The search for the Ultimate Lightweight Rifle-an interview with Cabela's gun guru Wes Dillon.
Author: Mike Schoby
Rifle weight never used to concern me very much. But as I get older, my legs ache and my lungs burn more than they used to and I notice the weight of the 10-pound rifle more and more.
In addition to my aching body, my hunting dreams have expanded to include bighorn sheep, goats and trophy mule deer. Will I get to hunt sheep and goats this year? Probably not, but I will be hunting mulies and possibly elk in some of the steepest terrain North America has to offer. With this in mind, I began mentally designing the perfect rifle for a strenuous high mountain hunt.
To my way of thinking, the perfect mountain rifle has to be accurate. It has to withstand rugged conditions but most importantly it has to be light. Not that long ago this was a tall order to fill, but today there are more manufacturers than ever before producing lightweight rifles that are a pleasure to carry, can withstand all the abuse you and the country can throw at them and some are capable of eye-popping accuracy.
Since I have spent my life, admiring, coveting and collecting classic wood and blued rifles and shotguns, the ultra light niche is not my strongest suit. So I decided to contact Wes Dillon, Cabela’s Gun Library Manager, and pick his brain on the subject. Wes is a veritable expert on most things related to firearms and is as well versed on early British proof house marks as he is on the cutting edge of rifle technology. I have been around firearms, collectors and serious gun nuts my whole life and I have yet to meet someone with the diverse knowledge base of Wes.
What is a Light Rifle?
I asked Wes, "Tell me a bit about light rifles. First, what defines a light rifle? You hear this term thrown around a lot in shooting circles, but what is the cutoff point between a light rifle and a standard weight model?"
"People tend to over simplify the nomenclature, as there are really three levels of "light rifles." The first class is a carbine or lighter version of a model already in production. For example Winchester makes the model 70 Featherweight, and Compact. Both are really just shortened and lightened versions of their standard model 70. Remington’s model 700 Mountain Rifle and their model 7 are the equivalent for the Model 700 standard weight. In both the case of Remington and Winchester, the light versions weigh between one and two pounds less than a standard weight rifle."
"The second level is specific factory production models of lightweight rifles. A couple examples are the Weatherby Ultra Light and the Remington 2001 Titanium." Wes continued, "Both are factory rifles but weigh close to what a full custom "ultra light" will weigh, at a fraction of the cost."
"The third and final category is a full custom "ultra light rifle." These are the epitome of lightweight rifle perfection."
For example, Lex Webernick of Rifles Inc. can turn a standard model 700 Remington into a lightweight work of art that not only shoots great, but also weighs less then 4 3/4 pounds!
Since Wes is in the business of selling firearms, I was curious who buys the majority of lightweight rifles.
"Anyone who packs a rifle afield can benefit from a lighter weight rifle, but guys that spend a lot of time above tree line really appreciate the reduced pounds. At 10,000 feet, in steep country, ounces become pounds and at the end of the day, a 10 pound rifle can be a killer to carry."
While you probably won’t see many ultra light rifles winning the Wimbleton Cup at Camp Perry (1,000-yard prone match), or setting any bench rifle records-they aren’t slouches either. It used to be that to make an accurate rifle a heavy or bull barrel mated to a heavy wood stock, for added rigidness, was mandatory. While rigidity and heavy overall weights still do equate to accuracy, gun makers have seriously refined how rifles shoot - regardless of weight.
"If you want the ultimate in accuracy, ultra light rifles may not be for you," says Wes. "Retaining rigidity and concentricity is very difficult to achieve with an ultralight rifle, but that being said, they are a far cry from being inaccurate. Tight tolerances, blue printed actions and rigid stocks ensure that these rifles are more than up to any shot you may encounter while hunting."
Almost all of the current ultra light rifles are capable of MOA accuracy and will shoot better than 99.9% of the marksmen wielding them. "I don’t think you have to be worried about accuracy on any of the current ultra-light offerings," says Wes.
Depending on the individual rifle and caliber, recoil may or may not be a problem. Personally I don’t have any desire to get an ultra light gun in some super magnum caliber. For what I intend to use the rifle for (elk, deer, sheep and goats) a .270, 30-06 or a .300 will be perfectly adequate. Felt recoil is a relative thing. To some, the recoil generated by a .300 in a standard weight rifle is excessive, but I have shot some ultra light rifles in .300 and even larger calibers that were fitted with a muzzle break and was amazed at how light the recoil was. A good muzzle break can turn a .300 Win Mag’s recoil into the normal recoil associated with a .270 in a standard rifle.
Another consideration to remember is that you probably will not be shooting these rifles much. A bit of practice in the off season, some load development and final sighter shots are generally the norm. The rest will be afield.
Who are the Players?
It used to be, that if you wanted a lightweight rifle, you pretty much had to go with a custom offering from a company that specialized in skelotinizing commercial rifles, but now, in addition to the custom offerings, there are several great options that are light in weight and even lighter on your wallet.
The Winchester model 70 featherweight has long time been associated with light mountain guns. While it is not as feathery as its name implies (7 pounds) it still offers a significant weight savings over a standard model 70. In a short action, with its Schnabel forend and streamlined stock it is a pleasure to carry on any high mountain hunt. It is available in seven calibers to fit most situations.
Winchester also makes the Classic Compact, which essentially is a scaled down model 70. It has a 20-inch barrel and weighs 6 pounds. It is available in .243, .308 and 7mm-08.
Weatherby offers the Ultra Lightweight, which tips the scales at 5 3/4 pounds and magnum calibers at 6 3/4 pounds, in both right and left handed models. They feature a stainless fluted Krieger Barrel, a lightened action and a hand laminated synthetic Monte Carlo stock. In the standard action it is available in .243, .240 Weatherby Mag, 7mm-08, .308, .25-06, .270, .280, .30-06, and new for this year, .338-06 A-Square. In the magnum action it can be had in .257 Weatherby Mag, .270 Weatherby Mag, 7mm Wetherby Mag, 300 Weatherby Mag, and 7mm and 300 Winchester Mag.
Remington actually makes three different light rifles. The Mountain Rifle and the Model 7, both have graced Remington’s lines for several years. Available in six different calibers they weigh in at 6 1/2 pounds, either rifle is an excellent, economical lightweight choice.
While the Mountain rifle and the model 7 are great rifles, Remington decided to really turn some heads this year with the introduction of the 2001 700 Titanium Ultimate Lightweight Rifle. Jumping into the Ultra Light game with both feet, this feathery rifle weighs 5 1/4 pounds (5 1/2 for the long action). This rifle is truly lightweight and ranks among the lightest rifles available - custom or otherwise. It features a Titanium action, mated to a stainless light contour mountain rifle barrel and a laminated synthetic stock. It is available in .260, .270, 7mm-08 and 30-06 and at a price that won’t break the bank.
If you yearn to have one of the lightest, most accurate custom rifles made, Rifles Inc. has the answer. They have perfected the technique of taking standard Remington or Winchester actions and significantly lightening them while making them shoot like a million bucks. Plain and simple, these rifles are unbelievably light and easily print three shots under a quarter at 100 yards.
All the actions are lightened, blueprinted, and trued. The bolt is lapped and the face squared. The action is then mated to a Lilja match grade stainless steel barrel. All of this is done to guarantee minimum tolerances and a high level of accuracy.
A Quiet Slimbrake II is then installed which tames recoil by 50%. While the brake is threaded onto the barrel, the tolerances are so tight it literally looks like the barrel and break are made out of one piece of metal, thereby eliminating that "add-on" look so common on most rifles with screw on brakes.
The entire barreled action is dropped into a custom, hand laminated stock made from Kevlar, Graphite and Boron. It is pillar and ceramic epoxy bedded to ensure shot to shot consistency. The finished product weighs less than 5 pounds and is a pleasure to shoot as well as carry. Since they are a custom gun, there are many features and calibers to choose from.
Christensen rifles are known for their innovative approach to barrel construction. They utilize carbon fiber wrapped over a stainless steel liner for unprecedented weight savings, rigidity and strength, coupled with barrel life extending, heat-dissipating properties. Built on a variety of actions, these rifles are available in a multitude of caliber, and range in weight from 5 1/2 pounds to 7 pounds.
New Ultra Light Arms
New Ultra Light Arms is owned and founded by Melvin Forbes, a gunsmith from West Virginia. In 1996 Melvin Forbes sold his design to Colt whom for a few years used it to produce the Colt Light Rifle. Colt produced 4,000 to 6,000 of these rifles and then stopped production. Forbes re-purchased the rights to the rifle and recently reopened New Ultra Light Arms back in West Virginia. Since they are a custom gun there are several choices of calibers and styles.
While my adventures in the high arctic for sheep and goat may still be a few years off, a new lightweight rifle will definitely not lay idle in my safe until the perfect high mountain hunt occurs. In the mean time it will serve marvelously for elk, mule deer and whitetails.
Wes has been involved in the firearms industry for the last 15 years in both a retail and a wholesale capacity. He has been with Cabela’s for the last ten years and is currently the Senior Gun Library Manager.
His knowledge and interest span the spectrum of gun lore, including such diversified topics as ultra light rifles to fine English double guns. His favorite area of interest is English, continental Europe and American classic shotguns.