Best of the Best 2014: Guns, Bows, ATVs, and Hunting Gear

The 2014 Best of the Best winners represent an intriguing cross-section of technological ingenuity.

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Photos by Dan Saelinger

The 2014 Best of the Best winners represent an intriguing cross-section of technological ingenuity, whether in the form of a superb bolt-action rifle, a smoking-fast compound bow, or tight-patterning long-range turkey loads.

Only the Best

In 1633, a gunmaker named Felix Fuchs built a wheel-lock pistol, a firearm whose precision and complexity required skills more suited to a watchmaker. As the last touch, Herr Fuchs engraved on the gun in Middle German:

It's done.
And anyone who thinks
He can do better
Is welcome to try.

Among people who make things, this is sacred. If you'd like to translate Herr Fuchs's German to 21st-century American, it would read: Let's see how good we can make this sumbitch.

In Best of the Best, we've always borne in mind that our readers don't have unlimited budgets, but nonetheless there are always a certain number of wondrous things that win, that are very expensive, and that are worth it. These are the creations of companies and individuals who decided to see just how good they could make the sumbitch.

There is a distinct pleasure in owning and hunting with this equipment. A friend of mine, looking through a spotting scope of breathtaking excellence and considerable price, said: "My god, you can see the fibers in the target paper." It was awesome, and inspiring, that a company had conceived and built an instrument that could show you minute shreds of what used to be wood pulp from 100 yards away.

Every time you use a tool like that scope, you partake, a little bit, of its excellence. You Appreciate, with a capital A. You may not be able to shoot 1?2-inch groups with a rifle whose factory target shows that it can, and you may not be able to wield a knife or shoot a bow like a master. But you can own a rifle, knife, or bow that is worthy of a master, and you can Appreciate.

And Appreciate counts for a great deal.

Guns

Colt M2012MT308T
$3,195 • colt.com

Colt made a wise decision to contract with Cooper Arms to produce an accurate, dependable rifle deserving of the Colt monogram. This bolt action can compete in any tactical sniper match as well as place an accurate shot on game.

The action is Cooper's, and a well-made action it is. The three-lug short-bolt lift design is quick to cycle and won't pinch your fingers between the bolt handle and scope bell of the larger scopes popular on tactical and long-range rifles. The bolt itself is spiral-fluted to prevent binding in case of dirt or grit and adds to the smoothness of operation.

Borescoping showed the 22-inch stainless-steel barrel to be smooth, with no signs of tool marks. A well-centered chamber, throat, and crown all help assure accuracy. The detachable five-round box metal magazine is strong, and the adjustable Timney trigger is set at a crisp, clean 3 pounds.

So far, so good. But does it shoot? Oh, yes indeed it does. We shot it at 100 yards, but this .308 was made to reach out, so most of the testing was at 200 yards and beyond. With quality ammunition, it will stay at 1?2 MOA all day. Federal 168-grain Match, the standard of sniper accuracy, and ProGrade Hog Grade ammo with a 150-grain Barnes TSX delivered the best accuracy.

Such quality does not come cheaply, but even at this price, it's a good buy. Like so much in life, you get what you pay for, and with this Colt you get even more. —David E. Petzal and John Blauvelt

Ruger Red Label
$1,399 • ruger.com

A cult favorite since 1977, the Ruger Red Label was a rarity, an American-made o/u in a market dominated by imports. When the gun disappeared from the catalog a few years ago, shooters feared it was gone forever, assuming Ruger had turned away from shotguns in favor of more lucrative pistols and black guns. But now the Red Label is back, still made in the U.S.A. Instead of dropping the complicated gun from its lineup permanently, Ruger gave it a major overhaul, working out ways to make it better and less expensive to produce at the same time. For instance, the receiver, once cast in two pieces and welded together, is now one piece; the process for making it is cheaper, and the results more consistent.

Eliminating the side ribs and lightening the barrel contour has livened up the gun's balance. The barrels have been overbored and fitted for Briley thin-wall choke tubes, and the old hard rubber butt pad has been replaced with a Pachmayr Decelerator.

I hunted with the new Red Label last fall and shot it again this spring. It's still heavy for a field gun but noticeably livelier in hand than the original. My test team praised the gun's improved handling and easy opening, while noting poor wood-to-metal fit and heavy triggers. Nevertheless, everyone agreed that its price is unbeatable—now $600 less than the design it replaces. And it comes with five Briley choke tubes and a handsome nylon takedown case.

It's available in 3-inch-chambered 12-gauge now; a 20-gauge will be out later this year. —Phil Bourjaily

Load

Winchester Long Beard XR
$20–$24 for 10 • winchester.com

As the rising price of tungsten puts premium turkey loads increasingly out of reach, Winchester comes to the rescue with Long Beard XR, a lead shotshell that rivals the tight long-range patterns of the best tungsten-iron loads. Long Beard's secret is an innovative buffer. The shot is held together in a solid block of resin that shatters on firing, forming a buffering agent that protects the pellets from deformation. The round pellets fly truer and hit harder. Available in 4, 5, and 6 shot in 3- and 31?2-inch 12 gauge. —P.B.

Crossbow

Stryker Solution
$899 • strykerxbow.com

The Stryker Solution is so good that it simply blew away its competition in a largely objective test, where bolt performance, trigger pull, and noise were measured with a chronograph, scale, and decibel meter. Accuracy was measured from a benchrest.

The Solution's 125-pound draw weight and 151?2-inch powerstroke produced average speeds of 348 fps with 385-grain bolts. It consistently drove three of those bolts into the same hole at 20 yards, courtesy of a fine trigger and excellent scope. No crossbow is quiet, but this one was much quieter than any other we tested. It's also lightweight and handy—with numerous safety features to prevent you from cutting off a finger or sending a dry-fired cam spiraling into your buddy's spleen. —Will Brantley

Muzzleloader

Traditions Vortek StrikerFire LDR
$524–$693 • traditionsfirearms.com

A hammerless cocking system, lightweight design, and alloy frame helped vault the .50-caliber Vortek StrikerFire LDR to the head of the pack this year. The 30-inch chromoly barrel and a smooth 2-pound two-stage trigger were also factors, as they contributed to downrange accuracy and reliability. Not only did the test rifle shoot impressive groups, but the test team found it incredibly easy to load as well. You can start your bullet with a finger and seat it on the powder charge with minimal effort. It has two safeties. One blocks the striker mechanism automatically; the other operates as a manual trigger block. The gun automatically de-cocks if the break action is opened; the striker mechanism can also be released by depressing the silver button on the striker. And though the rifle weighs under 7 pounds (making it easy to carry afield all day long), recoil is quite manageable. The drop-out trigger and a storage compartment in the butt are smart touches that simply add to the overall value. —Brad Fenson

Knives

OKC Bushcraft Field Knife and Morakniv Bushcraft Black Tactical
$140 • ontarioknife.com; $109.99 • morakniv.com

We have a tie: two knives whose virtues are so similar and which are so good in their own right that it's impossible to say that one is better.

The Morakniv Bushcraft is an ultramodern survival knife with a 4.3-inch tool-steel blade and a high-tech ­injection-?molded handle that gives a grim grip even when wet or in extreme cold. It carries in a black plastic sheath that is about as safe, and as loss-proof, as anything I've seen.

The more traditional OKC Bushcraft has a 5-inch drop-point blade forged from 5160 tool steel, and a hardwood handle held to the tang by three blued bolts. The whole handle comes off, leaving just the bare tang, which you can wrap with paracord if you prefer. Inside the ballistic nylon sheath is a pouch with a steel match, and the knife is equipped with a wrist loop of braided paracord that unravels to over 20 feet.

Both knives are decent edge holders and can be sharpened with extreme ease to a scalpel-like edge. And both are designed to handle just about any job with dexterity. —D.E.P.

Benchmade Hunt­series Grizzly Creek Folder
$195 • benchmade.com

Dressing game in the field has not changed since Homo heidelbergensis said to his wife, "Get the guts out of that mammoth and let's eat, I'm hungry," and the wife went to work with a piece of flint. Thus it is that the winners in this category are almost always knives that are short on radical new ideas but long on practicality and quality. Which brings us to the Benchmade Grizzly Creek, a two-blade folder that is very well thought out and exceedingly well executed.

It consists of a 3 1?2-inch drop-point blade made of S30V cutlery steel and a gut hook of 440C stainless. The main blade is provided with Benchmade's Axis lock—you can flip the blade open with one hand—and the gut hook, with a small sliding lock. The gut hook, by the way, is one of the few that is large enough to finish its job without loading up with fur.

The handle scales are Dymondwood, which is not bothered by blood, guts, or water, and the liners are stainless steel, so when you're done with the game, you can pour boiling water over the knife and clean it out. A pocket clip is included, but I recommend a belt sheath that you can get separately from Benchmade. —D.E.P.

ATVs and UTVs

Polaris Sportsman Ace
$7,499 • polaris.com

Sporting the footprint of a traditional ATV, teamed with the ease of use and rollover protection of a typical UTV, this hybrid redefines the single-seat all-terrain vehicle experience. The fun-to-drive Ace fills a void that once alienated novices and offroaders lacking the experience and dexterity to ride a traditional ATV.

Power comes from a single-cylinder 32-hp ProStar engine featuring Polaris's On-Demand True AWD system. A comfortable seat, a tilt steering wheel, and a simple cockpit make the Ace as easy to handle as a UTV, and an under-rack front storage box plus a large rear rack provide enough room to cart as much as 360 pounds of gear deep into the woods. This Ace is certainly no wild card—it delivers users of all skill levels abundant capabilities at a very reasonable price. —Lance Schwarz

Honda Pioneer 700-4
$11,699 • powersports.honda.com

The Pioneer goes against the norm for UTVs by employing a three-speed automotive-type transmission in lieu of the traditional belt-driven CVT. This is excellent for wet-weather applications and helps ensure that there is never a belt to get wet or slip.

With selectable two- or four-wheel-drive and a front-differential lock, the Pioneer has exceptional offroad manners. Steering effort is minimal, and the handling is crisp and predictable.

The Pioneer incorporates an industry-first convertible split-rear-seat section that gives you the option to carry up to four passengers. With the rear seats folded into the floor of the bed, tilt-dump functionality returns. This innovative design means that you can utilize a single machine to complete two uniquely different tasks, safely filling the bed with two extra passengers or efficiently trucking a half ton of cargo. —L.S.

Apparrel

Sitka Blizzard Gear and Wolverine Ramsay
$699, parka; $589, bibs; $80, beanie • sitkagear.com; $175, boots • wolverine.com

When you're hunting a buck that can rotate his ears like radar and see behind him as his nose faces forward, the best form of still-hunting is sitting still. For hours. At bone-numbing temperatures. Enter Sitka's Blizzard Gear, the warmest, lightest cold-weather hunting system I've ever used.

The marriage of duck down and synthetic fibers, coupled with a Gore-Tex shell, keeps you both warm and dry, and additional features are well thought out, from fleece-lined hand-warmer pockets and welded zippers to the attached cleaning cloth for wiping moisture from your riflescope. In addition, the jacket is cut to provide freedom of motion for mounting your rifle, drawing your bowstring, or riding a horse. The bib pants have full-length zippers, so you don't need to take off your boots to put them on, and the cargo pockets snap silently.

All this comes at a cost, but when it's time to make venison, ask yourself where you should spend your money: on a hunk of figured walnut that will tempt you as firewood when you start to shiver, or on a clothing system that ups your odds of having a deer walk right into your rifle's sights? —Keith McCafferty

Wolverine Boots
A hunter on the go prizes boots that don't make him feel as if his feet are encased in cement. That's one reason the old-fashioned moccasin style still appeals. Wolverine's modern take on this classic, the Ramsay, mates a waterproof leather-and-polyester upper to a waterproof, breathable membrane. The lightweight Vibram outsole provides traction, while a removable EVA footbed cushions each step. An NXT Odor Control sock liner helps prevent the dreaded stinkfoot. These boots give a bird hunter or deer stalker the ability to walk all day long in comfort. —S.L.W.

Optics

Swarovski SLC 15x56mm
$2,777 • swarovskioptik.com

A Fiat 500 may be a fine little automobile, but it doesn't hold a candle to the 536-hp Mercedes CL63 AMG. And when you look at the performance of the massive SLC 15x56mm, you'll see comparison with the CL63 is apt. It's not easy to outperform this binocular. Swarovski is famed for products of incredible clarity and brightness, out to the edge of the image, the result of superb glass and coatings.

My fellow tester, Wyoming varminter Leroy Van Buggenum, appreciated the ergonomics and firm feel of the retractable eyecups and center-focus wheel, which also includes the diopter adjustment. With a thumb-­indented, rubber-­armored, lightweight magnesium housing, this is still a bit of a beast at 42 ounces and 71?2 inches long, a good reason to get a 41?2-pound carbon Swarovski CT tripod and head and a binocular adapter for long sessions of viewing with both eyes open. Why a 15x56? It's not a casual choice, or something to carry around while still-hunting. For ridge to ridge glassing, though, or scanning a sendero in first or last light, it's the one. —Thomas McIntyre

Zeiss Conquest DL 3–12x50mm Illuminated
$1,556 • zeiss.com/sports

Zeiss's Conquest DL, test-fired with Federal 260-grain AccuBond .375 H&H Magnum ammunition from a Remington Model 700, wins for a variety of features, chief among them excellent eye relief, with a wide eye box for faster target acquisition. The scope's adjustments proved extremely precise, and I especially liked the optional ASV bullet-drop compensating turret ele­va­tion adjustment. The model tested was calculated at 1 centimeter per click at 100 meters, which can be puzzling for us non-metric types, though it is effectively 1?3 inch per click at 100 yards. A distinct knurl on the power ring changes the magnification. The clean No. 60 reticle in the second focal plane is a good choice for hunting, and the red dot operates with plus and minus buttons that let the shooter set the exact degree of illumination. One touch turns the reticle on, though turning it off takes two fingers; it shuts off automatically after four hours. The scope has an ample diopter adjustment and a rubber-rimmed ocular. Tester Van Buggenum's verdict: "Optics great!" Good price for a Zeiss, too. 'Nuff said. —T.M.

Cabela's 3–9x40mm Slug Shotgun Scope
$100 • cabelas.com

Shotgun-only big-game seasons are on the upswing—and with them the technology of slug guns leaps ahead. Fully rifled shotguns and high-performance saboted slugs can now have effective ranges out to 200 yards. A lot of optical shotgun sights are reflex red dots or lower-power smaller-objective configurations such as 4x32. Clearly, something better is needed, and Cabela's has delivered it. This new 3–9x40mm slug scope employs a drop-compensating duplex reticle—called the EXT—correlated to the ballistics of the 23?4-inch 12-gauge 300-grain Hornady SST saboted slug. The crosshairs can be zeroed in at 100 yards. Below are a dot and a hashmark, the dot calculated for 150 yards, the hashmark for 200. Tester Van Buggenum noted that the variation nicely avoids confusion. With a 1-inch tube, the scope has numerals inscribed on the rear of the power-adjustment ring so a hunter can read them without having to lower the shotgun from his shoulder. The 1?4-inch adjustment clicks are positive and audible, and there's generous eye relief, with all of the above for a C-note. —T.M.

Nightforce TS-82 Xtreme Hi-Def 20–70x82mm
$2,600 • nightforceoptics.com

Nightforce, a well-respected name in long-range and tactical riflescopes, has brought its expertise to spotting scopes with the new TS-82. An ounce shy of 4 pounds, with a ­rubber-?armored aluminum body, there is nothing slight or compact about it; but under the physical laws of optics, size counts. Given equal glass, equal coatings, and other essentials, a 50mm spotting scope simply does not contend with an 82. European made, the TS-82 has apochromatic lenses to correct for spherical and color aberrations, so the image is edge-to-edge sharp without fringing. Tester Van Buggenum very much liked the aggressive rubber knurling on the ocular-lens zoom and on the large ­center-?­focus band; both are easily worked even with gloves. (I was a bit disappointed, though, with the Lego-like knurls pressed onto the rotating angle ring for the tripod mount, which seemed destined to pop off.) The scope has excellent eye relief, with or without eyeglasses, using the retractable eyecup. Subjected to a water-submersion and freezing test, the TS-82 came through without a hiccup. It's the spotter Nightforce ­riflescope shooters have been awaiting. —T.M.

Compound Bow

Bowtech RPM 360
$999 • bowtecharchery.com

No company has ever pulled off a three-peat in our annual bow test, but Bowtech did it with the RPM 360. In typical Bowtech fashion, the RPM wowed us not only with a standout feature—at 297 fps, it was the fastest bow in the test—but also because it was a solid performer in every category. Sporting a redesigned "trapezoidal I-beam" riser, and new "bridge lock" limb pockets, the RPM 360 proved that a flame-throwing bow could also be pleasant to shoot and highly accurate. Our test team always holds past winners to a high standard, and we were fully prepared to dislike the RPM's slightly heavier mass weight and redesigned grip. But after two days of shooting, we had a clear-cut, smooth-shooting, and smoking-fast winner. —S.B.

More of the Best

Garmin Virb Elite
$400 • garmin.com

Action cameras have gone a long way to capture the outdoors in just a few short years, and the water-resistant HD Virb Elite (with built-in GPS) now pushes the envelope even more. The sleek, palm-size wide-angle camera is easy to use, even while wearing gloves, and the oversize slide-on-and-off recording switch is a touch of genius. Furthermore, you can download free editing software as well as an app to control the camera via your smartphone. —Slaton L. White

Champion Premium Shooting Rest
$172 • championtarget.com

Not long ago, I watched a hunter try to sight in using a cardboard box as a rest. He couldn't quite figure out why the results were so inconsistent. D'oh! We owe it to the game we pursue to place the shot where it does its work quickly and efficiently. And to do that you need a rock-solid rest, one capable of quick and easy elevation and windage adjustments. This rest doesn't offer a lot of bells and whistles, but then, it doesn't need to. —S.L.W.

Primos Hook Up
$43 • primos.com

For a novice turkey hunter, trying to coax a yelp out of a box call can be as intimidating as figuring out how to properly thumb a baitcasting spool. But this call drastically lowers that learning curve. A magnet, rather than a traditional screw, holds the lid in place at the proper angle, helping the beginner create credible sounds right out of the box. The lid also detaches in a snap, allowing for completely silent carry. —S.L.W.

L.L. Bean Bean's Waterfowler Pro Waders With SuperSeam Technology
$289 • llbean.com

Many waterfowl waders may best be described as "burly." This lightweight, breathable wader is different. Its SuperSeam construction eliminates the thousands of needle holes found in typical waders, but it is nearly 50 percent stronger than sonic welds. Another plus is the adjustable, comfortable shoulder harness, and the quick-fit wading belt. You'll also find the cut is roomy enough to add as many layers as needed. —S.L.W.

Bushnell Trophy Cam HD Wireless
$822 • bushnell.com

That price may give you cause to pause, but this is a true wunderkind. The first carrier-approved wireless trail camera enables any hunter to seamlessly and effortlessly track deer—or other game—via e?mail or smartphone app. The low-res images (for speedier data transmission by AT&T) arrive in real time, letting you scout from work or home. If you care for a higher-res image, simply pull the SD card and download. A data plan is required (and easily set up through the Bushnell website), and you don't need to buy a SIM card. —S.L.W.

Millennium M100U
$220 • millenniumstands.com

Buying a lightweight hang-on stand typically means sacrificing comfort and stability. Not so with the M100u. In addition to the CamLock Receiver System (which straps to the tree and accepts the post of any Millennium stand), the M100u features a roomy (20x17-inch) ComfortMax seat, as well as a 20x38-inch aluminum platform. The whole package weighs 111?2 pounds, which places the M100u among the lightest, strongest, and roomiest stands out there. —Scott Bestul

Cabela's Pellet Grill
$600 • cabelas.com

Let's get one thing straight: Though it's called a grill, it's really a smoker. No problem, because as a smoker this thing really cooks. The heat source—compressed wood pellets—burns so thoroughly there's hardly any ash; at the same time, the digitally controlled grill imparts a sublime smokiness into whatever you put into it, without the noisome plumes of smoke that might alert the fire department. Got game? Get this. —S.L.W.

How we test

Before a product earns recognition as Best of the Best, it must undergo field testing by our experts. In all, more than 175 products were tested, and 24 were deemed fit enough to earn top honors. Here are some of the testing procedures we used.

Rifles and Shotguns: Guns were inspected for overall fit and finish; trigger-pull weights were verified. Barreled actions were removed and inspected with a borescope. Rifles were shot from a benchrest, three shots at 100 and 200 yards, with three different types of ammo, to determine accuracy. Shotguns were fired from a low-gun start on the trap and skeet field with a variety of hunting and target ammo to assess responsiveness and function.

Knives: Knives were tested for edge holding, initial sharpness, and ease of resharpening. Special-purpose knives were tested by cutting wood, parachute cord, and seat belts.

ATVs and UTVs: The 4x4s were loaded with gear and driven hundreds of miles through narrow wooded trails, rock fields, and mud pits.

Optics: In addition to examining optical quality in varying light conditions, our experts tested the riflescopes with live-fire exercises. Optics were also submerged in 1 foot of warm water for a full minute, then placed overnight in a chest freezer at 10 degrees to test fogproofing. They were left out for another night and again checked for any signs of internal moisture.

Bows: Emphasis was on speed (measured with a chrono­graph), accuracy, and draw cycle. Draw weights and lengths were the same for all bows. —The Editors