The Savage Model 12 Varminter Low Profile
By Chuck Hawks
After the 2004 introduction of the Savage Arms Model 12 Varminter Low Profile rifle, some of my shooting buddies expressed serious interest in this new offering from Savage. And recently, while testing the somewhat similar appearing Savage 10MLBSS-II rifle at the local range, other shooters asked me if I had seen the new Savage varmint rifle. Although obviously this is not a valid statistical sample, I concluded that there was probably more than casual interest in the flagship of the Savage 12 series, and decided to review one of these rifles for Guns and Shooting Online.
An exchange of e-mails and a phone call or two to the helpful folks at Savage Arms brought a brand new single shot Low Profile rifle in .223 Remington to my doorstep, complete with Weaver scope bases, as per my request. As soon as I removed it from its box it was obvious that I was holding a premium varmint rifle in my hands. From the tip of its stainless steel fluted barrel to the black recoil pad fitted to the butt of its laminated stock, this rifle reeks of serious, no compromise purpose. To ground hogs, prairie dogs, sand rats and other pesky, destructive rodents, this rifle is death incarnate. My kind of gun!
Included with the rifle was the usual assortment of warning tags, an owners manual that contains some interesting tidbits of information (for example, the bullets used for accuracy testing all Savage rifles), 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 .724 inch 3-shot group. This was achieved using Federal ammunition loaded with a 69 grain Sierra MatchKing bullet. Clearly the new rifle could shoot!
The Savage Arms catalog says this about the main features of their 12 series varmint rifles, and the short action Low Profile model in particular:
"With a host of features like free-floating, button rifled barrels and dual pillar bedding (and) the revolutionary AccuTrigger . . . this series gives the hard-core hunter an unsurpassed selection of varmint rifles to choose from. The newest addition to the series, the 12 Varminter Low Profile, has all the features you asked for in a varmint rifle. With a heavy fluted stainless barrel and a low profile, brown laminated stock, we've added an extra wide beavertail forend for more stability."
Indeed, the new Varminter could be mistaken for a target rifle. Other notable features include a three-position tang mounted safety, detachable sling swivel studs, extra large bolt knob, and fluted comb. The AccuTrigger is adjustable from 1.5 to 6 pounds.
The test rifle came with its trigger set at the minimum setting (1.5 pounds on my RCBS Deluxe trigger pull gauge). I increased the pull weight to a clean 2.0 pounds, using the supplied AccuTrigger adjustment tool, as I view the Low Profile as a varmint hunting rifle rather than a bench rest rifle for use only at the range.
When is the last time you felt the need to increase the trigger pull weight of a factory supplied trigger mechanism? The Savage AccuTrigger is a tremendous breakthrough for which Savage Arms deserves all the credit they have received, and more. If you have not experienced an AccuTrigger you simply do not know how good a factory-installed trigger can be.
Some really good things have been happening at Savage Arms in the years since the Company's reorganization under Chairman and CEO Ronald Coburn. The AccuTrigger is one example, and the revolutionary 10ML-II smokeless powder muzzleloader is another. If you have not tried a Savage rifle recently, you owe it to yourself to do so.
On the mildly negative side, 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. The stock is finished sans checkering. Checkering is pointless on a target rifle or any rifle used only at the range, but I like it on a hunting rifle. I'd like to see cut checkering in a simple pattern similar to that used on the Savage 10MLBSS-II I tested recently. Other than those minor quibbles, I can't find much that I'd change about the rifle.
It is indeed a handsome addition to the super accurate Savage 12 Series Varmint rifle line. In fact, with its more moderately curved pistol grip, black recoil pad, and lower profile forend it is a definite improvement on the previous, class leading, Model 12BVSS rifle. The 12 Low Profile's extremely rigid laminated wood stock nicely sets off the satin stainless steel barreled action. It is an impressive rifle.
The bolt action Low Profile is available with a 4-round internal box magazine or as a single shot with an extra stiff receiver (no magazine cutout on the bottom). The test rifle is of the latter persuasion. Following are the basic specifications of the Model 12 Varminter Low Profile test rifle.
The Savage 110 action coupled with the extremely accurately headspacing permitted by the unique Savage barrel attachment system have long been noted for superior accuracy, and this Model 12 single shot is no exception. Its heavy contour, fluted barrel has a target crown. The very rigid action is machined from bar stock and dual pillar bedded. The barrel is free floating for its entire length. The barrel channel on the test rifle is wider than strictly necessary, but at least there is no interference between the barrel and stock. When I removed the barreled action from the stock (a simple matter of unscrewing two convenient Allan head bolts), I could see nothing about the bedding that required attention, so I left it alone.
I quickly mounted a Mueller Optics 8.5-25x50mm Eraticator varmint scope in high Weaver rings on the big Savage rifle. This is a large and heavy scope, but it has accurate target-type adjustments, adjustable parallax correction, Euro-style fast eyepiece focus, and a fine crosshair reticle with an illuminated target dot. And it certainly provides detailed views of the target! A good quality 10x or 12x scope would also be appropriate for a .223 varmint rifle, but I happened to have the big Mueller scope on hand from a previous test.
After mounting and bore sighting the scope, I was anxious to get to the range to shoot the new rifle. Rocky Hays, custom gunsmith and frequent participant in Guns and Shooting Online projects, was as impressed as I with the business like appearance of the Varminter Low Profile and volunteered to assist with some of the shooting chores.
The Savage Low Profile was test fired for this article during three range sessions. Fortunately, the wind was not a problem on any of those days.
Available factory loaded ammunition used for testing included UMC and Winchester 55 grain FMJ practice loads at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 3240 fps. Also tested was Remington 55 grain PSP (MV 3240 fps), and UMC 45 grain JHP (MV 3550 fps) varmint hunting fodder. The shooting was done at Outers Score Keeper 100 yard rifle targets, which I prefer for use with high power scopes.
Working with the bullets and powders on hand, I whipped-up two handloads using the Sierra 50 grain Varminter spitzer bullet. These were loaded with H335 ball powder to a MV of 3200 fps and 3300 fps respectively.
Noting the relatively fast twist used by Savage (most .223 varmint rifles use a 1 in 12 twist) and suspecting that this rifle might prefer heavier bullets, for my final range session with the Model 12 Low Profile I also loaded a box of ammunition using the Hornady 60 grain Spire Point bullet in front of enough H335 powder to give a nominal MV of 3000 fps. As an afterthought, I loaded a second box of ammunition using the same bullet in front of IMR 3031 powder, also to a MV of 3000 fps. IMR 3031 is an ancient but versatile extruded powder that I keep on hand primarily for reloading .30-30 and .45-70 cartridges.
Once fired Remington brass was used for all handloads, along with CCI 400 small rifle primers. Powder charges were individually weighed, but otherwise no special loading procedures were employed.
The first thing both Rocky and I noticed at the range was how easy it was to load the single shot Model 12. Just open the bolt, drop a cartridge into the receiver, and slide the bolt closed. There is almost no resistance when the bolt chambers the cartridge. The smoothness of this operation feels very different from chambering a round from a typical magazine fed bolt action rifle.
After initially zeroing the rifle at 25 yards, we moved back to 100 yards (actually closer to 100 meters at the Izaak Walton outdoor range outside of Eugene, Oregon) to shoot some groups, confident that we would at least be on the paper. All groups consisted of three shots. I chose to use my Caldwell Lead Sled rifle rest for all of my bench rest shooting, while Rocky shot over sandbags. At 100 yards there was little to choose between our group sizes. Altogether, about 150 rounds of ammunition were expended for this article.
Not surprisingly, the UMC and Winchester 55 grain FMJ ammunition turned in the worst performance among the factory loads. I have yet to shoot a .223 varmint rifle that delivered top accuracy with this military style ammunition. This is a shame, as the stuff is widely distributed and very cheap. In the event, groups shot with these loads averaged about 1 1/4 inch at 100 yards.
The UMC 45 grain JHP load did little better at 100 yards, turning in groups ranging from 1 5/16 inch down to 1 1/8 inch.
The Remington 55 grain PSP varmint load performed well at 100 yards, consistently shooting 100 yard groups of 1 MOA or less. The smallest of these (fired by Rocky, I must admit) measured only 3/4 inch.
The handloads using the 50 grain Sierra bullet at a MV of 3200 fps turned in a poor performance. Rocky and I had trouble getting groups smaller than 2 inches. Finally I shot a 1 3/16" group, but clearly this light bullet at relatively modest velocity was not to the Savage rifle's liking.
The 50 grain Sierra bullet at a MV of 3300 fps shot considerably better, however. Groups averaged about 1 inch, with the worst right at 1 1/2 inch and the best (shot by yours truly!) measuring only 5/8 inch.
Encouraged, I later put up a target at 200 yards and fired two 3-shot groups at that distance with the 50 grain Sierra bullet. These measured a satisfying 2 inches and 1 1/2 inches respectively, which is about as good as I figure I can hold at that range. If I wanted to standardize on the 50 grain Sierra bullet for this rifle I'd experiment further, loading it close to the maximum permissible velocity of 3400-3500 fps.
Last up were the handloads using the 60 grain Hornady bullet, which I tested during my third range session with the big Savage rifle. I expected the best result from those using H335 powder, so I tested them first. Once again, 100 yard groups ran between 7/8 and 1 1/8 inches, averaging 1 inch. This is essentially identical to the performance delivered by the Remington 55 grain PSP factory load and the faster handload using the 50 grain Sierra bullet, but no better.
That is actually quite good performance with three different bullet weights, but somehow the appearance and feel of the Low Profile rifle had convinced me that it was capable of truly superior accuracy, if only I could find the right load. AA 2015 and Varget are supposed to be top powders for use with 60 grain bullets in the .223 Remington cartridge, but I didn't have either on hand. I figured that I'd shoot up the loads I had left (the ones using the 60 grain Hornady bullet in front of IMR 3031 powder) and hit the sporting goods store for some modern propellant.
Was I surprised by those last groups few groups! The first shot was in the target's orange bull's eye (by this time I had the rifle shooting pretty much dead-on at 100 yards for testing purposes), but I couldn't even see the hole from the second shot through my spotting scope. I mentally scored it an uncalled flyer, probably out in one of the heavy black concentric target rings where it is hard to see. (What can you expect from an antique powder like IMR 30-31, ideally suited to the .30-30 and .45-70 cartridges?) After the third and final shot for that group, which landed close to the first, I walked down and checked the target. I bet that by now you've guessed the result: the first two shots were almost in the same hole, and the third shot only a little distance away, for a group size of 1/2 inch!
The next group was only slightly larger, a tiny triangle measuring 9/16 inch. By the time I had finished that box of reloads, shooting 3-shot groups at 100 yards, the smallest group was a tiny 7/16 inch and the largest was 5/8 inch. The average of all groups was an amazing 17/32 inch! I had found my super accurate load! Who would have thunk it? Good old IMR 3031 turned out to be the powder that turned the trick.
The Savage Model 12 Varminter Low Profile is one of the most accurate rifle ever tested for Guns and Shooting Online.
Some time after this review was published I tried the 50 grain Hornady V-MAX bullet in front of 25.1 grains of IMR 3031 powder in Remington brass with CCI small rifle primers for a MV of 3300 fps, and the results were as sensational as with the 60 grain Hornady Spire Point. In fact, the smallest 100 yard group size shrunk to a 1/4" cloverleaf!
RIFLE REVIEW SUMMARY
Copyright 2006, 2009 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.