The progress of modern technology has been curiously uneven. We have conquered polio and smallpox, but not the common cold. We have landed on the moon, but we cannot move conveniently around our cities. We build word processors, but not a satisfactory writing stylus. And while certain kinds of missilery have taken great strides, little of importance has been done to improve the rifles with which we greeted the turn of the century.
Well hold on now! We have semiautomatic actions and telescope sights, haven't we?
Of course we have, and these improvements do deserve consideration, but the first matters only in the military mode and the second is still only partly understood. Rapid repeat shots do little for the individual rifleman, whose primary object is to hit with his first shot, and glass sights have, in a sense, retrogressed since the pioneering efforts of Rudolph Noske and some others in the 1920s.
When I first went after big game in 1937, I used a rifle very similar in style, weight, size, practical accuracy and ballistic potential to one that might be bought over the counter today. It worked very well (and it still does), so we might well ask why anyone should wish to improve upon it. This is like asking why we should improve on anything that works. If an outhouse works, why install indoor plumbing? The fact is that we improve things for three reasons: to make our lives more convenient, to gratify our curiosity, and to* make money. These motives have not conspicuously affected riflery until quite recently. We have dwelt too heavily on cartridge variation, forgetting that all modern cartridges will do very well if they are shot well. In a sense we have concentrated so hard on the aircraft that we have ignored the carrier. It is only in the last 10 years or so that rifle design has come alive, but now it has (though only a few realize it), and today we stand on the brink of a new era.
Any instrument is built for a purpose—presumably. What is it for? Certainly we see endless gadgetry being promoted for which the purposes are pretty obscure— answers in search of questions— but that does not invalidate the premise. We cannot sensibly improve on rifle design unless we decide what a rifle is to be required to do. If we specialize overmuch in this thinking, we come up with instruments well-suited to a specific task but not to any others.
It is much easier to specialize than to generalize, and the definition of a general-purpose rifle is a complex task. Let us attempt it by declaring that: a general-purpose rifle is a conveniently portable, individually operated firearm, capable of striking a single decisive blow, on a live target of up to 200 kilos in weight, at any distance at which the operator can shoot with the precision necessary to place a shot in a vital area of the target. This involved statement will not meet with everyone's approval, but certain elements of it must be accepted before we proceed. Convenience is important. Power is important. Practical accuracy, as opposed to intrinsic accuracy, is important. If we add the desirability of ruggedness, versatility and speed of operation, and finally throw in a touch of aesthetics, we complete a workable set of parameters. Such a piece is eminently suited for taking the vast predominance of four-footed game, and equally so for men.
In 1983 a conference was convened at the Gunsite Training Center in Arizona to examine the subject of the modernization of rifle design. The members of the conference included gunsmiths, stocksmiths, journalists, marksmanship instructors, inventors and hunters. It was called the First Scout Rifle Conference ("scout" being the term settled upon for the definition of the new concept), and it adjourned with the objective of exploring all elements of design during 1984 and meeting again in October. When the second meeting was held much progress had been made. The project is not complete and at this point certain technical innovations remain to be perfected.
Another conference will be held this winter, and at that time the prototype, or prototypes, of the "rifle of the future" should be ready for inspection. At this time we are held up by the unavailability of certain important components, but when the completed instrument is ready for demonstration and examination, it ought not be too difficult to persuade certain manufacturers to accommodate us. Riflemen tend to be a conservative lot, and anything which departs from past procedures is usually viewed with skepticism. There is also the problem of cost, for innovations are always expensive. However, the scout project has proceeded on the assumption that a better mousetrap will sell itself in the marketplace—eventually.
The idea behind the scout rifle is not new. The famous old Mannlicher 6.5 carbine was a step in this direction, as was the equally famous Winchester Model 94.SO-SO carbine. The British "Jungle Carbine" of World War II was another example of the breed, and finally there came the ill-fated Remington 600 carbines of a decade ago—excellent guns in most ways but ahead of their time. I acquired a 600 in .308 Win. and fitted it with a Leupold 2X extended-eye-relief telescope. This laid the groundwork for the scout concept now being studied by the conference. This little gun was an absolute delight, and it sits in my rack today. Its decisive drawback, of course, is that neither the rifle nor the telescope is any longer manufactured. Also it is imperfect in some other ways, and the builders of new versions of the scout rifle will seek to overcome all such apparent weaknesses.
The consensus of the conference was that modern technology enables us to produce a rifle which need not sacrifice either power or accuracy to convenience. The new-wave rifle is neither more powerful nor intrinsically more accurate than the rifles of the past, but it is much, much handier—shorter, lighter and quicker to operate. The current guideline is a length limit of one meter and a weight limit of three kilos. (This weight is measured with all accessories in place but with the rifle unloaded.) Immediately these limitations point us toward short actions, short barrels, compact sights, and synthetic stocks. A further feature which distinguishes the modern scout rifle from its predecessors is the telescope sight, but that in a certain particular mode. The modern scout uses a low-power telescope mounted just forward of the magazine well. In recent decades, progress in the development of telescope sights has been to a certain extent negative in that telescopes, instead of becoming stronger, smaller and faster to use have become larger, more cumbersome, more fragile and almost necessarily mounted too high above the bore. Since most modern shooters are used to these things, they do not understand the advantages of a radically different system, but there is little doubt in the minds of those who have used the scout telescope concept on snap shots that it is the only proper general-purpose sighting system for a rifle.
For those who have not tried it, an explanation of the advantages of the forward telescope is in order. First, and most important, the forward glass does not obscure the landscape. With both eyes open the shooter sees the entire countryside as well as the cross-wire printed on his target. For this reason it is important that the magnification of the telescope be no greater than 3X (some hold that 2X is maximum) in order to avoid excessive disparity between the vision of the two eyes. This forward mount, properly used and understood, is the fastest sighting arrangement available to the rifleman. (Many students at Gun-site are capable of taking straight-away clay birds at the end of one full training session.) There are those who think that a glass of low power is necessarily less precise for long-range precision work, but we have not found this to be the case in any sort of realistic test.
There are many additional advantages to the forward telescope mount. It is out of the way when the rifle is carried at the balance. It may be mounted as low over the bore as the diameter of the bell permits. It avoids pinching between thumb and bolt handle when the bolt is operated. It permits stripper loading if desired. It greatly facilitates single-loading with eyes on target. It completely eliminates "telescope eye." Without exception, those who have tried the forward-mounted glass in a full course of rifle training are unanimous in their conviction that it is a superior system.
Unfortunately telescopes of proper eye-relief (minimum 6", maximum 12", optimum 9") are not readily available. The old issue of the Leupold M8-2X is the glass most used on the prototypes, but it is out of production and no longer obtainable. The new versions of this glass have an optimum eye relief of 14". On the positive side, we now have installed on Scout II a prototype Burris 3X scope that seems to be working out splendidly. This new glass has a 9.5" optimum eye-relief. Additionally, negotiations are now under way with a Japanese firm to build a telescope of proper characteristics for inclusion in future scout research.
The problem of mounting a telescope properly in its forward position is severe, since no current manufacturer is ready to produce the necessary components. On Scout I the old Buehler mount locked the Leupold glass to the plastic rib on top of the barrel in a most satisfactory way, but such equipment is no longer manufactured. The mounting system pictured on Scout II is extremely efficient, being strong, low and simple, and utilizing the barrel lug to resist recoil in compression. It is a custom proposition at this time, and thus expensive, but when the entire project is completed standardization will reduce this difficulty. Since scout barrels are as thin as compatible with safety there is no way to screw anything onto the barrel at the forward telescope mount ring. Therefore some sort of extrusion must be applied to the barrel in order to provide a proper base for the front mount. On Scout I this was the plastic rib that came on the Remington 600. On Scout II a machined steel ring was slid over the barrel and sweated into place to offer foothold. On Scout III the standard Ruger quarter rib of the single-shot rifle was affixed to the Ruger Ultralight to provide a forward footing. Other systems will doubtless be developed as the demand increases.
Reserve iron sights were held to be desirable for a proper scout rifle, but a proper set has not yet been devised. The forward-mounted telescope allows the positioning of an aperture sight on the receiver bridge, and the barrel extrusion which constitutes the forward telescope mount offers a proper base for a front sight. An aperture sight on the receiver bridge, in combination with a front sight at the forward telescope mount, will offer a sight radius of about 11"—quite sufficient for reserve use. This system will avoid the necessity of hanging the front sight out on the end of the barrel, where it catches on things, breaks, snags and muddies up. The Brno ZKK 601 action incorporates a retractable aperture sight in the bridge and therefore will be used in conjunction with the new type front sight on Scout IV.
Light weight is important in a scout, and therefore the conference has settled upon synthetic rather than wood stocks. I think we must admit that wood stocks on rifles are in their closing period. Wood is warm to the touch, traditional, and in its luxury aspect very beautiful. However a good piece of wood is frighteningly expensive, and old-fashioned hand-checkering is pretty much a thing of the past. Wood is also somewhat fragile, subject to thermal deformation, ambient moisture and staining. Synthetics—when properly constructed—are better in every way except one. They look cheap. Fortunately this can be corrected. It is possible to make a modern synthetic stock look very handsome to the eye—as in the illustrations you see. A synthetic stock need not be checkered, since its whole finish may be made "crinkly" and thus non-skid. Attractive forest-leaf patterns have been worked up which may offend the traditionalists but have a definite beauty of their own. And a high-grade fiberglass or graphite stock is stronger, lighter and much cheaper than good-grade wood, in addition to being inert and unaffected by moisture or heat. The stock on Scout II was manufactured by McMillan of Phoenix and finished by Brown of California, and the complete rifle meets the prescribed weight limitation of three kilos.
The barrels of the scouts are short and light. A short barrel does sacrifice something in velocity but not enough to balance considerations of handiness. All scouts up to now have been in .308 cat., and the chronograph insists that proper loading can start the 150-gr. bullet from a 19" barrel at a couple of clicks over 2700 f.p.s. These ballistics served Theodore Roosevelt and Stuart White very well in Africa, and they still can. The 7 mm-'08 affords slightly better ballistics, if that matters, and one can go to the now defunct 6.5 and .350 Rem. Mags, while still using a short action. For targets of greater weight than 400 lbs., a standard-length action will be necessary, adding about an inch and perhaps 3/4 lb, to the whole assembly. (Medium caliber scouts have been built up now on the .350 Rem. and .35 Whelen cartridges.)
The consensus at the first conference was that stainless was the proper material for barrels, not so much because it is resistant to corrosion but because it offers a better coefficient of friction. It is "slipperier" than normal steel and therefore should provide slightly greater velocity for the same charge. In practice it has been found that stainless steel is very difficult to control as to quality, and that it differs from batch to batch. There are barrel makers now who will not attempt a light-weight stainless steel barrel, not because it could not be made but because they do not know that they could make it—since they do not make their own barrel steel.
Whether a barrel is cut, buttoned, or hammer-forged does not seem to be as important as some maintain. Hammer-forging has many advantages, but it is necessarily expensive and can only be applied to production runs in large numbers. The handsome Mannlicher barrels are uniformly brilliant in accuracy, and offer the curious advantage of being slightly tighter at the muzzle than at the breech, but they cannot be had as components at this time.
The heavy barrels so popular on target guns have no place on the general-purpose rifle. Barrel diameter, adds weight without any appreciable increase in accuracy, and serves mainly to delay heating. This is desirable on the range but not in the field, and the natural habitat of the scout is the field.
Much thought has been given by the conference to the subject of semi-automatic actions for scout rifles. If a semiautomatic action were made which was sufficiently compact and otherwise acceptable, it should certainly be considered, but at this time there is no such action available. The whole concept of great rapidity of fire in a rifle has been weighed and found, not exactly wanting, but somewhat inconsequential. About the only circumstance in which a rifleman might need a volley of quickly repeated shots would be in the unfortunate and unexpected event of a "house clearing." Such a problem mightarise for a lone rifleman but the chances are very low. The primary purpose of a rifle is a first-shot hit, whether the target is game or a human antagonist. Semi-automatic fire does not assure this. As a matter of fact it sometimes detracts from it by letting the shooter believe that if he misses with his first shot he can always make up with a second. This is a bad attitude for a rifleman. As a result of these deliberations all prototype scouts will be bolt-actions unless and until something new in the way of the semi-automatic action appears.
The conference was unable to reach a consensus as to action desirability. Actions considered have been the domestic Remington, Winchester and Ruger, plus the '03 Springfield, and the foreign ZKK, Sako and Mannlicher. All have drawbacks, though the ZKK 601 is the closest to the guidelines.
While the conference was not fully content with any one action now available, it did conclude that certain things are desirable in a proper bolt-action. Two-lug, 90° rotation was favored, as was the traditional Mauser claw extractor and positive ejector. Smoothness and reliability were found wanting in most modern commercial actions, and these things should be given attention. The bolt knob should be smooth and round—not checkered—and positioned far enough forward of the trigger to avoid pounding of the index finger during firing. The safety should be positive and include three positions. It should disconnect the trigger mechanism rather than blocking it. It should be strong and positive and work from front to rear—rear position "safe" and forward "fire." The magazine should be so constructed as to protect the points of soft-point spitzer bullets as they ride in the magazine. The action should offer a built-in aperture sight on the receiver bridge, and some sort of magazine cutoff permitting the rifle to be used in the single-shot mode with the magazine in reserve. The trigger system should be smooth and clean, and provide a crisp 3-lb. release. No rifle action now in production offers all these features, though some come reasonably close. Various members of the Scout Conference will endeavor to interest manufacturers in the production of an idealized rifle action between now and the next meeting of the conference.
Only the Mannlicher now affords a shoulder-holder to protect points in the magazine, and also a detachable rotary box magazine. No current action offers a magazine cut-off, such as that found on the '03 Springfield. This device is being worked up for installation on standard actions prior to the next Scout Conference in 1985. (The magazine cut-off was not put on the '03 rifle by accident. It is an extremely useful accessory, allowing the rifle to be single loaded while retaining the magazine in reserve for emergencies. In the game fields it permits the rifle to be topped off continually without the danger of a double feed.)
As an alternative to the magazine cutoff, thought has been given to the fitting of a detachable box magazine with a double intent. Such a magazine could be inserted to its first stop, which would not allow the bolt to feed it. When desired, the magazine could be pressed into its second stop, permitting the bolt to pick up the top cartridge.
Three additional improvements were displayed at the 1984 conference. The C.W. sling, discovered in Guatemala and described in the June, 1984, American Rifleman is now standard. After a year's work there is no doubt that this sling system is best. It is most efficiently installed with Pachmayr flush sockets— three on each stock, permitting two modes of attachment.
On all forthcoming prototypes the heel of the butt will be rounded to avoid snagging on the shirt in quick mounting.
In 1983 the leather butt cuff was used to provide ready ammunition for shoot-one-load-one situations. Since that time Robbie Barrkman of Gunsite has engineered the butt magazine illustrated, which neatly carries ready ammunition out of the way and instantly available at the fingertips as needed. This not only facilitates instantaneous one-round loading in the single-shot mode with eyes on the target, but it offers a most convenient way of carrying ready ammunition when the rifle is unloaded in camp.
At the 1983 conference it was decided that a form of retractable bipod should be perfected which would not be offensive to the eye nor protrude from the stock. Two systems have been designed which will be fabricated prior to the next conference. Both are limited to synthetic stocks since wood will not provide the necessary strength. One conceals the bipod entirely within the fore-end and is extended by pulling forward on the fore-end cap. The other folds backward from a mounting in the fore-end and fits into recesses in the stock, forming a smooth contour when retracted. Both systems will include enough rotation to permit the bipod to be used on uneven ground. There are those who claim that any sort of bipod is somehow "cheating." but the purpose of shooting is hitting, and if a bipod increases the certainty of hitting it should not be scorned. Which form of retractable bipod is most suitable will be determined in 1985.
Scout I was improvised from available equipment and it worked very well, but its components have become obsolete. Scout II has been assembled from components and is an extremely successful rifle—light, quick to operate, handy, convenient and extremely accurate. Unfortunately it is very expensive. Scout III was made up nearly stock from the Ruger Ultralight and the Ruger Number 1 rib. Unfortunately, it is fitted with a telescope which is no longer available. Scout IV will be made up on a ZKK 601 action and will use a telescope made up to the demands of the Scout Conference. It will also be the first prototype to feature the new iron-sight system and a disappearing bipod. Scout V will be made up on the Mannlicher L action and barrel, affording quick-detachable box magazine, a superb barrel, a superb trigger action—and some way of fitting a forward telescope. Scout VI will be made up on the Winchester Model 70 short action. All of these should be ready this year.
For the time being the scouts stand as described, and Scout II, even though it does not include everything we desire, is so far ahead of anything which can currently be purchased as to make enthusiasts very discontented.
Accuracy in Scouts I and III is quite satisfactory—fully up to any reasonable field requirements—while Scout II is a tack-driver. If it were half as accurate as it is, it would still be twice as accurate as it need be. And it is hardly more cumbersome than a swagger stick. Of course it features a hand-cut premium barrel. One usually receives just what he pays for.
The Scout Conference is in no position to produce rifles—only to assemble them. At such time as all the proper instruments have been assembled completely, there will be an opportunity for a forward-looking manufacturer to take advantage of modern technology and make a great leap forward for the rifleman. Meanwhile we must build to order.