A Critical Look at Modern Hunting Rifles and the Failure of the Outdoor Media
By Chuck Hawks
Like many old geezers, I bemoan the loss, or lack, of standards in our modern world. Nowhere is this devaluation of quality more evident than in 21st Century firearms. (Actually, the slide started in the 1960's and accelerated toward the end of the 20th Century.)
Today, we are reaping the crop of sub-standard firearms previously sown. Most of the blame for this falls squarely on the shoulders of the writers and publishers of the specialty outdoors print magazines and their associated websites. In the quest for advertising dollars they have turned a blind eye to the constant cheapening of our guns, particularly big game hunting rifles. Often they have merely parroted the promotional flack handed to them by the manufacturer's ad agencies in their gun reviews.
Thus flimsy, injection molded synthetic stocks are praised as "lightweight" or "weather resistant" rather than criticized as the inferior bedding platforms that they actually are. Free floating barrels, introduced simply to minimize the labor cost of precisely bedding a barreled action in a gun stock, are now praised as an asset by those who know nothing else. A perfect example of an economy shortcut becoming the new standard.
The deficiencies of receivers that are simply drilled from bar stock and that substitute heavy washers for integral recoil lugs are never mentioned in modern rifle reviews. Often the loading/ejection port--merely a slot cut into the tubular receiver--is so small that it is difficult or impossible to load a cartridge directly into the chamber, or manually remove a fired case. However, the implication of this drawback for use in the field is not mentioned.
In many cases, "short actions" are merely long actions with the bolt stop moved forward to limit bolt travel. The modern gun writers who review these creations likewise never mention that this defeats the fundamental purpose of the short action calibers for which these rifles are chambered.
The receiver holds the bolt, which brings up a salient question: does anyone really believe that a cheap multi-piece, assembled bolt has any possible advantage over a one-piece forged steel bolt except economy of manufacture?
The use of plastic for trigger guards and the "bottom iron" is overlooked by the popular press, or actually praised as lightweight construction. Talk about spin, these guys could teach the Washington political hacks some tricks!
In fact, "lightweight" and "accuracy" are the buzzwords most frequently used to "spin" hunting rifle reviews in a paying advertiser's favor. Cheap substitute materials are usually lighter, but not stronger, than forged steel and most production rifles will occasionally shoot a "braggin' group" that can be exploited in a review. Whenever reviewers start touting either, watch out! There is probably not a lot to tout in the critical areas of design, material, quality, manufacture, or fit and finish. To use an analogy, it is like a describing a poorly designed, low quality, cheaply made and potentially unreliable automobile by saying, "it rides nice"!
A rifle's lines and finish are largely cosmetic, but why should we be condemned to hunt with ugly rifles? Matte finishes on barreled actions are sold as a benefit ("low glare"), but in reality they are simply faster and thus less expensive for the manufacturer to produce than a highly polished finish. The flat black color touted as a stealth advantage of plastic stocks over walnut is patently absurd. Why would a rational person believe that such stocks are any less visible to animals in the woods than a wooden stock?
Have you noticed how the checkered areas on many wood stocked rifles, the Tikka T3 for example, are divided into several small patches? That is done because it is easier (and therefore cheaper) to cut a small patch of checkering than a larger one. The shorter the individual checkering lines, the easier it is to keep them straight. Once again, manufacturing economy triumphs over aesthetics and function.
The Tikka T3 referenced in the paragraph above is certainly not the only modern hunting rifle to adopt some or most of these production shortcuts. I did not mention it to pick on Tikka rifles. I mention it by name because it incorporates nearly all of these cost and quality reducing shortcuts in one rifle. If there is a production shortcut out there, the T3 probably has it. (Well, okay, the T3 doesn't substitute simple holes molded into its plastic stock for detachable sling swivel studs in the incredibly chintzy manner of the S&W I-Bolt, I grant you.)
Then there is the heavily advertised Tikka 1" at 100 yards accuracy claim. Experienced hunters know that such a guarantee, even if true, is actually pretty meaningless, but beginners are impressed. The reality is that big game animals are large and hair-splitting accuracy is almost never required. A rifle that will consistently shoot into 2" at 100 yards (2 MOA) is accurate enough. A hunting rifle that will average 1.5 MOA groups with an occasional sub-1" group thrown in for good measure (and an occasional 2" group, too!) is a good one and the off the shelf Tikka rifles with which we have had experience met that standard. However, the question is: Why do almost all of my fellow gun writers fail to mention these simple facts? (For more on hunting rifle accuracy, see the article "Hunting Rifle Accuracy: Enough is Enough!" on the Rifle Information page.)
To add insult to injury, the Tikka T3 is designed to be a cheap rifle to manufacture, but it is relatively expensive to purchase. (Ditto the disgraceful S&W I-Bolt!) These economy rifles retail for as much or more than a number of higher quality, better designed and better turned-out hunting rifles. Their success is a tribute to the ignorance of the modern American sportsman, intentionally fostered by the connivance of the outdoor media upon which they rely for information.
None of this means that a person cannot hunt successfully with a Tikka T3 rifle, or that Tikka owners are a particularly dissatisfied lot. Most T3 owners are pleased with the performance of their rifles and satisfied with their purchase. Some T3 buyers, aware of its shortcomings, purchased a T3 to use as a "knockabout" rifle, a purpose for which it is well suited. In truth, T3's are (usually) safe, functional rifles and perfectly capable of killing game in the hands of an adequate shot. The same could be said about most economy hunting rifles, including the far less expensive Savage Edge, Stevens 200, Marlin XL7C and Remington 770.
I suspect that most satisfied T3 customers are not "gun nuts" and do not have decades of experience with better quality hunting rifles. A person who has never owned a fine rifle is much more likely to overlook an economy rifle's shortcomings than an experienced shooter and hunter. The relative newcomer simply has inadequate personal experience upon which to base an informed opinion. It is the job of the outdoor media (gun writers), who presumably have such experience, to inform their readers.
Why has the outdoor media so thoroughly failed in its duty to its readers? The answer is simple and again the T3 provides a good example: Beretta Corp. (who markets Tikka rifles) is a big bucks advertiser in the outdoor media, particularly print magazines. Money talks and gun reviews are consequently tailored to please the manufacturer/advertiser.
What about the writers' and editors' obligation to their readers, who pay their hard earned dollars to read those reviews? Obviously, the word "integrity" has been deleted from the publishers' spell checkers.
This little piece, for example, drew a rather impassioned exchange of e-mails from Beretta's Marketing Manager, who was offended because I used the Tikka T3 rifle as an example. In one of those e-mails (clearly hoping that I would withdraw the article) he wrote: "Do you actually think that an article like this couldn't negatively affect our business?" And a bit later: "How comfortable do you think I will be sending you additional consignment guns for testing if this (article) is an acceptable practice? Working with the media is a two way street, is it not?"
That thinly veiled threat, in a nutshell, is the problem. Most of the established outdoor media have become little more than shills for the major manufacturers. That "two way street" has, in reality, become a one way street and the prime directive of most of the shooting and outdoor media is never to offend a major advertiser. The favored publications, bought and paid for by their advertisers, are rewarded with inside information and the latest products for "exclusive" reviews, while any publication that dares criticize even a single offering from a major advertiser is shunned.
The print publications, in particular, survive only because of paid advertising. A threat like that would have them pulling the offending article (this one!) in a New York minute. Fortunately, although Guns and Shooting Online sells banners to advertisers that meet our standards, we basically survive on our loyal readers' paid Memberships. (God bless those of you who spend a few of your hard earned dollars to join Guns and Shooting Online!) A good thing, as I suspect that Beretta Corp. will not be advertising on Guns and Shooting Online. Nor are we likely to be getting guns consigned for review from Sako/Tikka anytime soon. However, I sleep well at night and you, gentle reader, get to read the truth as we see it.
Copyright 2006, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.