Wednesday, December 29, 2010

On Scout Rifles...

There was a limited production run of the Jeff Cooper Scout Rifle by Steyr on the market this year. Some may not be familiar with the Scout Rifle concept so here's a primer and a few links...

Jeff's Handy Little Rifle
 



Jeff Cooper developed his concept of the Scout Rifle in the late 1960s and throughout the 70s. Doctrine was refined at several scout conferences convened by him in the 80s. A scout rifle was to be a light (3kg), short (1m), bolt-action chambered for the 308 Winchester cartridge (or perhaps the 243 or 7mm08 as needed), fitted with a forward mounted scope of low magnification. There are other desirable, but not mandatory, features such as reserve iron sights, carriers for extra ammo, integral bipods, magazine cutoff, stripper clip guides, or removable box magazines.

Origins and Inspirations

So where did the idea for the scout rifle's criteria come from? The Old Man was impressed by a variety of details found on several classic rifles of the 20th century. From the late 1960s through the 90s his ideas of what constitutes a proper general purpose rifle evolved.


Jeff spoke highly of the Winchester 94 which was light, short, and possessed excellent ergonomics. However he observed that the 30 WCF cartridge lacked the power and trajectory needed in a general purpose rifle.


Likewise, Jeff was impressed by the work done by adventurers, explorers, and hunters using the Mannlicher-Schoenauer 1903 chambered for the 6.5x54 cartridge. Again this rifle was light, short, handy, and had a buttery smooth action. The 6.5 cartridge's 160 grain "pencil" bullet at 2300 fps was more effective in the field than the ballistic charts suggest and was used successfully on every game animal in the world, yes, even elephant.



There were two WWII-era rifles that contributed to the scout concept. The first was the No.5 Enfield, the so-called "Jungle Carbine," essentially a shortened and lightened No.4 Enfield chambered for the 303 British cartridge. The Enfield had excellent battle sights, a ten round magazine, a very quick action, a reputation for rugged reliability, and it weighed several pounds less than the No.4 or the earlier MkIII. Regrettably, it had a reputation for a wandering zero as it heated up during extensive firing, but the Colonel reminded us that most rifle engagements should only require a cartridge or two. It was also thought to be hard kicking and prone to a larger flash signature than the full-size rifle so a recoil pad and flash hider were fitted.



The other WWII rifle introduced the idea of the forward mounted optical sight. The Mauser 98k ZF41 was essentially standard German service rifle except that a long eye relief 2x scope was attached to the rear sight base on the barrel. It was not a sniper rifle per se, but intended for use by regular soldiers acting as designated marksmen. It was not popular with the troops, but it apparently got a few American manufacturers thinking.

The 60s Were Good to Us: Origins of the Scout Scope



While a scout rifle is much more than just a rifle with a forward mounted scope it is certainly the signature of the breed. Jeff Cooper didn't invent the idea of mounting an intermediate eye relief scope on the barrel instead of over the receiver but the notion would have been a long forgotten experiment but for his efforts.



In the 1960s Redfield offered a FrontIER scope and base system that placed an Intermediate Eye Relief (IER) 2x scope on the barrel ahead of the receiver of the Winchester 94. They later improved on the idea with their Model 294. In 1964 they adapted the system to the Remington 600. Leupold offered a Detacho mount and a LER 2x scope for the M600. In many of their print ads for their new rifle Remington featured forward mounted scopes by both makers.  The Colonel chose a Buehler forward mount when he scoped his M600.

The Remington 600



In 1964 Remington introduced a new bolt action rifle, the Model 600.  It weighed but six pounds and had a slim barrel only 18-1/2 inches in length which wore a plastic ventilated rib (according to some, meant to distract the observer from the skinny barrel).  It came in 308 Winchester and a variety of other conventional cartridges.  In 1965 Remington brought out the Model 600 Magnum chambered for two new cartridges - a 350 that ran with then wildcat 35 Whelen and a 6.5mm meant to chase the 270 Winchester - in a carbine-sized package.  The stock was made of laminated walnut and maple planks for strength.  They would shortly introduce the Model 660 and the 600 Mohawk, featuring longer, heavier barrels but no rib.  



Jeff started using the Remington 600 in 1967 and was quickly enamored of its attributes.  He used a Buehler forward mount to attach a 2x Leupold IER scope to his M600 and "Scout I" was born.

The Super Scouts



There was another category of scout rifle, the "Super Scout," intended for very large game. The first of these was Colonel Cooper's Fireplug, a Remington 660 Magnum wearing a 2-3/4x Bushnell scope mounted in the conventional position, chambered for the 350 Remington Magnum.  Fireplug offered 35 Whelen ballistics - a .358 250 grain bullet @ 2400 fps - from a seven pound rifle less than a meter long.



Jeff's second rifle of this type was his "Lion Scout" a full on custom scout built up on a Brno ZKK action, again in 350 Rem Mag.  Its slightly longer magazine allowed him to claim an honest 2500 fps from its 19 inch barrel - that and Jeff used the stiffly loaded brass only once.



When Steyr introduced the Scout Rifle they also offered a version chambered for a new cartridge, the 376 Steyr. The 376 produces 35 Whelen or 9.3x62 performance, but as its bullet was .375 diameter it was legal for large or dangerous game in many African countries.  Jeff referred to his as "The Dragoon."

Custom Scout Rifles



Those who had scouts custom built in the pre-Steyr days spent several thousand dollars for the privilege. Many of these scout owners seem even happier with them than the Steyr shooters so there won’t be many custom scouts on the used rack. Jeff's Scout II, "Sweetheart," was a custom built by Robbie Barkmann on a Sako 308-length action. 



As mentioned above, his second Super Scout - “Lion Scout” - was as custom a scout as was ever made, especially its extended magazine which Jeff proudly declared made it a “six-shooter.” There are several makers who continue to offer custom scouts. Until recently Grizzly Custom Guns did some beautiful work with some premium actions.  They appeared to "get it."

Scout III



Scout III was a Ruger M77 Ultralight 308 with a scope base from their No. 1 single shot fitted to its slender 20 inch barrel. I used Scout III at my first Gunsite API-270 rifle class in 1988 after my 1903 Springfield suffered several parts failures. It was handy, slim, and light. I used it to break a clay target in the air. Legend has it Scout III was shown to Bill Ruger "who just didn't get it" so the project went nowhere.



More than a decade later, long after they gave up the chance to totally own the off the shelf scout rifle market, Ruger introduced the M77 MkII Frontier rifle. It was a mixed bag. They made the barrel a needlessly stubby 16 inches and shortened the stock to a youth length of pull, and the factory rings put the scope a quarter inch too high.  Still, in stainless with a laminated stock it makes a sturdy little scout. Some folks add backup iron sights and a recoil pad. Alas, the Frontier was discontinued in 2009.



In 2010 Ruger took another, more serious stab at the scout concept by introducing their Ruger Gunsite Scout Rifle. It's an interesting mix of features, compromises, and questionable touches. Personally, I have no use for the protruding single stack magazine, the five and ten round versions of which interfere with one of the scout's nicest features, the ability to grasp the rifle around the action.  Nonetheless, the RGSR has sold by by the pallet load since its introduction - coming in blue or stainless, with laminated wood or synthetic stocks, on right or left handed actions, wearing short or shorter barrels, and with or without a threading for a factory provided flash hider or muzzle brake.  I wonder (a little) what Jeff would have said of it.    

The Other Scout Rifle



Until the Ruger 77 Frontier and then the RGSR came along, the only commercially available alternative to the Steyr Scout was the Savage Scout, the 10FCM. The Savage is less expensive than the Ruger Frontier was or the RGSR is. Jeff was not enamored of it, regarding it as the scout concept executed on the cheap. In fact its earliest iterations did come across as a little flimsy - especially the stock. The 10FCM has been improved of late and now leaves the box wearing an AccuTrigger (which really is amazing) and the AccuStock (which appears to correct the shortcomings of the original handle). Until the Ruger Gunsite Scout Rifle came along it was the only factory-made scout that could be ordered with a left-handed bolt.  Versions I and II needed a third swivel stud to use a Ching Sling (our friend Andy Langlois will set you up) but iteration III comes from the factory with the middle swivel.

The Remington Seven



Until the Savage Scout and the Ruger Frontier came along about the only way to assemble a scout rifle for under $1000 was to do it the “Scout I” way, by refitting a Remington Seven (the successor of the M600). About the nicest example I've seen was made for the late Eric Ching. Eric had his done as a 260 Remington, which "violated" doctrine, but hearkens to the days of the 6.5 Mannlicher, one of the progenitors of the concept. I can assure you it killed whitetails quite neatly. It may be just a little over weight, but Jeff was the only person especially dogmatic about the 3 kg limit (and he only until he revised it to seven pounds when the Steyr came along). Replacing the injection molded factory stock with a hand-laid kevlar job, such as the KS from the Custom Shop, would fix that were it truly important. The Seven shares the design flaws some see in the M600 and M700 family of rifles, but the Colonel never seemed to have broken either of his early scouts.



Eric's scout wears a Burris scout scope in Weaver rings on a Ching Ring mount done by Geoff Beneze. The Ching Ring, as briefly manufactured by Geoff Beneze and Andy Langlois, or the commercially successful XS implementation of the same idea, the XS/Clifton, makes for a very nice aftermarket scout mount, with none of the multi-year waits for an accurate "buggy whip" pedestal mount barrels once part of the pilgrimage. Remove the stock, turn the barrel to a cylindrical section close to the receiver, and glue the mount in place with AcraGlas or some other miracle adhesive, and you have a forward rail. I’ve only seen a couple of Ching Rings in person - on Eric’s Model Seven, a Mauser, and a SMLE - but they seemed very solid and the rear bells are very close to the receiver, as they should be. It works as Eric intended.



Pseudo-Scouts



Jeff allowed that there might be some scouts that departed from doctrine in order to make use of some special advantage, such as using the 30-06 cartridge or the 1903 Springfield action in particular. Such rifles usually did not meet the scout rifle criteria for length or weight and were dubbed "pseudo-scouts."

I have a 1903 Springfield pseudo-scout, initial gunsmithing and integral bipod stock by Clifton, finish by Robar, scout scope mount and rings added later by the Gunsite ‘Smithy. (A garage burglar stole the original Burris scout scope and its very expensive Talley rings years ago, so my 1903 has served as my iron sighted "rain rifle" for some time now.) It is light enough to be unpleasant for extended shooting. Mine is slightly muzzle-heavy, what with it wearing a bobbed GI barrel. It wears an M14 National Match front sight on a customized base out at the end of the barrel where it belongs and a Williams receiver sight with target knobs that tore at my thumbnail while I learned the bolt flick. Its aftermarket Timney trigger releases a striker that has the lock time of a doorknob, but there are no light strikes.

The 1903 action, as delightful as it is, is only a few years less obsolete than the Krag and parts are growing scarce and more expensive. Synthetic stocks for it were never common. The Clifton bipod stock is the stuff of legend (and a few border skirmishes) but is now long gone. The Springfield was my first centerfire rifle, bought in the days when a "sporterized" 1903 wearing a Redfield receiver sight could be had for $50 1974 dollars, so I’ll be holding on to it, but I wouldn’t do it again.

Lever Scouts



These days there's the Browning BLR. The BLR is chambered for the 308 Winchester and other modern, high intensity cartridges using spitzer bullets. This version of their BLR lever gun can be had as a take down rifle with a scout mount for optics. This is their current, somewhat chubby, alloy-framed rifle rather than the svelte steel-frame originals. Their 325 WSM version might even be regarded as a lever action Super Scout.  If the Browning take down system is accurate there are some serious advantages to explore here, especially in these days of carefully weighed and measured airline luggage.



More than a few Winchesters and many Marlin lever actions have been fitted with forward optics and dubbed Lever Scouts. The Colonel was not fond of them.  He thought anything the sportsman or gunfighter could do with the 30 WCF cartridge could be done with iron sights.  There are some cartridges - such as the 307 Winchester and 308 Marlin Express - that run with the 308 Winchester, and some leverguns might "make weight." I tried a scout scope on Mjolnir, my 45-70 Guide Gun, but the sight line was too high for my cheek weld so I went back to irons. Brockman will attach a scout scope to your Marlin if you like. Off the shelf mounting solutions include Wild West Guns (gunsmithing required, but it seems to allow a very low sight line) and XS (only a screwdriver is needed).

Poor Man's Scout



There have always been folks attracted to the scout rifle idea but who couldn't afford a doctrinally correct custom job, or a Steyr Scout when they became available. Apparently some would be riflemen cannot even scrape together enough cash for a Ruger or the Savage. Thus, there is no end of ugly old milsurp rifles fitted with forward mounted optical sights.

Some are made by replacing rear sights with aftermarket scope mounts that hearken back to the M98k ZF41 setup, but without the provenance. If any of these solutions put the scope very close to the barrel they might, at best, serve as an inexpensive method of attaching optical sights to rifles handicapped by straight bolt handles or safeties that were difficult to retrofit. As it is most put the scope way too high where they are clumsy or fragile in appearance. War weary surplus Mausers and Mosin-Nagant rifles are seen wearing these mounts more often than others. Still others are made by using the XS mount on cut down SMLEs, Enfield No. 4 and 5 rifles, and Mausers. Some are cobbled together using whatever works, regardless the appearance of the final product. The line between a pseudo-scout and a poor man's scout may exist in the eye of the beholder, but most riflemen can recognize a poor example when they see it.

Jeff cared for cheap scouts not at all. A man of his generation, he thought that any serious rifleman would do without a good many creature comforts long enough to save the cash for a serious rifle, or buy an Enfield No. 4 and make do.

Experts Will Disagree

Not everyone cares for the Scout Rifle. Some think they look funny. Can't help you there, but the saying "Pretty is as pretty does" comes to mind.  Personally, I find well done examples quite appealing.

Some are concerned a short skinny barrel and a little scope can't shoot as well as a "real" rifle. In the days we attended Gunsite on a regular basis we saw some pretty fancy shooting with scout rifles. I witnessed Naish Piazza using his early numbered ZKK scout from sling prone to shoot a five round group at 400 meters that measured three inches. That precise work can be done with 2-3/4 power optic should be no surprise considering how well competitive shooters do with iron sights in many games.

A more serious criticism comes from some who have hunted extensively with scout rifles. As Jim Dodd and others have pointed out, the scout scope's greatest disadvantages are in low light and at dusk and dawn, when sunlight on the rear lens can interfere with one's view through the scope.

Legendary gunstock builder Gale McMillan once opined that the Scout Rifle was "a pistol expert's idea of a rifle." I don't know if Mr. McMillan was personally acquainted with Jeff Cooper or the depth of his fascination with rifles, but his quip rings hollow to those of us who knew The Old Man, trained with him, and have actually carried the Scout Rifle afield.


The Scout Rifle is very usable general purpose rifle, an accretion of many fine details which add up to something better and sweeter than the sum of its parts. While the system may not be perfect it has many fans. Thanks to The Colonel we'll enjoy the concept for some time to come.