Weighty Matters: Light Rifles vs. Heavy Rifles
Way back when I was not as wise as I am now, I got it in my head that every...
Way back when I was not as wise as I am now, I got it in my head that every rifle had an ideal weight based on caliber, and that generally speaking, light was better in any firearm. None of this was my fault. (None of anything is my fault.) Messrs. Page and O’Connor were constantly reminding us how light their rifles were, and how dumb we all were for hauling around vast and weighty assemblages of steel and wood. Townsend Whelen, alone among the top tier of the profession, did not buy into light. His rifles weighed a lot. This was because he was strong as an ox, and because he was mostly a shooter at paper, as opposed to a hunter.
Part of the weight problem stemmed from the universal use of wood for stocks, because manufacturing techniques were stone-age at best, and because people were a lot tougher then and didn’t mind weight. (I can remember car ads from the 40s and 50s advertising how heavy autos were: “The new Porkmobile Eight, 5,690 pounds of USELESS IRON.”)
I, however, went with the advanced thinkers and God help any rifle that fell into my hands if I thought it weighed too much. Off it went to the gunsmith to have the barrel turned down, the stock hogged out, the bottom metal skeletonized, and the bolt knob hollowed. A good many fine-shooting, good-handling rifles suffered from my obsession.
Shotguns, too. My scatterguns were light. I didn’t hit anything, but they were feathers in your hands.
Finally, after years and years of this nonsense, I began to think differently. Peter Barrett, a wonderful all-around outdoorsman and a right-thinker if there ever was one, held light weight in disdain. “If you can’t carry the goddamn thing,” he would say, “what are you doing out there in the first place?” Peter cared little for what other people thought. As a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps, he had peed on a brigadier general while drunk, so life held few terrors for him after that.
But I digress. What I now believe about firearm weight goes roughly as follows: I know that all other things being equal, I shoot heavier guns much better than light ones. This is because heavy rifles mute the thundering of your heart and all your incidental twitches and tics. Heavier shotguns keep swinging, so you’ll avoid poke-and-shoot syndrome.
If someone gave me a 9-pound .270, I’d say thank you and take it hunting. If someone gave me a 9-pound .338, ditto ditto. If you’re in decent shape, 9 pounds is not that great a burden, and if you’re not in decent shape, what the hell are you doing out there in the first place?
Craig Boddington once loaned me an 8mm Remington Magnum that weighed something like 12 pounds. After the initial shock wore off I found that carrying it was not that onerous, and that it had almost no kick. This came in handy when I used it to shoot a nilgai from a hunched-over position and was certain the scope was going to remove my left eye. Nothing happened.
I’ve also found that I like rifles and shotguns that are muzzle heavy. When I started buying lots and lots of Ultra Lights I ordered them all with #2, #3, and #4 contour barrels, rather than the standard #1, and I ended up with a bunch of extremely light rifles that were still relatively easy to shoot because of their weight-forward configuration.
When the British build a best-grade double rifle, they put loads of weight up forward. This steadies the rifle down as Mr. Buffalo runs over to put a horn up your fundament, and also damps recoil way down, giving you a quick aimed second shot, assuming you don’t have a horn in your fundament. If you do, that takes precedence over all other considerations.
So, if you happen across a rifle with a few extra ounces and otherwise splendid credentials, don’t sneer at it. When the Marines build an M40A5 sniper rifle, it’s a .308 that weighs 16.5 pounds. This is a lot of weight for the overburdened Jarheads to carry around, but there’s a reason they build them so heavy. In fact there are lots of reasons.