Monday, November 4, 2013

Hunting with the Steyr Scout…or the Redux, Redux.

Much has been said over the last 15 years in the hunting and shooting press about the Steyr Scout. One of the things I've found interesting is that the content as related to hunting with the piece is almost entirely theoretical. A lot of that has to do with the way most hunting and shooting magazines publish pieces about guns in particular. A vendor will send the magazine a sample of a particular rifle whose editor will then assign the gun to a writer who will (ostensibly) shoot the gun on a range or perhaps take it on a hunt or two and then write a piece about it. Few of the guns reviewed are the author's personal arms and most are sent back to the vendor after the shooting is done. The days of an objective gun press  are long over and most pieces get an astounding review and are usually featured in some prominent (read:expensive) advertising within the magazine.

Don't get me wrong- a truly good gun's maker can pay for ad space and it's certainly not in the financial interest of a magazine to poo on a client's product. I've no idea how much premium ad space is in a major magazine but cheap is not something that comes to mind.

Where does that leave the consumer? Well, pretty much at the mercy of friends, their own judgement, or a growing handful of guys who publish reviews of stuff on the growing blogosphere without the goal of financial renumeration. Of particular interest should be the guys who actually use a product in an actual hunting environment over a period of time. A review of a product by an amateur blogger who merely pontificates about a particular piece is no better or more valid than the pontification of a paid professional in my estimation. It takes someone who puts in the hard miles to really ferret out the good and bad. I don't frequently review products because it takes a lot of work to put in the time- a single hard hunt will often reveal gaping flaws but seldom do the real winners emerge until seasons later.

I've been an enthusiast of the Scout Concept since at least the mid nineties and followed it's production in the pages of Cooper's writings and finally culminated that in the actual purchase of a Steyr Scout. Even after my personal Scout was sold to finance my relocation to Alaska, I followed the developments and with some surprise, I was delighted when a major maker like Ruger produced a well done version of the Gunsite Scout after Cooper's passing. I acquired another Steyr from a lifelong friend and spent a lot more time shooting and hunting with it over the last couple of years. It is without hesitation that I report that I've read nearly every word published about the piece and so much of it is just theoretical gibberish we should all just dismiss much of it outright.

The first thing to realize is that the Scout concept is not a specialist's rifle. If you want something to punch small groups in paper or hunt elephant or shoot prarie dogs or clear rooms of terrorists or shoot critters at impossible distances please look elsewhere. The Scout is rightly thought of as a generalist's rifle. Something that does much acceptably but nothing perfectly. It is not a rifle that a guy can shoot off the bench a few times and get any sense of it's intrinsic design genius or flaws. It is not a rifle that you can Walter Mitty your way into appreciating by fantasizing about the impending zombie apocalypse or any other end of the world as we know it. It takes actual miles and real blood to appreciate it for what it is and for what it isn't.

Now that Ruger is producing a Scout rifle, I expect the concept to become ever more popular and I would hope not misunderstood. While the Steyr was Cooper's own project- the price tag was much too high to ever gain widespread acceptance in the marketplace. Ruger's version is much better done than the somewhat chintzy Savage effort and priced in line with middle of the road sporting arms. So much of the existing material out there is either survivalistic (it was released two years prior to Y2K and it's attendant madness) or compared to other rifles in situations clearly outside it's design (room clearing? seriously?). Even much of the press devoted to the newish Ruger Scout is from folks more interested in the martial aspects of the rifle rather than it's utilitarian qualities. I believe that 16 years association, exploring and hunting extensively in two corners of the continent give me a fairly good perspective on the concept.

So here we go:
Accuracy: the Scout is often termed an inaccurate rifle but nothing could be further form the truth. It is not a bench rest rifle and is not set up to appropriately get tiny groups from a bench. Once someone masters the precise aiming technique of using the corner of the heavy Duplex reticle, groups of about 1 MOA are entirely achievable. A hunter cannot approach or use this level of accuracy in the field so having a "more accurate" rifle is pointless. For field shooting, both of the samples I've fired would easily hit 6" targets to the limits of ethical field shooting. I've recently shot a caribou at 300 yards and hit 3 for 4 on a moving target and have hit groundhogs (a large type of marmot) back East further away than that. That's good enough.

Bipod: the Scout's bipod was often criticized back in the day as being not robust enough. I didn't understand it then and I still don't. I've never had an issue with either that I've owned under some pretty typical conditions for a hunting bipod. Heck, I can concoct a scenario in which I could break an anvil…am I likely to? No. Much of that worry comes from Gunshop Commando HQ. I also heard it criticized as being too tall. If you shoot it from a bench it is too tall. From prone on the ground it is perfectly acceptable and neither myself (5'11"), my wife (5'2") nor my son (4'10") have any issue with it. Aside from some making longish shots with it, it makes a convenient "kickstand" while you're cleaning a rifle or placing one on the ground while you attend to other tasks in the field. I think the integral bipod is one the rifle's very best features.

Weight/Length: the Scout weighs in at about 6.5 lbs and 39" long. By today's ethereal standards it is no longer a "lightweight" rifle, but back in the day it was one of the lightest production pieces available. I currently have two lighter full size rifles chambered in heavier cartridges. The lightweight coupled with short length makes the rifle "handy"- even a light rifle can be a pain when they're too long. Handy. There's no better term for it. Whether being carried in hand, on a sling, on an ATV or in a bush plane- a short rifle is easier to deal with and gets knocked around less, hung up in branches less, and overall just friendlier to deal with. This was really apparent when I tried skiing with a slung rifle. Cross country skiing is a movement heavy activity and a full size rifle was always hitting something when slung across the back. The Scout tucks in nicely behind the back and stays out of the way.

Reserve Magazine: the reserve magazine in the rifle's butt was often the point of conversation among the early survivalist crowd that initially flocked to the rifle (largely through space age aesthetics). Some loved the fact a guy could have 20 rounds on board using 10 rd magazines (no one asked 'why?') and some criticized it's location as being suboptimal for "tactical reloads" (whatever the heck that is). Having a spare 5 round mag in the butt does a few things- it balances the rifle to a more neutral position- neither butt nor muzzle heavy, it keeps an extra payload available when things don't go exactly according to plan-see my previous caribou story, and it allows a convenient place for special purpose rounds- either light loads for small game or ultra heavies for bear protection. Some early reports have the magazine falling out under recoil- a glitch certainly correctable now that I've never experienced personally after much shooting. While it is by no means one of the rifle's better features, it's a touch than I really appreciate.

Intermediate Eye Relief Scope: this is one of the features that causes folks the most heartburn and some people can't get used to it at all. It is also the one feature that people associate most closely with a "Scout Rifle". Properly done you shoot with both eyes open. If you close your non-dominant eye you miss out on the effect in large- that of having an enormous field of view. It has been criticized as not being adequate for field shooting at long range- I've proven that incorrect to myself several times with a lot of range shooting and big game hunting shots at well over 200 yards. Many dismiss the scope as suitable only at close range….that's pure poppycock. Groundhogs are not terribly large creatures and I've splattered several at ranges too embarrassing to publish. High magnification is not required for long distance shooting and I've found the .308's trajectory much more problematic at long range than lack of magnification. At typical woods ranges, I find the IER faster than irons and much more accurate in low light- having shot several whitetails in the big oak woods. For the Eastern US hunter an Aimpoint type scope might be the ultimate for using in the dark woods where ranges seldom exceed 100 yards but not a handicap if one encountered shot down a right of way or open field.

Two serious pieces of criticism I've heard from serious hunters do hold water. One, is that an IER scope is more subject to glare when backlit-particularly when the sun is low to the horizon at either dawn or dusk. That's a valid point and one that effects conventional scopes as well, just not to the same degree since the shooter's head shades the ocular lens. The field shooter will have to be aware and be ready with a hat some other object to shade that ocular lens or risk being too dazzled by the reflection to shoot. It hasn't been an issue in my hunting but it certainly could be. Two, the lack of magnification makes judging trophy animals difficult. I know a lot of guys will turn a scope up for a last minute check to determine the trophy quality or legality of an animal before pressing the trigger. The IER scope is not at all suited to that. Personally, I've already done that by the time I put the crosshairs on the animal with my binos but if a last look at a critter is important to you then an IER scope is probably not your cup of tea.

Interchangeable Butt Spacers: one of the better features on the rifle is the variable length of pull achieved by the use of interchangeable butt spacers. Quite important for a couple of reasons- for one, my whole family shoots this rifle and each of us has a preferred length of pull. It's not something I'd want to change while a critter is in sight, but it's a simple matter to change it at camp for whoever is the primary shooter of the day. Even without multiple users, being able to change L.O.P. for seasonal clothing is very convenient since in my early season I may very well be hunting in a simple t-shirt and in winter I'll have multiple layers or even a thick parka. I wish this would catch on among other manufacturers as it's very convenient. Ruger now features this on a few different models, including their Gunsite Scout, but I don't find the result terribly aesthetically pleasing and it does require tools which would make doing the job in camp kind of a drag.

Back Up Iron Sights: originally I was in love with this feature. Thinking being that you ran with the scope and if the scope failed you could easily transition to the back up sights. It's not a feature exclusively featured on Scout Rifles and the virtues of back up sights have been extolled for a century since scopes became a feature on sporting arms. In use however, their utility tapers off. Stocks are generally set for either irons or scopes. Rifles meant for scope use tend to have higher combs and irons tend to have lower ones. A comb height that works well for a scope will be too high for irons and one set for irons will be too low to get a cheek weld with a scope. In fact, the irons on my Steyr are so low that I have trouble getting my head scrunched down on the stock enough to see through them. Great idea but tough to execute on a rifle. Any rifle. It may be a moot point since rifle scopes are so darn good these days that field failures are incredibly rare in the real world. A good quality scope will take an incredible amount of abuse before failing. In fact, the last person to adjust the Leupold scope on my rifle was the Steyr factory…16 years ago.

Mechanical Complexity: if there is one thing I don't like about the Steyr it is the mechanical complexity of the action and trigger. Field stripping the bolt reveals what I've come to expect from Bavarians in general and Austrians in particular…a whole bunch of little bitty parts assembled by gnomes in a factory powered by unicorn flatulence and fairy magic. Incredibly complex assemblies for something so simple in function, it makes one wonder about the robustness of such things in the field. I've used both of mine in some challenging conditions without failure but a failure in the field is probably not repairable there. It may not be repairable on the average gunsmith's bench and very well may need a trip back to the factory or importer. It does yield some interesting features with respect to locking the bolt, an excellent safety and a very weird but excellent trigger pull. But I still wonder about its long term reliability.

Ballistic Potential: the factory Scouts are all limited to the .308 case and the .308 Winchester is the most common chambering. While the .308 is certainly no slouch in the hunting field it is often criticized as being inadequate for the beasts the Scout specifications called for- 400 kilograms (1700 pounds) at 300 yards. This encompasses a lot of critters- some I'd shoot with a .308 and some I wouldn't. The Scout is certainly not a dangerous game rifle (that's why they built the much maligned and poor selling .376 Steyr) but a moose or elk are big animals and 300 yards is a long way. Even on my 500 pound caribou the results were not dramatic enough for my taste. I would likely draw the line at 500 or so pounds at 300 yards and maybe 1000 or so at 150yds. It is interesting to think what might occur if the excellent WSM line of short magnums were used in a Scout although I admit that may be missing the point altogether. The .358 Winchester and the .338 Federal are both short actions but neither have made it into a Scout in factory form. For most folks though, the .308 and 7-08 are completely adequate for any hunting they may do.

So that's a run down of the features of the Scout but I'm really afraid that even a brief description of the features or a longer technical run down (which I've tried to avoid and can be found elsewhere) really do due diligence to the rifle. Hunting with a nice rifle has a feel that is hard to describe- a well balanced piece feels lighter, a well fitting stock puts the reticle immediately in front of the eye, handiness is only appreciated in an alder thicket. And the sum of those things can only be appreciated over time and terrain. At this juncture I am attempting to procure a Ruger Gunsite Scout and hope to do a review of it in a future piece.


Phillip said...

Now that right there was a REVIEW! Nice job.

I always liked the looks and idea behind the Steyr, and I was intrigued by the Ruger when I first saw and shot it from the demo bench. The handiness of the design would be excellent for western hog hunting, and I imagine it would make a great rifle for carrying in the Smokies for whitetail. I'll stick with my A-Bolt or Savage for the elk and mule deer hunts, though... at least until they chamber one of those Scouts in .325wsm.

hodgeman said...

After carrying it in the Smokies and taking a few whitetail the rifle is nearly ideal for that.

But surprisingly it makes an excellent mountain rifle by virtue of short length and light weight. It's a real joy to carry in rough terrain. I'd have no qualm hunting sheep with it-despite their reputation a reasonable approach is usually possible. For a goat I'd want more horsepower given their toughness.

I would love to see one come out in a WSM or perhaps the 338 Federal although the .308 should generally suffice on most stuff.

ce said...

Thanks for this very interesting review

Kala Choe said...

I'm definitely a supporter of the scout rifle concept, and I think the Steyr version has the most potential for greatness. However, the execution - and I mean all scout rifles - are coming up short.

Some of it is as was mentioned - what was light weight, and cutting edge tech in the nineties is just middle of the road now, and Steyr is still (even with the recent drop) pricing this thing as if Zytel and hammer forged barrels are as rare as jewels. Similarly, some of Cooper's once progressive ideas are no longer front line thinking.

hodgeman said...

Kala- that is a very good point, when I first saw a Steyr back in the late nineties it was like something out of a science fiction movie. Nowadays, not some much- I'm not surprised with such weak market acceptance that further development hasn't taken place.

Both the Ruger and the Savage are variations on those company's existing product lines. It will be interesting to see what becomes of the Scout in the another 20 years. It may well be just another interesting footnote in rifle development. I kinda hope not- but you never know.

Kevin Steffey said...

Good review!! Interesting blog. This is one of my favorite blog about hunting and I also want you to update more post like this. Thanks for sharing this article.

Anonymous said...

I have owned a Cooper Scout almost since its inception.
Over the years, I have ventured off trail when some new whiz bang gun comes down the pike, but I always come back to my Scout.
I can safely say those experimental days are over. I'm well past Social security age and I appreciate the lightness and handiness even more.
My scout will be with me till I go under....its settled.

Unknown said...

I've had a .376 Steyr Cooper Scout since it came out. I shot many a white tail in PA not one took another step. It is easy to carry and transport. I live in AZ now. It can reach deep into a canyon with success. I came in second using it in a long range off hand shoot of about 300 yards. The rifle was not at fault, it was the shooter. It always draws a crowd when I bring it out. The crowd gets bigger after the first round. Everyone wants to know what that cannon is. I'm a retired artillery officer; a cannon it is not!! It is my go-to gun for any serious shooting. Good review, thanks Hodgeman!!