Thompson/Center Icon .308 Rifle
By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
The Thompson/Center Icon is an innovative new bolt action rifle designed with both hunting and tactical purposes in mind. It is not a copy of any previous rifle. Rather, the designers at T/C chose to go their own way, with generally good results. Ironically, T/C's Icon is truly innovative, while T/C's new owner, Smith & Wesson, recently introduced their own deceptively named i-bolt (i for "innovation") rifle that is almost entirely derivative.
T/C's management decided to go ahead with the Icon project early in 2006, shortly after they learned about the closing of Winchester's New Haven factory and the consequent demise of the Winchester Model 70. The introduction of the Icon, originally scheduled for 2008, was advanced to 2007 and the Icon has subsequently gotten a lot of press, mostly based on reviews of a few pre-production models that were passed around to favored print magazines. These carefully fitted rifles were stocked in highly figured, oil finished walnut not found on the later production rifles and most were chambered for the new .30 T/C cartridge, which your local hardware store probably doesn't stock.
We were able to get an actual production Icon chambered in the common .308 Winchester caliber for this review, a rifle you might have bought at your home town sporting goods store. The differences are not great, but they are there, so read on.
The Icon action is of special interest, since it is a new design with unique features. It is a short (.308 length), push-feed bolt action with a streamlined, flat bottomed receiver incorporating three integral recoil lugs. The receiver is CNC machined from 4140 steel bar stock. It is mated to a polished and blued, medium contour T/C barrel. With the action closed, the bolt handle is positioned directly above the trigger guard, the ideal location.
Unfortunately, the "tactical" matte black finish applied to the receiver does not match the nicely polished and blued sporter barrel. (Presumably, the coming Tactical version of Icon will have a heavier barrel with a matte black finish.) We think that the Icon hunting rifle would be more attractive if both receiver and barrel were polished and blued.
The receiver rings are round while the rest of the receiver is machined with flat, angled surfaces. (The bolt is round, as is the inside of the receiver, so why isn't the outside?) It has a solid top and the ejection port is a cutout on the right side. There is a gas escape hole in the right side of the front receiver ring. "ICON" is stamped into the left side flat surface in huge letters that detract from the generally restrained appearance of the rifle.
The tactical rifle inspired receiver restricts access to the ejection port and makes manual removal of a stuck cartridge more difficult than necessary. Since this is a hunting rifle and the slight extra rigidity provided by a solid top receiver is pointless, a worthwhile modification would be to cut away the top and left side of the receiver to create an open top. That would facilitate clearing jams and allow loading a single cartridge directly into the chamber, something that is very difficult to accomplish with the present receiver design. We'd like to see T/C make this modification to Icon hunting rifles as soon as possible.
One of the best Icon features is Weaver style scope mounting bases machined integrally with the receiver rings. This eliminates the possibility of a screwed-on scope base loosening from vibration or recoil. Most major scope mount manufacturers offer rings that clamp to a Weaver base, so the selection of scope rings is broad, unlike the integral scope mounting bases found on Ruger and Sako rifles that require proprietary rings. For example, we chose to use Leupold's excellent steel rings on our Icon test rifle.
The one piece, engine-turned bolt body is machined from bar stock. The bolt body is the same diameter as its three large, evenly spaced, front locking lugs. It is reminiscent of a Weatherby Mark V bolt. Bolt rotation is approximately 60 degrees. The full diameter bolt body and the fact that T/C has honed the inside of the receiver makes the Icon action smooth and wobble free in operation. The extractor slides in a "T" shaped slot in the front of one of the locking lugs in Savage 110 fashion. There is a plunger ejector located in the fully enclosed bolt face.
The metal-injection-molded bolt shroud is formed with curved lightening cuts. The rear of the bolt's attractive, brightly polished striker protrudes from the back of the bolt shroud when the action is cocked. This provides a visual and tactile indicator that the rifle is ready to fire. The steel bolt handle and bolt release are also finished in a brightly polished silver. The latter is a pivoted lever mounted on the left side of the receiver. Press in on the front of this release to free the bolt for removal. The bolt can be reinserted without depressing the bolt release, a good thing since the bolt release lever has a small surface to push against and requires a lot of thumb pressure to depress. The location of the bolt release is excellent, but it should be redesigned with a larger thumb pad.
The design of the bolt handle is worthy of note. Unlike any other bolt with which we are familiar, the Icon's bolt handle is interchangeable using a supplied tool, which is also used to field strip the bolt. Icon rifles come with a square-edged, uniquely uncomfortable version of a butter knife handle, but T/C says that bolt handles with standard (hunter) and oversized (tactical) round knobs will eventually be offered. The former will definitely be an improvement for sportsmen.
The Icon's innovative two position safety is located at the right rear of the receiver. It looks rather like, and is normally operated like, a Remington Model 700 safety. The forward position is "fire" and rearward is "safe." The bolt can be operated to remove a cartridge from the chamber with the safety on. For those who prefer to carry their hunting rifle in the field with the action locked closed, there is a small secondary lever immediately in front of the safety lever. When this little catch is pushed rearward it locks the bolt closed. Shoving the safety forward to the "fire" position automatically releases the bolt lock. The Icon safety makes an audible click, regardless of whether the bolt lock is engaged, when it is moved from "safe" to "fire."
We have read descriptions of this system that liken it to a three position safety and suggest that a conventional three position safety would be simpler and preferable, but we disagree. We find that two position safeties are generally faster and more certain to release in the excitement of a hunt. The Icon system offers the option of locking the bolt closed while retaining the simple operation of a two position safety. We like it.
The Icon's single stage trigger is user adjustable for weight of pull, sear engagement and overtravel. The pull weight range is 2.5 to 6 pounds and it can be adjusted by means of a small Allan wrench without removing the stock. (The stock must be removed, however, to adjust sear engagement and overtravel, as both are secured by lock nuts.) The medium width face of the trigger has fine longitudinal grooves to prevent finger slippage. Our sample was adjusted for a crisp, consistent 3-pound trigger pull without any creep and almost no overtravel. This is perfect for a hunting rifle and we left it alone. We wish that all factory built rifles came with such fine trigger mechanisms. Thompson/Center is to be commended for building a hunting rifle with an excellent trigger, a rarity in this day and age.
The one piece "trigger guard/bottom iron/magazine well" is cast from an aluminum alloy and wears a matte black finish that matches the receiver. The shape of the trigger guard drew some complaints from the Guns and Shooting Online staff, as it incorporates a square back. (The back of the trigger is curved, why isn't the back of the trigger guard?) A square back guard potentially exposes the knuckle of the middle finger to a painful rap under heavy recoil. Worse, it is cast with an unsightly mold line clearly visible inside of the trigger guard bow. The mold line definitely should have been ground off before the part was finished. The trigger guard is probably the least attractive feature of the entire rifle.
Cartridges are fed from a removable, single stack, polymer box magazine with a three-piece body. This magazine holds three .308 Winchester size cartridges that feed from the magazine in a straight line. The same magazine (No. 9801) is used in all present Icon rifles regardless of caliber. Inside the magazine box are a steel spring and a black plastic magazine follower. Since it is plastic, why not make the magazine follower orange for enhanced visibility?
The magazine must be removed from the rifle for loading. The Icon cannot be loaded through the ejection port with the magazine in place. Cartridges are loaded into the magazine by pressing them down against the tension of the follower and magazine spring and sliding them rearward into the magazine, much like loading an auto pistol magazine. The first two cartridges load easily, while the third requires more effort and care as it must be forced into the magazine against the now compressed magazine spring.
Once loaded, the magazine is easily inserted into the magazine well located in front of the trigger guard. The magazine slides smoothly into place with a tiny, audible click. Once locked in place the belly of the magazine protrudes only about 1/4" below the bottom of the rifle and there is no play or movement in the system. The convenient magazine release catch is located in a shallow cut-out directly in front of the magazine well. When the mag release is pressed rearward the empty magazine falls freely into a waiting hand, aided by an internal spring. This spring will pop an empty magazine from the rifle even if it is held upside down. Although we prefer hunting rifles with a fixed, internal magazine and a hinged floorplate that are loaded from the top, the Icon's removable magazine system is a good one.
Our overall impression of the Icon action is that it is very beefy, heavy and hell for strong. It is overkill for use exclusively with standard short action cartridges. Compared to a Kimber 84M (an action actually designed around .308 based cartridges), the Icon action is simply massive. If ever there were an action appropriate for .375 H&H size magnum cartridges (in all but length), this is it. We definitely expect T/C to introduce a magnum length version of the Icon at some point in the future.
Our test rifle's 24", button rifled barrel was free-floated for its entire length. The barrel comes with a recessed, chamfered 60 degree target crown that is alleged to enhance accuracy. T/C claims that their "5R" (5-groove, Russian) button rifling process produces lands with slightly angled sides that improves accuracy and reduces fouling from bullet jacket material.
The Icon's one piece stock is made from black walnut that T/C advertising calls "select grade." Judging by our test Icon, it is similar in grade and figure to the walnut used for most of the production rifles in the Icon's price class. This stock is modern classic in design with a fluted, straight comb and a medium curved pistol grip. This stock is machine checkered in a generous four panel pattern with ribbon accents at 20 lpi and wears what is apparently a synthetic satin finish. The butt terminates in a solid black rubber pad. There is no cheekpiece, contrasting forend tip or pistol grip cap, but detachable sling swivel studs are supplied. The inletting was uniform, but left an overly generous gap completely around the action and bottom iron. The intentional gap between the forend and the free-floating barrel was uniform and of appropriate width with the barrel nicely centered.
The most interesting feature of this stock is its wide, 1/4" thick aluminum bedding block, similar to that used by Accurate Innovations for their rifle stocks. This bedding block is inletted into the wood and epoxied in place. The receiver's flat bottom and three integral recoil lugs mate tightly to matching surfaces in the stock's aluminum bedding block and are held there by three Allan head action screws that thread into the receiver's recoil lugs. This is a very secure method of bedding the action that should be proof against the recoil of even the most powerful cartridges.
Here are some specifications for our Icon test rifle:
We chose to mount a premium Leupold VX-7 2.5-10x45mm scope on the Icon using Leupold steel rings. We have featured this scope in previous reviews, but it is so good that we keep on using it. If you want really sharp, clear views of the target, try one of these Leupold VX-7 scopes. In addition, the VX-7's extremely precise adjustments save us time and ammunition when sighting-in our test rifles.
Guns and Shooting Online's Rocky Hays, Bob Fleck, Gordon Landers and Chuck Hawks participated in our review of the T/C Icon. Between us, we amassed one reload, three factory loads and some 147 grain Argentine NATO spec. ball (FMJ) ammunition with which to test the Icon. The bullet used in the aforementioned reload was the Sierra 150 grain GameKing in front of enough IMR 3031 powder for a MV of 2800 fps. The factory loads that we had on hand included the Winchester Supreme Elite load using a 150 grain XP3 bullet at a MV of 2825 fps, Federal Power-Shok with a 150 grain soft point bullet at a MV of 2820 fps and Remington Express with a 150 grain Core-Lokt PSP bullet at a MV of 2820 fps. These are all spitzer type (pointed) bullets. Obviously, we all prefer to shoot 150 grain bullets in our .308 rifles!
The shooting venue was the Izaak Walton rifle range south of Eugene, Oregon. The autumn weather was cool, about 50 degrees F, and the wind was negligible. Groups for record consisted of three shots at 100 yards and were fired from a Caldwell Lead Sled DFT weighted with two 25 pound bags of lead shot at Hoppe's Crosshair Sighting Targets. We let the barrel cool between shooters and tried to keep it from getting excessively hot while shooting groups, although at times it did get quite warm. Barrel heating did not seem to affect the size of the groups.
Here are our shooting results:
T/C certifies that the Icon will deliver MOA accuracy (1" groups at 100 yards). Our sample Icon easily exceeded that standard with its favored ammunition. Congratulations to Bob, who shot the single smallest group this time around.
Our impressions from shooting the Icon were generally positive. It is an accurate rifle and the stock handles recoil well. Its weight makes it steady to hold and pleasant to shoot. The 24" barrel delivers full velocity from factory loads. Because it is very difficult to single load the Icon, the procedure that we followed at the range was to load three cartridges into the magazine and feed them from there into the chamber. In the field, a wise hunter should carry a spare loaded magazine rather than attempt to load an extra cartridge directly into the chamber.
Another observation is that it is difficult to rotate the Icon's bolt to its locked position when the action is operated slowly. It is easier to sort of slam the Icon's bolt closed and locked in one integrated movement than to attempt to close it gently and then rotate the bolt to the locked position.
One universal complaint involved the shape of the bolt handle. It looks good, but its sharp, square edges are definitely uncomfortable in use. The good news is that the Icon design allows the bolt handle to be changed and we advise potential Icon purchasers to take advantage of this feature by acquiring the bolt handle with a standard round bolt knob as soon as it becomes available.
The Icon action was designed with disparate hunting and tactical applications in mind. Some of its resulting features, such as the matte black receiver finish, push feed, solid top receiver, small ejection port and detachable box magazine system compromise it as a hunting rifle. Thompson/Center Arms hopes that the Icon will replace the discontinued Winchester Model 70 as, well, an icon among American hunting rifles. The date of its introduction was advanced for just that reason. However, the Model 70 was designed purely as a sporting rifle, without compromise. That is why the appellation "the rifleman's rifle" stuck and why the Model 70 remains unsurpassed as the epitome of the American hunting rifle. Its action was not designed for efficient or economical manufacture nor was it intended to serve as the basis for a match rifle, tactical rifle, or anything else but a hunting rifle. As good as it was, better actions have been developed for all of those other roles and prominent among them is the new T/C Icon.
We were all favorably impressed by our Icon test rifle and Rocky Hays, Guns and Shooting Online's Gunsmithing Editor, decided to purchase it for his personal use. When we spend our hard earned dollars to buy a rifle consigned to us for review, you know that we liked it! If you are thinking about a new rifle in the Icon's price range, we suggest that you include this innovative Thompson/Center entry on your "must see" list.
RIFLE REVIEW SUMMARY
Copyright 2007 by chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.
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