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FOUR AFFORDABLE RIFLES COMPARED

Not too long ago, if you wanted an entry level rifle, the choices were simple: You went out and bought the cheapest Savage Model 11 or Remington 700 that you could find. That all changed with the introduction of the Savage Axis though; a rifle specifically designed to appeal to shooters with a lower budget who might want something other than the cheapest version of a mainstream rifle.

But a while has passed since then, and the Axis has spawned an entirely new market of affordable rifles; bolt-action entry-level guns that are perfect for new shooters, hunters, and the value-sensitive alike. Here they are, in all their budget friendly glory.

Savage Axis

Savage’s Axis has two notable claims to fame: It is the progenitor of this entire family of rifles, and it’s also the cheapest. The Axis was created with the sole purpose of giving budget-conscious hunters and shooters a rifle that had all the accuracy they wanted and immediately gained a foothold in the market as a superbly accurate rifle at a bargain-basement price.

As the first rifle in this class, the Savage Axis served as more than mere “inspiration”; it literally gave many of its competitors the blueprints they would follow in making their own rifles. At its heart, the Axis is quintessentially “Savage” in nature, with the now-familiar floating bolt head and barrel lock-nut. This combination is a key component in building an accurate rifle on the cheap; allowing Savage to set headspace by simply threading the chambered barrel into the receiver until proper headspace is achieved. This substantially reduces the machining and heat-treating processes involved in the manufacturing process.

It also makes it incredibly easy to make a very accurate gun. The barrel, for example, has all of its meaningful machining processes completed in two steps: the bore is rifled, and the chamber is cut. Then it is screwed into the receiver, and once headspacing has been set correctly, it is fixed in position with the barrel lock nut. That keeps the machining processes limited to two cutting actions on a barrel that’s unencumbered by any receiver assembly. The alternative method is to cut the rifling and a short chamber, then thread the barrel into a receiver until it tightens up, and then fixing the now-barrelled action in another jig to have the short chamber finished to the correct depth for headspacing. This obviously adds an extra part, cutting process, tool, and jig, all of which increase tolerances. And the floating bolt head? It’s a lot easier to machine and heat treat tiny bolt heads than full-size one-piece bolts. When it comes time to put it all together, the ability to move the barrel back and forth as much as needed and lock it down anywhere ensures perfect headspacing every time, while the floating nature of bolt head allows the bolt a small degree of movement while in battery. That guarantees the force of firing bears down on both lugs equally. The result? A rifle that shoots MOA or better for $450 or less.

So what separates the Axis from Savage’s full-featured numerically-known lineup? Well, first off, there’s none of the additional accuracy-boosting features that you’ll find on a Savage Model 10 or the like. No Accutrigger, no Accustock, no nicely cut grip panels, no variety in recoil pads, and certainly none of the varied stocks and metal finishes. Instead, you get a basic rifle action bolted to a plastic stock, finished out with a hybrid plastic/metal removable magazine, and a plastic trigger guard and housing. It is, quite simply, a basic gun.

And that “basic” nature is not without its downsides. While the aftermarket has flocked to the Axis, in stock form the Axis’ trigger is under whelming by modern standards, and the magazine’s plastic catches fore and aft have long been identified as weak points.

And that is the biggest drawback to the Axis. In factory form, although an enviably useful rifle, its claim to fame is simple: It is cheap, accurate, and serviceable. You could truck it through the woods, beat the hell out of it, and not care because it is entirely pedestrian from muzzle to recoil pad. It’s the Toyota Corolla of rifles… for better and worse.

Remington 783

Almost as well known as the Savage Axis, there can be no mistake: The Remington 783 is Remington’s answer to the Savage Axis. So it should come as no surprise that it bears an uncanny resemblance to the Axis.

Remington and Savage have been chief competitors for years. Like Ford versus Chevy, many shooters fall squarely into one camp of the other, and will defend their brand valiantly. But in the case of the 783, that might be a bit hard, since it borrows so heavily from the Savage playbook. In fact, Remington even used the same thread pitch and shank diameter as Savage when they built the 783’s barrel.

But beyond the barrel lock nut and floating bolt head, the 783 bears a few notable differences from its Savage-built forbearer; the most noticeable of which is the more conventional bolt body. Although still having a removable floating bolt head like a Savage, the 783 does not feature the baffle behind the bolt head and has quite obviously been styled to share as much Remington 700 DNA as possible when it comes to the bolt handle.

But where the 783 really sets itself apart is the trigger. Borrowing heavily from the Pro-Fire trigger found in some of Marlin’s rifles, the 783’s CrossFire trigger is thoroughly upmarket, with an adjustable pull ranging from a scant 2.5 to a more field-friendly 5 pounds with an internal safety blade that prevents the rifle from going off without the trigger being pulled. Not a far cry from the famous Accu-Trigger in Savage’s standard products or the X-Mark Pro trigger available in the 700, the CrossFire is a key part of what makes the 783 such an easy gun to shoot well.

And it does shoot well. In fact, it shoots far better than the rougher machining found on most 783s would lead you to believe it does. Although most of its surfaces are lightly bead blasted prior to being blued, areas that haven’t been treated to the bead blasting process tell a tale of quick machine work; such as the recessed crowns that often show relatively severe machining marks and button-rifled bores that can be rife with chatter marks.

But in a testament to the effects of a stiff receiver (we love the ejection port layout), really well-set headspacing, and effective bolt design, we’ve yet to find a 783 that doesn’t shoot lights-out. Our tester in .308 was printing MOA groups without any load development and any retailer we’ve talked to has said they’ve never seen one that didn’t impress its owner with superb accuracy. In fact, 783s are proving so accurate that a few long-range experts, including Jerry Teo at Canada’s own Mystic Precision, have turned to the 783 as a potential long-range precision foundation.

But those machine marks are also a key indicator of the crucial difference between the design ethos of the Axis and the 783. While the Axis is a rifle pared down to meet a price point, the 783 is a rifle built to meet a price point. In other words, while Savage took features off to meet their budget, Remington figured out how to afford as many features as possible within their budget. And really, while some people like proper sling swivels… do you really care if they’re molded into the stock if it means you get an adjustable trigger with the money saved?

Ruger American

Few manufacturers encapsulate the notion of low-dollar, high-value firearms like Ruger. While most brands are keen to dip a toe in the entry-level end of the market with one or two low-buck options, Ruger’s entire line of firearms is aimed (no pun intended) at maintaining the best value-for-dollar possible. Using such processes as investment casting of receivers and frames, and working with bar stock in many of their rimfires, Ruger has managed to create an entire brand out of building reliable, rugged firearms at the best prices possible; oftentimes by ignoring the established methods of manufacturing and assembly. The Ruger American Rifle is the latest in this tradition.

Like their famous .22 pistols, the American starts as a solid length of 4140 bar stock, and is suitably milled and lathed to form the round-ish receiver. Interestingly, this process does not entail the milling of any internal bolt raceways or rails, but more on that later. Once the receiver is finished, the hammer-forged barrel is set into a fixture, and the receiver threaded down onto it. Before the barrel nut is installed, the bolt is closed on a go-gauge, and headspacing set. Then the tiny and tool-less barrel nut is secured down via a collet that allows Ruger to torque the smooth barrel nut.

Which brings us to the first of the Ruger American’s party pieces: The bolt. While the majority of the bolts are undersize (which means the lugs are the widest part), the Ruger’s bolt has full-diameter body. That means the bolt body is the same width as the bolt lugs, and simply has a short section behind the lugs where the diameter is reduced to allow the bolt to lock into battery. The benefit? That the bolt can rotate inside a tubular receiver with no need for bolt raceways. Instead, the bolt release rides in a groove machined into the bolt body, which serves as both a guideway and an anti-bind slot. And the bolt head? Well, it’s not the same free-floating design that all the rest of these rifles share, but it is a 3-lug affair that requires just 70 degrees to open.

The second development Ruger brought to the table with the American is the method by which the action is attached to the stock. Instead of using pillars, a recoil lug, or some other such device, the polymer stock features two stainless steel V-blocks. The blocks are molded into the stock, and fit into corresponding grooves machined into the underside of the receiver. The action screws go through these blocks and into the receiver, and by tightening the receiver into the V-blocks, ensure the round receiver is centered in the stock every time the stock is re-fitted.

Of course, nothing is perfect, and while the Ruger’s action is among the most technically interesting you’ll find for $500 or less, the stock leaves something to be desired. Specifically, it is a little slick. Also, while Ruger has fitted the bolt with a dual-cam charging system to set the striker, the shorter 70 degree bolt lift does mean that the bolt is harder to open.

So how does it shoot? Well, as further proof that enclosed actions provide a stiffer foundation, the Ruger is yet another affordable rifle capable of MOA accuracy. In fact, in testing, the American broke the MOA barrier with a variety of factory loads, but the best two were Federal’s immortal Gold Medal Match at 0.98 inches and Barnes Precision Match 175-grain at 0.92 inches.

Mossberg Patriot

The Mossberg Patriot is both the newest and most expensive rifle on this short list. Introduced just last year at the 2015 SHOT Show, the Patriot is Mossberg’s most affordable centre-fire rifle, and although the plain synthetic stock versions just sneak under our $500 cut-off, most models fall well into the $600 bracket. In fact, it can be so hard to find one of the plain-jane examples that we were unable to procure one for this article, and were forced to use this $670 walnut package rifle for our photography.

While the Axis, 783, and American were all made to meet the “budget” price point, the priority for the Patriot’s designers was not to make the cheapest rifle they could, but rather to bring some style to the Mossberg lineup. In years past, Mossberg’s utilitarian side tended to dominate their rifle designs, and guns like the ATR and 4×4, although serviceable firearms, were just never all that… “pretty.”

The Patriot, on the other hand, was specifically designed to bring some old-world class to the budget-sensitive market. You might notice that its lines and general shape mimic those of some of America’s best-loved rifles, such as the Winchester Model 70 and, yes, the venerable Model 700. The stocks (including the synthetic model) feature generous recoil pads, raised cheek pieces, real sling swivels, and all the accoutrements you’d expect from a standard production rifle. And that’s because the Patriot is a standard production rifle. Unlike the other rifles here, the Patriot isn’t just available in wood, or synthetic and bare or as a package… there’s 11 different models of the Patriot on the books. Available as an entire lineup of rifles ranging from affordable synthetic models, to laminate models, to youth models, and in calibres from .22-250 right on up to .375 Ruger, the Patriot could be your kid’s first centrefire rifle, an affordable deer gun, or it could even be your iron-sighted dangerous game gun.

In terms of construction, the Patriot differs quite a bit from the rest. First off, the fluted barrel is hammer-forged, not button rifled so there’s no chance of finding any chatter marks. While the barrel is still secured to the receiver with a lock nut, there are no wrench slots machined into it; a nice nod to svelte upmarket styling. The bolt eschews the modern swept-back style and has a classy straight handle. The bolt body is spiral fluted, but still features that smart two-lug floating bolt head. It’s just too bad it retains the old ATR’s unsightly rear bolt lug to prevent over-rotation. It hangs off the back of the bolt, and sits on the left side of the receiver when the bolt is in battery.

And the entire action (which takes the same tubular form as most Savage actions) rests on a polycarbonate bedding block and magazine well that fits into the stock from above. This ensures consistent action-to-stock fit. And the magazine that fits into that magazine well? Polycarbonate but incredibly well designed so as to facilitate easy loading. Our only gripe would be the chunky floorplate.

Now, unfortunately, although it’s quite handsome, the Mossberg just isn’t as accurate as the competition. Through what we can only surmise is a combination of less precise machining and a less rigid receiver than the more tubular Axis, 783, and American the Patriot generally shot groups hovering around 1.25 inches in previous testing, recording an absolute best of five shots across 1.02 inches with Barnes Precision Match .308 Winchester; an excellent target round and coincidentally the most accurate round we have shot out of any of these rifles. We also has some quality concerns, as our Patriot came out of the box with crushed stippling and some poor wood-to-metal fit and finish, and simply didn’t exude the sort of quality we’d expect at this price.

Verdict

So what’s our verdict? Well, first off, we’ve always thought it interesting how much bolt action rifles can differ from one another. The format may be hundreds of years old but clearly it’s still evolving.

In terms of our personal choice? Well, the 783 takes the cake for the best balance of accuracy, quality, and price. If you want the quintessential all-around gun but you don’t want to pay too much no dither about with it, this is it. Conversely, if you’re after that same jack-of-all-trades quality, but want a rifle you can really sink your amateur gunsmithing teeth into, the Axis’ aftermarket makes it an easy choice… at least, until the 783’s aftermarket catches up. Which leaves us with two rifles that are almost opposites of one another. The Ruger has all it’s best features on the inside, but believe it when we say, they’re there in spades. The American is easily the best built rifle here. Conversely, the Mossberg looks great from the outside but gets worse the harder you look, although still puts up a decent performance. In any case, one thing is undeniable: It’s a great time to get into rifle shooting!

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