 are two bolt guns chambered for the 30-06, one being the latest incarnation of the highly refined Savage long action and the other the latest walnut model of the recently introduced Marlin XL7 rifle. If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, the Marlin profusely flatters the older Savage 110 action, but there are salient differences between the two, as we were soon to discover.

Marlin XL7 Walnut 30-06 Springfield, $506

Introduced in 2008, Marlin’s re-entry into the bolt-action centerfire arena is essentially a copy of the Savage "round front, flat rear" basic long action integral magazine bolt action rifle right down to the barrel nut. Presented as an economy rifle, this new blued/walnut version is a slightly upscale but still few-frills model; the walnut version is apparently a "deluxe economy" model. It just begs for comparison to the Savage, and naturally it will get it.

The Marlin is pillar-bedded as in the traditional Savage. Where we would expect the Marlin’s barrel to be floated right out of the box, it wasn’t. The XL7’s barrel had heavy contact with the wood on the left side, firmly riding the left rail of the inletting. The satin-finish walnut stock was fairly plain. While we expected a metal trigger guard in a slightly upgraded XL7, we found plastic. Though scope bases were supposed to be included with this rifle, they were not—so we bought a pair of matched Warne steel base set (Warne #M902/924G) so we could mount a Burris 2-7x35mm Fullfield II scope along with Warne Maxima rings.

The Marlin’s Pro-Fire trigger also pays a bit of tribute to Savage Arms. With a flap in the center, it may look like an Accu-Trigger but is more related to the Glock treatment. If an Accu-Trigger is pulled without pulling on the trigger’s center properly, the Accu-Trigger decocks without firing. Marlin’s Pro-Fire Trigger is frozen until its center flap is pulled flush; it will not harmlessly decock. It exhibited a small amount of creep, but not much, breaking at 3.5 pounds out of the box. It is a good hunting trigger, actually quite a bit better as supplied than recently tested Remington and Ruger bolt-action triggers out of the box. It isn’t as crisp as Savage’s Accu-Trigger; nevertheless, we feel most hunters will be happy with it.

The bolt-handle knob of the XL7 is noticeably smaller than that found on the more substantial Savage bolt. Whether that is significant is largely up to the individual. We feel the Savage’s bolt is easier to operate with gloved hands.

Winchester Supreme 180-grain CX3 Ammo

The Savage gave us better velocities and lower standard deviations with all of the test ammunition. Right: The Winchester Supreme 180-grain CX3 ammo performed horribly in both rifles, producing nothing we could really call groups. The Hornady 150-grain GMX ammo (left) performed superbly in the Savage, as did the 150-grain Nosler Stars & Stripes loads (center). In the Savage, the standard deviation for the Hornady ammo was an astonishing 0.8 fps. The best group really was 0.1 inch out of the Savage with the Stars and Stripes ammunition. Clearly, the Savage shot lights out—its average group sizes (with the two loads that grouped) were less than half the size of the Marlin’s attempts.

The Marlin’s fluted bolt is not as attractive to our eyes as the Savage’s jeweled bolt. Despite that, we felt that the fluting did reduce some drag, as claimed by Marlin, making it a tad smoother than the jeweled bolt of the Savage—though the Savage bolt is hardly difficult or rough by comparison. (That is, working the bolts with no ammunition.) When actually loading, extracting, and ejecting brass—the Savage action proved to be smoother.

The bolt on the Marlin does not lock closed, though, as the Savage bolt does (with Savage’s three-position safety). The Marlin bolt can be snagged open when navigating through heavy cover, while the Savage’s bolt is locked closed. Further, the Marlin’s two-position safety is noisy compared to the whisper-quiet operation of the Savage safety. Both of these Marlin qualities are negatives, in our view.

At the range, we noticed that the Marlin XL7’s ejection was adequate, but weak compared to the Savage. The spent brass softly dribbled out and dropped beside the action. We had no failures to eject at the bench, but we were less that confident with the soft, anemic way that this XL7 ejects spent brass.

We compared the Marlin’s Soft-Touch recoil pad to the Savage’s P.A.D. recoil pad at the range, alternating rifles between shots using the same ammo. We agree that the Marlin pad is a real recoil pad, certainly more effective than rubber buttplates and most generic pads. It did not compare well to the Savage P.A.D recoil pad, though. Our shooters unanimously found the Savage to be far more comfortable to shoot than the Marlin, with less muzzle jump and a noticeably softer recoil pulse. A half box of the Winchester 180-grain XP3 ammo left our shoulders stinging and going numb from the Marlin; not so with the Savage 111.

Our Team Said: The Marlin XL7 wasn’t particularly wonderful at anything, but it wasn’t horribly bad at anything, either. It has a better than average price-point, a better-than-average trigger, and a better-than-average recoil pad. The rest of the rifle fared average in performance, or below average. It was less than average in the accuracy department, and it suffered by comparison with the Savage 111FCNS, with the noisy safety and floppy bolt being particular areas we didn’t like. All in, it all coalesced to form a slightly-below-average 30-06 Springfield bolt action. Despite the promising trigger and recoil pad, it is an immensely forgettable rifle and deserves a C-. We wouldn’t buy one.

Marlin’s Trigger-Guard

The Savage had better, deeper, higher polished bluing than did the Marlin, with a larger bolt handle that was so well-finished, it made the Marlin’s bolt look like a rough casting. Where the walnut Marlin’s trigger-guard was just plastic, the Savage displayed metal.

Savage 111FCNS 30-06 Springfield, $656

Building upon the prior advances and innovations to the Savage bolt-action centerfire line comes the new-for-2009 111FCNS model. In addition to the well-known, well-respected Accu-Trigger, this Savage long action includes the smooth "invisible" barrel nut with no visible notches, the nested in front of the trigger guard bolt release, the Savage P.A.D. recoil pad, and the latest center-feed Savage detachable magazine. Perhaps the most interesting of all features is the Savage AccuStock and integral aluminum bedding block that, according to Savage, provides "three-dimensional bedding" that grips the entire action, prohibiting movement in all directions, while retaining the factory free-floating barrel array that Savage is known for.

Out of the box, this Savage’s Accu-Trigger broke at a very crisp 2.5 pounds with no take-up—and outstanding trigger. Weaver-style aluminum bases were already mounted; we added a Sightron SI 3-9x40mm scope attached with Warne Maxima medium-height steel rings. As previously mentioned, the barrel was perfectly floated, so it was off to the range. We were very surprised at how well the P.A.D. recoil pad attenuated recoil. These days, it seems that most everyone has a recoil-pad brag—it is amazing that the world’s greatest recoil pad has been invented some ten times simultaneously with totally different designs by different companies. Well, many of the new wonder pads have proved to be not-so-wonderful, like the not-so-super Remington Supercell recently tested right here in GT. In contrast, the Savage P.A.D. does an impressive job at softening 30-06 recoil. We are also surprised that, even though Savage’s recoil pad is remarkably effective, it does not even rate a mention in the company’s current catalog. The P.A.D. is available only in Savage’s synthetic-stocked models, not in Savage’s Classic walnut and other wood-stocked offerings. The same is true of the AccuStock as well—as the thermoplastic stock appears to be molded around the AccuStock bedding rail assembly, it is not offered in conjunction with walnut or laminate stocks that we know of.

Savage Arms AccuStock

Traditionally, an action is secured to the stock by one or two screws that pull the action directly downward into the stock. The action cannot jump up and away from the stock. From the outside, the Savage Arms AccuStock doesn’t look like much—just another black polymer stock and a fancy label. Inside, however, it uses an aluminum spine and 3D bedding cradle molded into the stock to improve rigidity (three views shown near right). The aluminum spine runs from the action down the length of the forearm. Also, the AccuStock uses a wedge bolt to push the recoil lug back into the aluminum spine to prevent any movement forward and aft (far right, bottom). The bedding cradle (far right, top) squeezes the action from the sides when the action screws are tightened.

Going down the line, we found that this latest Savage got a lot of things right, doubly so when compared head-to-head to the Marlin. We found the Savage Accu-Trigger to be crisper with less take-up than the Marlin trigger. We preferred the Savage’s metal trigger guard to the plastic of the Marlin; we liked the more generous bolt handle knob of the Savage; we felt Savage’s factory recoil pad did a better job than the Marlin’s pad. We appreciated that the Savage’s barrel was properly floated out of the box, where the Marlin’s barrel was not. We appreciated the stronger ejection of brass from the Savage’s bolt head compared to the Marlin offering. Savage’s center-feed detachable magazine made the Savage faster and easier to load and unload than the Marlin. The Savage’s safety was quieter than the Marlin’s, and the Savage’s bolt properly locked closed where the Marlin’s could not. The Savage’s action, with its "invisible" barrel nut and jeweled bolt was more attractive, than the respective Marlin’s counterparts, our team said.

One of the things that we have felt could be improved with the flimsy factory Savage thermoplastic stocks is the visible mold line that runs all the way around it. It is an eyesore, albeit a small one. While the picky owner can sand it smooth, it does not go along with the excellent fit and finish of the rifle. We feel that Savage can, and should, give us a well-finished stock without prominent mold lines that better reflects the otherwise exemplary build quality of the rest of the rifle.

The Savage AccuStock, new for 2009, deserves a bit more coverage. Does the AccuStock work? Well, that’s a question that isn’t easy to quantify. To the extent that it firms up the generally flimsy standard Savage thermoplastic stocks—yes, it certainly does that, and that’s a good thing. And yes, this Savage is an excellent shooter—particularly considering the standard sporter-weight barrel profile. The Savage 111 clearly outshot the Marlin XL7 in this match-up. Savage calls this aluminum rail system "far superior to glass bedding." We cannot find any basis for that dramatic ad-brag. We’ve had too many rifles, and too many Savage rifles in particular shoot spectacularly well without the AccuStock or hand-bedding of any kind (including a Savage Model 25 Classic Sporter tested in GT) to buy into the notion that the AccuStock is always a game-changer.

Savage Arms AccuStock

Rather than describe the AccuStock as "revolutionary" and a "three-dimensional bedding system," we have a more down-to-earth view of it. Aluminum chassis and aluminum bedding block–type stocks have been around for some time. They are effective ways to attach a barreled action to the stock: some of the well-regarded H-S Precision stocks run in the neighborhood of $350. What the AccuStock does, primarily, is stiffen the factory Savage center-fire stocks that historically sorely needed more rigidity at far less cost to the consumer than many aftermarket options.

One of the approaches in accurizing the Savage (and other brands of rifles) is to use an oversized recoil lug, or to glass-bed the stock in particular in front of and behind the recoil lug. The AccuStock has a wedge screw that locks the recoil lug in place. While a different approach, the outcome is very similar—it reduces or eliminates the barreled-action movement in the stock. In the case of low or moderate recoil chamberings, we would not expect much, if any, change in performance. So, a fair assessment of the AccuStock is referring to it as the basic aluminum chassis approach, with the novelty of being able to mechanically lock the recoil lug in place by means of a dedicated wedge screw. We feel it does stiffen and substantially improve upon the older Savage "Tupperware" stocks. It will reduce any perceived need to go aftermarket for many shooters, in the same way that the Accu-Trigger has eliminated trigger work and trigger replacement for many shooters.

While we consider the AccuStock a welcome and tangible upgrade to the Savage standard plastic stocks, we do not feel it elevates the stock to the level of the better composite stocks, like a McMillan for example, nor can it equal, much less surpass, hand bedding. As a factory stock, it is of course now better than most of the competition (likely Savage’s idea) and we consider it comparable to a Bell & Carlson "Medalist" series stock as a general barometer.

Savage Arms AccuStock

At this juncture, you might think we were well on our way to an overall "A" or even "A+" evaluation of this Savage 111. We sure did. We appreciated the accuracy, the Accu-Trigger is as superb as ever, the treatment of the bolt release and barrel nut is elegant, and the Savage detachable magazine was easy to load, pop into place, and remove. We were enjoying a strong combination of "best of breed" attributes, and the weakest link (of this model, the stock) has been substantially upgraded and stiffened. Even the new Savage recoil pad ranks with the best in the industry. But we had a complication.

On or about the 150th shot fired through the Savage, the pistol grip cap suddenly broke off. In no way did it affect performance, and we could not characterize it as an issue that could jeopardize a hunt in any way. Nevertheless, it happened and we need to report it as we do with all the rifles we test. Now the question goes back to the quality of the company, and their commitment to customer service. We are writing for the guy who pulls the trigger here, and no one else.

Again and again, the team assembled by Savage has stood very tall—headed by "Customer Service CEO" Joe DeGrande and his team. This non-critical issue has been candidly reported; we owe our readers the facts. We are confident that Team DeGrande will replace the stock without hesitation, and we’re shipping the gun back to Savage for that simple resolution. In the meantime, we knocked back the otherwise superb Savage half a notch in grading.

Our Team Said: The Savage 111FCNS 30-06 Springfield was easy to use, comparatively comfortable to shoot, easy to operate and easy to shoot well. The 111FCNS gave us a new, excellent recoil pad and a hassle-free magazine design to complement its typically excellent Accu-Trigger. The attention to detail in the form of the generous bolt-handle knob, invisible barrel nut, unobtrusive bolt release and quiet safety complete an excellent all-around hunting package. It is, in its current form, the best rendition of the Savage factory synthetic/blued sporting rifle ever. This latest enhanced example of the Savage long-action bolt gun adheres to the long-established Gun Tests grading scale of "functions perfectly, shoots accurately, and exhibits comfortable, easy use for its owner." We’d buy this Savage; it very much deserves and gets this A-. If we get the stock resolved satisfactorily, we’ll let you know and bump that up to an A.