When shopping for a new bolt-action big-game rifle, most hunters are overwhelmed by the “bigger is better” school of thought. They prefer long barrels and maximum cartridge velocity, choosing rifles chambered for standard or magnum cartridges with barrels of relatively heavy contour. The result is a base rifle that weighs somewhere between 7 and 7.5 pounds sans scope, sling, and a magazine full of ammunition.
Sure, these rifles are great. But in certain circumstances, shorter barrels, light overall firearms weight, and a proven short-action cartridge will provide all the performance necessary to cleanly harvest deer, black bears, and similar animals without extra weight and bulk.
As you’re likely aware, most deer are taken at ranges under 250 yards, and most at half that range, negating any problems in hitting the target with the small difference in trajectory the lower muzzle velocity a shorter barrel will cause. Second, while we all love rifles that can “put ‘em in the same hole” shot after shot, we think that only one shot should be needed when shooting at game, and two at the most. The light barrels on these carbine rifles won’t heat up to the point that field accuracy is measurably affected before the third shot. Make that first one count, and use a follow-up if necessary, and the only place you’ll notice the shots walking is when shooting on the range and not letting the barrel cool down.
Moreover, the big advantage comes in the carbine’s overall weight and length. Many sportsmen find the lighter rifle easier to handle and shoot, especially those who do lots of backpack hunting and hunting in the mountains, where carrying a full-sized rifle quickly becomes fatiguing. The shorter barrel is also easier to maneuver in and around brush, as it is when hunting from a portable tree stand. These stands should be set with as little pruning of limbs and brush as possible, leaving the stand site as natural-looking as possible. Of course, leaving such vegetation also allows it to whack longer barrels more often than shorter ones.
With these factors in mind, we decided to match up three of today’s most popular lightweight carbines to decide which one we’d grab out of the rack if we could only take one into the field this fall. These include the Browning A-Bolt II Stainless Stalker, $737; Remington Model Seven SS, $681; and Ruger’s M77RL MKII, $677.
How We Tested
At the range, we shot all three rifles with four different brands of ammunition: Winchester Supreme with 168-grain Ballistic Silvertip bullet; Speer Nitrex with 165-grain Speer Grand Slam bullet; Federal Premium with 165-grain Sierra GameKing BTSP (boattail soft point) bullet; and Remington Premier with 165-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip bullet. Three, three-shot groups were fired with each rifle using each ammunition brand.
A Leupold Vari-X III 2.5-8×36 rifle scope was mounted on both the Browning Stainless Stalker and Remington Model Seven SS, using Browning bases and rings on the Stainless Stalker, and Leupold bases and rings on the Remington. The Ruger M77RL MKII was topped with a Nikon Monarch UCC 2-7×32 rifle scope using the integral Ruger bases and ring system. All our scopes’ reticles were leveled using a Reticle Leveler from Segway Industries, which is an extremely fast and simple way to ensure that your scope’s crosshairs are not cockeyed. All our gun work was done with the rifle secured in a Lohman Sight Vise. We also weighed each rifle on a standard U.S. postal scale after mounting the rifle scopes.
All shooting was done from a concrete bench. The rifle’s forearm sat on a Hoppe’s Bench Rest topped with a Kolpin Steady Shot Suede Rest, with the rifle’s buttstock rested securely on another Steady Shot rest. Our hearing was protected by a set of the Pro Ears Linear Elite headphones with Dynamic Sound Compression (DSC) feature, which allows normal conversation while blocking out the loud report of a gun shot. Velocities were measured 3 feet from the muzzle using an Oehler 35P chronograph. Conditions were good for shooting, with an air temperature of 62 degrees and high overcast skies. Wind was approximately 3 mph from directly behind the shooter. All groups were measured center-to-center of the widest holes, to the nearest tenth of an inch.[PDFCAP(1)].
Before starting the accuracy shooting, each barrel was thoroughly cleaned to remove all powder and copper fouling. One fouling shot was fired from each rifle before starting the test, with each rifle thoroughly cleaned between groups, and another fouling shot fired before shooting for group. We shot each group slowly and meticulously, allowing the barrels some time to cool between shots. However, no more than two minutes ever passed between shots. The rifles were rotated so that each barrel could cool down completely before shooting a new brand of ammunition.
During our testing, we also evaluated the fit and function of the guns. Of the trio, we preferred the Browning A-Bolt II Stainless Stalker for reasons we delineate below:
Browning A-Bolt II Stainless Stalker, $737
The Stainless Stalker is one of the Browning A-Bolt II series of centerfire big-game hunting rifles. In fact, Browning was the first major firearms maker to offer a production rifle featuring a synthetic stock and stainless-steel action and barrel. The barrel, receiver, and bolt are machined from solid stainless steel. The graphite-fiberglass composite stock was designed to withstand wet weather and help absorb recoil; it comes with stainless-steel sling swivel studs as standard fare. This rifle model is available in a variety of long-action and magnum calibers, as well as several short action calibers, including the .223, .22-250, .243, .257 Roberts, .260 Remington, 7mm-08, .284 Winchester, and our test rifle chambering, the .308.
All Stainless Stalker rifles feature a short 60-degree bolt throw, which eliminates unnecessary movement when cycling the rifle. It also permits a greater clearance between the bolt handle and rifle scope, a feature we’ve come to like very much over the years, especially when hunting in colder climates and wearing heavy gloves. A detachable box magazine is standard, a feature unavailable on our other two test rifles. And Browning’s well-known BOSS system is available as an option on this rifle, although our test rifle came without it.
The short-action A-Bolt II Stainless Stalker we tested had a 22-inch barrel and overall length of 41.75 inches. It has an advertised weight of 6 pounds 4 ounces unscoped. Topped with Browning two-piece bases and rings and a Leupold Vari-X III 2.5-8×36 scope, the rifle weighed in at 7.25 pounds on our postal scale. This made it the longest and heaviest of our three test rifles, but not by much. Trigger break was crisp and clean at about 3.5 pounds.
The Stainless Stalker rifle featured a detachable box magazine with a four-round capacity, the only rifle in our test group with a detachable magazine. It was removed quickly and easily by depressing a release button located on the front of the trigger guard. Likewise, the bolt was removed easily by pressing the bolt-release button forward. This button was located on the left side of the action directly above the trigger guard. This relatively-oversized release button was the easiest of the three in our test rifle to use quickly, and doubly so when wearing gloves.
The Browning rifle featured a thicker, beefier forend and butt stock than either the Ruger or Remington rifles, the result of the Stainless Stalker also being available in standard and magnum calibers as well as the various short-action calibers. The safety was a two-position slide-type design directly behind the bolt. When the rifle was cocked, a short red metal tab was exposed from behind the bolt, visually indicating the rifle was cocked and ready to fire. Browning had also added a bright red dot just behind the safety itself to visually indicate when the rifle was in the “fire” position. We found this safety to be extremely easy to use, both with and without gloves, and we appreciated the two visual signals that indicated the rifle is cocked.
Members of our test group liked the Browning’s trigger and overall handling more than either the Remington or Ruger rifles. Its action was the smoothest of the three rifles as well, slightly more so than the Remington and much smoother than the Ruger, in our view. It was also the most accurate of our three test rifles. With three of the four ammunition brands we tested, the Browning produced 1.75-inch groups or less. It especially liked the Winchester Supreme load featuring the 168-grain Ballistic Silvertip bullet, turning in a group average of 1.3 inches. Also, our testers felt that of the three test rifles, the Browning had an overall level of finished workmanship that was slightly better than the Remington, and measurably better than the Ruger. Of course, measures like feel and the perception of overall fit and finish are subjective, but they are important considerations when choosing a rifle for serious big-game hunting.
Remington Model Seven SS, $681
Introduced in 1983, the Model Seven Remington was one of the first production-grade carbine-type rifles offered to the general hunting public by a major manufacturer, and the Model Seven’s popularity and sales remain high. The Model Seven was designed specifically to handle short-action cartridges, which lend themselves to shorter, less bulky rifle actions that weigh less than those needed for standard and magnum-length rounds.
The SS version of the Model Seven, which debuted in 1994, has also been built to handle rough country and harsh, wet weather. This is evidenced by its stainless-steel barreled action and reinforced-fiberglass synthetic stock. It is available in .223, .243, .260 Remington, 7mm-08, and .308. Magazine capacity is four rounds.
The Model Seven SS we tested was a true carbine, with a lightweight barrel 20 inches in length and overall rifle length of 39.25 inches. It had an advertised weight of 6.25 pounds unscoped. When topped with a Leupold Vari-X III 2.5-8×36 scope and Leupold one-piece bases and rings, it weighed in at 7.0 pounds on our scale.
We found the same standard features on the Model Seven SS that we’ve come to expect on the various and highly-popular Remington Model 700 series of rifles. These included the two-position safety located on the right side of the receiver, just above the bolt handle; jeweled bolt handle and bolt; and a crisp, clean trigger that breaks right at 3.5 pounds from the factory. The black synthetic stock had been roughened, which made it easy to grip even when wet. Two stainless-steel sling swivel studs were standard. The Model Seven SS also featured a standard Model 700 BDL-type floorplate, which opens by depressing a release button located at the rear of the floor plate where it comes together with the trigger guard. The bolt was released by depressing the small, recessed bolt-release button located forward and above the trigger.
Generally speaking, we found the Model Seven SS to be a fine rifle. The safety was convenient and easy to use, even when wearing gloves. The action was smooth, with little waver or wobble. We judged it to be just slightly behind that of the Browning’s slickness and well ahead of the rougher Ruger. The scaled-down stock dimensions were easy for people with small hands to grip and hold securely. It was easy to maneuver in and around thick brush, came to the shoulder quickly and cleanly, and pointed and swung as nicely as many shotguns.
The downside we found with the Model Seven SS was its overall accuracy with our test ammunition. It did turn in one 1.5-inch three-shot group average when using the Federal Premium ammo featuring the 165-grain Sierra boattail soft-point bullet. With our other three ammo brands, however, accuracy was more than 2 inches, including one 3.1-inch group average with the Speer Nitrex load, which we found unacceptable for big-game hunting applications.
Ruger M77RL MKII, $677
The M77 MKII series is the heart of the Ruger sporting-rifle line, and it is a firearm that has earned a deserved reputation as a workhorse rifle that can take tough handling afield and still deliver an accurate bullet. The M77RL MKII is the ultralight carbine version of this rifle, with 20-inch lightweight barrel.
The rifle came with the same standard features found on others in this line. These included the well-known three-position safety that allows both locking the bolt and the ability to load and unload the rifle with the safety engaged. The trigger guard housed a patented floorplate, with a large release button/latch located on the front of the trigger guard. Though it had a blued finish on the barrel, trigger guard, floor plate, and action, the rifle bolt was stainless steel and featured a non-rotating Mauser-type extractor, in which the fixed blade-type ejector positively ejects empty cases as the bolt is moved rearward. Also, the extractor was designed to engage the extraction groove of the cartridge before the cartridge is fully seated, which results in the “controlled feeding” so popular with shooters who worry about jamming. In addition, the M77RL MKII came with Ruger’s Integral Base Receiver and standard Ruger 1-inch steel scope rings. Magazine capacity was four rounds. Available calibers include .223, .243, .257 Roberts, .270, .30-06, and .308, making it the only rifle in our test group available in something other than a standard short-action chambering.
The stock was walnut, with checkering on the forend and on the pistol grip. A synthetic stock is also offered. A pair of blued sling swivel studs came standard. The rifle was advertised to weigh approximately 6 pounds; when topped with a Nikon Monarch UCC 2-7×32 scope set in the integral Ruger base and ring mounting system, the rifle weighed 7.1 pounds.
All in all, we found the Ruger M77RL MKII to be a functional rifle that, while fine in its own right, did not measure up to either the Browning Stainless Stalker or Remington Model Seven SS in several areas. Most noticeable was sloppy bolt travel, with the bolt wobbling noticeably when drawn back to its fullest extension. Also, bolt travel was much rougher than that on either of the other two rifles. Certainly, this could be smoothed out by a gunsmith, but why should this be necessary?
On the plus side, the trigger broke cleanly, with just a bit of creep, at about 4 pounds. Also, the Ruger proved reasonably accurate with our test ammunition. It turned in two sub-2-inch group averages, 1.6 inches with the Federal Premium 165-grain BTSP load, and 1.7 inches with the Remington Premier 165-grain Ballistic Tip load. Also, our testers found the Ruger rifle came to the shoulder nicely, swung well, and all commented that the wood stock felt good when snugged to the cheek in field-shooting positions.
Gun Tests Recommends
Browning A-Bolt II Stainless Stalker, $737. Buy It. We felt that the Browning’s overall quality and accuracy gave it a slight advantage over the Remington Model Seven SS. We also liked the Browning’s satin, stainless-steel metalwork and drab, gray synthetic stock, as well as the short 60-degree bolt throw, deeply-crowned barrel, detachable box magazine, and foremost, its ability to fire good groups with the majority of our test ammunition.
There’s no doubt that this accuracy could be enhanced by adding the optional BOSS system, if one chose to do so. We also like Browning’s large bolt-release and magazine-release buttons, which though kept well out of the way when shooting the rifle, are easy to use, even when wearing the gloves. Though the Stainless Stalker is a bit longer and a bit heavier than either the Ruger or Remington rifles, none of our testers felt that these very slight differences would matter when the task was climbing into steep mountain country or slipping through thick brush.
Remington Model Seven SS, $681. Conditional Buy. The Model Seven SS is a fine rifle, with excellent workmanship and a fine feel to it. Its action is smooth, the trigger crisp and clean, and it just feels good in the shoulder. We also liked its satin finish, stainless-steel metalwork, and black synthetic stock. Its major flaw in our test was its poor accuracy. Perhaps this accuracy could be improved upon with further experimentation with additional factory loads or by handloading, but based on our findings, we can’t unqualifiedly recommend the Seven.
Ruger’s M77RL MKII, $677. Don’t Buy. This particular Ruger M77RL MKII firearm did not measure up to either the Browning or Remington rifles in this test. We did not like the sloppy bolt travel and trigger creep, and its accuracy was a step behind the Stainless Stalker, in our view.
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