Thursday, May 20, 2010

Goldilocks rifle

A few years ago, dissatisfied with the rifle I carried for big game hunting, I purchased a brand new Savage Model 116, which is that company's long-action, bolt action, rifle made in stainless steel. One of the reasons I chose the Savage was that it came with the company's then new "Accutrigger", which features a center blade on the trigger that must be depressed in order to then press the trigger and fire the rifle. The Accutrigger was a big step in triggers available from factory rifles, as is not only adjustable, but is free of creep and breaks (that is, releases) very crisply. At the time, it was the best factory trigger available and it may still be. Another factor leading me to this particular model of rifle was the rust-resistance of stainless steel. In addition, it came with a synthetic stock, which does not cause changes to point of impact the way wooden stocks can as they minutely warp or flex due to heat or humidity. The actual rifle that I bought came as a package with a scope and nylon sling. The package was less expensive than just a bare rifle, though in the end all that remains of the package is the barreled action, one scope base, and the sling swivels.

The first season, I carried the rifle as-sold. Lucked into an elk, too. Before the next season, though, I got rid of the nylon sling and replaced it with a good leather Whelen sling. The Whelen sling is a simplified and somewhat lighter version of the military slings used for highpower rifle competition. Not only does it work as a carry strap, but you adjust the upper section to form a standing loop that you can slide on your upper arm in order to steady the rifle from a sitting, kneeling, or prone position. This is much more steady than a "hasty sling" and, if you have some time to set up your shot, will really help accuracy. The Whelen sling isn't as stiff as one of the aformentioned military slings and is a bit less complicated, made of less material and with fewer parts.

The second change to the rifle I made was to replace the inexpensive variable-power scope that came on it with a Leopold fixed four power model. The shorter Leopold scope required an extended front base, which intrudes a bit over the top of the action. This isn't ideal, but isn't really a problem. I was surprised to have to do it, though, given that the scope pretty far forward as I tend to crawl the stock a bit, particularly when shooting sitting. In any event, the fixed scope is brighter, more sturdy, and more simple than a variable.

In that guise, I carried the Savage for another couple of years and another elk. At some point, I replaced the factory recoil pad, which was a bit hard, with one of the Pachmayr "Decelerator" models. Even then, I could not warm up to the plastic stock. For one thing, when you shot the rifle the stock made a sort of harmonic "sproing!" note, which is just a bit odd. More importantly, the fore end is too flattened on the bottom and the corners of it are a bit too sharp, making it fairly uncomfortable to carry over the course of a day. To me, the plastic felt a bit cold. Further, the mold lines running down the top and bottom of the stock were also surprisingly annoying until I took some fine sandpaper and smoothed them down. Last, the stock is noisy when a branch or twig hits it. This is surely a minor thing, but still hunting is partly about confidence and minimizing every sound you can control. The extra noise from any source is hard on my confidence and, who knows, might make a difference.

Not being willing to finish my own stock and wanting to maintain the stability of a synthetic, I got a laminate wood "drop in" stock from Boyd's. Because laminate stocks are essentially plywood- thin layers of wood held together by glue, they don't warp or move with weather. While not nearly as pretty as a nice piece of walnut, laminates look better than plastic, to my eye, and are quieter, too. On the other hand they are heavier than most synthetics and natural wood, all that glue adding weight.

Unfortunately, "drop in" wasn't quite drop-in and I had to do a little work to get the action and barrel into the stock. Also, the Boyd's stock didn't have bedding pillars like the factory stock. The pillars are tubes of aluminum or steel that fit around the action screws (which hold the rifle in the stock) and which relieve stress on the action and generally improve accuracy. Off the rifle went to the gunsmith for pillar bedding (and to replace the thin pad on the Boyd's stock with another Pachmayr Decelerator. Once done, the Boyd's classic style stock, while not entirely classic in lines or materials, is much more comfortable to carry and shoot than the original stock.

In all, the Savage started out as a pretty light, fairly accurate stainless steel rifle with a good trigger. Now, all up, it weighs 8 pounds, 12 ounces, which isn't too bad, to my mind. It balances right about the middle of the action and, with that weight, the 30-'06 cartridge doesn't beat you around with recoil. I've spent about the price of the rifle on the new scope, stock, sling, recoil pad, and work, but the result is getting much closer to a rifle that, for me, is "just right".


Mike Spies said...

A nice rifle, Mike, made to better suit your needs. I hope that it shoots well for you.

NorCal Cazadora said...

This makes me smile - sometimes I want to do the same thing with my clothes, fix them until they're perfect. But unfortunately, I don't have the talent - with clothes or guns.

I do love the Savage 114 I bought last year. It's got the Accu-Trigger, wood stock and a Bushnell scope that I added (becuase the rings on Leupold scopes are virtually impossibly for my stupid arthritic hands to move). I think I'd spent about $1,000 by the time it was done, and I'm pretty happy with it so far. One deer down, and lots of pig hunts where there was no reason to pull the trigger. I'm hoping to get a chance to pull the trigger again sometime this summer.

mdmnm said...

Thanks! It shoots pretty well, not minute of angle, but not too far off.

Of course, unlike clothes, you wear into the rifle instead of it wearing in for you. The AccuTrigger is one of the nicest I've found and a good trigger is a big part of good shooting.