The New England Firearms Sidekick Muzzleloading Rifle

By Randy Wakeman

Stainless Sidekick
Illustration courtesy of H&R 1871 LLC.

The NEF / H&R Huntsman break-action muzzleloaders have gained a following in recent years. Their lack of general availability can be attributed in part to their status as a "Form 4473 Arm." The new for 2004 NEF "Sidekick" is not, and while retaining the similar break action design going back to the "Topper" shotguns, now opens new distribution opportunities for NEF. NEF / H&R is owned by Marlin Firearms; they are "Made in the USA," in Gardner, Massachusetts.

The tested NEF Sidekick is the stainless steel barrel, nickel plated receiver model, with black synthetic stock. It weighs 7 pounds, 6 ounces on a Lyman electric scale. The trigger is surprisingly crisp, and breaks at three pounds on the nose. This is outstanding for a gun in this price range, and dramatically better than the nasty "Traditions Pursuit" trigger, for example. Usable barrel length is about 24-3/4" on this "26 inch" barreled gun. The muzzle has an unusual scalloped form of "quick loading assist" false muzzle. It is only an eighth of an inch or so long. I can't detect that it does anything positive, but can find nothing that is detrimental, either.

The buttstock is hollow, but is better than many "flexomatic" synthetic stocks, and the vented recoil pad makes it comfortable to shoot. The ramrod is a telescoping monstrosity that gains notoriety as the worst ramrod I've ever seen on a muzzleloader. It is basically a piece of dowel rod, with a tin tube crimped over it. There are stronger automobile antennas available, and it seats all bullets tried with equal inability.

The NEF / Huntsman orange "Zytel" primer carrier is easy to use, and is not a one shot deal at all as in the case of red plastic jackets. With these you can easily get 35 shots or so out of them. Excess primer gases eject through a cutout on the right side of the barrel, away from a right hand shooter's face. Left hand shooters may not enjoy this as much, but any gas blows to the side, not towards you. The escape route for the gas appears to be no accident, as it keeps blowback away from the inside of the action, a good thing as it does not appear to be easily user-serviceable.

The supplied Williams Fire Sights are excellent and mounted the way I like them with the softer green towards the eyes. One strange thing about this rifle is that you cannot gain a sight picture through the iron sights unless the hammer is cocked. It seems a bit of a hammer redesign is in order. When mounting a scope, you'll naturally want the Sidekick one-piece base, made of aluminum, and the hammer extension. You'll likely need "high" Weaver-style rings, contingent on brand of ring and specific scope.

The Sidekick breechplug is a real monster compared to many breechplugs. The recess towards the breech fills quickly with primer gunk, and needs to be wiped away every 15 shots or so at the range, but this would be a non-issue in a hunting scenario.

To remove the breechplug, a small tool is provided that has a massive flat screwdriver on one end, and is operated by sticking a screwdriver through a slot in the other end. Adding a socket head to the flat side of the tool would make things easier, you would still have the option of using a screwdriver, but a common socket set would just make R & R on the breechplug a great deal faster.

The NEF Sidekick proved to be surprisingly accurate, shooting consistently in the 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 inch range at 100 yards with a wide variety of projectiles. These ranged from 295 and 348 grain Powerbelts to .452 / 50 250 grain Hornady XTPs and .40 / 50 200 grain Shockwaves. The supplied manual is better than most "economy gun" manuals, even stating the nominal bore of .501 inches and a nominal groove diameter of .510 inches.

Due in large measure to the success of the Thompson Encore, there has appeared a very crowded market of break action muzzleloaders trying to tag along with the Encore's success. Several reports of cobby workmanship have already surfaced regarding the Traditions Pursuit Pro; that adds an inability to stay locked in addition to its tragic trigger, with the Rossi and MDM break action examples adding generally poor accuracy to the crowded mix. The CVA Optima already has rightfully earned a reputation for lackluster performance and uneven quality.

The NEF Sidekick bucks the trend by offering a fine trigger and remarkable accuracy in a bargain-priced package that handles very well. It is noticeably lighter and better balanced than most of the barrage of imports.

The NEF Sidekick builds on the reputation of the NEF / H&R "Handi-Rifle" line by offering the most accuracy for the dollar you are likely to find in a solidly built front loader. All this, at street prices ranging from an amazingly low $160 dollars or so for the blued / wood model up to the $235 dollar stainless rifle as tested. You'll likely want a replacement ramrod right away from or other sources, but other than that the basic gun comes ready to hunt. The Sidekick is Ideal as first muzzleloader, or for those who don't care to drag around a nine pound hog of a rifle. For the money, it is really hard to beat.

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Copyright 2004 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.