Savage Model 12 Varminter Thumbhole .223 Rifle

By Chuck Hawks and Jack Seeling

Savage 12 Thumbhole
Illustration courtesy of Savage Arms

The Savage Varminter Thumbhole is the new for 2008 offering in Savage's very successful Model 12 varmint rifle line. Guns and Shooting Online has previously reviewed the Model 12BVSS, Varminter Low Profile, Long Range Precision Varminter and the Savage Custom G&S Online Model 12 (see the Product Review Page). The new Varminter Thumbhole shares the basic Savage 110 short action and design philosophy with all of these. It is essentially a Varminter Low Profile with a thumbhole stock and detachable box magazine.

This is a deadly (to rodents) varmint rifle with a stainless steel barreled action, heavy fluted barrel with a target crown, laminated wood thumbhole stock with cheek piece, fast lock time and the varmint rifle version of the revolutionary Savage AccuTrigger. The latter was adjusted for a clean release of only 1 pound 13 ounces when it arrived on our doorstep and we left it alone. Other features include a ventilated forend, dual pillar bedding, free floating barrel, oversized bolt handle, three-position tang mounted safety, black rubber butt plate, three detachable sling swivel studs and the aforementioned detachable box magazine.

We requested our test rifle in .223 Remington caliber, but the Varminter Thumbhole is also available in .204 Ruger and .22-250 Rem. Here are some specifications for the Savage Model 12 Varminter Thumbhole.

  • Model: BTCSS (#18516)
  • Calibers: .223 Rem. (also available in .204 Ruger and .22-250)
  • Magazine capacity: 4 rounds in detachable box magazine
  • Trigger: AccuTrigger
  • Overall length: 46.25"
  • Barrel length: 26"
  • Rate of twist: 1 in 9" (button rifled)
  • Sights: drilled and tapped for scope mounting
  • Weight: 10 lbs. (bare)
  • Stock: Laminated hardwood; ventilated, thumbhole
  • 2008 MSRP: $981

We first learned about the Varminter Thumbhole at the 2008 SHOT Show and immediately requested a sample of this good looking rifle for review. About a month later, it arrived. Included with the rifle was an assortment of string tags, an owner's manual, warrantee registration cards, and an AccuTrigger adjustment tool. There was also a 100 yard test target shot by one of the Savage technicians that showed a .50 inch three-shot group. This was achieved using Federal Gold Medal ammunition loaded with 69 grain Sierra MatchKing bullets.

The Savage Model 12 action should be familiar to regular Guns and Shooting Online readers due to the number of reviews in which it has been featured. The Savage bolt action, coupled with the extremely accurate headspacing permitted by the unique Savage barrel attachment system, have long been noted for superior accuracy.

The rigid receiver is machined from bar stock. This is a push feed design with a sliding claw extractor in the bolt face and a plunger ejector. The multi-piece bolt contains a two-piece firing pin and uses two large front locking lugs. Bolt rotation is approximately 90 degrees and the firing pin is cocked on opening the bolt. The recoil lug takes the form of a heavy washer trapped between the barrel and the receiver. This is a "modern" type of bolt action that is well suited to a varmint rifle. The barreled action can be removed from the stock by simply unscrewing two Allan head bolts.

To remove the bolt, the operator must simultaneously pull the trigger and press down on the cocking indicator/bolt release at the right rear of the action. This is a somewhat awkward procedure that Savage has simplified in their latest Classic centerfire hunting rifles, but not on the Model 12 Varmint rifles.

Savage's unique method of barrel attachment/headspacing is worth mentioning. Savage cuts extra threads on the barrel and adds a barrel lock nut before threading the barrel into the receiver. This allows them to turn the barrel into the receiver to exactly the right distance for proper headspace and then tighten the barrel nut. This easily achieves very precise headspacing and we are convinced that it contributes to the outstanding accuracy of Savage rifles. The Model 12 retains the old style, fluted barrel nut; this is not a big detriment to the appearance of a stainless/laminate varmint rifle.

Also worthy of mention is the top tang mounted three-position safety slider. The top tang is the most convenient location for a safety. It is often the type of safety chosen for custom built rifles, but rarely seen these days on production rifles.

Then, of course, there is the Savage AccuTrigger. We at Guns and Shooting Online have used a lot of prose praising the AccuTrigger. It might seem repetitive, but this remains the best trigger mechanism available in a factory built rifle. The AccuTrigger installed in the Thumbhole Varminter is user adjustable (an adjustment tool and instructions are provided with every rifle) for pull weights between 1.5 and 6 pounds.

The thumbhole stock from which this Model 12 takes its name is made of brown laminated hardwood and incorporates a wide, ventilated forend and a straight comb with cheekpiece. There is a black rubber buttplate and three sling swivel studs are supplied to make mounting a bipod easy.

We mounted a new Nitrex TR-one 6-20x50mm AO varmint scope in high Millett rings on the Weaver two-piece bases supplied with our test rifle. This is a large scope, but it has accurate target-type adjustments, adjustable parallax correction, Euro-style fast eyepiece focus and a very fine Duplex-type reticle. It provides clear, sharp views of the target and the reticle is ideal for aiming at small, well defined targets at long range. Everyone who tried this scope liked it. Nitrex is a new brand of riflescope made in Japan for ATK and you can read a full review of this scope on the Product Review Page.

While examining the rifle in the office, one of our staffers inadvertently pressed the magazine release and the magazine dropped to the hardwood floor. Although it was not noticed at the time, the fall mashed the little metal tab on the end of the magazine box that holds it in place in the rifle. At the range, we quickly discovered that the magazine, when loaded, would not stay in the rifle. When we tried to "field repair" the magazine tab by bending it back out with a screwdriver, it broke off. The result was that we had to single load the rifle for the entire day, which is not easy without a magazine in place to help guide the cartridge into the chamber. Fortunately, the Savage is a push feed action so we could single load a cartridge directly into the chamber.

This accident was our fault and Savage immediately sent us a replacement magazine, but it illustrates why we do not favor detachable magazines on any hunting rifle. An internal magazine with a quick release floor plate is a much better option. Hunting is not combat, lightning fast reloads are not necessary, accidents happen and detachable magazines can get lost. In the field, the magazine problem would have been a major hassle, but during our first day at the range with the big Savage we were able to work around it. (The replacement magazine arrived in time for our second range session.)

We did our test shooting at the Izaak Walton rifle range south of Eugene, Oregon. This facility offers covered bench rests with 25, 50, 100 and 200 yard target stands. The typical early spring weather was overcast/partially sunny with a stiff breeze blowing from right to left and daily highs of about 55 degrees F. We used a Caldwell Lead Sled DFT rest weighted with 50 pounds of lead shot and fired for record at Champion Score Keeper targets positioned at 100 yards.

We had three kinds of .223 ammunition available for this review. One being the ubiquitous Remington/UMC factory load that launches a 45 grain Jacketed Hollow Point bullet at a MV of 3550 fps, the second a Hornady Varmint Express factory load using the 55 grain V-Max bullet at a MV of 3240 fps and the other was Chuck's favorite .223 reload that drives a 50 grain Hornady V-MAX bullet at a MV of 3300 fps. We thought that the Savage's fast 1 in 9" twist might not be ideal for the light 45 grain bullet and this proved to be the case.

Here are our shooting results.

  • Hornady 55 gr. factory load - smallest group 5/16"; largest group 7/8"; mean average group = 0.61"
  • Reload w/50 gr. V-MAX - smallest group 5/16"; largest group 1"; mean average group = 0.73"
  • Rem./UMC 45 gr. factory load - smallest group 7/8"; largest group 1-5/16"; mean average group = 1.15"


Guns and Shooting Online staff members Jack Seeling, Rocky Hays, Bob Fleck and Chuck Hawks participated in this review, and this time out Rocky and Chuck shot the smallest groups. At 5/16", they were smaller than the test target group that Savage supplied with the rifle.

We did not have any reloads using the 60 grain Hornady SP bullet at a MV of around 3000 fps that has worked so well in other Savage 12 Series rifles on hand to try in the Varminter Thumbhole, but Jack--who is purchasing the test rifle for his personal use--will undoubtedly get around to trying this bullet in the future. It will, however, have to go some to outperform the Hornady factory load using the 55 grain V-MAX bullet. All rifles are individuals regarding bullet/load preference, of course, so the shooter simply has to experiment until he or she finds the best combination.

Outside of the magazine mishap, which was our fault, there were no malfunctions with the Varminter Thumbhole. The smooth, oversize bolt knob makes the action easy to operate. Barrel heating was not an issue and we never took a break to let the barrel cool down. The cool ambient temperature, fluted barrel and ventilated forend ensured that the barrel never got beyond slightly warm during our range session.

Savage Arms has another winner with the Model 12 Varminter Thumbhole. Thumbhole stocks are experiencing a resurgence of popularity and we predict that Savage will sell a great many of these rifles, as they deserve to. The Varminter Thumbhole is the best of the breed.


  • Make and Model: Savage Model 12 Varminter Thumbhole
  • Type: Heavy varmint rifle
  • Action: Bolt, repeater
  • Stock: Brown laminated hardwood
  • Caliber Reviewed: .223 Remington
  • Best Features: Large bolt handle; AccuTrigger; Fluted barrel; Tang safety; Precise headspacing; Ventilated forend; Very accurate
  • Worst Features: 3-piece bolt; Bolt removal system; Detachable magazine
  • Overall Grade: B+ (Very Good)

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