Great Guns on a Budget

Don’t apologize! Bargain hunts for rifles, sights and ammo can improve your predator hunts.

Great Guns on a Budget

The push-feed CZ 557 replaces (and cost less than) the 550 for popular predator rounds such as the .243 Win.

A child of the Great Depression, my father thought wool an indulgence. Scraping ice from pavement and pitching newspapers from my bicycle during Michigan blizzards, I made do with cotton “jersey” gloves that sucked water from snow and heat from my hands with amazing speed. Instead of winter boots, I wore plastic bags as overshoes. Thrift proved contagious. I powered through undergraduate work in three years to spare tuition, accepting average grades and rising at 3 a.m. to earn board milking cows at the university barns. I knew “party” only as political affiliation.

Weep not. Travel since has shown me how blessed I am, that poverty comes in many forms, that hardship can be useful. Travel has not erased from the habit of my father’s frugality. I’m a bargain hound.

The shooting industry is rife with fine products overlooked by hunters chained by brand loyalty or led by advertising hyperbole to more expensive options. Not to disparage carriage-class rifles, but … .

For between $490 and $890, you can get all the accuracy, reliability and handling characteristics that make a rifle deadly in the field. You won’t get sights, fine walnut or (with two exceptions) a Mauser extractor or hinged steel floorplate — none of which will boost your coyote tally this winter.

At the bottom end of the price scale, Ruger offers outstanding value in its American Rifle. I’ll take the 6-pound standard version in .243 Win. with a flush magazine for $489. The 6.5-pound Predator offers an A1 magazine and a longer chambering list for $60 more. Having fired several Americans, 6.5 Creedmoor to .300 Win. Mag., I’ve yet to find one that didn’t shoot tiny groups right away.

Mossberg’s Patriot is another sub-$500 rifle, its Predator listing at $455. A Cerakote version costs $540. Both come with a Picatinny rail and Mossberg’s LBA trigger. You can get both in .22-250 Rem., .243 Win., 6.5 Creedmoor and now 6.5 PRC. The Patriot is a very well-designed rifle. Top of that series is the Revere, stocked in nice walnut and worth its $823 price tag. Mossberg offers standard versions packaged with Vortex scopes.

Winchester prices its XPR Hunter(walnut or polymer) at $600. In .243 Win. and 6.5 Creedmoor, it should shoot as well as mine in .325 WSM. If you miss a tomato at 300 yards, you jerked the trigger. The single-stack polymer box feeds smoothly. Having teethed on early Model 70 triggers, I was skeptical of claims about the XPR’s M.O.A. trigger. Verily, it gave me the best “factory pull” I’ve felt in years!

Browning’s bread-and-butter rifle, the X-Bolt, has shot very well for me; but it’s costly. The AB3 is your “value” option: $600 in a polymer stock, $700 in walnut. The list of 10 chamberings includes .243 Win. and 6.5 Creedmoor. The AB3’s action resembles the X-Bolt’s and boasts many of its features, including a 60-degree lift of the three-lug bolt, a bolt-lock over-ride for safe unloading and a steel and polymer detachable box.

Savage’s 11/111 Trophy Hunter XP comes in 17 chamberings, including .204 Ruger, .22-250 Rem. and 6.5/284 Norma. AccuTrigger, of course. The black synthetic stock has good lines, and the detachable box doesn’t interrupt them. Compact and left-hand versions cost the same. To get the AccuFit adjustable stock (and a Vortex 4-12x44mm scope), ask for an Apex Predator XP, at $749.

CZ has two rifle series for predator hunters. The 527’s petite action suits it to the .223 Win., .17 and .22 Hornet, .204 Ruger, 6.5 Grendel and 7.62x39mm. Standard and varmint versions in walnut, with single-stack DBM, sell for about $750. The 557, long and short action, with a synthetic stock, handles the .243 Win., 6.5 Creedmoor and 6.5x55mm for $792. Add $79 for a 557 in walnut. The magazine, praise be, is traditional, with a hinged floorplate.             Europe also gave us Mauser, whose 98 awaits your inheritance. In 2018, the Mauser 18 appeared, at a surprising $699. In .243 Win. and 6.5 Creedmoor, this three-lug, synthetic-stocked rifle is fed by a five-shot box. An adjustable set trigger, a three-detent safety and a (proper) straight Mauser bolt shank afford control, as do soft grip panels in the stock. A handsome rifle, it has black-plasma nitriding on barrel and receiver.

Tikka's superb T3, now the T3x, has a hammer-forged Sako barrel and a quiet, straight-feed polymer box.
Tikka's superb T3, now the T3x, has a hammer-forged Sako barrel and a quiet, straight-feed polymer box.

At its debut, Tikka’s T3 was a great bargain. Still is, albeit the price has climbed, and tweaks have yielded the T3x. You can get the synthetic-stocked Superlite Stainless in chamberings from .223 Rem. for about $750. Among the most cleverly designed bolt rifles, it boasts a twin-lug bolt with a low 70-degree lift, a modular stock, an easily adjusted trigger (to 2 pounds) and a cold-hammered barrel from Sako’s shop.

Remington responded to battle cries in the Hills of Low Price with its Model 783. But I’m sweet on the 700 SPS, the current Plain Jane rendition of Remington’s flagship rifle. Internal or detachable box magazine. It’s priced from $724 to $838. The up-scale 700 VTR, in .204 Ruger, .223 Win., .22-250 Rem. and .243 Win. starts at $825. For your “truck gun,” consider the Model Seven in .243 Win. or .260 Rem., from $731.

Kimber’s Hunter bumps our $890 price cap by a dollar. It boasts the lovely 84M barreled action, with controlled-feed extractor and a Kimber trigger. The magazine is Kimber’s first detachable box. It fits neatly in a polymer stock of clean traditional lines. At just 5.6 pounds, this is as nimble a predator rifle as you’ll find. It comes in .257 Roberts as well as .243 Win., 6.5 Creedmoor and other short- and long-action chamberings. 

Bergara is an impressive firm. Now in only its second decade, it has prospered in a competitive market with fine value-priced bolt rifles. It’s one of five brands owned by BPI (Black Powder Industries). I visited the Atlanta-based company this past fall and talked with Dudley McGarity, who charted its path from a start at CVA (Connecticut Valley Arms). “BPI Outdoors bought CVA in 1999,” he told me. “When the muzzleloading market flagged around 2003, my staff and I visited Dikar, a Spanish firm that would later own BPI. We convinced Dikar to expand its Bergara factory to produce barrels for CVA muzzleloaders.”

BPI sales kept climbing, and with its barrel demand, McGarity hired Ed Shilen “to inspect Bergara processes and tooling and deliver Shilen-level accuracy to our customers. We held barrel straightness to .004 inch, groove diameter in the button rifling under .0002 inch. Diamond-tip honing spindles removed tooling marks. Bores left the line with a mirror finish. The barrels were then stress-relieved.”

To diversify, McGarity fattened the BPI line with semi-custom Premier rifles on Stiller actions under the Bergara brand. He hired Dan Hanus, who, as Production Chief for the U.S. Marines Precision Weapons Section, had blue-printed Remington 700s. Premier sales encouraged the BPI team to follow with mass-market B-14 rifles. The action was modeled after the Premier’s, but of chrome-moly, not stainless steel. At its debut, a walnut-stocked B-14 rifle retailed for under $750.

“B-14 rifles are built in Spain,” said Nate Treadaway, who now heads BPI. “They must meet our exacting standards.” Hunting versions in .22-250 Rem., .243 Win. and 6.5 Creemoor are priced from the mid-$800s. Mine in 6.5 Creedmoor and .270 Win. look, feel and shoot above their pay grade. Well-designed stocks (walnut costs a bit more) and fine triggers complement peerless Bergara barrels.

In 2019, Bergara’s sister company, CVA, announced its first centerfire rifle, the Cascade, priced at just $567. Its blued tubular receiver houses a piston-smooth three-lug bolt with low, 70-degree lift. “We made the port big enough for top-loading with the magazine in the rifle,” Treadaway told me. “The safety is easy to reach, with crisp detents. The action cycles ‘on safe.’ The trigger adjusts easily. Bergara makes the barrel.” The Cascade’s black polymer stock has a clean, gunny look. Its straight comb aligns my eye with a low-mounted scope. Raised grip panels and a slim, tapered forend make the rifle agile in hand but easy to control. Twin forend studs permit the use of sling and bipod. A Cascade in 6.5 Creedmoor weighs 6.9 pounds.

Trim rifles can be accurate. The author's 5.5-pound Savage Lightweight Hunter shoots into an inch.
Trim rifles can be accurate. The author's 5.5-pound Savage Lightweight Hunter shoots into an inch.

Fretting over hardware is every hunter’s prerogative. But frankly, bullets don’t miss because a rifle sends them where the barrel points. They miss when the barrel isn’t pointing at the target. Any rifle that points where you look and steadies there as you crush the trigger will help you hit.

Over the past century, rifle stocks have evolved to serve shooters at the bench. Many have steep grips and flat-bottomed forends. Combs are tall and generous to place your eye on the axis of powerful scopes in high rings. Thick where they could be slender, the stock is slow in hand, their bulk and weight bleeding the rifle’s balance point, forcing your palms open when they could curl snugly about wrist and forend for easy, positive control.

That’s a shame. The rifles of men who explored the frontier West and of those who hunted during the post-war boom were designed for shooting from field positions — mainly sitting, kneeling and offhand.

 Trim, long-waisted rifles that jump to your shoulder and swing by themselves have all but gone the way of the nickel chocolate bar.

You needn’t sacrifice accuracy over a bench or a bipod with a trim rifle stock, any more than you must with a slim barrel. Perhaps over extended sessions, the stability of Bre’r Mass will give you an edge. Still, sub-minute accuracy (should you crave such precision) is available in lithe, agile rifles — rifles you’ll appreciate if you carry one farther than from your truck to a roadside fence post.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a flat forend or a steep, beefy grip. Still, neither conforms readily to the contours of a cupped hand.  You don’t see boxy forestocks on British shotguns, or square butts on flyrods. Steering wheels are round or oval in cross-section — so too grips on revolvers and longbows, handles on power saws and other tools that beg sustained control.

Another feature accepted at the bench but anathema afield is the towering forend, whose depth puts barrel and receiver — most of a rifle’s forward mass — over your palm instead of in it. Again, consider the British grouse gun. Fast, easy control comes mainly from a low center of gravity up front. Tall forends make a rifle tippy. “Hand-filling” stocks are likewise bad business. They compel a tighter hold than you’ll want for catch-as-catch-can shooting. They lock hand and rifle into an awkward marriage. A rifle should be allowed to “sift and settle” and perhaps swivel, in hand. If full hand contact were desirable, you’d see thicker wrists on baseball bats, golf clubs and axe handles. 

Verily, a stock that feels good and puts the sight naturally on target might be the most useful item on your list of must-haves in a new predator rifle!

The action is next. Cycling an early Mannlicher-Schoenauer, I need someone near to catch me in a swoon. The butter-slick washboard run of Depression-era Mausers gives me goose-bumps. Winchester managed to bottle an original feel every bit as appealing in its pre-war Model 70. But ecstasy has become costly, and I’ve come to accept the feel of modern actions built to a price.

The most affordable barrels are button-rifled, though hammer forging has become more common as the per-unit cost has diminished. Both processes can produce one-hole accuracy, as can cut-rifled barrels. Chrome-moly steel is as good as stainless. All else equal, short barrels shoot as tightly as long. But they drain bullet speed. Also, a short, light barrel insists on bobbing about as you aim, and leaping off-target in recoil. Threaded muzzles are the rage now, a requisite for brakes and suppressors.

Optical sights are another topic for another time. But as with rifles, if your focus is performance, not brand or gingerbread, there’s money to save. Lots of it!

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