New England Firearms / H&R Handi-Rifle
By Chuck Hawks
H&R 1871, Inc. was formed in 1991. The Company manufactured and sold double action revolvers and break-open rifles and shotguns of basic H&R design under the H&R and New England Firearms (NEF) brands. In 2000 Marlin purchased H&R 1871, also acquiring the New England Firearms trademark, and in 2008 Remington purchased Marlin, acquiring all three brands.
Whether marked NEF or H&R, these rifles come out of the same factory in Gardner, Massachusetts and are functionally identical. On April 7, 2008 Remington announced plans to close the Gardiner plant, so the future of the NEF and H&R lines are in limbo.
H&R / NEF rifles are among the least expensive on the market. Their low price naturally appeals to beginning hunters, or anyone on a tight budget. These inexpensive utility rifles have garnered considerable consumer interest in recent years.
They generally resemble the single barreled, break-action shotguns with which many bird and small game hunters got their start and are, in fact, based on the same basic action as the old H&R single barreled shotguns. This is a simple action with an exposed hammer that must be cocked before every shot. A new transfer bar system to help prevent accidental discharges has replaced the traditional rebounding hammer. Thank the tort lawyers for that change.
The trigger and plastic trigger guard are well shaped. Surprisingly, the trigger pull of the Stainless Handi-Rifle reviewed for this article is excellent, considerably better than most contemporary bolt action rifles. It has a clean release that averages about 2.5 pounds in weight on my RCBS Deluxe trigger pull gauge. This fine trigger definitely contributes to the practical accuracy of the rifle.
The action is opened by depressing a metal tab (button) located to the right rear of the hammer, rather than by the more common pivoted thumb lever located behind the hammer. The advantage of this location is that it keeps the opening lever away from the web of the shooting hand when firing cartridges that generate substantial recoil. Handi-Rifles rifles are available in calibers including .30-06 and .45-70, so this is probably a pious idea.
This unusual side lever release works fine. The action opens and closes easily. The weight of the barrel alone is sufficient to swing the action open after the release is depressed. As with any break-action gun, close the action gently. It is slamming the action closed, not shooting, that loosens break-action guns. Lefties will find the action particularly convenient to operate.
The simple, non-selective ejector tosses any cartridge that happens to be in the chamber out of the rifle when the action is opened, regardless of whether it has been fired. Those who wish to save their brass for reloading will soon learn to put their free hand just behind the gun's breech as it is opened to keep the ejector from throwing their brass to the ground. Ditto when removing unfired cartridges from the gun.
The metal finish on standard Handi-Rifles consists of a matte blued barrel and action. The exception is the NEF Stainless Handi-Rifle, which wears a matte silver finish. The polish of all metal parts leaves something to be desired, but that is a common criticism these days.
The H&R and NEF rifle lines are somewhat confusing and subject to change as regards specific features and specifications. Iron sights are provided on some Handi-Rifles, a Weaver-type scope rail (and hammer extension) on others, depending on caliber. Rifles that do not come with iron sights are generally supplied with stocks having Monte Carlo combs; stocks with flat combs are usually supplied on rifles that come with iron sights.
The two most common models are the Handi-Rifle and the Synthetic Handi-Rifle. The two-piece pistol grip stock and forearm of the regular Handi-Rifle is made from "walnut finished" American hardwood that really does not look much like walnut. The pistol grip buttstock and forearm of the Synthetic Handi-Rifle are made from a matte black injection molded polymer. Both materials were clearly chosen for their low cost. At the time of this writing, all H&R brand Handi-Rifles are supplied with hardwood stocks, while NEF Handi-Rifles are offered with hardwood or synthetic stocks.
Both the synthetic and hardwood stocks have an amorphous, bulky shape. Neither type of stock is checkered and neither has a fluted comb. The pistol grip of the synthetic stock is better defined than its hardwood equivalent, but it is still not going to win any awards for design. Wood (or plastic) to metal fit is tight, but the stock is left very proud where it joins the receiver. These stocks are supplied with a ventilated recoil pad and sling swivel studs.
The basic specifications for the Handi-Rifle are as follows. Centerfire calibers: Various, ranging from .22 to .50. Action: break-open with side release lever. Stock: two-piece hardwood or black polymer pistol grip type with recoil pad and sling swivel studs. Length of pull: 14.25". Standard barrel length: 22" (26" in .25-06 and .280 Rem.). Overall length: 38" (with 22" barrel). Weight: 7 pounds. Sights: ramp front and fully adjustable open rear; drilled and tapped for scope mounts. (Rifles in calibers .223, .243, .270, 7mm-08, .280, .308 and .30-06 are supplied with scope mounting rail and offset hammer spur instead of iron sights.)
The NEF Stainless Handi-Rifle features a 22" stainless steel barrel and a matching nickel-plated receiver. The stock is identical to that of the Synthetic Handi-Rifle. This is the weather resistant version of the Handi-rifle, available in calibers .223 and .243. A scope mounting rail, hammer extension, detachable sling swivels and sling are included; iron sights are not. The barrel on the .223 sample I tested (and ended up purchasing) has what I would call a "semi-heavy" contour barrel. I find this black and silver model to be the most attractive Handi-Rifle variant. Basic specifications are similar to those of standard Handi-Rifles.
It is worth noting that all of these rifles are heavily discounted. For example, I priced the Stainless Handi-Rifle at $252 in the Sporting Goods Department of my local discount department store.
I equipped the .223 Stainless Synthetic Handi-Rifle reviewed for this article with a Simmons Whitetail Expedition 4-12x42mm scope. This is a moderately priced scope that delivers good value. At 13.46" in length and 21.25 ounces in weight it is a rather large scope for the Handi-Rifle, but its optical performance is good and it has excellent features. These include fully multi-coated optics that incorporate an aspherical element for superior abberation correction, European style fast eyepiece focus, an adjustable front objective for parallax correction and 1/4 MOA target type adjustment knobs.
I used Weaver rings and found that the Handi-Rifle required high rings for this scope. "Medium-high" rings would have worked, but such were not available and medium height rings were just a little too low. The resulting rifle/scope combination weighs around 8-1/3 pounds. Recoil from the .223 cartridge in a rifle of this weight is negligible.
Zero a .223 rifle to hit dead on at 200 yards with standard factory loads using 55 grain spitzer bullets (MV 3240 fps) and the bullet rise is approximately 1.6" at 100 yards and 1.4" at 150 yards; at 250 yards that bullet hits 3.1" low (Remington figures). This allows a center hold on typical varmints out to at least 230 yards.
A 50 grain spitzer bullet at a MV of 3410 fps shoots a little flatter. Winchester's trajectory table for their efficient 50 grain Ballistic Silvertip bullet shows the following: +1.2" at 100 yards, +1.2" at 150 yards, 0 at 200 yards and -2.5" at 250 yards.
The accuracy testing for this review was accomplished using six factory loads and two reloads. The shooting was done over several sessions at an outdoor 100 meter range from a bench rest over sandbags at Champion Score Keeper targets. The weather was moderate throughout and judged not to be a factor.
The factory loads tested included Remington UMC with a 55 grain FMJ bullet at a MV of 3240 fps, Remington UMC with 45 grain HP spitzer at 3550 fps, Remington Express 55 grain PSP at 3240 fps, Hornady Varmint Express 55 grain V-Max at 3240 fps, Winchester/USA 55 grain FMJ at 3240 fps and PMC 55 grain FMJ-BT bullet at 3195 fps.
Handloads included the 50 grain Hornady SPSX bullet and 25.7 grains of H335 powder for a MV of 3300 fps and the Sierra 50 grain Blitz bullet in front of 25.1 grains of IMR 3031 powder, also at a MV of 3300 fps. Following are the shooting results.
Six 3-shot groups with the Hornady Varmint Express factory load using a 55 grain V-Max bullet averaged a hair over 1-1/8". The smallest group measured 3/4", while the largest measured 1-5/8". This load gave the most consistent performance of all the factory ammo tested.
Five 3-shot groups with the Remington UMC 45 grain HP bullet averaged a hair over 1-1/2" and were generally more uniform than all of the other factory loads except the Hornady Varmint Express. The smallest group with the inexpensive UMC 45 grain load measured 1" and the largest was 2".
The PMC factory loads using a 55 grain FMJ-BT bullet proved to be slightly more accurate than the other factory loads using FMJ bullets. Eight 3-shot groups averaged about 1-1/2" with the largest measuring 2" and the smallest only 1/2". This load provided a decent average group size, but a rather large variation between the smallest and largest groups.
Four 3-shot groups with the Remington Express factory load using a 55 grain PSP bullet averaged 1-3/4". The smallest group measured 1-1/4" and the largest a disappointing 2-11/16".
Six 3-shot groups with the factory loaded UMC 55 grain FMJ bullet averaged right at 2" at 100 meters. The smallest group with this load measured only 5/8" and the largest measured an unacceptable 2-15/16", the largest extreme spread of the loads tested. Four 3-shot groups with the similar Winchester/USA loads also averaged about 2" and neither of these inexpensive loads delivered consistent groups.
My reloads proved to be similar to the best factory load. These were carefully loaded with individually weighed powder charges in once fired and full length resized Remington brass. Using the Hornady bullet and H335 powder, 3-shot groups at 100 meters averaged about 1-1/4".
The most accurate load turned out to be the 50 grain Sierra Blitz bullet and IMR 3031 powder. With this combination, tested over several range sessions, groups shrank to an average of 1". This would be my reload of choice for the Handi-Rifle.
The ejector of the test rifle occasionally failed to eject a fired case. This happened with all brands of factory loads as well as the reloads and required that the case then be picked out with a jewler's screwdriver or knocked out with a cleaning rod (little force is required). In subsequent testing, unfired factory loads also occasionally failed to eject.
This problem was not due to a weak spring, as cases are ejected strongly when the ejector works. I think that there is a basic design flaw contributing to the problem here, as extraction and ejection are entirely dependent on the ejector spring. There is no cam or positive mechanical leverage to extract cases before they are ejected, as is common on better break-open guns.
The crux of the matter, however, proved to be that the rifle's chamber was very rough. To correct that problem I took the rifle to Rocky Hays, Guns and Shooting Online's Gunsmithing Editor, and asked him to polish the chamber. Rocky works primarily on elegant double and custom built guns, so this Handi-Rifle was something of a departure for him. In any case, after his attentions the rifle ejected reliably and no more sticking cases were encountered.
Judging by the forum pages on the H&R/NEF website, this is not an isolated problem. A number of owners report similar malfunctions. One trend seems worth noting: calibers with rimless cases cause the lion's share number of problems. Most owners with rifles in both rimless and rimmed calibers report ejection problems only with the rimless calibers. Consequently, I would suggest sticking to rimmed cases in any Handi-Rifle whenever possible.
Given the preference for a rimmed case, .30-30 Winchester would seem to be about the optimum deer hunting caliber for a Handi-Rifle. The latter offers good killing power for all CXP2 class game and, with a maximum point blank range of about 225 yards, adequately flat trajectory for most purposes. It is easy to understand why the Handi-Rifle appeals to beginning hunters on a budget, or anyone looking for a general purpose utility rifle.
RIFLE REVIEW SUMMARY
Copyright 2003, 2008 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.
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