Rifles > Bolt-Action

Bargain Hunting Rifles

You can pick up a hunting rifle from four of the biggest names in riflemaking for around $300. Sure, that’s a great price, but is it really a bargain? You might be surprised.

Saying American riflemen tend to be conservative is like saying trees tend to grow wood. That’s why new trends in hunting rifles often encounter resistance. One supposedly new way of marketing such guns is by referring to them as “affordable” or “value-priced,” but most Americans simply think of them as “cheap.” That has caused a good deal of grumbling, especially on the Internet, yet another new trend. Since few gun stores feature wood stoves these days, the formerly traditional venue for rifle discussions, shooters whine where we can. Some things never change.

In autumn, Americans still follow the old traditions, including hunting, eating turkey, and throwing sales across the country. During the fall of 2013 the following prices appeared before, during and after big-game season in my part of Montana:

Mossberg ATR—$290
Remington 783—$320
Ruger American—$300
Savage Axis—$300

While these rifles don’t look like the ones many hunters grew up shooting, they do not mean the end of civilization as we know it. To prove that point, some historical perspective might be useful. In the 1958 issue of Gun Digest well-known writer Bob Wallack reviewed recent American factory rifles, and had this to say about the Remington 721 and 722, the long and short-action versions of the company’s post-war bolt-action rifle: “The motto at Remington these days … is ‘all for production,’ so their rifles are designed for ease of manufacture and to sell at a certain price. Every part that can possibly be banged out on a punch press is banged out on a punch press, much to the sorrow of any real gun bug. Such methods do not affect the handling qualities or functioning of a rifle, certainly, but neither do they add up to a gun that a guy’d want to own with pride.” Though written over half a century ago, the spirit of Wallack’s comments would fit right in among many Internet posts.

Mass manufacturing really began when practical steam engines were developed in the late 1700s, about the time the United States was founded. In the 20th century, electricity sped up assembly lines considerably by giving machine tools individual motors, rather than keeping them dependent on belts off an overhead, steam-driven shaft. As a result, average Americans could afford not only functional firearms and sewing machines, but Model T Fords and Frigidaire refrigerators. Yet many of us still somehow believe that any factory-made products from before right now were of much finer quality, the reason many shooters now call the 721 and 722 Remington's “classics.”rifles

The Remington 721/722 appeared in 1948, but before World War II Savage made an even less costly and simpler rifle called the Model 23. The “action” was actually the rear end of the barrel, machined to take a bolt, trigger and detachable-box magazine. Designed for lower pressure cartridges, the Model 23 was chambered for the .22 Long Rifle, .22 Hornet, .25-20 Win. and .32-20 Win. Both the Remington and Savage rifles are just a small part of the long American of history of affordable, mass-produced firearms.

Like the Remington rifles, the Savages also shot accurately, and are now sometimes called classics. However, I own a Remington 722 and a pair of Savage 23s, and only their ages and walnut stocks might qualify as “classic.” Otherwise they were indeed designed to be made less expensively and hence sell for less than competing rifles. In fact, that is most of the reason for my Savage 23s in .25-20 Win. and .32-20 Win.: They’re still the least expensive rifles available in those “classic” chamberings.

I also own a Ruger American Rifle in .308 Win., and my wife, Eileen, owns a Savage Axis in .22-250 Rem. The most obvious difference between those 21st-century rifles and the Remington 721/722 and Savage 23 is their synthetic stocks, often called “Tupperware” by Wallack-world critics, because they’re made by injection-molding. (In reality this isn’t an entirely inexpensive method, since the machinery for making synthetic stocks costs several hundred thousand dollars. But after the initial investment, stocks can be cranked out for a few bucks apiece, and even faster than plain-grained walnut stocks could be machine-turned for the Remington 721/722 and Savage 23.)

Will shooters be calling the Ruger American and Savage Axis “classics” half a century from now? Perhaps, especially if somebody comes up with a process to mass-manufacture inexpensive synthetic stocks less prone to warping. No, injection-molded stocks don’t warp like wood does, because they do not absorb atmospheric moisture. But they don’t always come out of the mold absolutely straight, either. That can cause minor accuracy problems, since the four “fall-sale” rifles all supposedly have free-floated barrels.

Contrary to what many shooters believe, proper free-floating does not mean a folded dollar bill can be passed between barrel and fore-end. Instead the fore-end shouldn’t touch the barrel when the rifle is fired; contact can affect barrel harmonics, resulting in off-the-mark shots, often called “fliers.” Many early injection-molded stocks were nearly as floppy as foot-long hot dogs, but even today’s stiffer stocks require more than dollar-bill fore-end clearance.

I first fired an evaluation sample Ruger American on a combined long-range shooting school and hunt on the FTW Ranch in the Hill Country of Texas in September 2012. The rifle shot pretty well with the Hornady factory ammunition provided, taking an axis deer and clanging steel gongs out to 1,000 yards. Even so, a few unexpected fliers occurred, not all my fault, but I was intrigued enough to take the rifle home for more shooting.

My usual test for free-floating is to grasp the tip of the fore-end and the barrel in my right hand, and squeeze. If the barrel touches the fore-end, the stock’s not really free-floated, and the Ruger’s wasn’t floated quite enough. A couple of minutes with a round rasp solved the problem, and while the barreled action was out of the stock I adjusted the trigger to the minimum pull possible.

In Texas the scope was a 4-16X Burris Eliminator III (which worked great), but for this test I mounted another Burris, a 3-9X 40 mm Tactical Fullfield II with a 30 mm tube. Apparently that model isn’t offered anymore, but mine has proven reliable on several rifles, with very repeatable adjustments. I sighted in with Black Hills 175-grain match loads left from another project, and the first three-shot group at 100 yards measured 0.34 inches center-to-center. Not bad for a “cheap” rifle!

After adjusting the scope a little more, eight handloads were tested, using various propellants chosen from recent data showing high velocities, with bullet weights ranging from 110 to 200 grains. Three-shot groups ranged from 0.53 inches to 1.31 inches, and all the groups (including the Black Hills cloverleaf) averaged 0.92 inches. None of the handloads was worked-up specifically for the rifle; instead, the bullets were seated slightly shy of the lands over a mid-level propellant charge. Apparently sub-inch accuracy is “normal” for this .308 Win. American.

In Texas the rifle had been fired about 130 times without cleaning, and I still hit distant gongs. Back in Montana I cleaned the bore to bare steel (an easy job), and looked at it through a Hawkeye bore-scope. While not as smooth as a Krieger or Lilja, it wasn’t much different, which is typical of hammer-forged Ruger barrels produced during the past 20 years.

While in Texas I got to talk quite a bit with engineer Mark Gurney, who is Sturm, Ruger & Co.’s product manager and the head of the American project. Gurney said the rifle was designed by a committee—though fortunately not a government committee. None of the American’s features are new, but together they make the rifle not only functional but accurate. They include three locking lugs on the bolt, which allows for a lower bolt-throw and even distribution of the stresses imparted on the front of the action during firing. There are also stainless-steel bedding blocks molded into the stock, and the adjustable trigger has a tab in the main blade, preventing firing before the tab is depressed, allowing a clean pull of reasonable weight.

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7 Responses to Bargain Hunting Rifles

Bruce Woods wrote:
August 31, 2014

You can buy the Savage Axis II XP - scope included as part of package deal for $375 plus sales tax in SC. AND, currently, Savage offers a $50 rebate on them purchased before December 2014. Get a brand new one!

Ray Fortune wrote:
July 26, 2014

Your article on bargain hunting rifles for 300.00 Where can I find these rifles to buy?

George wrote:
June 22, 2014

Thanks for a good article and your confirmation of my experience with the Mossberg ATR. I bought a Mossberg 300WinMag a year ago. It came with a cracked stock which I attributed to a not-so 'slightly off-line fore-ends, the Mossberg’s pressing against the left side of its barrel.' I returned the rifle to Mossberg for a new stock which they replaced and shipped back to me. When I got it back the stock was again cracked in the same place (left front). Mossberg shipped me a third stock which as you stated was again in need of 'a rasp.' I accomplished the modification but it seems clear from our experiences Mossberg has some significant production issues to resolve.

Bob Buschbacher wrote:
June 02, 2014

Very informative article but I have one question/comment. When I looked up these 4 rifles on their individual manufacturer web pages the prices were: Mossberg ATR - $375 Remington 783 - $451 Ruger American - $450 Savage Axis - 362 Can you let me know where these might be available for around $300. I especially like the Ruger American in 243. Thanks for the help

Darreld Walton wrote:
May 27, 2014

Interesting read, however, there is one omission on all of these type comparisons that I've noticed, and that is that no one seems interested in including the Marlin bolt guns. I've owned several of the short action rifles, my current one a heavy barreled .308, but also the same chambering with sporter weight barrels, and, the long action in .270 and .30-06. With quality 'glass mounted, and the trigger adjusted (per the included instructions that come with the rifle) the way I prefer, they have all been 'sub-moa' rifles, with no particular effort made to load development, and spectacular performers when I DO take the time to tailor ammunition to them. Perhaps sometime in the future, the Marlin's can be included in such a comparison for a much better idea of what's available.

Ed wrote:
May 21, 2014

Good Article!!! I have a question if you could help me. Although I know my way around firearms, I'm NOT a gunsmith. I purchased the Remington 783 in .308 about two months ago and it shoots fine. To resolve the issue with any free floating problems you mentioned in the article. If I take it to a gunsmith to check it out what exactly should I ask them to check & correct. If this were a similar 'floppy' fore-end & barrel would the fix be expensive? Thanks! -Ed

OldCorpsEd wrote:
May 21, 2014

I have a Mossberg ATR100 in .308 and one in .270. They both shot great out of the box, just as well as my .308 Remington 700. The Mossbergs cost me $200 less than the Remington 700. They're also classically beautiful.