Rifle Weight: Gaining and Losing

I don’t think we’re through with this business of weight yet. Looking back on 40 years of having people meddle with perfectly good rifles for large sums of money, I can’t recall a single instance of taking a heavy rifle and turning it into a light one that was better. There is not a single case of me taking a rifle to a gunsmith, having it chopped and channeled, and then clutching the result to my heart and saying, “Hoo boy, now it’s what it was meant to be.” The gun got a little easier to carry around, but not so you’d notice, and certainly not worth the money it cost.

When you stark hacking and gouging at steel and wood, you’re usually hacking and gouging at something that was designed to be there by people who sometimes knew what they were doing.

On the other hand, I can recall some spectacular successes that came from adding weight. One was a .22/250 I got in the 1980s from Ultra Light Arms. It was what was known as a “walking around” varmint rifle, designed to be slung over the shoulder and carried o’er hill and dale in search of the savage groundhog. That was when you could still walk o’er the hills and dales, being careful of course not to step in the cowflop, and see groundhogs.

The rifle had, I think, a #4 contour barrel, which is pretty heavy, but because it was a ULA, it only weighed something like 8 ½ pounds with scope. It shot good, but not great, for a varmint rifle, something like .600-inch.

Then the groundhogs retreated to the woods to hide from the coyotes, and I found myself using the rifle more for prairie dogs, meaning I didn’t have to carry it anywhere; it just sat on sandbags on a truck hood and did its job. So I sent it back to Melvin Forbes and asked for a target-style stock filled with lead shot. Melvin, who has been a better friend to me than I deserve, did just that, and the rifle came back weighing over 10 pounds with scope. And with no other changes other than the new stock and all that weight, it was much more accurate. Groups went from .600 to .300, which is a 50 percent increase in accuracy.

The reason was simple. All those added ounces eliminated the little tics, twitches, shimmies, and shakes that had been there before. When you sat that sumbitch on a sandbag, it sat there. The denouement of this story is that I eventually shot out the original barrel and had it replaced with a Hart barrel which is about the same diameter as the Cloaca Maxima in Rome. The rifle weighs over 13 pounds with a big Zeiss scope on it, and hoo boy does it shoot.

Second case. About 1990, when I was at the height of my .338 obsession, I had Kenny Jarrett build me one on a Remington action, McMillan stock, and a very heavy 22-inch Schneider barrel. The rifle was something like 9 ½ pounds, with scope, and all the weight was up front. It was very ugly, and was one of the most effective rifles I’ve ever owned. I killed everything with it from prairie dogs (It spoiled too much meat for my liking) to elk to bear to deer.

It was, of course, very accurate, but it also had very little recoil for a .338, and no matter how much you were huffing and puffing at the time, you could still hold it steady, offhand.

On one hunt in Colorado, I was well above 5,000 feet, which will make you huff and puff, and about 50 yards above me was a pair bull elk which could not see me or my guide. The guide reasoned that the only way I could get a shot was to run the 50 yards uphill, and before the bulls could scatter, I would pull the trigger. It was going to be one snap shot offhand, and that was it.

So we sprinted the half a football field uphill, me heaving like a bellows, and before the elk could say, “Run, the neighborhood’s gone to hell,” I shot one of them fatally. Just hung the crosshair on him and it stayed there.

And, of course, there is the transmogrification of the AR-15, which when it was first issued in 1966, weighed 5.5 pounds and was a pretty lousy gun. Now, as the M-16A2, the weights start at 7.5 pounds and, with all the extra stuff that gets hung on it, the rifle frequently scales around 10, and is infinitely more effective.