Today, the latest incarnations of these ﬂagship models of American hunting riﬂes all have a suggested retail price of close to $1,000. In little more than a decade, these iconic American riﬂes have essentially doubled in price.
Not everyone can afford to lay out that kind of change for a hunting riﬂe. The Even fewer can afford semicustom or custom riﬂes, and if you have to ask the price of, say, a ﬁne European double riﬂe, you may want to be sitting down when you hear the answer.
Of course, gun makers are well aware of this economic reality and have scrambled in recent years to produce more affordable guns for the masses. Many of these guns won’t win any beauty contests. Some may be described as downright ugly. Actions may be less than silky smooth, and stocks may bend in a stiff breeze. They’re often described rather euphemistically as “budget-friendly” or “entry-level” riﬂes. These are, of course, handy phrases when you’re trying to avoid using the word “cheap.”
Have the manufacturers cut corners on these guns? You bet they have, but they had to in order to make the guns less expensive to produce and offer them at what are, by today’s standards, crazy-cheap prices.
TODAY, VIRTUALLY EVERY MAJOR mass-manufacturer of hunting riﬂes has added an inexpensive riﬂe to their product lineup. While some have derisively called this a race to the bottom, I don’t exactly see it that way. Sure, I’m fond of guns that have richly ﬁgured walnut stocks, elegantly engraved receivers, and ﬁt and ﬁnish reﬂective of old world craftsmanship, but those guns won’t smack deer into the freezer any more effectively than most of today’s more affordable riﬂes. Advances in manufacturing processes and materials now enable gun makers to offer inexpensive riﬂes that resist the elements, work reliably and shoot tight groups – and that’s all many buyers, especially ﬁrst-time buyers, are looking for in a hunting riﬂe.
Here’s a quick roundup of some of the more popular inexpensive riﬂes currently on dealers’ shelves. Since there must, I suppose, be rules to the game, I’ll limit this discussion to riﬂes that you can buy at a real-world price of $500 or less.
Consider, for example, the Thompson Center Venture riﬂe, with which I’ve had a fair amount of experience. These riﬂes feature a free-ﬂoated barrel with 5R riﬂing and pillar-bedded action. I used the Venture Compact model chambered in .308 Win. on a memorable Texas deer hunt, dropping two whitetail bucks and two does with four shots guns over two days of hunting. Several other outdoor writers did the same. I didn’t subject that riﬂe to accuracy testing, but I did test an identical gun chambered in .22-250 Rem. Five of six factory loads shot sub-minute-of-angle best groups, easily living up the riﬂe’s MOA accuracy guarantee. I was impressed enough that I bought a Venture Predator riﬂe, chambered in .204 Ruger, and it regularly shoots half-inch groups with its preferred load. That’s more than can be said of many more expensive riﬂes. You can ﬁnd the Venture for less than $500, but if that’s too rich for your blood, you can look for the no-frills TC Compass riﬂe for less than $400.
Another $500 riﬂe I’ve had some experience with is the Winchester XPR riﬂe. The one I tested, chambered in .30-06 Springﬁeld, put six different factory loads into groups averaging 1.3 inches, but that’s only part of the story. It dropped a 165-grain Federal load with Nosler Ballistic Tip bullets into average groups of 0.58 inch and a best group of just 0.31 inch. This gun is quite similar to the Browning AB3 riﬂe. Both have decent triggers, a boltunlock button, 60-degree bolt lift and detachable box magazines. Both are offered in a variety of conﬁgurations and calibers, and if you shop around, you can ﬁnd either one on sale for about $500.
One of the most aesthetically pleasing and feature-rich offerings among the bargain-priced riﬂes is the Mossberg Patriot. This riﬂe’s lines are very much in a classic conﬁguration, and you can get it with stocks that are walnut, laminate, black synthetic or synthetic Kryptek Highlander camo. Standard features include drop-box magazines, ﬂuted barrels with recessed crowns, a spiral-ﬂuted bolt and adjustable trigger system. I tested one in .25-06 Rem., and ﬁve different factory loads turned in sub-MOA best groups. Surprisingly, I’ve seen the basic black synthetic model retail for less than $300.
ANOTHER POPULAR ENTRY in the value-priced category is the Ruger American Riﬂe. I haven’t tested one yet, but have just received the Predator model, chambered in – wonder of wonders – 6mm Creedmoor. I plan to give this one a thorough workout as soon as I can obtain enough ammo to put it through its paces. Available in several conﬁgurations, this riﬂe has an adjustable trigger, cold hammer-forged barrel and a tang safety. It utilizes an integral bedding block system to free-ﬂoat the barrel and has a removable rotary magazine. The one-piece bolt has three locking lugs and a 70-degree throw to allow ample room for mounting scopes on the bases supplied with the riﬂe.
According to Big Green, also known as Remington, the bargain-priced Remington 783 is “not dressed to impress, it’s dressed for work.” With a MSRP of $399, the 783 has freeﬂoated, button-riﬂed barrels mated to receivers that are pillar-bedded to a high-nylon-content synthetic stock. The riﬂe is equipped with an adjustable trigger and, notably, detachable steel magazines. The bolt has two locking lugs and a 90-degree lift.
The main thing going for the Savage Axis riﬂe is the fact that it is, well, a Savage. That usually means you can expect good out-of-the-box accuracy. With an MSRP of around $368 and a real-world price of around $330 for the basic model with a black synthetic stock, you’ll get a riﬂe that uses the classic Savage locknut approach to set headspace set to minimum. This has always driven some purists mildly nuts, but it signiﬁcantly contributes to the accuracy Savage riﬂes are known for. Barrels on the Axis are button-riﬂed. The two locking-lug bolt is unusual in that it uses a ﬂoating bolt head design, which theoretically also contributes to accuracy. Detachable box magazines are part metal, part plastic, with metal feed lips. Triggers on the Axis models I’ve seen aren’t overly impressive, but at a cost of about $450, you can step up to the Axis II riﬂe and get the Savage Accutrigger and a Weaver Kaspa 3-9×40 scope.
These riﬂes and others like them may not be your ﬁrearms cup of tea, but taken as a group, they ﬁll an important gap in the marketplace. They give people who might not
otherwise be able to afford a decent riﬂe an affordable entry point into hunting. If we’re going to preserve our cherished hunting traditions in this country, we’re going to need their participation – and their votes – in the years ahead. That’s worth thinking about the next time you bypass the bargain-riﬂe section of your local gun store. ASJ
But that’s not entirely true. We all have our favorites. For some, it may be a beat-up riﬂe that’s been handed down from generation to generation. It may be one with high-grade wood and fancy engraving. Many prefer turnbolt-action guns. Some swoon over a ﬁne double gun, while others may shoot only an AR platform riﬂe. A favorite may be a riﬂe that shoots tiny little groups, or one that’s light enough to pack up steep mountains. For some, it might be the only riﬂe they own – or one that literally saved their life.
In truth, I have several favorite riﬂes for several speciﬁc jobs. For deer-sized game, however, one riﬂe in my collection has accounted for more animals than all of the others combined. It’s not the fanciest riﬂe in the safe, nor is it the most expensive. It’s the one I’ve made more great memories with than any other.
THAT RIFLE BEGAN ITS LONG RUN with me many years ago as an original Weatherby Vanguard riﬂe, chambered in .257 Wby. Mag. It had a Tupperware stock and creepy trigger, so it did not long stay in its original conﬁguration. I installed a ﬁne Timney trigger and swapped the stock out for a pillarbedded Fiberguard stock, in an attractive tan color with black spider web ﬁnish.
I long ago lost count of the number of deer and hogs I shot with this riﬂe in the coastal mountains of central California before I left that state for more gun-friendly environs. It was with me when I shot my ﬁrst pronghorn antelope in Wyoming, and it was the riﬂe I used to bag a record-book pronghorn in New Mexico. There’s a nice axis deer on my wall, thanks to that riﬂe, and a snarling javelina. The riﬂe has taken mule deer in several Western states, and was the one I used to take my best whitetail buck, a barrel-chested 11-pointer nudging the 160 Boone and Crockett mark.
It was also the riﬂe I held when I made a running shot on a whitetail in the state of my birth, Kentucky, a number of years ago. He was an old buck, with thin, broken-up antlers,
and wasn’t much to look at. But it was a hunt I’ll never forget. It was the ﬁrst time I had seen many of my relatives in nearly two decades, and I was able to share a venison dinner with them from that homecoming hunt, surrounded by the warmth, laughter and happiness I remembered so well from my childhood. Sadly, many of those relatives are no longer with us, and I think of them every time I pick up the .257.
And that, as Forest Gump would say, is all I have to say about that.
LAST YEAR, I REALIZED THAT the riﬂe had become something of a safe queen. I was spending so much time testing and hunting with new riﬂe models that I had little time left to shoot or hunt with my own guns. Determined to remedy that, I carved a day out of my schedule last December and visited my friend, Bryan Wilson, of Frio County Hunts. Bryan runs a great hunting operation on his family’s lowfence, high-quality hunting ranch in south Texas.
He had been keeping an eye on a big-bodied, 5½-year-old, eight-point buck that made regular appearances on game cameras. His antlers weren’t going to get any better, and he was bossing around some younger bucks with greater trophy potential, so that made him a prime candidate for my freezer.
Sitting in a blind with Bryan in the predawn darkness that December morning, we watched deer ﬁlter out of the thick south Texas brush and into an open ﬁeld in front of us. It took some time before we had enough light to make out antlers, and bit more time before we could count points. There were a couple of younger, promising bucks in the ﬁeld, and far down a sendero to our left, we spotted a truly spectacular young buck. But none of them were on the menu. We were after the boss eight-pointer.
And then he appeared, walking slowly and conﬁdently down a long path to our front before entering the ﬁeld. The younger bucks watched him nervously, and it was clear that this old fellow ruled the roost. I watched the buck feed for a while, and then reached for my old friend with the words “.257 WBY MAG” stamped on the barrel. I centered the crosshairs of the Leupold scope on the buck’s vitals, and touched off the Timney trigger, which is set to break crisply at a trigger pull of a hair over 2 pounds.
AS IT HAD SO MANY TIMES BEFORE, a 120-grain Nosler Partition bullet found its mark. The buck ran about 20 yards, staggered for another 10 yards, and fell over. That bullet, in factory loading, is all I’ve ever fed the riﬂe, and it will shoot sub-MOA groups with the load all day long. Launching the 120-grain Partition at .257 Wby. Mag. velocity, the riﬂe has proven to be nothing less than a death ray. The vast majority of animals I’ve shot with that riﬂe and load simply dropped in their tracks. A few made it 30 yards or so, as this big buck did, but none have ever required any tracking to recover.
I’ve been on several hunts where people, after watching the riﬂe perform, have offered to buy it from me on the spot. Needless to say, it’s not for sale.
The .257 Wby. Mag. was reportedly Roy Weatherby’s favorite caliber, and it’s easy to understand why when you take a close look at the ballistics. The 120-grain Partition load I favor steps out at a bit more than 3,300 feet per second from the muzzle. Using the old-timer’s trick of zeroing the riﬂe to place bullets 3 inches high at 100 yards, it is dead on at 300 yards, and a bit less than 4 inches low at 350 yards.
This means that, for the vast majority of hunters and the majority of hunting situations, you need only hold steady on the vitals to make a clean kill out to 350 yards.
Notably, that .257 isn’t the only Vanguard in my safe. I also have a Vanguard sub-MOA model chambered in .300 WSM. It has the same Timney trigger installed and the same stock, albeit in a different color. I also have this riﬂe zeroed at 300 yards, with a 150-grain Winchester XP3 load grouping 3 inches high at 100 yards. The trajectory is nearly identical to that of my .257 zeroed at the same distance. Picking up that riﬂe is, for all practical purposes, the same as picking up the .257. It, too, has accounted for its fair share of game, including a scimitar-horned oryx in Texas. These are large animals, weighing up to 460 pounds, and the Weatherby handled the job nicely.
You may, by now, not be surprised to learn that I have yet another Vanguard riﬂe in my safe. This one is the newer Vanguard S2 Back Country riﬂe, a featherweight riﬂe weighing just 6 pounds, 12 ounces. Chambered in .30-06 Springﬁeld, it’s a real tack driver, especially with Federal’s VitalShok 165-grain Trophy Copper load. I also have this riﬂe zeroed to group bullets 3 inches high at 100 yards. They’ll impact less than 4 inches low at 300 yards, allowing for a dead-on hold at that distance, and I’m looking forward to putting the riﬂe to good use.
All of this, I suppose, lends a lot of truth to the old adage, “Beware the man with one riﬂe.” Or, in my case, two or three. ASJ
I recently had an opportunity to test one such newly made-over gun, the Browning A5 Sweet Sixteen shotgun, and I’m pleased to report that, in this instance, the manufacturer got it right. By right, I mean spectacularly right.
My opportunity to test this reborn 16-gauge classic came during a three-day pheasant hunt with R&R Pheasant Hunting, an 18,000-acre, family-owned farming and ranching operation near Seneca, S.D., with four other outdoor scribes. We were there, along with representatives from Browning, Winchester and the South Dakota Department of Tourism, to test three new shotguns and ammunition from Browning and Winchester.
I spent the ﬁrst day wringing out the newly announced Winchester SX4 shotgun in 12 gauge, and bagged my fair share of birds. I spent the second day happily shooting roosters with the Browning 725 Citori over-and-under shotgun chambered in 28 gauge. I held off on shooting the Sweet Sixteen until the ﬁnal day of the hunt, mainly because only two were on hand and everyone wanted to shoot them. As fellow outdoor writer “Uncle Bob” Matthews observed, “The Sweet Sixteen was the prettiest girl at the dance, and everyone wanted to dance with her.”
AND WHAT A DANCE IT WAS. On the second drive of the day, I took the left ﬂanker position, outside and ahead of Bob, who walked a few rows inside a ﬁeld of tall corn. We both carried the Sweet Sixteen, stoked with the new Browning BXD Upland Extra Distance 11/8-ounce load of No. 6 nickel-plated shot, and as luck would have it, most of the roosters that ﬂushed during that drive came our way. The sky was soon raining pheasants. I think only one rooster made it past us. By the time that drive was over, someone had nicknamed us “The Sixteen Dream Team,” and I already knew I would have to own this shotgun.
To understand what makes this new gun so special, it helps to know a bit about its history. Today’s A5 traces its lineage to the original Browning Automatic 5, designed by John Browning in 1898. It was one of the most inﬂuential shotgun designs of all time. First produced by FN in 1902, it was later made by Remington as the Model 11 and by Savage as the Model 720 and other variants.
The Auto 5 used a long-recoil operating system in which the bolt and the barrel recoiled together, and it had a friction piece and bevel ring to adjust recoil to the load. It was soft-shooting when set up properly, but could thump you soundly if it was improperly tuned. Production moved from Belgium to Japan in 1975, and the guns got heavier. By the 1990s, semiauto shotguns that were cheaper to produce and lighter, and with more modern designs, were gaining dominance. The writing was on the wall: Production ceased in 1998, after nearly 100 years of production, and the Auto 5 was no more.
That changed in 2013 when Browning stunned the shotgun world by bringing back the A5 in 12 gauge, albeit in much-changed form and manufactured in Portugal. The Sweet Sixteen followed in 2016. It’s built on a smaller, lighter alloy receiver with a polished black anodized ﬁnish, and weighs just 5 pounds, 13 ounces with a 28-inch barrel, and a bit less with a 26-inch barrel.
It’s one thing to ﬁnd a lightweight shotgun. It’s quite another to ﬁnd one this well-balanced that swings so smoothly. The gun simply painted birds from the sky for me, and I had difficulty believing I was swinging a 16-gauge shotgun with a 28-inch barrel.
Externally, this gun resembles the original Auto 5, retaining the distinctive “humpback” squared-off receiver. I like it because it affords a slightly longer sight plane, aligning naturally with my eye, and allowing me to shoot with my head up a bit more and beneﬁt from a more comfortable, less-punishing cheek weld.
INTERNALLY, THE SWEET SIXTEEN is an entirely different animal from its predecessor. The long-recoil system has been replaced by an inertia-driven system called Kinematic Drive by Browning. It’s fast-cycling, easy on the shoulder and highly reliable – so much so that Browning stands behind it with a 100,000-round or ﬁve-year guarantee that the shotgun will work “come hell or high water.” It’s a clean-running system, because all gasses go out the barrel and away from the action.
A look at the barrel reveals other reasons why this is not your grandfather’s Auto 5. It has a lengthened, tapered “Vector Pro” forcing cone to minimize shot deformation and enhance pattern uniformity. The barrel is also backbored to reduce friction between the shot cup and bore. I’m not convinced that this reduces recoil, as some claim, but I do believe it helps with pattern consistency, uniformity and density. The barrel sports a red ﬁber optic front sight and white midpoint bead.
The shotgun ships with full, modiﬁed and improved cylinder Invector DS choke tubes. These longer-than-usual tubes have a more gradual choke taper, again contributing to more uniform shot patterns. They also have a brass alloy band to help seal out residue, making the tubes easy to remove after a day of shooting.
Other nice touches include 18-lines-per-inch checkering on the glossy Turkish walnut buttstock and forearm. The stock has an Inﬂex II recoil pad, which directs recoil energy down and away from your face. With Speed Load Plus, you simply push the ﬁrst shell into the magazine, with the action open, and the gun automatically feeds the ﬁrst round into the chamber. The “plus” part of the equation is a handy little mechanism you can push with a ﬁnger, inside the bottom of the receiver, to unload shells from the magazine tube without having to cycle the action repeatedly.
The new Sweet Sixteen honors its proud legacy while enabling you to shoot the old “gentleman’s gauge” in a technologically updated package. The gun has little noticeable recoil. It is fast, yet swings smoothly. It is elegant, but utilitarian. It packs like a 20 gauge, but punches like a 12. With this one shotgun, a hunter would be wellequipped to handle most any type of wingshooting. As one of my fellow scribes observed during our hunt, “This might be the gun that saves the 16-gauge shotshell.”
As I sit here admiring the richly ﬁgured wood of the stock on the sample gun sent to me for testing, I suspect he may be right. I also suspect Browning may have a difficult time getting this one back. ASJ
Editor’s note: For more on the A5 Sweet Sixteen and other Browning products, see browning.com.