The short, light hunting rifle

David Duffy

A prominent proponent of the short, light hunting rifle was ex-marine, handgunner, Gunsite founder, big game hunter and writer, Jeff Cooper. He popularised the concept of the scout rifle and recommended the ideal unloaded weight should be 6½lb (2.95kg), and no more than 7lb (3.18kg), with sling and forward mounted low-power scope.

The length should be less than 1m (39.37”). To achieve this, the rifle needed a short action and a barrel of around 19”. His ideal calibres were .308 with 150-grain bullet or a 7mm-08. For those who could not tolerate the recoil of cartridges such as .308/7-08, he suggested a .243 with a 22” barrel, as the .243 needs velocity. For large game, he liked the .350 Rem Magnum with 250-grain projectiles which would fit in a short action (weighing 7½lb/3.4kg). His first scout rifles were built on Remington 600s (the predecessor to the Model 7).

A less extreme concept of the short, light rifle is dubbed the ‘mountain rifle’ where typically a thin-profile 22” barrel is attached to a short action. Famous gun writer Jack O’Connor advocated 22” barrels on rifles he used for sheep hunting on the basis that most sheep he shot in the mountains were at close range and the velocity loss made no significant difference. The times I’ve hunted goat/antelope species in the mountains the shots were often long, such as 350 yards and there was frequently a strong breeze. So my lightweight ‘mountain rifle’ has a 25” barrel.

A short hunting rifle has advantages in thick bush and high in the hills where there are rocky overhangs, is better moving in and out of a car or a scabbard on a horse or quad, and is quick to manoeuvre. One of the best uses for a short, light rifle is seeking sign of game. If you are in a new area or just want to check out what’s on top of a distant point then a short, light rifle is ideal. On the other hand, short barrels can give considerable muzzle blast which can damage your hearing, are often unpleasant to shoot and can cause a flinch to develop. For longer shots, there is considerable velocity loss with a short barrel with some calibres.

The .308 when using 150-grain projectiles does quite well with a short barrel. With its bore to case capacity ratio, medium burning powders such as AR2208 work well in it. The .243 does better with slower powders such as AR2209/AR2213SC with heavy projectiles and so performs impressively with a longer barrel. My preference is a .308 with a 22” barrel and a .243 with a 23” barrel as I think this optimally balances handiness, velocity, noise and muzzle blast. If a rifle has a short action a 23” barrel will still provide a reasonably handy rifle, though not a scout rifle.

There are ways that you can attain an even shorter rifle without sacrificing optimal barrel length. By using extra-short actions (.223 length) such as the CZ 527, Sako AI and S491 in conjunction with a cartridge with a larger bore such as 6.5mm Grendel, 6.8mm SPC, 7.62×39 with a 20” to 22” barrel, you can have a short rifle yet still be able to take reasonable size game with well-placed shots provided the distances aren’t too far.

The Sako S491 extra-short action internal magazine is slightly longer than both the CZ 527 and Sako AI, allowing a longer cartridge overall length of up to 2.38” which is perfect for the 6.8 SPC II. I use a 22” barrel to squeeze more velocity out of a cartridge which is marginal on big game, but a 20” barrel works fine. The S491 is built strong and as such has a weight penalty. To push the weight of the rifle down to an acceptable carry level, a McMillan graphite stock with Edge Technology in Sako Hunter style has recently been added to my rifle.

Yet another way to achieve a short, light rifle without sacrificing optimal barrel length is to use a tilting-block single-shot such as the Haenel Jaeger 9, Merkel K5 or Blaser K95. Although you have much slower follow-up shots if needed, you have a faster first shot. This is because you can safely carry a round in the chamber and use the de-cocker switch to quickly cock the action whereas with most bolt-action rifles, the safe method of carrying them a reasonable distance is with an empty chamber, necessitating working the bolt to load a round from the magazine.

The problem with many break-open rifles is that they are too light due to their alloy actions. The K95 is available with a steel action at a large premium but the Krieghoff Hubertus comes standard with either steel or alloy actions. Steel actions add about 300-400g in weight and make the rifle a little too heavy. It is easier to add weight to a light rifle than it is to shave weight from a heavy rifle.

I chose a Haenel Jaeger 9 in .308 due to its competitive pricing, I could customise it to suit my specifications without significantly modifying an expensive rifle, and it has an integral dovetail rail allowing me to select scope mounts that could be mounted as low as possible (yet still adequately clear the opening lever). The bare rifle before modifications weighs 2.58kg and after shortening the barrel to 22” and the stock length of pull (LOP) to 14”, the rifle is less than 1m in length. A falling-block single-shot is another alternative.

While an ultra-light rifle (say less than 3.18kg with scope) is a joy to carry, the same can’t be said about shooting them when they are in a calibre around .308 or bigger. Often the problem isn’t so much the jolt on the shoulder or stock hitting the cheek. Rather, it is the way the rifle bucks and squirms under recoil which can result in poor shot placement if shooting technique is not correct/consistent and they are harder to control.

When shooting offhand, a light rifle is harder to keep still, as they float around more. This is especially so if the barrel is light. A thin barrel will heat up much quicker and accuracy falls off after about three rounds. If you miss your first shot and the animal is a long way out and starts to run or with multiple targets such as a mob of pigs, you only have perhaps another two accurate shots.

Jeff Cooper advocated synthetic stocks on his scout rifles because of their low weight, strength and inertness in comparison to wood stocks. Although most synthetic stocks are lighter than wood stocks, it is the more expensive carbon fibre/graphite stocks that really save significant amounts of weight. These can be 340g lighter than a wooden stock. For a bolt-action rifle it is hard to go down to a light weight using wood stocks.

An exception to this is the Kimber 84M action where you can have a bare rifle without scope in an attractive wood stock at less than 2.72kg. The 84M in .308 has a 22” barrel, but I would prefer a marginally heavier profile in that calibre. My 84M has a .243 bore but a slightly heavier barrel profile than standard and slightly longer at 23” and I find it just right at 3.2kg with scope.

Although my preference is not to go much lighter than 2.72kg with scope, others who hike into remote places or climb steep mountains often prefer to have an ultra-light rifle. Several manufacturers are now producing ultra-light rifles to suit these requirements. O’Connor, who hunted all around the world, thought that the ideal weight of a scoped big game hunting rifle was 8lb/3.3kg and he had two customised .270s with 22” barrels on Winchester Model 70 actions at this weight.

If the light rifle is stocked so that the recoil comes back in a straight line and has a decent recoil pad, the problem of flinch is reduced. The ‘classic stock’ is good for this but my preference goes to the older Sako stocks such as the AI/AII with raised comb and cheekpiece. More European rifles are coming out now with straighter stocks and the new Anschutz 1782 with German stock is particularly good with little drop at heel, yet it has a hogback and Bavarian cheekpiece.

Most of my hunting has been with medium weight rifles tallying perhaps 3.85kg and at the time I never felt disadvantaged by not having shorter, lighter hunting rifles. I also carry a small pack on my back and this varies in weight by several pounds depending upon what I put in it. I really don’t notice much difference with say an extra 1kg in the pack. With a rifle, although you are lugging it on one shoulder, I doubt if an extra 300g really makes much difference. However, once you carry a short, light rifle you tend to notice those that aren’t, especially in the hills.

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