Autoloading deer rifles.
In the world of sporting rifles, however (exclusive of para-military), it's been a different story . . . Vastly different in fact. Despite the high level of reliability and accuracy that can be built into a semi-auto, and the fact it can and has been chambered for a wide variety of sporting round from .223 to .338 Winchester Magnum, it has earned only a modest degree of acceptance among dedicated big-game hunters. This in light of the fact that in shotguns, semi-autos earned legitimacy long ago. With rimfires it's been much the same story: though not as popular as the auto shotgun, the .22 self-loader represents an accepted alternative to a bolt or lever gun. But in the centerfire arena the semi-auto has had one tough time of it.
Why? Why aren't the self-loaders taken seriously by more dedicated big-game hunters? That's a tough question to answer, especially when there are so many dimensions to it, so many conclusions based on preconceived notions, some of which are untrue or only partially so. But let's give it a try anyway.
Today there are but three legitimate semi-auto sporting rifles chambered in big-game calibers among which a hunter can choose: the Browning BAR (Browing Automatic Rifle), Heckler & Koch's 770 (and 940), and Remington's Model Four (nee 740 and 742). Indeed, in looking through the various catalog sections of the Guns & Ammo Annual, the Shooter's Bible and Gun Digest covering the last 20 years, there's never been more than four self-loaders available at any one time. The last two to fall by the wayside were Winchester's Model 100, discontinued in 1974, and H&R's Model 360, last listed in 1978. In the past 15 years only the imported H&K has come upon the scene.
Among the aforementioned crop of currently-available autos, Remington's Model 740, introduced in 1955, has been around the longest and is the best known. Since its debut the original 740 has gone through a couple of cosmetic alterations and model changes, the first being the Model 742 in 1960. The most recent and major change was the transition from the 742 to the current Model Four in 1981 in which some substantive modifications are seen. While the earlier 740 and 742 had 19 tiny locking lugs on its rotating bolt head, (interrupted threads, actually), the Model Four has but four. Remington claims that by going to larger, fewer lugs, smoother and more positive locking results.
Other modifications on the Model Four, as well as on the less gussied-up Model 7400 and Sportsman 74 versions of the same gun, are beefed up action bars; the combining of what was previously a two-piece breech ring/barrel extension into a single piece of steel; a conical counterbore at the breech to further improve feeding reliability; and a sturdier magazine made of heavier-gauge metal redesigned to feed rounds at a shallower angle than before.
Despite the cosmetic and mechanical revamping, the current Model 4/7400/74 series could still be described as the same basic, gas-operated semi-auto we shooters have come to know these past 30 years.
Our test specimen was the lean-budget Sportsman 74, one of a series of four nofrills models Remington introduced this year, the others being a Sportsman version of the Model Six slide action, the 1100 shotgun, and the Model 700 bolt action. Each carries a spartan hardwood stock, economy sights, and a metal finish a few polishing steps shy of the number used on their respective betters. In keeping with the Sportsman series' economy theme, the 74 comes in but one flavor: .30-06. For testing we mounted a Leupold 1.5-5X in Weaver mounts. Other than the cosmetic short cuts, the Sportsman 74 shares the same specs and is the same gun as the Four/7400. Barrel length is 22 inches, the detachable magazine holds four cartridges, and the nominal weight of the gun is 7-1/2 pounds. Overall length is 42-3/8 inches.
The next oldest semi-auto big-game sporter is Browning's BAR, a rifle which shares an acronym with a rather illustrious relative, the light machine gun adopted by the U.S. Army in 1918 and retained up through the Korean War.
The BAR has been around since 1968 and has the distinction of being the only semi-auto sporting rifle chambered for belted magnum cartridges. Initially introduced in standard chamberings--.243 Winchester, .308 Winchester, .270 and .30-06--three magnums came on the scene the following year: 7mm Remington, .300 Winchester and .338 Winchester. With the sole exception of the dropping of the .338 in 1977, this six-caliber line-up has remained unchanged to the present day.
Sharing the characteristic "hump back" silhouette of several other Browning guns, the BAR utilizes a gas-operated system in conjunction with a seven-lug rotary bolt. In that regard it's similar to the Remington in its basic operation and lock-up. In its two magnum chambering the BAR sports a 24-inch pipe, is 45-1/8 inches overall, and weighs in at a substantial 8 pounds, 6 ounces; the standard caliber version wears a 22-inch barrel and averages almost a pound lighter. The four-round detachable magazine (three in magnum) snaps onto a hinged floorplate and thus can be detached for reloading or switching with a spare.
Like all Brownings, even the standard or Grade 1 BAR is a pretty spiffed-up number with a lustrous blue job, nice wood, glossy finish and cut checkering. It's roughly comparable to Remington's top-of-the-line Model Four. If the Grade 1 isn't fancy enough for you, there's the Grade III and IV featuring etched and engraved receivers, respectively. Ours was a Grade 1 in .300 Winchester Magnum on which we mounted a Zeiss 6X in Weaver mounts.
If the BAR and the 74 Sportsman are more or less conventional in their looks and operation, the third member of our self-loading trio more than makes up for them. The H&K 770 is, well . . . different. To be fair though, it must be pointed out that the design derivations for the H&K goes all the way back to WWII and the German effort to develop an assault rifle. Most of the original design was done by the Haenel firm resulting in the MKb 42. Further development brough the MP 43, MP 4, then Mauser's Gerat 06H. All shared the delayed blowback, roller-locked action and the fluted chamber.
In the early '50s the newly-formed firm of Heckler & Koch took over some of the old Mauser Werke at Oberndorf and further developed the roller-locked design until it was adopted by the German army in the form of the G3 service rifle in 1959. The way I see it, the Model 770, along with the Model 940 (.30-06) is the closest one can get to a credible big-game sporting rifle utilizing an action originally designed for a fully automatic military arm. As such, compromises are evident when sporting rifle and ergonomic standards are applied.
The safety, for example, is inaccessible if we assume that on a hunting rifle it should be reachable if not by the trigger hand, then the support hand, when the gun is held in a port-arms position or at the shoulder. On this rifle the safety lever is on the left side of the forearm just above the front edge of the elongated trigger guard bow, accessible to neither hand.
What looks like an unusually massive receiver on the H&K is actually a machined steel cowl that covers the action mechanism: a retarded inertia system utilizing a delayed roller-locked bolt. Oversimplifying a good bit, bolt thrust is transferred to two hardened steel rollers at either side of the bolt. These rollers, working in conjunction with a tapered wedge and recesses inside the barrel extension, keep the action securely locked for the few milliseconds required for breech pressure to subside before allowing the bolt to cycle.
The receiver cowl is machined to accept H&K's own QD scope mount, a rather heavy item (about 8 ounces, 20 total including a 4X Schmidt and Bender scope), but one which is rugged and permits truly instant mounting-dismounting of the optics. The three-round detachable magazine fits nicely flush with the belly of the rifle and is released via a latch in the forward edge of the guard bow.
Adding yet another dimension to the uniqueness of this H&K rifle is its polygonal bore instead of conventional land/groove rifling. If looked at in cross section, a polygonal bore could best be described as a way-edged circle. Lacking the highly-defined lands and grooves of conventional rifling with its sharp edges and corners, there's less energy required to engrave the bullet's jacket. All other things equal, a polygonal bore should provide measurably higher velocities (H&K claims 5-6 percent), longer barrel life, and much easier cleaning.
rounding out this trio of .30's, our H&K was chambered in .308 Winchester. Overall length is 44-1/2 inches and the weight is 8 pounds even; 9-1/4 pounds with the Schmidt and Bender scope in place but still empty.
Now I'm not going to insult your intelligence by intimating that with the extremely limited scope of this article and a couple of bench sessions wherein I put a few boxes of ammo through each of the test guns, I could satisfactorily address the reliability question; to do that would require tens of thousands of rounds fired through several specimens of each gun under controlled conditions, including temperature extremes, tests for functioning in mud and dust, reliability relative to cleaning intervals, etc.
For what it's worth, the test guns performed without a hitch--no feeding, chambering or ejection problems with any of them using various brands of factory ammo. I stress factory ammo because that brings us to one of the problems associated with semi-autos; in fact, with any action other than a manuaaly-operated bolt. I'm referring, of course, to the auto's often persnickity nature when it comes to custom handloads.
Lacking the powerful camming force of a bolt action, reloads must fully chamber with little or no resistance. Even with full-length resizing in normal dies, cases may fit the chamber too snugly to allow the bolt to fully close. While this can be a problem, it shouldn't for a couple for reasons. Compared to the overall costs of a hunting trip, the few cents spent for each round of ammo is utterly inconsequential; therefore, if a handloader, one's hunting ammo should be based on virgin or at most, once-fired brass, just as it should if using a bolt action. Most self-loading rifles will digest ammo so-loaded sans sweat.
In the event a particular gun is possessed with a minimum chamber and then paired with a maximum sizing die, there could be functioning problems even with once-reloaded rounds. Again, no problem; all it takes is a special "small base" die set which sizes cases a tad on the smallish side to ensure reliable functioning.
The way I see it, the "handloading problem" isn't much of a problem at all; if it exists it can be licked one way or another without having to really give up anything.
So what about accuracy? Do these guns spray random holes about the target like some would have us believe? No way. I will say though that as with any other rifle type one must be concerned enough with accuracy to either handload or find the factory load which performs best in a given gun. To illustrate, all three rifles delivered groups around 1-1/2 inches with one specific load; in two cases it was a handload. With the lone exception for each gun, the rest of the factory ammo and handloads averaged five-shot groups between 1-3/4 to 3-1/8 inches. Not bench-rifle accuracy but I guarantee you many a bolt-action sporter won't do any better if you don't choose to ignore its worst factory ammo performance among several brands and loads tried.
In the case of the H&K, for example, I ran four different factory loads through the gun consisting of a 150, a 165 and two of 180-grain persuasion. None shot under 1-3/4 inches, with some groups going as large as 2-7/8 inches. Yet one handload (based on virgin brass) consisting of 44.0 grains of IMR-4064 and a 165-grain Sierra bullet shot groups consistently around 1-1/2 inches, with some going down to 1-1/4. That's bolt-action sporter accuracy, period. Plus I know for a fact that G&A's Editor, Howard French, who owns the test rifle, has shot groups utilizing Frontier's 150-grain ammo that measure well under 1 inch. I didn't have this particular brand of ammunition available at the time of my testing so I couldn't duplicate his figures. Again, this shows the need for a rifleman (or handgun shooter for that matter) to take the time and find the right factory fodder for his own particular firearm.
With five brands of ammo in three different bullte weights--165, 180 and 200--Remington's Sportsman 74 in .30-06 performed very much like the H&K in that it showed a marked preference for one load, yet with no groups going more than 3 inches, even its worst performance wasn't all that bad. One handload which consisted of 56.0 grains of IMR-4350 and a 165-grain Sierra bullet produced a four-group average of 1-5/8 inches discounting two fliers which could have been me.
The Browning turned in the best factory-ammo performance with groups averaging 1-3/8 inches with Federal Premium 180-grain and 2-1/4 inches with Winchester's 180's. I worked up only one load for the BAR; it consisted of 72.5 grains of IMR-4831 behind a 180-grain Hornady slug sparked by a CCI Magnum primer. Groups hovered around 2 inches--not as good as Federal's stuff. For a semi-automatic rifle chambered in .300 Winchester Magnum, that's quite good accuracy I think. And in the case of all three guns, I'm sure further handload development would have resulted in even more accurate handloads.
Another positive aspect of the self-loader is found in its shooting qualities; all three guns were noticeably more pleasant to shoot, especially from the bench, than their equivalent caliber, fixed-breech counter-parts would have been. That's simply the nature of the beast whereby some of Newton's "equal and opposite reaction" is used to cycle the action instead of all of its translating into "kick."
As to the visual appeal of the three guns, that's a purely subjective evaluation but one which we must try to address using some sort of mainstream criteria. Without question the gun furthest from water's edge is the H&K, not only because of its decidedly European-style stock, but the bulky look of its receiver, its hinged operating handle, and the high positioning of the scope. Much of its disproportioned look lies not only in the bulk of the receiver, but its length as well. With but a 19-1/2 inch barrel, the overall length of the gun is some 44-1/2 inches.
The Remington and the BAR are much closer to our preconceived notions as to what a semi-auto sporting rifle should look like. Both are rather handsome guns, though the latter is a tad heavy, especially in the magnum version which weighs nearly a pound more than the one in standard caliber.
So then, if they're reliable, accurate, pleasant-shooting, and not unduly burden-some in the handling department, what's keeping the semi-auto from being taken seriously by a larger segment of the hunting fraternity? I think the answer lies more in how the guns are perveived rather than how they actually are. In short, I believe the auto has an image problem.
Many, many years ago the bolt action emerged as the thoroughbred among sporting arms; the gun that symbolized whatever connotations the "big-game rifle" has for most of us. Part of that image is surely derived from the fact that any old garden variety turnbolt shares the same basic characteristics as the much romanticized dangerous game rifle used in far off places on elephants, lions, Cape buffalo and such. Ironically, for a soldier in battle whose life is in greater jeopardy than any sportsman going after after dangerous game, a semi-auto rifle is okay. Figure that one out. Then too, I'm sure the fact there is not, nor has here ever been, a semi-auto rifle chambered for dangerous game calibers is often interpreted as: "there must be a reason."
Now I must confess that I myself would not consider using a semi-auto on a musk ox or polar bear hunt where temperatures can go to 50 below, or on a dangerous game hunter for lion, buff, etc. assuming the guns were available in appropriate calibers. I'd be less than truthful if I didn't admit that. After all, I too have my perceptions and they're not always rooted in absolute fact or based on experience, much as I'd like to think otherwise.
Another factor contributing to the hesitancy of many to embrace the semi-auto is in the seemingly complciated nature of the mechanism. One can have the mechanical aptitude of a fern and understand the basic workings of a bolt action. But a semi-auto has all kinds of widgets and gizmos thrashing about inside . . . and all without our having to do anything; a fact which hardly instills the feeling of superiority and control over things mechanical that we insecure humans like to have. Because a gas-operated or blowback mechanism is harder to understand and works too quickly for us to actually see what's going on, we tend to distrust it.
And lastly, there's this perception again of the "ultimate rifle" being a bolt action. I mean, we can't even buy semi-auto actions and barreled actions on which to base a custom rifle. We can't experience that agonizing ecstacy of choosing the perfect chambering, throating, barrel length and contour; the perfect stock from among dozens of style options . . . or what custom bolt handle, trigger, floorplate, sights, safety and 101 other custom goodies we can opt for with a bolt action but not a semi-auto rifle.
I'm afraid what it boils down to is that ultra-conservatism that characterizes most gun buffs: we are slow to accept change. What other group venerates the past and laments its passing as we do? Who among us wants to drive a 10-year-old car, or go back to ice boxes, hand crank Victrolas and silent movies? Yet the best thing that can be said of a gun is that it's made the same way it was back in 1895. I think that fact alone says a lot about us . . . or most of us anyway. It]s borne out in the sales figures of semi-auto rifles and the complete absence of any new manufacturers wanting to get into the market. It's a shame, really, because the semi-auto is the only logical direction for sporting arms to take. And the inevitable one. It's just a matter of time.
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|Publication:||Guns & Ammo|
|Article Type:||Product/Service Evaluation|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1984|
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