Compact Bolt Action Deer Rifles
By Gary Zinn
Since 1984, my main deer hunting rifle has been a Winchester Model 70 Lightweight Carbine (so called by Winchester) chambered for the .308 Winchester cartridge. This rifle has served me very well and I have (almost) never yearned for a different rifle, given the area where I hunt and the techniques I favor.
When I recently drafted an article on Remington's 200th Anniversary, I had occasion to mention a similar rifle, the Remington Model Seven. This got me thinking: What rifles similar to these two models are readily available in 2016? In what calibers are they offered? Do these compact (also called "carbine") rifles have a meaningful place in the current hunting scene?
I have hunted Whitetail deer since I was 13 years old (I am 71 now) and have taken deer with rifles chambered for six different cartridges: .25 Remington, .30-30 Winchester, 8x57mm Mauser, .270 Winchester, .308 Winchester and .260 Remington. I have used bolt, lever and pump action rifles.
My big game hunting experience is with whitetail deer, mostly in the hill country of western West Virginia, where I was born and raised. My favorite hunting areas feature a mixture of woodlands and brush, interspersed with small pastures and meadows. Most shots are at less than 100 yards, with good chances at over 200 yards occurring only rarely.
My preferred methods of hunting deer are still hunting and stalking. Sitting all day in a stand bores me stiff, both mentally and physically.
I mention this background, because it influences my choice of rifles. For a hunter who moves around, rifles that are comfortable to carry and handle fast are more suitable than those that are relatively heavy and somewhat unwieldy. This suggests that a suitable rifle for these conditions and hunting methods may be shorter of barrel and lighter in weight than most standard size rifles.
Further, magnum and big bore rifles are unnecessary. I have never heard a convincing argument for a rifle over thirty caliber, or a magnum cartridge of any caliber, being better for hunting deer, in most habitats, than a standard cartridge in calibers from .25 to .30.
What is a compact rifle?
In the article Compact Hunting Rifles, Guns & Shooting Online Editor Chuck Hawks broadly defined a compact rifle as follows:
"By 'compact' I do not mean traditional youth rifles intended for use by hunters not fully grown, or even rifles intended to be sold to very short or small framed adults (man or woman). I am referring to short rifles marketed to full size, adult hunters."
For this article, I will detail that definition with the specifications of a short action receiver (.308 Winchester length) and an 18.5" to 20.5" barrel. Such a rifle with a 20" barrel will have a total length of about 40", plus or minus up to about an inch, depending on specific receiver dimensions and stock length of pull (LOP). The latter must be at least 13" to qualify as an adult rifle. Out of the box weight will usually be less than seven pounds.
Barrels shorter than 20" imply both loud muzzle blast a short distance in front of the shooter and reduced ballistic performance from cartridges designed to perform efficiently in barrels about six inches longer. The MV of a given load fired from a 16-1/2" barrel will be 100 f.p.s. or more slower than the same load fired from a 22" barrel. Super short barrels might be just the ticket for wading into a sounder of wild hogs or sitting over a black bear bait, but I am not sold on them for more normal hunting situations.
These specifications may be contrasted with a "standard" rifle, which may have either a short (.308 length) or standard (.30-06 length) action, will typically wear a 22"-24" barrel (in non-magnum calibers) with a total length of 42" or longer, and will usually weigh around 7.5 pounds without a scope. Finally, I decided to include in this survey only rifles that are made in at least two short action calibers in the .25 to .30 caliber range.
Currently available compact bolt rifles
With my parameters for an adult compact rifle in mind, I began researching the availability of such products from established production rifle makers. I found that Remington, Savage, Browning, Mossberg, Thompson/Center, Weatherby and Winchester currently offer rifles that fall neatly into the category, while Kimber and CZ USA offer rifles that come close enough to warrant inclusion.
The rifles that I will discuss here are all bolt actions. There are lever action rifles that meet the compact rifle specs, but discussing these in detail is best left for another article. (See Compact Lever Action Deer Rifles.)
The available short action cartridges that I consider to be adequate for hunting deer (and other Class 2 game) include .308 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington, .260 Remington, 6.5mm Creedmoor (a new entrant as a hunting cartridge) and .257 Roberts. These are the current players in the .25 to .30 bore range that I previously mentioned. Anyone who contends that these, with appropriate types and weights of bullets, are not adequate or suitable for hunting deer and other Class 2 class animals is full of prunes.
Some compact rifles are offered in smaller calibers, especially .223 Remington and .243 Winchester. I will not discuss these further, because the .223 Remington is clearly not a Class 2 caliber and the .243 Winchester is, in my opinion, marginal for larger Class 2 game. I believe it would be great for pronghorn antelope and small deer, but there are better caliber choices for large deer and tougher Class 2 game animals. All of the models of rifles listed below are available in .243 Winchester, so it is an option for anyone who wants it. Here is an overview of the available makes and models of compact rifles that meet my specifications.
Remington Model Seven
There are four variants of the full-sized Model Seven. The CDL is a classic style, with satin blued barrel and receiver and American walnut stock. The barrel is 20" long, LOP is 13-3/8" and the weight is quoted as 6.5 pounds. It is available in .260 Remington, 7mm-08 Remington and .308 Winchester. The 2016 MSRP is $1039.
The Model Seven Laminate has a satin blued barrel and receiver and laminate wood stock that is stained in what I would call cedar color. The barrel is 18-1/2" and the gun weighs 6.5 pounds. It is available in 7mm-08 Remington and .308 Winchester for $1039 MSRP.
The Model Seven Synthetic features a matte blued barrel and receiver and a black synthetic stock. Barrel length, nominal weight and calibers are the same as the CDL. The MSRP of the "plain Jane" Synthetic is $731.
The Stainless Steel has a satin stainless steel barreled action and the same black synthetic stock as the Synthetic model. The barrel length is 20" and the weight 6.5 pounds. The MSRP is $838 for .260, 7mm-08 and .308 calibers.
The Model Seven has been in continuous production since its introduction in 1983, so it is a well-established design. The push feed action is a slightly shorter version of the proven Model 700 short action, with dependable function and reliability.
The variants that are currently available cover a range of hunters needs and desires, including the utilitarian (Synthetic), rough duty (Stainless Steel) and upscale (CDL). The barrel lengths and overall weights are a reasonable compromise between the advantages and disadvantages of short barreled, lightweight rifles. The only inadequacy that comes to mind with the Model Seven is that none of its variants are offered as left-hand models.
Savage makes two compact deer rifles. These are in the Savage Specialty Series of firearms and are based on the short version of the push feed Savage 110 action. The Model 11 Lightweight Hunter comes with a matte black barrel and receiver and American walnut stock. The barrel length is 20" and the rifle weighs 5.5 pounds. Cartridge choices include .260, 7mm-08, .308 and 6.5mm Creedmoor, all at a MSRP of $991.
The Model 16 Lightweight Hunter has matte stainless steel metalwork and a black synthetic stock. The barrel is 20", weight is 5.65 pounds and the 2016 MSRP is $752. Cartridges include 6.5mm Creedmoor, 7mm-08 Remington and .308 Winchester. The MSRP is $752 MSRP.
With its odd looking bolt and barrel nut, the Savage is not the sleekest rifle around. However, Savage rifles have a well-earned reputation for being very accurate shooters that hold their own against other production rifles, even those costing considerably more. Savage rifles are a very solid value in terms of performance versus price.
These rifles are quite lightweight, at 5.5 and 5.65 pounds. This is a two-edged sword. The light weight will be appreciated on an all day moving hunt, but anyone who is sensitive to recoil will find them uncomfortable to shoot, compared with a rifle that is a pound or so heavier. Individuals will evaluate this tradeoff differently, but I am inclined to favor light carry weight and tolerate the increased recoil. After all, I will be lugging the rifle around for many hours during a hunt, while shot opportunities are few and far between.
Note that these Savage rifles are available in 6.5mm Creedmoor chambering. Originally designed for target shooting, this cartridge has begun to be offered in hunting rifles. The differences between the 6.5 Creedmoor and .260 Remington cases are real, but trivial. Not surprisingly, hunting bullets in the 120 to 140 grain range show ballistic performance that is virtually identical in the two cartridges.
The only reasons I can think of to choose one of these cartridges over the other in a hunting rifle are the rifles offered in each caliber and the selection of factory loaded hunting ammunition. Whichever of these two cartridges wins the rifles and commercial ammo contest will make the other one irrelevant. (We have seen this before; consider the .243 Winchester vs. the .244 Remington.)
The 6.5 mm (.264") caliber seems to be where cartridges end up when they are put in a witness protection program. Time will tell whether the 6.5mm Creedmoor flourishes, languishes, or disappears as a hunting cartridge.
Browning X-Bolt Carbine
This new for 2016 model in the Browning X-Bolt line features a 20" barrel and a weight of six pounds five ounces. Like all Browning X-Bolt rifles, the push feed action is slick, smooth and fast to operate. The barreled action is matte blued and the composite stock is a dull green. Calibers include 6.5mm Creedmoor, 7mm-08 Remington and .308 Winchester. It is offered as a combo package with a Leupold VX1 3-9x40mm scope, mounted and bore sighted, for $1070.
CZ 550 FS
The CZ 550 FS comes with a walnut, full length Mannlicher style stock and a polished and blued 20.5" barrel. The CZ 550 actIon is a Mauser 98, controlled feeding type and it comes with a single set trigger. Adjustable iron sights are included. The LOP is a full 14", so this carbine length rifle should fit tall users better than the other rifles covered here. These desirable features bring the carbine's weight up to 7.2 pounds, but if you are big enough to appreciate the longer LOP, you can probably tote the slight extra weight. The 2016 MSRP is $890.
The 550 FS is available in a list of calibers that includes .308 Win. and 6.5x55mm SE. The latter is actually a "medium" length cartridge, between the .308 Win. and .30-06 in length. It has long been well established in Europe and is increasingly popular in North America, providing ballistics comparable to the .260 Remington and 6.5mm Creedmoor with 120-140 grain bullets. Its longer neck and slightly longer case make it more suitable than the true short action 6.5mm cartridges for the heavy 156-160 grain bullets popular for use on big, tough animals.
This is another new compact rifle, just beginning to hit dealer racks in the summer of 2016. The rifle has a light contour 22" barrel and is listed as weighing 5.5 pounds. The barreled action is stainless steel and the molded stock is made of FDE Polymer, according to Kimber. The stock is colored a coyote brown (my characterization).
This rifle is built on the highly regarded Kimber 84M controlled feed, short action. It is available in 6.5mm Creedmoor, 7mm-08 Remington, .308 Winchester and .257 Roberts +P. The 2016 MSRP is $885. (Yes, a Kimber rifle for under $1000!)
The 22" barrel of the Kimber Hunter violates my compact rifle barrel length guideline, but it falls within the established weight specification and I was encouraged to include it because of the price point and the .257 Roberts chambering.
This rifle merits further discussion on several points. First, the 5.5 pound weight claim is apparently pretty much spot-on.
The light weight and low price point (for a Kimber) apparently can be attributed to the stock. It is injection molded polypropylene, with the mold designed to yield a stock with a honeycomb interior structure. The result is a lightweight stock that is still rigid and strong, but inexpensive to produce, since it comes from a one-step molding process using a minimum amount of common thermoplastic material. Lest anyone worry, aluminum pillars are molded into the stock for action bedding.
Note that the Kimber Hunter is available in .257 Roberts. This cartridge, commercialized in 1934, experienced a two decade run as the premier combination varmint and light big game round. However, in the mid-1950s, the arrival of the .243 Winchester and .244 Remington cartridges crowded the .257 Roberts out of that duel role and the 1963 commercialization of the .25-06 Remington further overshadowed the Roberts as a popular quarter bore cartridge.
However, this cartridge is too good to die. Loaded to modern +P pressures, commercial ammo will drive 115 to 120 grain hunting bullets at about 2740 f.p.s. from a 22" barrel, which is only about five percent slower than the .260 Remington or 6.5 Creedmoor can drive a 120 grain bullet. This is sufficient bullet weight, energy and range (the +/- 3" MPBR is about 265 yards) to make the mild shooting .257 Roberts fully effective on Class 2 game. It is good to see a new lightweight rifle with a highly regarded brand name chambered for .257 Roberts.
Mossberg Patriot Youth Super Bantam, Thompson/Center Venture Compact and Weatherby Vanguard Synthetic Compact
I am lumping these three models together because they have so many essential similarities. All feature conventional push feed actions, 20" barrels, matte blued barreled actions and black synthetic stocks. The Mossberg is listed at 6.5 pounds and the others at 6.75 pounds of weight.
The T/C and Weatherby rifles come with the stock LOP at a youth sized 12-1/2" (12.0" for the Mossberg) and all three come with a spacer that may be added to lengthen the LOP by about an inch. All are available in 7mm-08 Remington and .308 Winchester. The Mossberg Patriot has a 2016 MSRP of $384, the Thompson/Center $537 and the Weatherby $599.
The bare weight of two of these rifles is 1/4 pound over my 6.5 pound ideal, but I felt that this was more than offset by the fact that they can be set up with either a short or extended LOP. This makes them especially suitable as capable deer rifles for a young hunter to learn with and then continue to use as he or she grows.
Winchester Model 70 Featherweight Compact
This is the current version of the Model 70 Lightweight Carbine I mentioned at the beginning of this article. It therefore brings this survey full circle.
The Featherweight Compact has a 20", polished and blued barrel, weighs 6.5 pounds with a rather short 13" LOP and features a satin finished American walnut stock. It is available in 7mm-08 Remington or .308 Winchester for a 2016 MSRP of $939.99.
My 1984 vintage rifle differs from this one in three ways. My rifle was made during the U.S. Repeating Arms Co. (USRAC) era and has a push feed action (as opposed to the pre-1964 and current controlled feed mechanism). My rifle has the classic Model 70 trigger, which is excellent, while current Model 70s have the improved Winchester M.O.A. trigger. The current Featherweight Compact stock has a Schnabel forearm, while my rifle lacks this embellishment.
The first two differences are of arguable functional significance, while the third is a matter of style. Speaking of aesthetics, the Model 70 Featherweight Compact, CZ 550 FS and Remington Model Seven CDL are the best looking of all the rifles mentioned in this article.
A field equipped compact rifle
Here is a summary of how I have my compact deer rifle equipped for the field. This experience based setup is relevant to comments that will follow.
I have a Bushnell Scopechief 1.5-6x32 riflescope, in Weaver bases and Burris Signature rings, mounted on my Model 70 Lightweight Carbine. I use a Quake Claw Contour sling. With these accessories and a loaded magazine, the field weight of the rifle is 7-3/4 pounds.
Any rifle that chambers a cartridge with +/- 3" MPBR capability exceeding 200 yards should be equipped with a good telescopic sight. Originally, I outfitted my rifle with a 3-9x40mm scope, but only kept it on the rifle for a couple of seasons. I became convinced I would benefit from the wider field of view provided by a lower minimum magnification and that I really did not need a high end of 9x.
The 1.5-6x32 scope I settled on has proven very satisfactory. I carry it set at or near the low end of the magnification range, for the quickly developing close shot chances that may happen when I am still hunting. If a longer shot opportunity arises, I can increase the magnification and the 6x setting is much as I need for the occasional 200 yard shot. My scope has a simple duplex reticle and I see no need for a mil-dot, BDC, or other complicated reticle. These just clutter the sight picture.
Currently, the 2-7x32mm is one of the most common of the variable riflescopes below 3-9x40mm size. The 2-7x scopes are very similar in physical size and weight to my 1.5-6x32, so I would not hesitate to use one of them on a compact deer rifle. Note that a 2-7x32 scope will generally be somewhat lighter in weight than a 3-9x40 or larger model and it will also mount a bit lower on the rifle. These are advantages for a scope intended for use on a compact hunting rifle.
A good rifle sling is essential to the way I hunt. While moving around in the woods, I carry my rifle slung under my left shoulder, with the sling shoulder pad toward the butt of the rifle stock. This aims the muzzle down and forward. I can smoothly mount the gun to my right shoulder from this carry position, using a practiced motion that creates a "hasty sling" to stabilize the mounted rifle. I always do this, regardless of the shooting position I am taking in the field.
Over the years, I have tried and discarded several types and models of slings. The one I am keeping is the Quake Claw Contour sling, which is far better than any other sling I have ever used. It has a grippy, but not too large, shoulder pad for comfortable and secure carry and easy length adjustment to get the right fit and tension when I mount the gun.
Facts about recoil
Perhaps the biggest concern with compact rifles is recoil. Specifically, do lightweight rifles generate excessive recoil? There is no definitive answer to this question, so I will summarize some basic facts so my readers can draw their own conclusions.
Let's use the hardest recoiling caliber in this article, the .308 Winchester, to establish a baseline. This will be a standard weight, short action rifle with a 22" barrel, chambered in the .308 caliber. Assume that the bare rifle weighs 7.0 pounds and that a scope, sling and load of cartridges will add about 1.5 pounds, for a total field weight of 8.5 pounds.
I will use a common commercial cartridge for comparison, the Remington Express 150 grain Core-Lokt factory load, with a catalog MV of 2820 f.p.s. fired from a 24" barrel. This bullet would exit a 22" barrel at about 2780 f.p.s. Assuming a powder charge of 46.4 grains is needed to achieve this MV, the free recoil generated by this round in an 8.5 pound rifle would be 15.7 ft. lbs.
What will be the recoil of this same round if fired from a compact rifle? Assume a rifle with a 20" barrel, yielding a MV of 2740 f.p.s. Using bare rifle weights of 5.5, 6.0 and 6.5 pounds and adding 1.5 lbs. for scope, sling and cartridges for field weights of 7.0, 7.5 and 8.0 pounds, here are the recoil values:
The recoil of these three rifles are, respectively, 4.5, 11.5 and 19.1 percent greater than the 15.7 ft. lb. recoil level of the baseline (8.5 pound) rifle. Most shooters will notice that these lighter rifles kick harder than a standard rifle in .308 Winchester. Whether any of these recoil levels are considered excessive depends on the shooter's perceptions.
For anyone interested in a compact rifle, but who is concerned about the recoil of the .308 Winchester cartridge, I suggest looking at the other calibers available. Each of these kicks less than the .308.
To illustrate this, assume a rifle with 20" barrel and a 7.5 pound field weight (6.0 lb. bare rifle plus 1.5 pounds for scope, sling and cartridges). In addition, assume standard commercial cartridges with bullet weights and MVs suitable for use on Class 2 game. (The MVs shown below are adjusted for 20" barrels.) Recoil levels of these other cartridges are:
A 7.5 pound field weight rifle in 7mm-08 generates virtually the same recoil as an 8.5 pound rifle in .308 Winchester. The smaller bore rifles are even milder, with the .257 Roberts being very soft shooting.
If anyone is concerned about the practical range of these cartridges and loads, the .257 Roberts, 7mm-08 Remington and .308 Winchester all deliver MPBRs (+/- 3") between 262 and 266 yards, with the bullet weights and MVs already noted. The .260 Remington an 6.5 Creedmoor, with 120 grain bullets, shoot a bit flatter, achieving a MPBR of about 282 yards.
Length of pull
In his article Compact Hunting Rifles, Chuck Hawks points out:
"Given the modern tendency to take everything to extremes, gun makers have cast about, looking for ways to make rifles lighter and more compact beyond just reducing barrel length. The answer has been to shorten the butt stock, the length of pull. While reducing barrel length is a slippery slope, chopping off the butt of the rifle is downright poisonous. The length of pull of a bolt action hunting rifle is critical for proper stock fit. A short stock amplifies the subjective effect of recoil."
To the effect of short LOP on subjective perception of recoil, I would add that most people may have trouble shooting short LOP rifles with consistent accuracy. For instance, I have a friend who is 6' 4" tall, with quite long arms. He owns a couple of rifles with relatively short stocks. At 6' 1", I can shoot groups about half the size of the groups he struggles to achieve with these rifles. I am convinced that his main problem is the rifles have LOPs that are simply too short for him.
Chuck suggests that people 5' 2" to 5' 8" tall would find a stock with a 13" to 13-1/2" LOP most functional, while tall individuals will likely need a LOP of 13-3/4" to 14". Except for the CZ 550 FS, I am not aware of any of the rifles covered above having a LOP over 13-1/2". (I never found a LOP specification for several of the rifles mentioned.)
If one has a compact rifle with a short LOP, then it is time for some modification or adaptation. Short of having a rifle restocked to fit properly, LOP can be lengthened by installing a thicker recoil pad, or adding spacers between the stock and the recoil pad (or both). By means of these simple expedients, LOP can generally be increased by 1/2" to 1" before things begin to look too weird.
Installing a new recoil pad or spacers can be a drag, as these are typically "ground to fit", which must be done very carefully and patiently to get it right. (Been there and done that.) However, the results will be worth the hassle, if one needs to correct a short LOP.
My Winchester Model 70 rifle originally had a thin, hard rubber butt pad. I quickly replaced it with a 1" thick Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad. I did this for recoil management, with the 1/2" gain in LOP being a bonus. The result was a full 14" LOP on my rifle.
I routinely wear a strap-on shoulder pad recoil protector when hunting with my compact rifle. Field weight shoulder protectors (e.g., PAST field recoil shield, Limbsaver recoil shield) not only further temper recoil, but also add about 3/8" effective length of pull. Wear one of these over your shirt, but under your field jacket, and it will stay in place and make shooting a powerful rifle more comfortable.
To summarize this and the preceding section, recoil management with a compact rifle boils down to four key points:
Is a bolt action rifle quick enough?
Before buying my Winchester Model 70 in 1984, I had at various times hunted deer with lever, pump and other bolt action rifles. Since 1984, all of my hunting has been with either the Model 70 or, more recently, a Ruger Model 77 in .260 Remington caliber. In over half a lifetime of deer hunting, I have used bolt action rifles exclusively and I cannot remember a single instance in which I wished I had been using another action type.
There is no question that cycling a bolt action is slower than an autoloader, lever, or pump action rifle. However, with a reasonable amount of familiarization, practice and development of muscle memory, one will be able to unconsciously cycle a bolt action rifle quickly enough to be prepared to take a second shot at an animal, should one be needed.
I say this, because I strongly believe that an effective followup shot is not one taken as hastily as possible, but rather is taken deliberately, some seconds after the initial shot has wounded or missed an animal. (A deer missed with the first shot is usually long gone before an accurate second shot can be made, but not always.) Put another way, anyone who feels that followup shots must or should be taken as quickly as possible is simply "spraying and praying."
I have previously written about my philosophy and tactics for setting up and executing effective hunting shots elsewhere. (See Making Sure of the Shot.) Rather than repeating some of the key points made in that article, I will simply assert that, in my experience, a bolt action rifle is quick enough for effective followup shots on game.
I can summarize what I have learned about compact bolt action rifles by citing the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good is that I found almost 20 specific rifle models that fit my compact rifle parameters. This was a higher number than I expected and they range from inexpensive utility guns to a few that are definitely upscale. Almost all of the rifles surveyed are offered in the highly capable 7mm-08 Remington and .308 Winchester calibers. Several are available in the milder shooting .260 Remington or 6.5 Creedmoor and the under appreciated .257 Roberts or 6.5x55mm SE can be had in a quality rifle from a well regarded manufacturer.
I found two things that were glaringly bad. First, none of these compact rifles are available in a left handed version, unless I missed something.
Second, models that come with barrels shorter than 20" are at a disadvantage, in my judgment. I just do not see enough advantages to these very short barrels to outweigh their shortcomings.
Then, there is the prevalence of short stocks. Many compact rifle models come with short stocks with a youth sized LOP, but few of these are clearly acknowledged as such. Further, many of the "adult" rifles have LOPs that run 13.5" or less, which is not long enough for many adults. Hunters in the latter group should investigate the CZ 550 FS.
I wish that synthetic stocks, at least, would routinely be designed so that included spacers could be used to add LOP from whatever is its base value up to at least 13.75". Make this not just one thick spacer, but three or four thinner spacers that would allow for intermediate LOPs. Such spacers are already provided with certain shotgun models. All this would take is a bit of design work and some simple molds, so I am not asking for the moon.
A question I posed at the top of this article was, "Do compact rifles have a meaningful place in the current hunting scene?" Certainly Big Green (Remington) thinks so, for they make five variants of their Model Seven compact rifle, if you include the youth model. Eight other prominent manufacturers join them by offering at least one compact model.
I am sure the sales volume of compact bolt action rifles is nowhere near that of so-called standard sized rifles, but this is to be expected. The compact rifle is not for everyone, but it is just right for a certain type of hunter, including myself, and certain types of hunts. I am glad a good selection of such rifles is available, even though I have issues with the overly short barrels and length of pull on some models.
Copyright 2016 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.