Review: Browning X-Bolt Hell’s Canyon Speed

Browning takes the hunter athlete concept from its Speed line of clothing and applies it to the X-Bolt Hell’s Canyon Speed (HCS).
Review: Browning X-Bolt Hell’s Canyon Speed

Browning’s X-Bolt Hell’s Canyon Speed (HCS) may represent the apex in out-of-the-box, mass-produced, bolt-action hunting rifle performance.

That sounds like a tall statement, but consider these comments posted by actual owners: “Bootsontheground” from Boise, Idaho, says, “This is the most impressive out of the box production rifle I have ever used,” and “Murther” from Louisiana calls it “freakishly accurate” and “well worth the price.” That sentiment is echoed by “John” from Virginia, who says his delivers “accuracy beyond belief for out of the box.”

That out-of-the-box top performance is exactly what Browning was going for with this rifle. “You’re going to buy a complete rifle that isn’t going to need any work and the accuracy is going to be top notch,” explains Aaron Cummins, Firearms Product Manager for Browning, when describing what hunters get for their money with the HCS. “[C]ompared to a lot of other rifles that people buy, when you buy a Browning, it’s done. You get a full-featured rifle that really doesn’t need any extra work.”

What is it about the X-Bolt HCS that makes it better? “The X-Bolt is our technology leader,” says Cummins who calls it a “tremendous offering” in terms of what you get as a hunting rifle. It’s packed full of features such as a user-adjustable trigger and othe accuracy-enhancing qualities, including glass bedding, hand chambering and free-floating barrel. Shooter comfort is also considered by way of an Inflex recoil pad and removable muzzle brake to manage recoil. It also has a Dura-Touch finish that is tough — and in A-TACS Arid/Urban camouflage, attractive — but doesn’t feel cold no matter how low the mercury drops. Heck, even the straight-feed rotary magazine is high-performance.

The Hell’s Canyon Speed version of the X-Bolt is built for the hunter athlete who enjoys the “work” of hunting as much as the experience.

“It’s a three-lever trigger system, so by using the mechanical advantage of a lever, we get a safe, full sear engagement and yet an extremely crisp trigger pull,” says Cummins of the X-Bolt HCS’s Feather Trigger system. Using leverage, the Feather Trigger amplifies the movement of the trigger into the secondary sear piece so your finger doesn’t have to move as much as the sear is engaged to fire the gun. This mechanically creates as little movement as necessary for trigger pull and, as “Christian” from Jacksonville, Florida, posts, the “trigger is crispier than Popeye’s chicken.” It’s adjusted at the factory for virtually zero take-up or creep, minimal overtravel and 3 1/2 pounds pull weight.

Users can further screw-adjust the trigger pull to between 3 and 5 pounds by removing the bottom metal from the gun to access the adjustment screw. There is no need to remove the barreled action from the stock, but the adjustment screw is sealed at the factory and you’ll have to pick that off before making any adjustments.

One of the unique visible features of the X-Bolt is the Bolt Unlock Button that works in conjunction with the two-position tang safety. Pressing it allows the bolt to be unlocked and opened with the safety in the “safe” position for unloading. This configuration eliminates the common three-position tang safety that many shooters either find confusing or simply ignore entirely. Though it takes a little range time to get accustomed to pressing the button to safely unload a live round, its location is where your thumb is anyhow when cycling the action, and pressing it quickly becomes intuitive.

The X-Lock system uses four screws per base, replacing the traditional two-screw system.

This rifle has a really comfortable and lively stock. It’s a little hard to describe the Dura-Touch finish — it feels soft and rubbery, but isn’t. It provides a really good gripping surface, even when wet. Dabs of bedding compound at the front and rear of the action provide skin-tight, accuracy-enhancing interface between the stock and the action, while generous free floating of the barrel ensures that any forend flex from the lightweight composite stock isn’t transferred to the barrel.

Recoil is also really well managed on this rifle. Where some manufacturers handle kick by putting ever thicker and squishier buttpads on their guns, Browning actually engineered a solution with its Inflex recoil pad. This is more than a mass of recoil absorbing material; much like the simple “ventilated” pads of the past, the Inflex has collapsible cells. Those cells are part of an internal skeleton with wedge-shaped ribs designed using the concept of directional deflection. When a Browning with the Inflex recoil pad is fired, the pad collapses, but instead of simply smashing to the rear, the geometry of the directional ribs pull the comb down and away from your face. Weatherby achieved much the same with the exaggerated Monte Carlo shape of their stock comb; the Inflex does it with less showmanship.

Further helping to tame recoil is a muzzle brake with holes 360-degrees around. If you shoot from prone, know it’s going to kick up a lot of dust in addition to being really loud. If you can manage the recoil without the brake, Browning includes a cap you can thread on in place of the brake. Unfortunately, the barrel is too thin to take threading normally found for suppressors, requiring a custom-fitting option to use one.

The trigger is user-adjustable from 3 to 5 pounds pull, but the adjustment screw is sealed at the factory.

To see if performance from the HCS lived up to all of the hype I had read, I mounted a Trijicon 2.5-12.5x42mm AccuPoint scope on it, gathered several .308 Win. loads and headed to the range. Right out of the case, the HCS turned other shooters’ heads with both Millennials and senior citizens admiring its looks and commenting about the rifle.

Accuracy was really good, though the only thing “freakish” about it was the incredible consistency from one load to another. The five three-shot averages from Browning’s 155-grain Rapid Expansion, Norma’s 170-grain Tip Strike and Federal’s 165-grain Sierra GameKing loads varied by only a few hundredths of an inch — that’s consistency. Initially, the X-Bolt HCS wanted to two-group, meaning it was making two distinct groups about a half-inch apart with the same aiming point. After 20 rounds and some good cleaning, things settled down and the two-grouping stopped entirely, suggesting that this particular X-Bolt may have benefited from some type of barrel break-in regimen.

From the pure accuracy perspective, Cummins says it often surprises customers, especially those “willing to spend some time to try different ammo specs.” For me, each load averaged around one MOA and there were outstanding groups with all of them. Browning’s ammo turned in groups as tight as 0.91-inch, Norma’s turned in one that measured 0.75-inch and the Federal load had one group that was 0.67-inch.

Unfortunately, the thread cap isn’t regulated to the brake, so shots fired with the cap instead of the brake tended to hit a little low and right. Practice all you want with the brake, but if you intend to not use it in the field, do your final sight-in without it.

The trigger is a dream. Its wide blade is smooth on the finger and it hardly moves when firing the gun. It actually made me think of some electric triggers I’ve tried that were simply there to complete a circuit rather than overcome friction and spring pressure.

Feeding is excellent. The polymer magazine is actually a rotary design that feeds cartridges straight into the chamber rather than the left- right-bias of a conventional rifle magazine. “It is smoother than the old A-bolt,” agrees Cummins. Like the A-bolt, the X-bolt has a 60-degree bolt lift-making follow-up shots fired from off-hand and various other field positions quicker.

Though the .308 Win. is not a hard-kicking cartridge, the effects of the muzzle brake and Inflex pad are obvious. This rifle is loud, and it does not tend to rise up on firing. Normally I have to choke down really hard on a lightweight rifle of this caliber or larger to keep it from rising during recoil.

“It’s a technical rifle for a technical hunter,” says Cummins. His ideal customer for the X-Bolt HCS is the hunter who is willing to go out there and not only really hunt, but who works at hunting. If that’s you, then according to posts from an owner in Oregon who goes by “The Snake River Savage,” “If you are even thinking about buying one, stop thinking and just buy it. You’ll be happy that you did.”

Spec Sheet

Manufacturer: Browning

Model: X-Bolt Hells Canyon Speed

Calibers: .243 Win., 6.5 Creedmoor, 26 Nosler, .270 Win., .270 WSM, 7mm-08, 7mm Rem. Mag., .308 Win., 30-’06 Sprg., .300 WSM, 300 Win. Mag.

Action: Bolt-action repeating rifle

Magazine Capacity: Four

Barrel: Lightweight, fluted 22 inches

Trigger: Adjustable three-lever Feather Trigger

Sights: None. Drilled and tapped for X-Lock scope mounting system.

Stock: Lightweight composite with A-TACS AU camo, Dura-Touch finish and Inflex recoil pad.

Overall Length: 42 inches

Weight: 6 pounds, 5 ounces

Other: Burnt Bronze Cerakote metal finish

MSRP: $1,199.99

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