Nothing but the truth: about lightweight hunting rifles.
Most so-called "Kentucky" rifles were very slim and relatively light, but by the time European-Americans had pushed their way west of the Mississippi, the Kentucky rifle had morphed into the shorter, heavier and stouter "Plains" rifle, exemplified by those made by the Hawken brothers in St. Louis, that 19th-century departure point for the West.
The same dichotomy showed up later in the west. By the 1870s many cowboys and Indians carried relatively light lever-actions chambered for cartridges such as the .38-40 and .44-40, suitable for shooting each other and smaller big game such as pronghorn, deer and bighorn sheep. The hide hunters nearly wiped out the plains buffalo with heavy single-shots chambered for much larger rounds.
In the first half of the 20th century, Eastern deer hunters also really liked light lever actions. While some Western hunters also carried Winchester and Marlin .30-30s (especially cowboys who liked the way the flat receivers fit under stirrup leather), other hunters started using bolt-actions chambered for the .30-06 and similar rounds, especially on elk. Many European hunters liked lightweight Mannlicher-Schoenauer carbines, some even taking them to Africa, Alaska and the Arctic--though some also owned and used a heavier rifle for bigger game, whether an inexpensive Mauser 9.3x62 or a double rifle in a big Nitro-Express cartridge.
If the lightweight hunting rifle isn't exactly new, why do so many hunters still have so many misconceptions about light rifles? You've heard them, and may have even voiced them yourself: Light rifles are hard to shoot accurately, kick too much and are chambered for wimpy cartridges unsuited for truly large game.
Let's look at the inaccurate part first, since it's tied to the major reason hunting rifles suddenly gained weight in the middle of the 20th century--the telescopic sight. In 1935 most hunting rifles didn't have scopes, but by 1965 most did. The mounts and scope added about a pound to rifles that already weighed, on average, around 8 pounds.
Now, 8 pounds isn't a bad weight for a hunting rifle, but even a century ago it wasn't exactly light. Winchester Model 94 and Mannlicher-Schoenauer Model 1903 carbines weighed around 6 pounds. Even so, most of their users didn't find them inaccurate.
Back then, accuracy in a hunting rifle did not mean the ability to shoot 1/2" groups off a benchrest at 100 yards. It meant the ability to put a bullet into a game animal's chest, and that task became much easier with smokeless powder, even if the rifle itself was only capable of grouping into 3" at 100 yards. It was a lot easier to hit game animals beyond 100 yards with a .30-30 WCF or 6.5x54 M-S than with a .45-70 or 9.3x72R, due to the flatter trajectory made possible by higher velocity. Both carbines became popular, partly because they were so light and handy.
Even so, many hunters believed firmly in heavier rifles, and during the mid-20th century, quite a few hunters considered the rifle now known as the "pre-'64" Model 70 Winchester the ideal hunting rifle. I've owned a number of pre-'64s, and even without a scope they weigh around 8 pounds. Put a scope and sling on a pre-'64 "standard" rifle, then fill up the magazine and many weigh close to 10 pounds.
Many influential shooting writers claimed this weight was an advantage, allowing steadier holding, especially when the shooter's pulse rate climbed with excitement or exercise. If that's so, how did so many hunters use much lighter rifles successfully in the same sorts of circumstances? The famous elephant hunter W.D.M. Bell really liked lightweight rifles, and often ran after elephants to get in a killing shot. How did he manage this without using 9-pound rifle? How did American explorer-naturalist Charles Sheldon take so many animals from mountain sheep to grizzlies with a light Mannlicher-Schoenauer carbine? How did so many deer hunters shoot whitetail bucks, often running, with Winchester 94 carbines?
One big reason was weight-forward balance. The Winchester featured a tube magazine under the barrel. When filled with cartridges, this moved the balance point even further forward. The Mannlicher-Schoenauer carbine had a full-length stock, the reason today's hunters still call such stocks "Mannlicher." Any rifle holds steadier when the balance point is further forward.
It was only after the telescopic sight became popular that gunsmiths and manufacturers started making lightweight rifles by shortening and slimming barrels. There really wasn't any other way to lighten a typical bolt-action rifle-or at least that's what designers thought, because they were trapped in the box of the 1898 Mauser; 1903 Springfield and pre-'64 Model 70.
All three actions weighed close to 3 pounds. A light scope and mount added close to another pound. It's just about impossible to make a hardwood stock weighing less than 1-3/4 pounds. The total weight was now up to 5-3/4 pounds, and the only other place to trim a few ounces was in the barrel. This was why so many post-war lightweight rifles were made with very slim barrels no more than 20" long--and is the main reason lightweight rifles suddenly acquired the reputation of being difficult to aim.
The typical walnut-stocked, bolt-action hunting rifle, with a medium-weight barrel 22" to 24" long, weighs 8 to 9 pounds with a l-pound scope and mount, and the rifle's balance point is around 6" in front of the trigger, give or take 1/2". Perhaps not so oddly, this is also about the balance point of a Mannlicher-Schoenauer full-stocked carbine, or a Winchester 94 carbine with the magazine full of .30-30 rounds.
But cut a bolt-action's barrel back to 20" or less, with a really slim contour, and the balance point shifts dramatically. In my collection is a Ruger 77 RL in .250 Savage, with a 20" barrel measuring .5" at the muzzle. The balance point is only 4-1/4" in front of the trigger, and yes, it is noticeably more difficult to shoot offhand than a rifle with the balance point 6" in front of the trigger.
The two big-game rifles in my collection with the furthest-forward balance points are an E.R. Shaw Mk-VII in 6.5-06 with a 26" barrel measuring .70" at the muzzle, and a Winchester 1894 rifle in .25-35 with a 26" octagon barrel. The 6.5-06's balance point is 7" in front of the trigger, while the .25-35's is a full 8". And yes, the .25-35 is really easy to shoot from any field position, despite weighing 2 pounds less than the 6.5-06.
Things started changing in the 1980s because of synthetic stocks and lighter actions. The lightest synthetic stocks could take a pound off a rifle's weight just by themselves, and some gunsmiths started whittling away at actions as well. For a long time, the primary action used in lightweight rifles was the Remington 700. The long action weighed about 38 ounces, and the short action 35 ounces. Some intense gunsmithing could drop a few more ounces.
But the big step came when Melvin Forbes brought out his Ultra Light Arms rifles, with custom-made bolt-actions that trimmed away everything that wasn't needed to contain pressure and feed cartridges from the magazine. The shortest action was the Model 20, with a 3" magazine. The name came from the weight of the entire action, almost a pound less than a short Remington 700.
Add a very strong Kevlar-based synthetic stock weighing 18 to 20 ounces, and the barrel could be normal sized without compromising weight. As an example, my wife's Model 20 in .257 Roberts has a 24" stainless Douglas barrel that's .6" at the muzzle, yet with a 3-9x40 Leupold Vari-X II the entire rifle weighs 6 pounds, 6 ounces. This is more than half a pound less than my skinny-barreled Ruger 77.250 Savage, yet the balance point is almost 7" in front of the trigger. Shooting one of these rifles offhand is not quite like shooting an 8-pound Winchester .25-35, but it isn't all that difficult. Eileen has killed two deer offhand at 150 yards or a little more.
Ultra Light Arms is now New Ultra Light Arms, after a company reorganization several years ago. Around 6,000 old and new Ultra Light rifles have been made, but their influence spread throughout the industry.
Soon several major rifle makers also designed lighter actions. Remington did it by substituting titanium for steel in their 700, while Kimber and Weatherby designed slimmer, smaller actions for their Model 84 and Ultra Light Weight rifles. Of all these rifles, the Weatherby ULW comes closer to balancing like a NULA. My own .240 Weatherby Magnum weighs 6-3/4 pounds with scope, and the balance point is 6" in front of the trigger, thanks in part to a 24" barrel. The Kimbers use slim 22" barrels and in the walnut-stocked versions the balance point is normally a little less than 5" in front of the trigger.
Not so oddly, all of these 21st century lightweights tend to shoot very well. Almost all NULAs will group into the magic 1/2" for three shots at 100 yards, and often less. The .240 Weatherby will do almost as well with several loads, including Weatherby factories using the 100-grain Noslzer Partition. The Model 84 Kimbers I've shot seem to be a little more finicky, but I've always been able to find one or two loads that will shoot into an inch.
All of these actions have been used on a quite a few custom rifles as well, some with walnut stocks. Yes, it is possible to make a walnut-stocked hunting rifle that weighs well under 7 pounds with scope. My wife Eileen's own .308 Winchester, made by Kilimanjaro Rifles, weighs 6 pounds, 8 ounces with a rather stout 21" Lilja barrel. It's made on a Kimber Model 84 action (28 ounces) and shoots very well, as you might expect from a .308 with a Lilja.
One trick I discovered for shooting lightweight rifles off the bench is to place a folded terrycloth towel over the front rest. Light rifles react more to a rest, and even a compacted sandbag can cause fliers. With a towel over the front rest, my own NULA Model 24 in .30-06 is so accurate I often use it as a test rifle for scopes and ammunition.
As for lighter rifles kicking too much, today's miracle-rubber recoil pads take a lot of sting out of recoil, and today's improved bullets also make a big difference. Many 21st-century hunters have realized they don't need a 7mm Remington Magnum to kill whitetails, or a .338 Winchester Magnum for elk and even in the .338 most hunters are using 200- to 225-grain bullets rather than the 250-or 300-grain bullets popular half a century ago. I don't even use a .300 magnum on elk and moose anymore, instead usually carrying a 7x57 or .30-06--and my last bull of each species went less than 20 yards from where it was hit.
My hunting notes show Eileen and I have so far taken over 50 big-game animals with our various sub7-pound sporters, both in the woods and out to over 400 yards on the prairie and tundra. There hasn't been any problem at any range caused by the rifles themselves, mostly because we use the same shooting techniques used by hunters with standard-weight rifles. At anything beyond sure offhand range we use some sort of rest, whether shooting sticks, a daypack or bipod--or whatever natural rest is handy. And when we have to hunt day after day in steep country, whether the Rockies and badlands near our Montana home, or the kloofs of the Eastern Cape in South Africa or the glacial ridges of the Far North, the lighter burden feels pretty good, just as it does in our other equipment, whether boots or packs.
WEIGHTY MATTERS Here are some sample rifle weights and balances, divided into light weighing 7 pounds or less, and rifles weighing more than 7 pounds. RIFLE WEIGHT WITH SCOPE (model, caliber) (pounds, ounces) NULA M24.30-06 6,4 NULA M20 .257 Roberts 6,6 NULA M28 .257 Weatherby 6,12 Weatherby. Mark V ULW .240 6,11 Mannlicher-Schoenauer 6.5x54 6,12 Kilimanjaro .308 Winchester 6,8 Kimber Model 84 .257 Roberts 7,0 Ruger RL .250 Savage 7,0 Win 94 .25-35 (rifle) 8,2 ER Shaw 6.5-06 10,2 Mark X Mauser.375 H&H 9,0 Rem 700 BDL 7mm SAUM 8,3 Win M70 .30-06 (pre-'64) 9,1 Wby Vanguard .257 Wby 8,7 Mauser 98 Sporter 8x57 7,7 RIFLE BALANCE POINT (model, caliber) (inches in front of trigger) NULA M24.30-06 6-3/4 . NULA M20 .257 Roberts 6-3/4 NULA M28 .257 Weatherby 7 Weatherby. Mark V ULW .240 6 . Mannlicher-Schoenauer 6.5x54 5-3/4 Kilimanjaro .308 Winchester 5 Kimber Model 84 .257 Roberts 4-3/4 Ruger RL .250 Savage 4-1/4 Win 94 .25-35 (rifle) 8 ER Shaw 6.5-06 7 Mark X Mauser.375 H&H 6-5/8 Rem 700 BDL 7mm SAUM 6-1/2 Win M70 .30-06 (pre-'64) 6-3/8 Wby Vanguard .257 Wby 6-1/4 Mauser 98 Sporter 8x57 5-1/2