Many hunters believe that one gun is as good as another, and that any old bolt action will kill a deer. In some extreme cases this may even be true, such as hunting in heavy brush or forest, where shots will almost always be under 50 yards. But a recent test of four bolt actions suggests that not all such guns are created equal; in fact, as informed Gun Tests readers know, performance among similar, and in this case very common, products can vary widely enough to ruin a season’s worth of hunting effort.
Case in point: We recently bought and shot a quartet of the most prevalent centerfire bolt guns in the field today, all of them chambered for the .30-06 Springfield. According to ammunition makers, this round outsells all other centerfires, mainly because of its long-standing performance record and versatility. .30-06 cartridges are offered in bullet weights from 125 to 220 grains, the former a top choice for medium-size game at long range, while a 220-grain bullet traveling at 2,400 fps will take just about any North American game animal.
In other product arenas, such as computers, very popular products tend to follow a quality curve that’s markedly different than what we see in guns. That is, the most popular products tend to get better very quickly, obsoleting their predecessors, while at the same time getting cheaper. Thus, if this were true in guns, we would all be shooting half-minute rifles that cost only $150. Instead, in firearms consumers tend to get fed the same old stuff, as a recent test illustrated. To check the current quality state of high-volume over-the-counter .30-06 hunting rifles, we bought a Winchester Model 70 Ranger Black Shadow for $447 and matched it up against Remington’s Model 700 ADL Synthetic, $425; Howa’s Model 1500 Lightning, $425; and the Savage Model 111F, $395.
All of these rifles had blued-metal finishes and synthetic stocks. The Winchester was equipped with a 24-inch barrel, while the others had 22-inch barrels. They weighed from 6.5 to 7.5 pounds unloaded. The Winchester and Howa had five-round magazines, and the others had four-shot magazines. The Remington and Savage came with open sights. During this head-to-head test, we fired 100 rounds of commercial ammunition through each .30-06 rifle. Accuracy testing was conducted outdoors at 100 yards using a rifle rest and a 3-9x scope on its highest setting. We fired five consecutive three-shot groups with each of three brands of ammunition: Remington 125-grain pointed soft point, Federal Premium 150-grain boattail soft point, and Winchester 165-grain pointed soft point.[PDFCAP(1)].
In a nutshell, we found that most of these products showed distressingly average accuracy with commercial ammo; in sum, they showed very little advancement in their development over products manufactured 40 years ago, in our estimation. Overall, we think serious shooters like Gun Tests readers will want to shy away from all but one of the guns in this test simply because three of the four weren’t accurate enough. You might want to test-fire the Savage, however, since it shot near minute of angle—plenty good for a hunting rifle.
More detailed criticisms and comments about the products are covered below:
Winchester Model 70 Ranger Black Shadow
Our recommendation: Average at best. The Black Shadow had the smoothest action and the best handling, but its accuracy lagged, in our view.
In some respects this rifle would be our first choice, but its best groups were more than 50 percent larger than the Savage’s. Standard hunting rifles need to be able hit a vital area of the game you pursue, so the question becomes, How good is good enough? Many hunters will settle for 1.5-inch groups, but our tastes run smaller—1.25 inches. With this accuracy standard in mind, the Winchester Model 70 Ranger’s performance was clearly substandard, with its three-shot average-group sizes measuring 1.68 inches, 1.75 inches, and 2.25 inches. In our opinion, this Winchester’s accuracy could have been enhanced by free-floating the barrel and improving the trigger. Though there was no slack and little overtravel in the trigger movement, the trigger’s pull released at 4.25 pounds, about a pound too much for consistent shot placement.
These shortcomings in the gun’s most crucial areas were unfortunate, since otherwise the Black Shadow’s performance was very good. It didn’t malfunction even once with the three kinds of ammunition we used. Thanks to the bolt’s jeweled finish, its movement was the smoothest and easiest to operate. All of the controls, including the three-position manual safety at the right rear of the bolt, worked positively. We were pleasantly surprised that the Black Shadow’s magazine had a hinged floorplate made of steel. Modestly-priced bolt-action rifles usually have a fixed floorplate or a hinged floorplate made of an aluminum alloy. We prefer the durability of steel. Top-loading the Ranger’s five-round magazine didn’t present any problems. Unloading the magazine was a fast and simple matter of depressing the button-shaped floorplate catch at the front of the alloy trigger guard. Although this Winchester was the longest rifle of the test, it was the second-lightest. This afforded good muzzle stability and reasonably quick target acquisition. Most shooters liked this rifle’s 13.75-inch length of pull, which was longer than the others. The straight comb afforded a comfortable cheek-to-stock fit. Although the pistol grip felt slim, it and the tapered forend provided a solid grasp. Felt recoil was the second-heaviest of the test, but it wasn’t punishing. A few of our shooters thought the Winchester was too plain looking, but the majority felt its nearly all-black finish was suitable for hunting. Excluding the bolt’s white body, all metal parts had a matte blue/black finish. The synthetic stock was a lighter grayish-black in color and had cleanly molded checkering on the forend and grip. Overall, this rifle’s workmanship was above average.
Remington Model 700 ADL Synthetic
Our Recommendation: Disappointing. The ADL Synthetic lacked the accuracy most hunters need.
This Remington Model 700 ADL’s best groups, 2.25 inches at 100 yards, were obtained using Federal Premium 150-grain boattail soft points. Remington 125-grain pointed soft points came in a very close second with 2.28-inch groups. Winchester 165-grain pointed soft points produced 2.67-inch groups. In our view, these groups needed to be at least an inch smaller across the board.
We noted other shortcomings as well. Our shooters considered the bolt release at the top inside of the alloy trigger guard to be very small, making it inconvenient to manipulate. Cartridges inserted readily into the Remington’s internal magazine through the ejection port in the right side of the receiver. However, since the magazine had a fixed floorplate, the only way to unload the magazine was to repeatedly cycle the action until it was empty. None of our shooters were satisfied with the movement of the ADL Synthetic’s trigger. The pull had no slack and only a minor amount of overtravel, but it released at 4.75 pounds. This, in our opinion, was 2 pounds too heavy. Overall, this Remington’s handling qualities were nothing special. Balancing 1 inch in front of the ejection port, it was moderately muzzle heavy. Shouldering was fairly smooth. The rifle pointed well enough, but it wasn’t especially responsive when acquiring the target, we thought. Its unjeweled bolt didn’t operate as smoothly as the Winchester’s jeweled bolt.
On the positive side, we encountered no malfunctions while firing the ADL Synthetic. The two-position manual safety on the right rear of the receiver worked smoothly. The magazine held four rounds, one less than the capacity of the Winchester or Howa guns, but four is enough for most hunting situations. The buttstock’s raised cheekpiece provided very good cheek and jaw contact when using a scope. The pistol grip allowed the shooter to get a comfortable and secure grasp, as did the nicely rounded forend. During recoil, this .30-06 generated an average amount of kick and muzzle jump. Iron sights were standard equipment on the ADL Synthetic, instead of an extra-cost option as on most bolt-action rifles in this price range. The front sight, which sat on a ramped base, was a blade with a bead-shaped top. The rear sight consisted of a sliding blade with a U-shaped notch that sat on an inclined base. The rear could be pushed in the desired directions for windage and elevation adjustments after loosening the appropriate screw(s). This crude method of adjustment was tedious, but the sights provided a decent sighting reference out to around 65 yards.
Howa Model 1500 Lightning
Our Recommendation: Pass. We felt the quality of the Lightning’s fit and finish were comparable to the Remington rifle. However, its accuracy and handling weren’t as good.
The Howa Lightning was less accurate than the Remington ADL Synthetic, and its group sizes were not as consistent. Its best five-shot groups averaged 2.30 inches at 100 yards with Federal Premium 150-grain boattail soft points. Groups produced with Remington 125-grain and Winchester 165-grain pointed soft points measured 2.45 inches and 2.90 inches, respectively. This accuracy level just isn’t good enough, in our view.
Regardless of the ammunition used, our Lightning’s functioning was reliable. The bolt locked and unlocked with only a minor amount of effort, but there was a moderate amount of drag in its back-and-forth movement. The two-position manual safety, located at the right rear of the receiver, and the other controls worked as they should. We felt the Howa had the best trigger of the test, though all of our shooters said it could have been a pound lighter. The pull had no takeup or creep and offered a clean 4-pound release. There was only minuscule overtravel. Like the Winchester Model 70 Black Shadow, the Lightning’s internal magazine held five rounds and had a hinged floorplate made of blued steel. It was easier to unload than the Remington ADL’s smaller-capacity fixed magazine, and should be inherently more reliable than a detachable magazine. However, the spring-loaded floorplate catch lever, partially recessed into the front of the alloy trigger guard, moved stiffly and was hard to depress. Weighing 7.5 pounds, the Howa Model 1500 was the heaviest rifle of the test. Its greater weight made felt recoil the mildest, and was partially offset by the gun’s comparatively even balance. However, pointing and target acquisition were still relatively sluggish. Most shooters considered the gun to shoulder naturally. The wide forend and pistol grip comfortably filled the shooter’s hands and provided ample gripping area.
Savage Model 111F
Our recommendation: Flaw-ed, but still a shooter. This Savage was lightweight, fast handling and accurate. If you can overlook its heavy trigger, we felt this modestly-priced rifle would be a good choice for frugal shooters.
Though the Model 111F cost less than the other rifles in this test, it was clearly the most accurate. Its best five-shot average groups, 1.03 inches at 100 yards, were produced with Remington 125-grain pointed soft points. Winchester 165-grain pointed soft points likewise yielded admirable 1.13-inch groups. Federal Premium 150-grain boattail soft points managed 1.60-inch groups.
When we measured these groups, we patted ourselves on the back because they were recorded under duress: We felt the Model 111F’s worst feature was its extremely heavy trigger. After a minor amount of creep, the pull released with 8 pounds of rearward pressure, followed by a moderate amount of overtravel. We felt this major shortcoming should have been caught and corrected long before the gun left the factory.
Elsewhere, we found only minor faults with this Savage’s operation. It digested the three kinds of commercial ammunition we tried without malfunctioning. The bottom of the bolt rubbed against the back end of the internal magazine’s black plastic follower, but there was no binding or stiffness in the bolt’s movement. Like the Remington Model 700 ADL Synthetic in this test, the Model 111F had an internal magazine with a fixed floorplate. Top-loading cartridges into the magazine through the ejection port in the right side of the receiver was easy enough. However, the only way to unload the magazine was to repeatedly cycle the action, which was a slow and inconvenient process.
In our opinion, the Savage’s controls were the easiest of the test to reach and operate. The manual safety, a three-position slide on the tang, could be readily manipulated with the thumb of the shooter’s firing hand. The cocking indicator, a large steel lever in front of the bolt handle on the right side of the receiver, raised when the action was cocked. Also, depressing this lever and pulling the trigger allowed the bolt to be removed from the receiver. Weighing at least a half pound less than the other rifles in this test, the Model 111F was the easiest to carry around for any length of time. Target acquisition and shouldering were the fastest. However, the Savage’s light weight also resulted in the least muzzle stability, which made it the hardest to hold steady. The straight comb afforded a stockweld with good jaw contact, but little cheek contact when using a scope. The wide pistol grip wasn’t that comfortable, but it and the squared forend could be grasped firmly. The open sights provided an adequate sighting reference for shooting out to about 65 yards.
Gun Tests Recommends
Savage Model 111F, $395. This was nearly an MOA gun out of the box. Spend another $50 for a trigger job—bringing it to the Winchester’s price level—and you’ve got a winner.
Winchester Model 70 Ranger Black Shadow, $447. Perhaps this gun and the two products below would shoot better with other ammo brands. Perhaps not. We’re not willing to bet the money.
Remington Model 700 ADL Synthetic, $425. We’re not willing to settle for 2.25-inch groups at 100 yards. Pass on it.
Howa Model 1500 Lightning, $425. We’re not willing to settle for 2.30-inch groups at 100 yards either. Choose the Savage instead.