Volquartsen’s .22LR Featherweight
Review and photographs by Oleg Volk
The original function of the basic Ruger 10-22 was reliable shooting with passable accuracy. Over time more specialized models appeared, such as heavy-barreled target versions for utmost accuracy, and lightweight take-down designs for portability. Gunmaker Scott Volquartsen’s genius was to find a way to combine light weight with high accuracy. His UltraLite .22 is a featherweight even by rimfire standards, with the barreled action massing under 2.5 pounds, and the lightest of the stocks adding less than a pound to that. The lighter weight is mainly attributed to the materials used for the barrel: a carbon-fiber tube with a thin steel liner.
Carbon fiber has been used in the aerospace industry since the 1970s. Light, strong and distinctive looking, it has more recently become the prestigious and coveted component of fast cars, super-light bicycles, portable but rigid camera tripods and last, but not least, competition rifles. Thermal expansion of carbon-fiber parts is half steel and a third aluminum. That’s a great plus for all carbon-fiber constructions, but presents additional challenges to mixed-metal and composite designs. The same challenges are, of course, present whenever any two materials are mixed in an area subject to intense heat. More importantly for the shooters, carbon fiber conducts heat half as quickly as steel and nearly ten times slower than aluminum, protecting the shooter’s hands from burns. Wood insulates even better, but a much greater thickness is required for the same strength. The insulating quality of the material is terrific for hunters who don’t subject their barrels to intense heat. This is also true for rimfire shooters whose guns burn miniscule amounts of powder with each shot.
On the down side, carbon-fiber composites are expensive, and machining them uses up drill bits fast! That’s partly the reason why the Volquartsen UltraLite lists for $1,100. The other is the adjustable 2-pound trigger which, by itself, sells for $260. The fit and finish of this gun is far ahead of the standard 10-22, which the UltraLite shares an overall design with, but the details are much finer. The muzzle, for example, may be threaded for a sound suppressor or for Volquartsen’s well-designed muzzle brakes. Since the 22LR has little recoil, much of the brake function is to divert the noise of the report away from the shooter. Other options include extended magazine releases, numerous hard-anodized colors, a variety of stocks, and either a Picatinny rail or threaded holes for direct mounting of the industry-standard C-More red-dot sight. All said and done, one of these rifles will cost from $1,400 to $2,000. What kind of performance would you get for that much money?
Practical accuracy is often unachievable even with mechanically accurate lightweight rifles because pulling the trigger would disturb the aim. With the crisp, highly adjustable triggers of the UltraLite, the entire potential of the precision barrel proved easy to realize with good ammunition. With bulk loss-leader cartridges, groups were as huge as 2 inches at 25 yards. The CCI Mini mags shot slightly better than 1-inch groups at 25. Eley Match grouped pretty much on top of each other, with 2/3-inch groups at 50 yards! It pays to put premium ammunition into this premium gun. The other contributor to accuracy is the rigid laminate thumbhole stock, which locks the rifle securely to the shooter’s hold.
The emphasis on weight becomes important in two venues: hunting and competition. Meant mainly for rimfire steel challenge and similar fast-paced disciplines, the UltraLite swings quickly and easily. The greatest benefit accrues to kids and smaller-statured women. With Blackhawk Axiom’s collapsible stock and a red-dot sight, the UltraLite used by eight-year-old competitive marksman Alexis Nicole is still under 3.5 pounds, and fits her tiny frame perfectly. When she grows up, the same stock extended will still fit her. For now, variable length means the ability to fine tune the length of pull for standing, sitting or prone positions. Without the carbon-fiber barrel, she would have had to use a thin, sportier-weight steel barrel, get less accuracy and still struggle with more weight up front.
Lightweight rifles also give an advantage to hunters who use bigger scopes and sound suppressors. Even with a hefty varmint scope and a rimfire silencer, the resulting rig is portable and not excessively front-heavy. Placing the same accessories onto a bull barrel 10-22 would have resulted in a barely portable rifle that would also be difficult to steady offhand. Ruger’s own target model weighs more than twice as much! Could a big, strong male wrestle this rifle along? Sure. But it would be less fun for him, and next to impossible for the bantam-sized rifle operators like Alexis. Since weight and balance are critical for teen and preteen competitors, the extra cost is hardly optional. Without the investment of this specialized tool, the next generation of competitive shooters would have to wait a couple of years before starting out. AmSJ