Ever since I met Melvin Forbes more than a dozen years ago, one of his many sayings has stuck with me. “They’re all examples of one,” is how he refers to mass-produced firearms, and by that he means each is unique and that no two perform alike. It’s one of those crutches both gun writers and manufacturers lean on when either they or a gun doesn’t shoot well, and it’s a crutch Forbes refuses to accept. To him, there’s simply no reason why gun serial number 1234 shouldn’t perform exactly as gun number 1235.
Some might see that as a rather bombastic statement, seeing as how it comes from a man with the luxury of a custom gun shop called New Ultra Light Arms (NULA) that produces around five guns per week. But Mel Forbes is a man who lives in a world of precise measurements and tight tolerances, and he recently teamed up with Titan Machine Products in Westbrook, Maine, to form Forbes Rifle LLC and manufacture production guns that live up to the same level of quality for which NULA custom guns are known.
“I’m not going to be around forever,” Forbes confided in me a few years ago at SHOT Show when first sharing the news about the partnership. “My kids are doing their own things as adults and I want my customers to have support in the future and for the name and product to live on.”
Forbes The Man
To understand what a Melvin Forbes rifle is — custom or production — you have to understand a little about the man behind the design. It’s not uncommon when you first meet Melvin Forbes for him to have his arm fully extended — but it’s not for the customary handshake. It's because he’ll have a rifle in that hand to illustrate its feathery heft and how it balances just in front of the action. The smile and friendly handshake come next.
That his standard centerfire rifles weigh only around 5½ pounds is just a fortunate artifact from how he thinks when it comes to making a gun. For example, while some manufacturers tout full-diameter bolt bodies, Forbes asked himself, “Well, how big does a bolt really need to be?” and makes his bolts that diameter. He quotes things such as locking lug surface area and the shear strength of specific alloys from memory and speaks in terms of ten thousandths of an inch. He’ll tell you exactly how many ounces, more or less, one of his rifles weighs based on the bore diameter, but nowhere will you find skeletonizing, lightening cuts or any other compromise to structural integrity for the sake of saving weight.
There’s no less of a minimum/maximum viewpoint for stocks, either. Forbes LLC and NULA rifle stocks are made in the same molds using hand-laid Kevlar reinforced with carbon fiber, creating the lightest, stiffest stocks in the industry. From a design standpoint, they’re as classic American straight-stock as you can get, but with imperceptible subtleties such as a hair’s more width at the butt, a little toe-out and a touch of pitch to take the sting out of what should be punishing recoil. In stark contrast to conventional accuracy wisdom, barrels are bedded their full length to damp barrel whip and vibration. There’s a single front aluminum pillar, and Mel Forbes will tell you to tighten the front action screw until it stops -— no need to torque it to any specification. Accuracy comes from indexing off of and building everything about these rifles around their true bore center.
Custom vs. Production
Forbes LLC’s production guns are no less a testament to Melvin Forbes’ design genius and rigid tolerance specifications. To cautiously test reception of them, the first ones were available in any color so long as it was black, and any chambering so long as it was .30-06 or .270 Win. Since then, several stock finishes and chamberings have been added as well as short-action, left-hand and stainless steel versions. The sample I received is the Model 24B, so designated because the standard-length action weighs 24 ounces and the “Model 24” mark is still used by NULA as Mel Forbes continues to separately produce custom guns. The barrel is stainless steel, chambering is .30-06 and, topped with a Leupold 3-9X Compact scope, the entire rig weighs all of 5 pounds, 14 ounces.
There are few concessions made for the sake of mass-production because, like Mel Forbes says, “That’s my name on that rifle.” All parts between Forbes, NULA and even Ultra Light Arms (ULA) and Colt Light Rifles are interchangeable. Forbes LLC forms actions using EDM, which removes metal on a molecule-by-molecule level. Like Forbes LLC President Rick Campbell says, it’s a “slower process,” but the return is that the actions are “exactly the same as each other,” providing Melvin Forbes’ level of precision in a manufacturing environment.
Other differences include Forbes LLC using E.R. Shaw barrels while NULA uses Douglas; Forbes LLC bolts have cosmetic fluting while NULA has jeweling. There is a slightly different Timney trigger/safety on the Forbes LLC gun. It’s a user-adjustable, single-stage unit that on the sample gun came from the factory set at a delightfully snappy 3¼ pounds pull. You can cycle the action with the safety in the “safe” position, allowing you to unload the blind, internal three-round magazine. NULA guns use a three-function safety that also locks the bolt closed.
And while there are now several production gun options available, custom gun options are all but unlimited. Even Mel Forbes laughingly tells me that the only difference between the two is that his custom guns are “touched by the master.” There is, of course, a significant price and availability difference. Many Forbes LLC models are immediately available and start at $1,499, while NULA custom ones are backordered and start at $3,500.
Scope mounting is made easy with supplied 1-inch or 30mm aluminum Forbes/Talley rings, and the bottom halves of the rings serve as the bases. It’s a clever design that not only reduces a little weight, but more significantly eliminates a connecting point between scope and action that could come loose or fail. There is also the option of requesting either a flat or 20 MOA Picatinny rail for that popular scope mounting method.
On The Range
Logically, one would think that a .30-06 weighing less than a handful of boxed ammo would positively kick the snot out of you, but that is not the case with the Model 24B. Even my 12-year-old managed a full box of Remington 125-grain loads without a single complaint. Forbes likes to say his rifles have less mass and inertia, so the recoil impulse comes and goes so quickly you don’t have time to feel it. Plausible, but more likely it is how his stock delivers recoil straight back to your upper skeletal structure without the muzzle rise that jacks your jaw.
These rifles deliver on accuracy, too. Look up any review of a Forbes LLC rifle and you’ll see they consistently kiss both cheeks of the half-MOA mark. This rifle was no exception, with 150-grain Winchester Ballistic Silvertip loads printing clover leaf-size groups. Shooting an ultralight rifle is a lot like shooting a dangerous game gun in that you should hold it tightly, but for different reasons. If you don’t respect a dangerous game rifle, it’s going to hurt you. Hold a lightweight rifle loosely and recoil may move it so much during the bullet’s dwell time that it opens up groups.
Mechanically, nothing went wrong with the Model 24B. With its push-feed bolt, Sako-style extractor and plunger ejector, there’s little that can go wrong anyhow.
An accurate, ultra-lightweight rifle should be on the bucket list of every serious whitetail hunter, not because one day you might be traipsing around the mountains of Old Mexico for Coues deer, but because we all get older, many of us get fatter, and eventually the stamina needed to carry a bunch of stuff with us fades. With age comes the wisdom to carry less stuff, and to switch to a lighter rifle.
Melvin Forbes is the originator of arguably the finest no-compromise, ultra-lightweight hunting rifle ever built. Even his competitors will acknowledge Forbes set the bar high. With the formation of Forbes Rifle LLC, this custom gunmaker raises the bar again, adding increased availability and lower price to perhaps the most coveted hunting rifle models ever.
More information is available at www.forbesriflellc.com.
Manufacturer: Forbes Rifle LLC
Calibers: .30-06, .270 Win., .25-06 Rem., .35 Whelen, 6.5×55 Swedish, .280 Rem.
Magazine capacity: Three
Barrel: 24 inches
Trigger: Timney, single-stage, user-adjustable
Sights: None. Drilled and tapped for supplied Forbes/Talley aluminum rings or flat or 20 MOA Picatinny rail
Stock: Hand-laid Kevlar/carbon fiber composite
Overall Length: 44½ inches
Weight: 5½ pounds
Other: Stock fitted with sling swivel studs. Stainless steel, left-hand and stock color options available
MSRP: From $1,499 ($1,567 as tested)
For More Information: www.forbesriflellc.com; (207) 899-3254