Among the hundreds of hunters with whom I’ve discussed the subject of rifle weight in hunting camps around the world, I can’t recall ever hearing someone say they wished their rifle was heavier than it was. Lighter, almost always, but never heavier.
That said, if it sounds like I’m about to make a case for the ultra-light hunting rifle, you’d be wrong. In fact, just the opposite. I’ve been carrying nine-pound-plus rifles for well over half a century and I can’t see where it’s done me any harm. Nor has it ever cost me a trophy -- at least not where my failure to get off a shot could be blamed on the fact I was carrying a nine-pound rifle instead of a seven-pound one. Besides, how would you go about determining something like that? I mean, I’m carrying 190 pounds around at all times; I’m supposed to believe that two more is going to break me or keep me from getting up a hill?
Ultralight fans are fond of telling us that we carry a rifle all day but shoot it for just a second; therefore, carrying ease is far more important. Well, I say they’ve got their priorities wrong. The most important moment of any hunting trip is the shot, so I’m more concerned with the shooting qualities of a rifle than I am its carrying qualities. Bottom line: Sure I’d rather carry the seven-pound rifle, but I’d rather shoot the nine-pound one.
If there is such a thing as an “average” rifle it’s a walnut-stocked model with a standard-length action and a 22-inch barrel that weighs around 7-1/4-7-1/2 pounds. That’s an average taken from the current catalogs of our major domestic rifle manufacturers – Browning, Mossberg, Remington, Ruger, Savage, Winchester, et al. That same rifle in a short-action caliber you’re looking at about 4-5 ounces less, or 6-8 ounces more for magnums. For a wood laminated stock we’d have to add about six ounces more, and for the synthetic-stocked version you’re looking at about 6 ounces less. There are of course many exceptions to the rule, but for the most part the aforementioned figures are fairly representative.
But we don’t shoot rifles as they weigh out of the box. We have to add to those averages 14 ounces for your typical 3-9x scope (1-inch tube); 4-6 ounces for a set of steel mounts; 5 ounces for a leather carrying sling and steel swivels, and 4 ounces for four .30-06 cartridges in the magazine. That’s another 28 ounces or 1-3/4 pounds! Add it all up and your typical sporter-weight rifle as carried afield weighs between 8-1/2 to 9-1/2 pounds.
The major manufacturers are somewhat limited as to what lengths they can go to trim weight. With production rifles, the biggest weight savings are gotten with lighter, synthetic stocks and shorter, thinner barrels -- as stubby as 16-1/2 inches in the case of Ruger’s 5.7-pound Hawkeye Compact. But Savage beats that with a 5-1/2-pound .308 Model 16 Lightweight Hunter, and it has a 20-inch barrel. Weatherby, too, has its wispy weight – the Ultra Lightweight at 5-3/4 pounds. And there are others. Such weight reductions are realized by substituting aluminum for steel in components like trigger guard bows, floorplates and magazine frames, or converting to blind magazines. Still, the stock and barrel length/contour are where the most weight saving is realized.
It is possible then to build a production rifle that with a compact-type scope; aluminum mounts; a nylon sling and polymer swivels, and 3 in the box to weigh 7 pounds. Remember though, we’re talking .308 Win. family of cartridges. If you want magnum ballistics you’ll have to go the custom makers like Melvin Forbes’ New Ultra Light Arms, Brown Precision, and Rifles Inc. to name three. There’s no limit to what extremes these folks will go to lighten a rifle, and they’ll build whatever caliber you want, including magnums that weigh less than 6 pounds!
But again, I’m more interested in the shooting qualities of a rifle, or more accurately, my ability to shoot it. There’s no question but that you can hold a heavier rifle steadier than a super light one, and it’s especially true under field conditions. Shooting at game is light years apart from shooting paper from a sandbag rest off the bench. Under the very best field circumstances you can be sitting in a blind, your pulse a lazy 60 ticks per minute, with a one-point rest for your rifle’s forend. In a worst-case scenario you may have sprinted up a hill in the hopes of getting an offhand shot at some bull or buck you saw crest a ridge ahead of you, and there’s a strong wind blowing. Your chest is about to explode as your lungs heave and your heart’s beating like a triphammer. Under either circumstance, a heavier rifle can be held steadier, period. I mean, it’s just simple physics; heavier objects resist movement more than lighter ones.
But the steadiness with which we can hold a rifle is only part of the equation; the other is recoil and how it affects our shooting. Having said that, it’s ironic how current trends are working directly at odds with one another. I’m talking about cartridges getting more and more powerful, and rifles getting lighter and lighter. The one constant in the middle of this divergence is us. Cartridges get more powerful, guns get lighter, but our tolerance for recoil doesn’t change, at least not without practice.
Again citing our subject 7 and 9-pound rifles, just what is the difference in recoil? Assuming a 180-grain bullet at 2,750 feet per second, a 9-pound. .30-06 will set back to the tune of 21 foot/pounds, while the lighter gun will back up with 27 ft./lbs. A .300 Win. Mag pushing that same bullet at 3,000 fps backs up 28 ft./lbs. in the heavier gun, while the lightweight bucks 36 ft./lbs. In both cases that works out to a 23 percent difference in recoil.
Now I myself have never been particularly recoil sensitive; in my business I can’t afford to be. But I don’t have to like it, either. Truth is, recoil affects everyone’s ability to shoot to one degree or another, and it has nothing whatever to do with machismo or the lack thereof. It is primarily a matter of, though not limited to, practice and frequency. The more recoil one must contend with, the more one has to shoot…year `round, not just the day before hunting season.
One has only to look to competitive shooters to find reinforcement for that contention. Why do those guys always shoot rifles that are just within a zephyr of the weight limit for whatever class in which they’re competing? Why do they shoot the smallest caliber and the lightest load that will get the job done? If, as some proponents of ultralights would have us believe, light rifles can be shot just as accurately as heavier ones, why don’t at least some, say, silhouette shooters for example, show up on the line with rifles that weight 6-1/2 pounds when they’re allowed 10?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not at all against light, handy rifles. My favorite whitetail rig is a Remington Model Seven in 7mm-08 with a little 2.5-8x Leupold that weighs 7-1/2 pounds. It’s a delight to carry and climb in and out of tree stands with; it’s heavy enough that it holds well for the kind of shooting you do from a tree stand; it’s chambered for a cartridge that’s more than adequate for the job, and it’s pleasant to shoot. But I wouldn’t want it any lighter.