Many sportsmen who have tired of hunting whitetail deer with over-the-counter assembly-line rifles are increasing turning to small-volume, high-end firearms in search of better craftsmanship, accuracy, performance and beauty. However, for the well-heeled sportsmen, there is a distinct downside to making this move: Will they wind up paying too much for such rifles?
We recently undertook to answer that question in a comparison three high-end bolt action rifles from Sako, Steyr and Browning, all of which list for over $900. Our test guns were the Sako Model 75 Hunter, the Steyr SBS Forester and the Browning A-Bolt II Eclipse.
Naturally, we were curious about how well this grade of rifle would perform both in terms of mechanical operation and accuracy, but also in an overall money-versus-function tradeoff. Here is what we found:
Sako Model 75 Hunter
One of the manufacturers that is known throughout the world as a maker of quality rifles is Sako of Finland. This companys Model 75 Hunter is the first rifle to employ a bolt with three locking lugs, a mechanical ejector and a 70-degree throw. It also features a free-floating barrel, a safety system with a separate bolt release and integral scope rails. Options include a detachable magazine or an internal magazine with a hinged floorplate.
Retailing for $1,055, our test guns workmanship was very good. Excluding the polished white bolt body, all of its steel parts had a uniform, shiny blue finish. A few superficial tool marks were found on the bottom front of the bolt. Moving parts had little or no play.
The action was fitted to a nicely-figured walnut stock with a matte lacquered finish and sharp well-cut checkering. Its blued steel swivel studs and reddish-brown rubber recoil pad with a black spacer were expertly installed. Wood-to-metal mating could have been better. There was a relatively large gap at the rear of the receiver.
During firing, this Sako operated flawlessly with the three kinds of commercial ammunition we used. Bolt movement was the smoothest and easiest of the test. Top-loading rounds into the internal five-round magazine through the ejection port in the receiver wasnt difficult, and unloading was accomplished by releasing the hinged floorplate.
All of the controls worked smoothly. Depressing the spring-loaded catch in the front of the trigger guard released the rear of the magazines floorplate. Depressing the back end of the lever at the left rear of the receiver allowed the bolt to be removed from the receiver.
The manual safety was a two-position lever at the right rear of the receiver. When moved rearward, it blocked the sear and locked the bolt. Depressing a small lever just in front of the safety allowed the bolt to be opened without disengaging the safety for unloading. The other safety feature was a small black and red indicator that protruded from under the back of the bolt when the action was cocked. Movement of the grooved 1/4-inch-wide trigger was, in our opinion, above average. Its pull had no slack and released crisply at 3 3/4 pounds. There was a minor amount of overtravel. The trigger was fully adjustable.
We felt the Model 75 Hunter was moderately muzzle heavy, which provided good muzzle stability. Shouldering was the most natural of the test, but some shooter thought the stocks 14 1/4-inch length of pull was too long. The elevated cheekpiece afforded a stockweld with very good cheek and jaw contact. The pistol grip had an exceptionally comfortable palm swell on the right side only. So, it fit right-handed shooters like a glove, but was unsuitable for left-handed shooters. Felt recoil was average for a .308 Win. rifle.
Although this Sako wasnt equipped with open sights, there was an integral scope rail on the top of the receiver designed for dovetail scope bases. Using a Sako two-piece base and a set of rings (not provided), we installed a Burris 3-9X Fullfield scope on the rifle for testing.
Considering the Model 75 Hunters high price, our shooters werent impressed with its accuracy. However, the rifle performed well enough for most hunting situations. At 100 yards, three-shot groups averaged from 1.28 inches with Winchester 150-grain Fail Safes to 1.60 inches with Remington Core-Lokt 180-grain pointed soft points. According to our Oehler Model 35 chronograph, this .308 Win. rifle yielded the fastest muzzle velocities of the test. Average velocities measured from 2,682 to 2,898 feet per second.
Browning A-Bolt II Eclipse
Most Browning bolt action rifles dont sell for nearly as much as a Sako rifle. However, there is one exception – the A-Bolt II Eclipse. This $1,024 model features a thumbhole stock and a free-floating barrel with a BOSS (Ballistic Optimizing Shooting System). Like all A-Bolt IIs, it has a bolt with a short 60-degree throw, a detachable magazine on a hinged floorplate and a gold trigger.
For readers who arent familiar with the BOSS, which is available on many Browning and Winchester rifle, here is an explanation. This adjustable barrel device is said to provide custom rifle accuracy and, depending on the caliber, reduce recoil up to 40 percent.
According to Browning, the BOSS improves accuracy by allowing the shooter to tune the rifles barrel for specific loads. Screwing the BOSS up or down on the muzzle end simulates a lengthening or shortening of the barrel, changing the way the barrel vibrates on firing. Instead of having to develop a load to suit a rifle, the barrels vibration pattern is altered to suit a load. As for reduction in recoil, the BOSS has 32 gas ports and is also designed to act as a muzzle brake.
Finding a loads optimum setting, which is called the sweet spot, is the key to this system. A table provided with BOSS rifles lists average sweet spots that should be used as a starting point. After firing a three-shot group, finding the BOSS optimum setting for the particular rifle and load becomes a trial and error process. Changes in setting can alter the bullets impact.
In our opinion, the A-Bolt II Eclipses fit and finish wasnt quite as good as the Sako in this test. Its steel barrel and receiver had a matte blue finish, while the aluminum alloy trigger guard and floorplate were matte black. The bolt body was frosted white. Several minor casting marks were noted on the base of the bolt handle. Most moving parts had a small amount of play.
The thumbhole stock was made of laminated black and gray hardwood with a satin finish. There was sharp cleanly-cut checkering on the forend only. The blued steel swivel studs and black rubber recoil pad with a black spacer were well installed. In wood-to-metal mating, the only shortcoming was a medium-size gap along the left side of the receiver.
At the range, this Brownings functioning was reliable. Movement of the bolt was, for the most part, smooth. However, during its forward travel, the front of the bolt momentarily snagged on the back of the magazine follower. Inserting cartridges into the removable four-round magazine didnt present any problems, whether it was in or out of the gun.
The controls were easy to manipulate and worked positively. Depressing the spring-loaded catch in the front of the trigger guard unlocked the rear of the hinged floorplate, allowing clear access to the detachable magazine. Depressing the front end of the large button at the left rear of the receiver permitted the bolt to be withdraw from the receiver.
Since the manual safety was a two-position slide on the tang, operating it with the thumb of the firing hand was a snap. When the safety was moved rearward, it blocked the sear and locked the bolt. Consequently, the safety had to be disengaged to unload the chamber. If the action was cocked, a red and silver indicator protruded from under the back of the bolt.
Although the grooved 3/8-inch-wide triggers movement was adjustable, we considered its factory setting to be about half-pound too heavy. The pull released crisply at 4 pound. There was no slack and a minor amount of overtravel.
In handling, it was obvious that this thumbhole stock was only intended to be used by right-handed shooters. The A-Bolt II Eclipse was the most evenly balanced rifle of the test. Target acquisition and shouldering were quick, but the squared edges of the recoil pads toe were uncomfortable. The shape of the pistol grip afforded very good control, making it easy for the shooter to pull the gun solidly into his/her shoulder. The elevated cheekpiece provided the best cheek-to-stock. During recoil, the BOSS porting reduced muzzle jump to almost nothing. Kick was still very noticeable.
Open sights werent available on this model, but the top of its receiver was drilled and tapped to facilitate the mounting of a scope. For testing, we equipped the rifle with a Burris 3-9X Fullfield scope using a 2-piece base and a set of rings (not provided).
Since we had to find the BOSS optimum setting for each of the three loads used, accuracy testing this Browning required about twice as much time and ammunition as a standard rifle. However, once it was tuned, the A-Bolt II Eclipses accuracy was very good. Three-shot groups averaged from 1.00 inch to 1.15 inches at 100 yards. This Brownings average velocities were 54 to 80 feet per second slower than those of the Sako Model 75 Hunter in this test. Nevertheless, we considered its muzzle velocities to be satisfactory for a .308 Win. rifle.
Steyr SBS Forester
This Austrian manufacturers SBS rifle utilizes what Steyr calls the Safe Bolt System. It consists of a three-position manual safety and a three-position bolt handle. When the safety is in the safe position, the bolt handle may be moved to the double/lock safe position, which locks the firing pin. Two SBS models are made. The Forester has a wooden stock, while the ProHunter comes with a synthetic stock.
For this test, we acquired an SBS Forester that retailed for $929. Although this rifles workmanship was above average, we didnt think it was as appealing as the other guns in this test. All steel parts, except for the white bolt body, had a dull blue/black finish. There were striations on the exterior of the barrel that, we suppose, were intended to be decorative. Numerous minor tool marks were found around the four (two pairs) locking lugs on the front of the bolt.
Our testers liked the stock, which was made of nicely-grained walnut with a satin finish. But, we felt its pressed checkering (not cut) and blued steel sling rings (not swivel studs) were a disappointment on a rifle in this price range. The black rubber recoil pad and spacer were carefully installed.
We didnt encounter any malfunctions while firing this Steyr. There was no binding or roughness in the bolts movement, but a lot of drag was apparent in its back and forth movement. Inserting cartridges into the four-round magazine was easy when it was removed from the rifle, but doing so with the magazine in the gun was very difficult due to the shortness of the ejection port.
The SBS Foresters controls were ambidextrous and operated positively. When pinched together, the dual spring-loaded latches on the bottom sides of the magazine unlocked the magazine from the well.
The manual safety was a three-position roller on the tang. Pushing the safety fully forward disengaged it. In the mid-position it blocked the sear, but not the bolt. When moved all the way to the rear, it blocked the sear and locked the bolt. If the safety was put in this position after the action was opened, the bolt could be removed from the receiver.
In our opinion, the ungrooved 3/8-inch-wide triggers movement should have been cleaner and lighter. After about 1/8 inch of slack, its pull released at a mushy 4 1/8 pounds. There was no noticeable overtravel. The trigger was adjustable.
We thought this rifle was a little less muzzle heavy than the Sako Model 75 Hunter, but this didnt lessen muzzle stability. Although most of our shooters said the stocks 13 5/8-inch length of pull was too short, shouldering was smooth. The cheekpiece was the least comfortable of the test, but it afforded a decent stockweld. The pistol grip felt too flat.
Like the Browning in this test, the SBS Foresters only provision for sighting was drilled and tapped holes in the top of the receiver. A Burris 3-9X Fullfield scope was installed on the rifle using a 2-piece base and a set of rings (not provided).
None of our testers felt this Steyrs accuracy was good enough for a rifle that retails for over $900. Its smallest three-shot groups, which were produced with Federal Premium 165-grain BTSPs, averaged 1.40 inches at 100 yards. Winchester 150-grain Fail Safes brought up the rear with 2.05-inch groups.
The SBS Foresters average velocities were 5 to 53 feet per second slower than those of the Sako Model 75 Hunter. In our opinion, this wasnt a meaningful difference.