About 10 or so years ago I was walking down an aisle at one of the major industry trade shows when a man at one of the booths yelled out “Catch!” and tossed a rather large bull-barreled rifle to me. Despite having been that kid who for good reason was always chosen last to play on a ball team, I caught the rifle and just about lifted myself off the floor as the gun’s large size belied its feathery heft. That was my introduction to rifles with carbon fiber-wrapped barrels.
Throwing guns at trade shows isn’t nearly as entertaining as throwing fish at Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market, but it makes a lasting impression regarding how light the guns are that use carbon fiber technology. Christensen Arms is one of the industry’s leaders in that technology and applies to its guns developments pioneered by its sister company, ACT Aerospace, where for more than 30 years the aerospace industry has turned for lightweight composites for really important things like aircraft parts. Christensen says composite technology is in its DNA, and, in the case of its Classic Carbon rifle I recently received for evaluation, is used for its carbon-wrapped barrel, magazine and stock.
An “Entry-Level” Gun
This rifle model was released at the 2014 SHOT Show and is positioned as an “entry-level” rifle. Understand that at $2,795 it’s not entry-level into shooting like with bargain-priced bolt guns from big-box stores, but entry-level into high-end precision guns. The Classic Carbon is also one of the first “all-Christensen” guns in that it uses a Christensen-made action, barrel and stock. Previously, Christensen made its rifles using Remington actions and Shilen barrels, but that changed in 2013. “Christensen Arms purchased the tooling and machinery to bring production in-house,” says Cade Penney of Christensen Arms. “We have had several prototype actions over the years but have never released our own action. Having the capability to control processes in-house prompted the release of our new action.”
The Christensen Action
That action is a well-done, basic tubular design made from stainless steel. Scope mounting is easy thanks to a split Picatinny rail machined in its top, and the trigger is a Timney. Feeding is from a detachable, single-column carbon fiber magazine. The first Classic Carbons shipped with metal magazines, but as Penney points out, “This added weight to the firearm. Our team developed a carbon mag midyear and have been shipping rifles with the carbon magazine.”
Christensen kept things simple with the bolt, too. It has two locking lugs, an M-16-style extractor, plunger ejector and spiral fluting — nothing adventurous or silly, just what’s known to work and be reliable.
That same year Christensen ended the popular Internet argument over whether it uses Shilen match or select match barrels. “We used to outsource the barrels to manufacturers like Shilen,” Penney continued. “We purchased our own state-of-the-art barrel machine and [are] making our own.”
Each Christensen barrel starts as a select, match-grade blank that’s button rifled and then turned down to various proprietary profiles depending on the chambering. After they’re turned down, Christensen lays them up with carbon fiber to full diameter. “The barrel has enough steel that it could be fired safely without the carbon,” explains Penney. “It is very similar to some of the ‘ultra-light’ rifles with pencil-thin barrels on the market.” That being the case, the main point to the carbon-wrapped barrel is stability — both structural and thermal — that you can’t get from a pencil-thin barrel.
If you spend much time behind the trigger of rifles with pencil-thin barrels, you’ll find that they’re wonderfully lightweight and can be very accurate until things heat up. That’s when groups might get a little loose, string or even go completely to hell. A carbon fiber barrel is stiffer than a steel barrel of equal weight, so with it you get the sustained accuracy of a heavier barrel, plus carbon fiber sheds heat amazingly well.
Armchair engineers make great sport out of arguing if the carbon wrap acts as an insulator that keeps the metal barrel core hot, or as a conductor that draws heat off. Usually they don’t consider that there’s more to wrapping a barrel than just winding material around it. “[Christensen] experimented with different ways of ‘laying up’ the barrels,” explains Penney. “They perfected the lay up process by testing the performance and controlling the harmonics of the barrels. [With] the patented process we use to lay up the barrels, the carbon fiber acts as a conductor and allows a channel to help dissipate the heat away from the steel.” Christensen claims the dissipation rate is 300 percent faster than steel.
Barrels are threaded conventionally into the actions with a recoil lug sandwiched between the two and are topped with full-diameter muzzle brakes. While a brake probably isn’t necessary on a rifle chambered for predator-type cartridges, it’s almost a necessity on a gun this light when chambered for larger calibers. “Most customers are surprised at the felt recoil, or lack of recoil. They can’t believe it doesn’t kick harder for such a light rifle,” explains Penney. Muzzle brakes are also loud, so if you opt to not use the brake, the Classic Carbon is available with a full-diameter thread protector you can put on instead.
Also lightweight is Christensen’s Tier 2 fiberglass stock. It’s classic straight American-style and comes with sling swivel studs and a Limbsaver recoil pad. I was surprised to find there wasn’t pillar bedding or an aluminum chassis, because those are popular features for rifles in this class. But when asked if not having those was a cost-saving feature, Penney replied that the gun simply didn’t need them. “We have a very precise mold for the stock that fits our action perfectly We use a compound in the action area of the stock that allows us to make the stock stiffer. We spot-bed the recoil lug and that adds to the strength,” he says.
In The Field/On The Range
One thing I noticed when researching Christensen is that shooters who own one usually own more than one. Typical were comments like the one I found from a user who goes by the screen name “heavyhorned,” who writes, “I own two Christensen Arms rifles and wouldn’t use any other rifle.” Similarly, an old friend in my home state of Virginia has three and loves them. “Once a customer becomes familiar with our product and shoots it with success, they want to repeat it,” says Penney. “They want a magnum rifle for big game and a small bore for varmints.”
Topped with a Trijicon 3-9×40 Accupoint scope, the Classic Carbon is nothing less than delightful to carry. It’s lightweight and balances just in front of the magazine, making it nimble and responsive when scurrying into calling positions, even through thick brush. While light, there’s just enough weight toward the muzzle to help steady things when getting ready to shoot.
The load I used was Federal’s .243 Win. Power-Shok with 100-grain soft-points. While that’s hardly a load that kicks, the muzzle brake and Limbsaver pad made recoil all but nonexistent. From the bench, the Classic Carbon easily lived up to its 1-MOA accuracy guarantee even though I didn’t follow the recommended barrel break-in procedure. The barrel did get considerably warm during shooting, but it never got too hot to grasp, which says a lot when your range is in the desert where the sun is so intense that a barrel can get too hot to touch just by being there.
Accuracy stayed consistent over extended shooting strings with no tendency to “walk” or for groups to open up. I did find about a 2-inch shift in point of impact between using the brake and thread protector, but that’s to be expected. Just know it’s normal and that you have to sight in with the gun configured the way you intend to use it.
Functionally, the only issue I had was that the detachable magazine wanted to stick at first, but eventually broke in some. Though Christensen specs the trigger pull at 2.5 pounds, the one on the test gun weighed in at just a hair over 3 pounds. That said, it’s crisp, and its wide, smooth surface makes the pull feel much lighter. I had no complaints.
Penney says potential Christensen customers are most interested in the gun’s weight and accuracy. The gun delivers on both those promises. “The company has always tried to make the ‘ultimate hunting rifle,’ ” says Penney. “In my experience, if a customer is shopping Christensen Arms he’s looking for a product that is different and has real advantages over everything else available.”