The Savage Axis II XP is an “entry-level” centerfire rifle with upgrades and features that only a generation ago would have required the services of a talented gunsmith costing hundreds of additional dollars. Specifically, those upgrades and features include a fully adjustable trigger, name-brand scope that is professionally mounted and boresighted, free-floated barrel and pillar-bedded action. Those are hardly things bargain guns have been known for, but there they are, on an American-made rifle costing around $500 from a company known not only for the price of their guns, but also their accuracy.

One of the new variants for 2014 is the Axis II XP Youth dipped in Moon Shine’s Muddy Girl camo. To say this camo with attitude compels consumers is an understatement. Savage’s Director of Marketing, Bill Dermody, credits the look with getting their guns “noticed in the sea of product at the point of sale,” and says that Muddy Girl is so “different from everything else out there that it is just impossible to ignore.”

But catchy looks aside, the functional aspects of the Axis II are also impossible to ignore. “One of the biggest customer requests we’ve gotten on the Axis is for an AccuTrigger,” says J.J. Reich, Public Relations Specialist for Savage’s parent company, Vista Outdoor. “It’s one of the upgrades for this year,” he explained, and it’s one of the features that separate the Axis II from the basic Axis.

The AccuTrigger was the first rifle trigger I recall that is something of a “trigger within a trigger” — a style that has since become a very popular feature on modern rifles. Its inner blade has a forward extending arm that blocks the sear from releasing the firing pin unless the blade is fully depressed. It’s a “passive” safety, in that you don’t have to actually put it “on” or “off” safe — just pull the trigger to shoot — and its inherent safety is one reason Savage makes the AccuTrigger user-adjustable. Pull range is 2 1/2 to 6 pounds, and with a simple twist of the supplied adjustment tool, I had the sample Youth Muddy Girl down to a smart 2.7 pounds pull.

The other significant upgrade to the Axis II XP over the basic Axis package is the Weaver 3-9x40mm Kaspa scope. Seeing as this is a value-priced package gun, don’t expect the Kaspa to be comparable to a Weaver Super Slam, but according to Reich it does have “higher-quality coatings” than found on the Bushnell scope packaged with the standard Axis rifle, plus it has Weaver’s limited lifetime guarantee if there is a problem. Mechanically, it offers one-piece tube construction, is nitrogen-purged, and has 1/4 MOA click adjustments and a Ballistic X reticle with hash marks for downrange hold-overs. In the Axis II XP package, the scope is factory installed and bore-sighted, meaning that your first shot on the range should be on paper, but you will have to do the final sight-in. Likewise, you will need to fire shots using the hold-overs to figure out their downrange values for your specific load.

Under those upgrades is the basic Axis platform that, since its introduction in 2011, has proven itself as a quality, affordable rifle. It’s not exactly a variant of Savage’s Model 110 like the discontinued Stevens Model 200 was, but instead is more of a modernized version of the 110 with manufacturing tweaks that make it possible to offer the Axis at a low price. “The manufacturing of the [ejection] port is way easier,” Reich explains when describing steps Savage took to keep the cost down. “The Axis is also available in fewer calibers, and that adds quite a bit to the efficiency of the process,” he says. Eight available chamberings ranging from .223 Rem. to .30-’06 Sprg. should cover everything from varmints to moose and anything in between an entry-level hunter might pursue. The Youth Muddy Girl is available in only .243 Win.

Other manufacturing efficiencies include a complete departure from the traditional recoil lug arrangement. Many manufacturers machine the recoil lug as part of the action or as a separate piece sandwiched between the barrel shoulder and the action face. Instead, the Axis has a rectangular cut-out in the action face, and the recoil lug is a steel piece fitted into the synthetic stock that locks up into that cutout. That, combined with solid, dual pillar bedding and a fully free-floated barrel all but eliminates any possible stock-induced inaccuracy.

Another interesting departure is that the trigger guard is a removable part of the stock. That goes immediately into my “like” category because it lets you get to the AccuTrigger adjustment without having to take the entire barreled action out of the stock. Another thing in the “like” category is the detachable four-round magazine. I like it because instead of the staggered left-right feeding of traditional Savage magazines, it feeds in line with the chamber. Whenever I’ve had a feeding problem with a Savage, it has consistently been from one or the other side of the magazine. With the in-line feeding, Savage eliminated that potential problem.

What better way to test the Youth Muddy Girl than with a girl who loves to shoot? Fortunately, I have several, but my 11-year-old daughter was the one keenest on shooting this time. The 12 1/2-inch length of pull suited her 4’ 7” frame perfectly, and I was sure she could handle .243 Win. loads, especially given the Axis II Youth’s generous fluted recoil pad. To hedge my bet on the recoil, in addition to two Federal factory loads, I brought along some reduced handloads that fire Speer 100-grain soft points at about 2,200 fps and, as a back-up shooter, my 13-year-old son, who handles recoil from a .30-06 with only minor complaint.

Since the Axis II XP was only factory boresighted, we posted our first targets at 25 yards and began with the reduced loads. Her first shots were essentially all touching and only a half inch low, so we upped the challenge by moving the target out to 100 yards and switched over to full-power loads. Even with the added distance and recoil, she managed to consistently keep groups down to the one-inch mark.

Once shown how, she didn’t appear to have any problem loading or taking the magazine in and out. Her working of the bolt was slow and cautious, but nearly effortless. The length of pull positioned her eye with proper relief for a full field of view without having to stretch uncomfortably or risk getting “scope eye” under recoil, but the openness of the pistol grip had her stretching a little for the trigger.

“It was really fun shooting it,” she said over a burger after the range. “The butt of the gun isn’t as hard as other guns that make my shoulder hurt. The scope helped me shoot really well because I like the magnification. It looks really nice and the pink makes it really stand out. I love it. It’s so easy to shoot. I want it for my birthday,” she added.

As a parent who is also an experienced shooter, I appreciate that this is a very safe gun beyond the obvious AccuTrigger. The sliding tang safety is easily in reach for a young or smaller shooter, and its large size is easy to operate. Its red position indicator combined with the detachable magazine and cocking indicator at the bolt’s rear provides comfort knowing I can tell the condition of the rifle at a glance. Ruptured cartridges are rare, but Savage’s bolt head baffle blocks gases from riding the action rails back into the shooter’s face, and any gas that does get out that way is deflected by the large baffle formed by the top of the bolt handle.

But not all of us were happy with the Muddy Girl. On the bench next to her, my son, shooting his own .243 from another maker, was being outshot by his little sister. “Do they make a Muddy Boy?” he asked. During our discussion, Reich had pointed out that there is also a youth model in Mossy Oak camo, but I didn’t want my kids to hit me up for two rifles. “No son,” I replied. “But if your sister lets you use it on your Coues deer hunt this fall, we have camouflage duct tape.”