October 19, 2022
From just after the Great War until a handful of years ago, bolt-action sporters changed very little in terms of style and appearance. Most rifles were converted surplus military rifles, but commercial models such as the Winchester Model 70 mimicked the prevailing style. American hunters came to rely upon straight combs, open grips, and slim fore-ends. Barrels were from 22 to 26 inches long and of a medium-light profile. But for a flirtation with then-radical designs inspired by Roy Weatherby, this trend held for nearly a century.
Then came the synthetics. The first bolt-action sporters to wear inorganic stocks were custom rifles clad in fiberglass. Chet Brown gets credit for producing the first examples going way back to 1965. Rifles became lighter and more durable and were perfect for rough terrain. They were all custom in those days, and the big names in the industry didn’t get on board the synthetic train until the 1980s. Though these stocks in their day were considered radical among traditionalists, they still shared the classic lines that hunters had come to value. The McMillian stocked .280 Ackley that became my first real hunting rifle was virtually identical to the rifles carried by the likes of O’Connor and his peers. It just didn’t look as pretty.
Next came the Beanfield Rifle craze: heavy-barreled guns designed to take game in the wide-open agricultural fields of the South and the Midwest. Though they too began as custom guns, factory models such as the Remington 700 Sendero came along quickly. In hindsight, the popularity of these rifles, which were nearly identical to military sniper rifles of the day, represented a seismic shift in the way hunting rifles were designed. Woodstocked sporters became the exception rather than the rule.
The latest evolution of the big-game rifle combines the precision-inspired elements of the Beanfield Rifles with attributes of ultra-lightweights designed for mountain hunting. Using advanced materials such as carbon fiber and titanium, manufacturers are able to build rifles that handle and shoot like heavy precision rifles without the weight. This new breed of hunting rifles act like big guns but carry like carbines. Among the current craze of all-things long-range, this category of rifle has become immensely popular. The recipe for building the new breed can vary, but it usually follows a few common themes. The overwhelming majority of rifles in this category are 700-style push-feed bolt actions that feed from a detachable box magazine. These round-bodied actions are easy to machine with precision and simple to bed.
Detachable mags generally allow for greater overall cartridge length than internal magazines do and often feed well since the cartridge is horizontally aligned with the chamber from the get-go. The downside is that unless they fit flush with the stock they can be uncomfortable to carry over long distances.
For stocks, synthetics is the only game in town. They can vary from somewhat traditionally styled fiberglass to chassis-style stocks made from aluminum or carbon fiber. These stocks often feature adjustable lengths of pull and comb heights to accommodate different body types and optics. Vertical pistol grips and wide fore-ends are common, making these stocks ideal for prone or supported shooting positions. Personally, I find them to be less desirable for taking fast shots, especially when shooting offhand.
The barrels often found on this new breed might be the greatest departure from tradition of all. Carbon-fiber-wrapped steel barrels, such as those made by Proof Research, Christensen Arms, and BSF, have become almost standard issue. These barrels are far lighter at any given profile than all-steel barrels and are plenty rigid. Carbon-fiber barrels also cool off faster than all-steel barrels after longer strings of fire. This isn’t an issue in a normal hunting situation, but it’s useful if you spend lots of time on the range.
These rifles are packed with interesting technology and useful features, but are they really necessary? Well, it depends. If you hunt in thick timber or brush where shots come fast and close, these probably aren’t the rifles for you. On the other hand, if you hunt in wide-open spaces where long hikes and precision shooting can be required, you can make a strong case for this style of rifle. Let’s be honest, there is another factor at play. Part of the attraction of these rifles is that they look cool—at least to some eyes. There’s nothing wrong with looking cool, so do what makes you happy.
Perhaps the most attractive element of the new breed is their crossover appeal. With the popularity of long-range shooting, it makes perfect sense to carry the rifle afield that you’ve become comfortable with on the range. You may recall that I recently built a custom rifle with many new-breed elements for this very reason, so I’m not immune to the appeal. Let’s look at some examples.
SPRINGFIELD MODEL 2020 WAYPOINT
Long known for its handguns and M1A rifles, Springfield Armory jumped into the bolt-action rifle world in a big way with the 2020 Waypoint. Various configurations are available, but my experience is with the carbon-fiber barrel and adjustable stock variant. I was fortunate enough to test one of the first rifles produced and came away extremely impressed. The combination of the cone-breech action, adjustable carbon-fiber stock, and BSF carbon barrel produces a rifle that is guaranteed to shoot better than 0.75 MOA yet weighs less than eight pounds.
BARREL LENGTH: 24 inches
LENGTH: 45.5 inches
WEIGHT: 7lbs 10oz.
CARTRIDGE: 6.5 PRC
OPTICS MOUNT: Picatinny Rail
BROWNING X-BOLT HELL'S CANYON MAX LR
Browning’s contribution to the new breed is the Max Long Range, part of the company’s Hell’s Canyon line of X-Bolt rifles. The Max uses a 26-inch, heavy sporter-contour, all-steel barrel that is threaded at the muzzle and comes with a removable brake. The stock has a vertical grip and an adjustable comb, and the detachable magazine fits flush. The combination of the Smoked Bronze Cerakote finish and the stock’s OVIX camo makes for a slick-looking rig. Most of the 9 available chamberings weigh in right at eight pounds.
BARREL LENGTH: 26 inches
LENGTH: 46 inches
CARTRIDGE: 6.8 Western
OPTICS MOUNT: Drilled and Tapped
CHRISTENSEN ARMS TRAVERSE
Christensen Arms has been a pioneer of the new breed. It introduced the bolt-action world to carbon fiber way back in 1995. The brand now includes numerous models ranging from fairly traditional to space age. The Traverse is nestled in the middle of the pack, maintaining many elements of yesteryear’s sporters with modern materials and features. The receiver is machined from 416R stainless steel and mates with an aluminum bottom metal with a hinged floorplate. The barrel is stainless steel that is wrapped in carbon fiber and threaded at the muzzle. The carbon-fiber stock has a palm-swell grip and Monte Carlo cheekpiece. Rifles are available in 21 chamberings ranging from .22-250 to .375 H&H. Short-action rifles tip the scales at 7.3 pounds, and long actions are a hair heavier.
BARREL LENGTH: 26 inches
LENGTH: 48 inches
WEIGHT: 7lbs 11oz.
CARTRIDGE: .300 WIN
OPTICS MOUNT: Picatinny Rail
MAGAZINE: Hinged Floor Plate
Aesthetically, Sig’s bolt-action Cross is one of the least traditional designs out there. The Sig starts with a user-interchangeable stainless-steel barrel, available in lengths as short as 16 inches, which is ideal for a suppressor. The M-LOK fore-end is free-floating and allows mounting of accessories, including a bipod. The pistol grip and safety selector will be familiar to AR-15 owners, and the magazine is a Magpul AICS detachable unit. A two-stage match trigger comes standard. Its most attractive feature is the folding and adjustable Sig precision stock. With the stock folded, the whole rifle can drop into a pack for transport. Rifle weights hover around 6.5 pounds depending on the barrel length.
BARREL LENGTH: 16 inches
LENGTH: 38.5 inches
WEIGHT: 6lbs 13oz.
CARTRIDGE: 6.5 Creedmoor
OPTICS MOUNT: Picatinny Rail