One afternoon some years back, the shop talk here at NRA Publications turned to drillings, those predominantly German-made guns built with three fixed barrels, usually both smoothbore and rifled, and each one in a different caliber or gauge. The senior man present, American Rifleman Technical Editor Pete Dickey, exhaled a dismissive blast of cigarette smoke and said, “Drillings? Who would want a gun that does three things badly?”
There was no arguing that logic, and though I had introduced the subject, I knew the conversation was over. But that didn’t dash my interest in versatile guns, which started with my pal George and his Savage Model 24, a .22 LR over .410 smoothbore, a ticket to high adventure for a couple of sixth-graders when we could afford ammo. And it does nothing to dim my enthusiasm for the phenomenal versatility of the Blaser R8, a thoroughly modern rifle that does absolutely nothing badly.
Another German invention, the R8 is a straight-pull repeater with a slew of innovative design features, the most useful of which is its ingenious method of interchanging barrels/calibers. Inside five minutes using a single tool—a supplied hex wrench—an owner can transform her or his rifle to any of a mind-boggling 40+ chamberings, from tiny to titanic. The quick-change R8 has been a big hit with European hunters, but is less appreciated here in the U.S.
Gun laws in Europe often restrict or inhibit the number of firearms a person can legally own, so there’s serious incentive for models that can serve multiple purposes. Americans scorn such laws, and of course NRA and its members are doing everything in our power to ensure they don’t take root here. We’re prone to own multiple rifles for different kinds of shooting and hunting, and tend to be skeptical about versatile designs. But let’s not blame the messenger.
Lately I’ve been working out the newest R8 offering, which came as a surprise when first announced: A barrel conversion chambered for .22 Long Rifle. Now, the same rifle others use for elk, or for elephants, is fully capable for any and all .22 rimfire hunts and with accuracy potential to even hold its own in some types of rimfire competition.
The .22 conversion comes as a kit, which brings up an elephant of a different sort, the one in the what’s-it-cost room. The kit itself lists for a salty $1,450, and if you’re wondering, becoming an R8 owner starts in the $4,000 neighborhood. Likely you’re thinking that’s another reason it’ll never sell like hotcakes in America, and of course you’re right. But if you’re the kind of gun guy who pays attention when smart firearm-design engineers are given a free hand, let’s take a look.
Blaser's R8 features a removable trigger housing (l.) that includes a convertible magazine. A magazine insert is supplied with the Blaser .22 rimfire conversion kit (r.) and has capacity for six rounds of .22 Long Rifle stored within.
Before getting to the .22 conversion we’d be remiss to skip over two other design innovations. The rifle’s trigger and magazine form a single unit, wherein the mag box sits directly atop the trigger assembly. Simply depress two spring tabs, and the whole thing drops right out (watch the video above). Beside the obvious safety aspects, this cuts a few precious inches of overall length, consequently reducing weight and improving handling in close quarters. Or owners can opt for performance advantages of longer, heavier barrels without exceeding typical sporter dimensions. Slick.
Equally ingenious is the way action-lockup occurs via an expanding collet. Nudge the bolt handle forward and 13 separate lug segments seat and lock into a 360-degree recess. A backward nudge to unlock makes the operating cycle incredibly fast, requiring just a slight flick of the wrist. Even so, the action securely handles boomer rounds up to .470 Nitro and .500 Jeffrey. Really slick.
Come time for a barrel/caliber switch, you’ll need the hex wrench to free the action screws (which are trapped in the stock where they can never be misplaced), plus a few minutes to remove the existing barrel and bolt carrier, free the inner bolt body, and change the bolt head—none of which requires a tool—then reverse the process by installing a new bolt head and finally reattaching the body. Those lacking fine motor skills (like me) may need an extra 20 seconds to change the magazine box liner, but that’s easy too.
The Blaser R8 bolt head is easily removed for conversion from .308 Win. (l.) to .22 Long Rifle (r.). Just rear of the bolt face are 13 separate lug segments that are used to seat and lock into a 360-degree recess within the barrel.
The rimfire conversion bolt swaps in the same way despite its 12 o’clock firing pin and twin extractors. its single-column 6-round magazine is contained in a placeholder with the same outer dimensions as the center-fire box. The .22 LR barrel matches the outside contour of standard R8 center-fire barrels, meaning it’s a shade heftier thanks to the smaller bore.
That seemed to pay dividends at the range. Or something did, because the R8 conversion, though decidedly not a match rifle, shot like one. With match-grade ammo we averaged 0.54” 100-yd. benchrest groups and had no trouble on calm days keeping all shots on eight-inch gongs out to 250 yds. For that application we used a high-magnification Blaser scope, which calls attention to another transformative feature, the R8’s quick-change optics capability.
Machined into receiver’s upper surface are opposing, fore-and-aft recesses that accept Blaser proprietary saddle mounts. The sleek mounts feature peglike projections that tightly fit the recesses. To “saddle up,” you simply fit the mount in place and then turn down circular locking tabs on the left-hand pegs. Installation requires a few seconds and zero tools.
The mounts are sold with rings attached, and naturally there are various sizes and heights to accommodate practically any scope. Also offered is a short mount designed to fit Aimpoint red-dot sights, which are often paired with R8s in the hot-and-heavy throes of driven wild-boar shooting. The system adds minimal weight, but for those seeking a more robust option, the latest addition is a Picatinny-rail version.
In seconds, owners can switch from one mount to another, from a long-range precision scope to fast-tracking red dot or to anything in between. Such changeability multiplies the rifle’s utility and not only when exchanging calibers. With our .22 conversion, in little more than an eyeblink, we went from long-range/big-scope platform to a mobile-hunter set-up with a compact scope to running-target/red-dot mode, and found that the optics would remain zeroed through many remountings.
While the accuracy remained impressive regardless of the optic employed, the red-dot gave another kind of gratification. Since rabbits were not in season, we simulated that challenge via rolling claybirds, and despite encountering a learning curve that made us envy the skilled running-boar hunters we see in videos, we eventually got the hang of sniping the bounding, close-up targets.
Even with its multi-tasking .22 conversion, the Blaser R8 won’t exactly match the versatility of a drilling bearing both smoothbore and rifled barrels, but even skeptics like the late Mr. Dickey would have to appreciate a gun that can do so much so well. Few of us will appreciate it enough to actually meet the asking price, but there’s intrinsic value nonetheless. When given freedom and corporate backing, creative firearm designers devise amazingly useful solutions to benefit shooters. The R8 is an outlier example, but fortunately innovation extends to good guns across the spectrum of price and application.