May 27, 2011
by Wayne van Zwoll
Blaser (that's blah'-zer, not blay'-zer) came to life in 1957, so it's a relatively young company. But its products have quickly gained favor among sportsmen on both sides of the Atlantic. While Blaser makes a variety of firearms, from a smooth-swinging F3 shotgun to a dainty K95 single shot rifle, its most notable offering may be the R93. This straight-pull repeater gives discriminating riflemen a selection of chamberings on a switch-barrel action noted for its trim lines and original engineering. Now it has been improved. The R8, named after the year those improvements began (2008), has at this writing just appeared in the U.S. "It's the first Blaser to make its debut in the States," noted Bernhard Kobel, CEO of Blaser. "Europe will see it shortly." He insists neither the R8 nor the R93 fits the German stereotype. "They're not overengineered and underdesigned." That is, the mechanisms reflect purpose; refinements enhance utility. "These rifles point naturally, shoot accurately and cycle with a flick of your wrist."
Norbert Hausman runs Blaser's North American operation from its headquarters in San Antonio, where I first saw the R8. Norbert assured me the features that made the R93 such a remarkable rifle will remain: hammer-forged barrels; telescoping, radial-head bolt; target-quality trigger; screwless scope mounting; straight-up, single-stack magazine tucked into a compact trigger group. That assembly trims overall length. An R93 with 24-inch barrel is shorter than a Remington 700 with a 22-inch tube.
A Blaser doesn't operate like a 700 either. The bolt handle controls a telescoping, straight-pull mechanism you can run from the shoulder in a single heartbeat — without losing your sight picture. The thumbpiece that cocks the R8 is the only safety. Shove it up and forward. It locks. You're ready to fire. When you want to decock, push ahead again, but down slightly, and let it return to the rear. "The R93 and now the R8 are the only bolt rifles you can carry safely at the ready," emphasized Norbert, "because they're not cocked until you're ready to fire."
Like its predecessor, the R8 bolt head locks with a collett forced into a circumferential groove in the barrel shank by forward movement of the bolt. "But the R8 is stronger," pointed out Norbert, a master gunsmith with a wealth of technical knowledge. "Its locking angle is steeper than the 45 degrees on the R93. Also, a bushing slides into the collett's center during lockup for additional support. We've tested this mechanism to pressures of 120,000 psi, damaging gauges before the rifles failed."
Blaser barrels come in various lengths, weights and contours, fluted and not. Most chambers are hammer-forged. Bernhard explained that cartridges with a sharp shoulder or a big disparity between body and neck diameters mandate that chambers be cut in traditional fashion. Plasma nitrating applied to each barrel's exterior boosts surface hardness. "Scope rings and base clamps are softer," said Bernhard. "They can't mar the barrel, and they don't slip from the dimples. Our saddle rings fit so precisely that you can remove the scope and replace it without losing zero."
Sure, you might get near-zero repeatability, but I didn't believe the spot-on promise.
"Give me that rifle." Tom Mack is an accomplished shotgunner, conducting clinics throughout our country, but also helping Blaser market its hardware. A bear of a man with a ready grin, he snatched the R8 before I had could say no. He freed the scope with a couple of tugs on the thumb latches. Hoo boy. I'd been flailing at a five-gallon bucket filled with chalky Texas rock and set against a hill 600 yards distant. The .300 had done my bidding more often than not. Now Tom was reattaching the Zeiss 6-24x56 scope. "Have at it," he insisted over my protest. I bellied into position, muttering that "return to zero" was a euphemism beyond 100 yards. Favoring into a light breeze at 9 o'clock, I pressed the trigger. As the rifle came out of recoil, I saw the plume of white dust. "Bingo!" Tom cackled. "Again." I flicked the Blaser's bolt — an effortless event even prone, where a turnbolt rifle requires enough arm movement to scuttle your position. Another squeeze. Another Federal load rocketed downrange. "Got it again, 7 o'clock." He was smug now. "One more." I cycled the R8, fired, hit. "I guess that scope held onto its clicks," drawled Tom. At 600 yards, the smallest variation in scope placement will cause a miss. I conceded the argument.
"You can replace barrels with the same confidence," Bernhard told me later. I had confirmed that with the R93 in Namibia, replacing one barrel with another, previously zeroed. My Norma loads drilled bullseyes at 300 steps. Hailing from a generation that preached regular zero checks after any riflework, I still shoot paper before every hunt. But the barrel lockup of Blaser's R93 and R8 — two screws plus the recoil lug — is so tight that zero-check tradition amounts to theater. You still need but a single tool, a T-handled Allen wrench, to switch barrels or remove the buttstock. But the wrench supplied with the R8 is 5mm: that with the R93 is 4mm.
Other differences? "The most obvious is the R8's drop-box magazine," said Bernhard. Deftly, he pinched a pair of unobtrusive tabs bracketing the receiver atop the triggerguard. The magazine, with the trigger group, fell into his hand. "You can top-load the stack without removing the box," he explained, "or load it in your hand. The assembly can't drop accidentally, because you must depress both latches at once." If you wish to lock the magazine in place, there's a sliding tab inside the box, accessible from the top with the box installed. One box accommodates all cartridges for which the R8 is chambered (about two dozen and growing), from .222 Remington to .416 Remington Magnum. But the inner parts, a snap to change by hand, work for families of cartridges. For example, a stop abbreviates the bolt throw for rounds shorter than the .30-06. While the triggerguard and magazine belly are of alloy, the feed mechanism are an aramid-reinforced synthetic material — lightweight, strong, slick.
"When you remove the magazine and trigger group," said Norbert, "the rifle automatically decocks and it remains non-functional until the assembly is replaced." To protect the assembly while it's out of the R8, Blaser supplies a polymer cup that fits it snugly. There's also a polymer insert for the receiver to ensure no water or debris enters the mechanism.
The R8's stock is also new. "All versions will have a straight-comb, American-style buttstock," Bernhard pointed out. "It's superior to the traditional German hump-comb design." I noticed, too, that the new stock is slightly longer than the R93's — much better for my reach. Shooters with shorter arms who tried the R8 with me expressed no dissatisfaction. "We tried to make this a custom-grade stock in every respect," Bernhard continued. "It has cast-off at toe and heel and even 3.5mm in the grip to make sight alignment quick and easy." The wood is Turkish walnut. It comes in several grades. Even mid-grade wood boasts exceptional figure. There is even a synthetic stock option coming."
R8s sold in Europe will come standard with a trigger pull of 1.6 pounds. Stateside hunters get the same crisp break at 21/2 pounds. You can special-order the light trigger, but the parts must be installed by Blaser. Though it seems you could simply trade trigger groups to change pull, weight adjustment happens inside the receiver. Like the R93, the R8 has an extremely fast lock time.
Shooting a .375 and a .30-06 in Africa, I was impressed not only with the Blaser's accuracy, but with its ability to retain minute-of-angle precision when hot. My 600-yard work with the .300 Winchester, and more prone at 100 with a .308, showed the R8 to be as tight-shooting as the R93. Its compact design and excellent balance, with feeding that matches the speed of a pump action, make it ideal for running boar events — or running whitetails. While I've yet to hunt with the R8, I did try it on running boar targets — again and again and again! If there's anything as addicting and still legal, I can't name it. Topped with a Zeiss Vari-Point scope, with its razor-edge resolution, brilliant field and red dot, the R8 left the hapless pig perforated as brass piled up beside me. No cycling hitches.
Is the R8 a perfect rifle? For most hunting, it's darn close. The one change I'd request is a more open grip. The steep European wrist is okay offhand, but in prone and sitting my big hand wants more freedom. I think a sweeping grip would look better and improve handling. No doubt the common German practice of shooting game offhand from stands had much to do with the R8's stock design.
There. I said something critical. While I might add its reasonably steep price ($3,200 to start), you must shoot one of these rifles before you call it expensive. Honestly, the R8 leaves little to impugn.