By Jeff Johnston, Contributing Editor
In 1886 the esteemed Austrian riflemaker Mannlicher introduced a straight-pull bolt-action rifle. It became very popular for its blend of speed and precision when compared to the traditional pull-up-and-back bolt-guns of the day, and it saw action in several wars. In Europe, the concept remains en-vogue with noted arms makers such as Blaser, Mauser, Heym, Merkel, Anshutz and a few others producing them. Many European hunters tout them as superior. The problem? For one, they’re expensive, and for some other reason the concept never took off in America. But they shouldn’t be expensive, and it shouldn’t have taken 130 years for one to be produced affordably in America.
Certainly the modern straight pull-design is a little more complex than a traditional two- to six lug rotating bolt-action, but not much, and so with modern CNC manufacturing methods a straight-pull gun shouldn’t cost much more than anything else. Savage Arms looks to change that in 2021 with the launch of its daring Impulse rifle line, which starts at $1,449. Why daring? Because American riflemen tend to be traditionalists. But they are also pragmatic, much like a straight-pull bolt.
First editions of the Impulse line include the Hog Hunter, Big Game and Predator models. Although each is geared toward a different pursuit, the rifle’s concept remains the same: In essence it’s a full featured, mid-weight hunting rifle owning a fully ambidextrous straight-pull bolt, Savage’s vaunted 110 barrel, a modular (adjustable) stock, and all the features that make Savage rifles accurate and value-packed including including its patented AccuStock, AccuTrigger and barrel nut method of barrel attachment.
But the real story is the bolt. Back in the old Mannlicher days, straight-pull systems most often utilized simple wedges of steel that would engage to keep the bolt sealed tight until a pull straight backward, utilizing leverage, released the wedge’s bite on the barrel extension to disengage it. However, newer technology is utilized in modern rifles, the Impulse included.
Although Savage calls its version the “HexLock,” so named for its six ball bearing/detent system, the design concept is well-proven. What’s more, it uses simple leverage principles to require less strength and motion to engage and disengage its bite. Stainless steel balls encircle the bolt head and fit in the corresponding barrel extension channel, or detent, when they are engaged via the bolt handle. When the bolt handle is pushed forward to its shooting position, an internal cam/lever system pushes a spring-loaded rod into the bolt-head, thereby expanding the ring of ball bearings outward and locking the bolt solidly in place against the perpendicular force of recoil. When the bolt is pulled backward, the spring assists in pulling the rod backward, allowing the steel ball bearings to recess into the bolt head, thereby releasing its bite from the barrel extension. Further rearward pressure by the shooter extracts the shell and ejects it, just like any bolt-action.
While it may sound complicated, it's actually simple, as one look at a photo or video of it will reveal. This locking method has been used for decades on everything from quick-detach keychains to mega-crane systems used for industrial construction due to their holding weight. Besides its speed, strength and lower energy required to work it, the straight pull also has another advantage: Bolt heads can be easily swapped for different calibers of the same cartridge size. And, because the bolt handle is pulled backward and not leveraged up or down, it means the handle can be swapped to the other side of the rifle for left-handed use, and that’s exactly what Savage’s engineers did. Indeed, the entire rifle is ambidextrous, save except for the ejection port that remains on the right side of the receiver. The receiver is machined to form an integral picatinny rail, so you can forget having to find bases that fit the rifle and your rings.
Converting the bolt to its left-hand configuration takes less than a minute; simply depress the pin of the nut lock cover, remove the cover, then remove the handle from the right side of the receiver. Reinsert it in the left side, choose whatever angle you wish the bolt to reside at, then replace the locking nut on the opposite side. I don’t want to hear any more moaning from lefties about how they’re neglected!
A Savage model 110 medium-heavy, fluted barrel is attached to the action using the barrel nut that I believe is one key to the firm’s reputation for mass-produced accuracy. Each rifle is fine-tuned for headspace at the factory, a practice that is one of Savage’s old secrets to sub-MOA accuracy – provided the barrel, bedding and trigger are sound. The barrel is affixed to the stock using Savage’s patented AccuStock bedding system. Each Impulse barrel is Cerakoted and then threaded for a suppressor.
While the tang-mounted safety is a smooth, easy and quiet two-position affair; a button on the bolt handle’s root can be depressed to unload the gun while it remains on safe. The trigger is a wonderful AccuTrigger unit that needs no further explanation. It comes from the factory set at 3-pounds and goes a long way in giving Savage the accuracy for which it’s known. Finally, a plastic, detachable, 4-round box magazine is flush-fit to the belly of the receiver in the Big Game and Hog Hunter models while the Predator comes with an extended metal mag that holds 10. Finally, the AccuStock is a delight because it’s adjustable for length of pull and comb height by way of modules. If you’ll take the time to set the gun up perfectly, you’ll find you’re more accurate at long range.
In testing, the Impulse proved outstanding in every category. While at South Texas’ FTW ranch, I shot charging elephant and buffalo targets as rapidly as if I were shooting a pump shotgun. It is absolutely faster than a traditional bolt gun, both because bolt travel is less and the straight pull allows keeping your head on the stock and your eyes on the target. There is simply no disputing the speed advantage. On long-range targets it also has an advantage. You see, whenever the wind blows, a shooter generally gets a few seconds of that same wind. So if you miss a target, your best chance of hitting it on the second shot is to note your bullet impact, reload and fire again with correction as quickly as possible.
This isn’t hype. It’s very real and I saw it happen time after time in Texas. While the traditional bolt gunners were working the bolt and getting settled on target again, I’d already fired. Action style aside, the Impulse is easily sub-MOA accurate. I recorded .70-inch groups with my standard, out-of-the-box test rifle chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor. With an excellent Zeiss V4 4-16x-44mm scope mounted and using Hornady ELD-X ammunition, I routinely nailed steel targets out to 1400 yards – all with a factory, hunter-weight rifle. During one drill we’d fire at a target, say 400 yards, then would have to find and engage another, say at 600 yards, within 10 seconds. I was doing it in five with the straight-pull action.
At around 8 ½ pounds, it isn’t an ultra-lightweight to be sure, but the thing just shoots. And if I had to have one rifle for everything – from whitetails and hogs, coyotes and elk and even long-range targets, the Impulse in 6.5, .308 or .30-06 would probably be it. As far as the straight pull bolt: I believe it’s a superior mousetrap, and if Americans would have had more access to affordable straight-pull bolt guns, I think they’d think so too. Now we do. $1,449 | savagearms.com
Savage Impulse Big Game
- Action: Straight-Pull Bolt
- Barrel Length: 22” (Short Action calibers)
- Calibers: 6.5 Creedmoor; .243 Win, .308 Win. 30-06, .300 Win Mag, .300 WSM
- Magazine Capacity: 4; detachable
- Length of Pull (in) / (cm): 12.75 - 13.75 / 30.5
- Overall Length (in) / (cm): 43.5 / 109.2
- Rate of Twist (in): 1 in 8
- Weight: 8.8
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