The Astounding, and Continuing, Transformation of the Savage Model 110

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The Model 12 Long Range Precision is one of the big, clunky target rifles that has made Savage's reputation.Savage Arms

One of the more interesting and improbable stories in the history of American firearms is the shape-shift of the Savage 110 from econo-gun into a paragon of off-the-shelf super accuracy. In 1956, Savage Arms realized that it needed a bolt-action centerfire rifle that could be produced cheaply. It called on Nicholas Brewer, a designer who had recently retired from the company, to draw up such a gun, and Brewer did. The new design was completed in 1958.

Brewer never lived to see its success. He died shortly thereafter, but the Model 110 has now surpassed the Winchester Model 70 as the longest continually produced American centerfire bolt action, and I believe its sales have gone past the 5 million mark.

(For an elegant analysis of Brewer’s design, look up Terry Wieland’s “Savage Beauty” online in Rifle Shooter Magazine, the September 2010 issue).

The Model 110 was a collection of parts that could be produced cheaply and assembled cheaply. It was the antithesis of the “milled from a block of steel” concept. The rifle was priced at $109.95 and was offered only in .270 and .30/06. Its walnut stock had ghastly lines and awful hand checkering, and the action was cursed with a rotten trigger. But the 110 worked, and it shot well, and people could afford it. It was also made left-handed which, in those times, was nothing short of miraculous.

In 1965, the line had been expanded to include the .22/250, and so I, as a confirmed woodchuck hunter, got one. I found that some things about the 110 were too awful to live with, so I had the factory stock replaced with a Fajen, the trigger ground down to an unsafe 2 pounds, and the nonfunctional rear-sight knot milled off the barrel.

Still and all, that rifle was a shooter. Fifty-two years later I can still remember the handload I used, and its velocity, and the size of the groups. Nicholas Brewer did better than he knew (or maybe he did know). What he worked for was cheap, but in the process of getting it, he also achieved accurate.

But all was not beer and skittles at Savage. It had become a company of outmoded machinery, poor designs, and retiring skilled workers who could not be replaced. In 1972 I visited the Savage plant. There I was shown their rifling machine…which had been installed in 1898, and was a source of considerable pride. Savage passed through the hands of a number of owners, each more incompetent than the last, and by 1988 it was losing $25 million a year and was weeks away from closing its doors.

Two things saved Savage. The first was Ron Coburn, who came to the company just before it was due to go extinct. Coburn looked down the dismal roster of Savage designs and asked, “What can we make that works?” His engineers told him, “The Model 110.” And from that point forward that was all they made, and is pretty much all they now make. Coburn, and Nicholas Brewer’s collection of parts, pulled Savage back from oblivion.

Coburn was a fanatic about accuracy. He saw that Savage would never be able to sell looks, so it would have to sell precision. He expanded his product line in all directions, most importantly into competition guns and tactical rifles. He said that if you spent over $1,000 on a Savage (in itself an astounding break with the past), hardly a cent went into appearance. Your money went to accuracy.

Word got around. On one occasion I went on a prairie dog shoot with a bunch of craftsmen who worked for a company that produced very expensive sporting rifles. They couldn’t buy the guns they made, so they shot Savages, which were not only affordable but a lot more accurate.

But there was another shoe to drop, and that crashed to the floor in 2003. It was called the Accu-Trigger, and it did nothing less than change American gun making.

In the 1980s, the firearms industry was besieged by lawsuits seeking damages for accidental discharges in which people were injured or killed. A few of these cases were legitimate—the gun went off without anyone pulling the trigger. But in all the cases I followed, the people involved failed to follow not only the rules of safe gun handling, but of common sense as well. No matter. Some whopping awards were handed out by weeping juries, and gun makers reacted by designing a generation of triggers that were impossible to set off accidentally, and nearly impossible to set off on purpose.

These triggers ranged from atrocious to appalling, with regular stops at horrific, horrendous, heinous, and hideous. Nor could they be fixed. All you could do was take your new rifle to a gunsmith and have him install an aftermarket trigger.

Ron Coburn looked upon this and was not pleased. It seemed to him that if he was going to take a customer’s money for a rifle, that rifle should be shootable. And so he told his designers to come up with a new trigger. It should be simple and inexpensive to manufacture, not require painstaking installation, be adjustable down to the lightest weight a sane person could want, be adjustable by the user, and not go off accidentally. Ever.

The result was the Accu-Trigger, which meets all those requirements. It’s a two-stage design with a second sear that prevents mishaps. Unless you pull the trigger and release the first sear, the rifle can’t fire no matter what you do to it. Before the Accu-Trigger was put on the market, Coburn sent me a test rifle and asked me to see if I could get an A.D. out of it. I flattened out a refrigerator carton, laid it on a concrete garage floor, and spent an invigorating morning slamming the rifle down on the carton, butt-first, muzzle-first, sideways, and every which way in between. No A.D. Coburn also asked me if the little trigger tab that releases the first sear should be silver or gold. I said gold. He said “Too gauche. Silver.”

The Accu-Trigger caused an agonizing reappraisal among firearms makers. Here’s Savage, they saw, offering damn near a perfect trigger that’s completely safe, and here we are turning out the same lawyer-proof abominations we been forcing people to use for 20 years.

And so some triggers got much better, but not all of them. Just because its maker says their new, redesigned trigger is the next best thing to a Jewell, doesn’t make it so. There are still plenty of crappy triggers out there.

Here, you had a manufacturer building target and tactical rifles that required no gunsmithing to shoot competitive groups right out of the box. Mount a scope, find out what kind of ammunition it liked to eat and you were in business. Best of all, they were affordable. Today, the most expensive Savage competition rifle costs $1,600.

Next: Savage and F-Class.