Battle of the Bolt-Actions

Battle of the Bolt-Actions
Kimber Montana rifle (Mike Anschuetz photo)

We put five predator rifles to the test; which delivers the most bang for your buck?

(Photo courtesy of Petersen's Hunting Magazine)

By the time you read these words, big-game hunting seasons across the country have ended. Deer and elk will be dropping antlers, bears will be curled-up somewhere warm and cozy, and hunters everywhere will go into the depressive state of mind that occupies us between seasons. Weep not, for predator season is upon us.

Predators '“ their furs in prime condition '“ are on the lookout for prey, meaning now is the time to pursue coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and other "professional hunters." With this in mind, we set out to evaluate five purpose-built bolt-action rifles in .223 that are ideal for chasing the chasers. We tested the rifles side by side with the aim of fairly and objectively measuring the strengths and weaknesses of every model.

We judged each submission on accuracy, trigger performance, functionality, and ergonomics using the most evenhanded methods that we could devise.

Kimber Montana

Kimber Montana rifle (Mike Anschuetz photo)

The Kimber Montana was my personal favorite rifle of those we tested because I find its carbon-fiber stock to be very comfortable and well designed. The overall fit and finish of this gun was excellent, and its construction makes a good case that the rifle's price isn't at all unreasonable.

The current-production Montana is threaded for either a brake or a suppressor, and this rifle was no exception. The trigger wasn't the lightest that we tested, but it had a short and crisp pull and is adjustable. This Kimber fed, extracted, and ejected with 100-percent reliability, and everything from the position and operation of the safety to the fixed magazine was traditional and functional.

Caliber tested: .223 (Rem.)

Twist rate: 1:9 in.

Unloaded weight: 5 lbs., 5 oz.

Barrel length: 22 in.

Overall length: 41.25 in.

Length of pull: 13.63 in.

Trigger pull (avg.): 4 lbs., 2 oz.

Muzzle velocity (avg.): 3,096 fps

MSRP: $1,427

100-yard group (avg.): 0.80 in.

HIT: Well built, light, and nicely balanced.

MISS: Most expensive rifle tested.

Ruger American Predator

Ruger American Predator (Mike Anschuetz photo)

Ruger's American series of rifles has changed the game for hunters and has forced the rest of the industry to make more-accurate rifles at lower price points. These rifles are far from heirlooms in terms of their construction, but they all seem to shoot (and function) very well due to some of the rifle's fundamental design elements.

Our test rifle was light, compact, and accurate with an acceptable trigger (it is user-adjustable down to three pounds). The American Predator's barrel comes threaded 1/2-28 from the factory and includes a thread protector. A suppressor '“ where legal '“ can be a real advantage on a coyote rifle.

With an MSRP of $529, you can't have it all, so the stock is the typical injection-molded style that is present on guns in this price range. Ruger's Power Bedding arrangement prevents the stock's lack of rigidity from being a functional issue, but the gun does feel a bit inglorious. What do you expect for that kind of money?

Caliber tested: .223 (Rem.)

Twist rate: 1:8 in.

Unloaded weight: 6 lbs., 13 oz.

Barrel length: 22 in.

Overall length: 42 in.

Length of pull: 13.75 in.

Trigger pull (avg.): 4 lbs., 5 oz.

Muzzle velocity (avg.): 3,057 fps

MSRP: $529

100-yard group (avg.): 0.78 in.

HIT: Great accuracy at a reasonable price.

MISS: Cheap overall feel.

Browning X-Bolt Eclipse Varmint Fluted

Browning X-Bolt Eclipse Varmint Fluted (Mike Anschuetz photo)

The Eclipse Varmint is more a full-size varmint rifle than a lightweight predator gun, but that doesn't mean it can't serve hunters well in this niche. This rifle's mass makes it ideal for longer range shots at predators in wide-open spaces. It features a bipod stud as well as flush-fit QD sling swivel inserts, a detachable box magazine, an oversized bolt knob, and a thumbhole stock.

This was probably the nicest rifle in our test in terms of overall fit and finish. If you're a thumbhole stock fan, you'll love this rifle, though the design does make the usually handy tang safety a bit tougher to reach. The stainless-steel barrel is threaded and comes with a detachable muzzle brake as well as a thread protector. My only dig on this rifle is the slow 1:12-inch twist rate, which limits the user to bullets at the light end of the .224-inch spectrum and appeared to handicap accuracy with our test load. Due to the effective brake and the rifle's weight, the shooter can watch the bullets hit (or miss) the target with this rifle.

Caliber tested: .223 (Rem.)

Twist rate: 1:12 in.

Unloaded weight: 9 lbs., 3 oz.

Barrel length: 26 in.

Overall length: 45.63 in.

Length of pull: 13.75 in.

Trigger pull (avg.): 3 lbs., 2 oz.

Muzzle velocity (avg.): 3,114 fps

MSRP: $1,400

100-yard group (avg.): 1.10 in.

HIT: Well-built rifle with a great trigger.

MISS: Twist rate limits bullet options, heaviest rifle tested.

CZ 527 M1 American

CZ 527 M1 American (Mike Anschuetz photo)

I've owned a CZ 527 for close to two decades. It is a handy little gun. I'm a Mauser fan, so the tiny '98-style action used by CZ on its Micro-Centerfire rifles makes me feel warm inside. The M1 variant that we tested uses a redesigned trigger guard and flush-fit magazine, eliminating my two biggest complaints about this series of rifles. These rifles use a 16mm integrated scope dovetail and come with steel one-inch rings.

The M1 American uses a black polymer stock that is well-designed albeit spartan in appearance. Accuracy wasn't as good as I've experienced with my own 527, but it still shot right at 1 MOA with the only load we tried. The neatest part of this rifle is the single-set trigger, which allows you to achieve a far lower trigger pull by simply pushing the trigger forward. The normally good 3½- pound trigger is instantly lowered to just over a pound, which is ideal when you have the time and the setup to make a precision shot.

Caliber tested: .223 (Rem.)

Twist rate: 1:9 in.

Unloaded weight: 6 lbs., 6 oz.

Barrel length: 21.9 in.

Overall length: 40.4 in.

Length of pull: 14 in.

Trigger pull (avg.): 1 lb., 4 oz./3 lbs., 5 oz.

Muzzle velocity (avg.): 3,042 fps

MSRP: $665

100-yard group (avg.): 1.06 in.

HIT: Mini-Mauser action with single-set trigger.

MISS: Average accuracy.

Savage Model 10 Predator Hunter Max

Savage Model 10 Predator Hunter Max (Mike Anschuetz photo)

Thanks to features such as the floating bolt head, Savage rifles have earned a well-deserved reputation for accuracy, and this rifle was no exception. The Hunter Max was equipped with one of the heavier-profile barrels in our test, which cost it a few points in the weight department but certainly made it easy to shoot, especially afield.

Unfortunately, we ran into an issue with the ejector, which failed to toss empties on a couple of occasions. Savage guns are known for their reliability, so we consider this a rare quirk of this particular rifle, rather than a systemic issue with the whole production run.

Caliber tested: .223 (Rem.)

Twist rate: 1:9 in.

Unloaded weight: 8 lbs., 8 oz.

Barrel length: 22 in.

Overall length: 42 in.

Length of pull: 14 in.

Trigger pull (avg.): 2 lbs., 14 oz.

Muzzle velocity (avg.): 3,099 fps

MSRP: $999

100-yard group (avg.): 0.73 in.

HIT: Typical (excellent) Savage accuracy.

MISS: Feeding/ejection problems.

Results by Score (25 total points)

battle-of-the-bolt-actions-table

Accuracy

As we do in most of these evaluations, we fired four consecutive three-shot groups from a solid benchrest at 100 yards. With the exception of the Browning, which was hot off the presses and didn't arrive until near the end of our testing period, we range tested each rifle under the same conditions, by the same shooter, on the same day, and using the same Sig Sauer WHISKEY3 4-12x40 scope. Bear in mind that only one load was shot through the rifles, and though Hornady's 55-grain V-Max load is generally very accurate, every rifle has its preferences when it comes to ammunition.

Frankly, accuracy results were very impressive for all the rifles. Every rifle's best groups were under 1 MOA, and most of them averaged in the 0.75- to 0.80-MOA range with the Hornady 55-grain V-Max factory load. The Savage nudged out the Ruger by a mere fraction of an inch to take the top spot, which given its heavier barrel isn't surprising. The five-pound Kimber shot nearly as well; I've actually shot far better groups with this particular rifle but not on our test day. The Browning's accuracy was a bit disappointing since everything else about the rifle suggested it would be a tack-driver. I blame the slow rifling twist, which is ideal for lightweight varmint bullets but borderline for many factory .223 loads.

Functionality

Tiny groups are impressive but are worthless if the gun won't go "bang" when you squeeze the trigger. Besides monitoring overall reliability during our accuracy testing, we devised a simple test to determine whether a rifle could be relied upon in a stressful shooting situation (e.g., multiple coyotes coming to a call). We fired three rounds in quick succession and noted any failures or hiccups. The only rifle that gave us any trouble was the Savage, which failed to eject during one test, and when we gave it a second chance, it repeated the issue.

Trigger

We shot these rifles plenty and dry-fired them more than a little, but we also measured each trigger using a Lyman Digital Trigger Pull Gauge. The gauge measured the raw pull weight, and we measured five trigger breaks from each rifle to test for consistency. Beyond sheer weight of pull, we also considered the other factors that can influence whether a rifle had a "good" trigger pull: creep, crispness, reset. Though many of these rifles feature adjustable triggers, we made no effort to alter their factory settings. The Browning had our favorite trigger in the test, even though it was a couple ounces heavier than the Savage; we gave full points to both.

Gone (mostly) are the days of factory rifles showing up with abysmal triggers, which certainly makes my job easier when it comes to achieving good accuracy results. Subjectively, the Browning had the nicest overall trigger in terms of weight and feel, earning it a full five points. The Savage's AccuTrigger had the lightest pull, not counting the set trigger on the CZ, with an average break of just under three pounds, which earned it the full five points as well. The CZ's non-set trigger was light, if a touch gritty, but it definitely earns cool points for its single-set feature. The Kimber's trigger felt lighter than it measured and probably had the best overall feel, so it would likely earn five points had we adjusted it downward.

The Optic

Sig Sauer WHISKEY3 4-12x40mm scopes (Photo courtesy of Petersen's Hunting Magazine)

To eliminate a significant variable in our test, we used the same optic on each rifle. The scope that we chose was the Sig Sauer WHISKEY3 4-12x40mm.

The power range on this model is ideal for the varied circumstances of predator hunting where shots can present themselves from a few feet to hundreds of yards. The clear optics and illuminated Hellfire Duplex reticle make this scope useful in low light, and though we did not fully evaluate the scope's erector system, the .25 MOA adjustments functioned properly as we mounted and re-zeroed the scope on five different rifles.

This scope weighs exactly a pound, and the 40mm objective allows for the use of low rings on most rifles. $313; sigsauer.com

Ergonomics

This is the most subjective category in our evaluation. We considered weight and length as well as fit and finish. Some rifles excelled in some areas but lost points in others. The Browning was big and heavy but also very well built, while the Ruger was light and handy but looked and handled like the budget rifle that it is. Due to these factors, best to worst was separated by a single point. If weight or size is your primary concern, you may wish to take those qualities into greater consideration when considering one of these rifles.

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