David Barrington Barnes tests a selection of rifles for stalkers who want to lighten the load
I was two-thirds the way up ‘the Ben’ and puffing some when my companion started. “You should get a lightweight rifle, like mine,” he said. At that moment any rifle would have been too heavy, but I refrained from replying that maybe the 40-year difference in our ages ought to be taken into account. At 2,000ft above sea level I let it pass and, as soon as my heart rate slowed down, continued to climb, carrying my old rifle quite comfortably over my shoulder.
Stalking with a younger generation, as I do, I recognise a persisting interest in lightweight rifles. My young friend Jason over in New Zealand has not just changed to lighter mountain rifles but has swapped his huge American scopes, such as those made by Nightforce, for slim, lightweight offerings. Though we have no terrain here that comes near to his, light rifles have become so popular that I would say they are here to stay.
Advantages of lightweight rifles
They are lighter to carry and so more readily deployed for shots off sticks. They are easier to handle in woods or from high seats, or from wherever a quick shot is needed. These are the rifles favoured by the light brigade, whose comparisons between light and heavy stalking rifles are akin to the differences between a jet fighter pilot and a bomber commander.
Despite the obvious advantages of a more manageable rifle, some shooters argue that you lose more than you gain from shedding weight. Accuracy can be compromised and recoil can increase. With this in mind, I’ve been looking at what’s available for those like me, for whom stalking still holds its allure but wish to lighten the load a little. As the years stack up, I find myself becoming more pragmatic about lightweight rifles and their merits for deerstalking. Though the enthusiasm still burns as brightly as ever, this isn’t necessarily matched by what the body can do.
My choices reflect reliable bolt-action performance and tip the scales at around 10lb. Despite their slimline stylings, the four rifles tested all shot tight groups at 100 yards out of the box — more than satisfactory for all species of deer present in Britain. In weighing the rifles, we noted that the scope and moderator have a big impact on balance. As practical stalkers, it is the overall weight and balance that matters, not just the stripped- down weight.
This rifle, a Haenel Jaeger 10 with synthetic stock, was one that caused some internal debate. As this particular rifle is chambered for .223, it is only usable on small deer species in England and Wales. After some consideration, I decided to go ahead and include it in the round-up as the calibre, appearance and accuracy really appeal to my colleagues and me. Despite holding the smallest calibre, the Synthetic Sporter is in fact the heaviest of the four on test. At 10.95lb, it is undoubtedly sturdy and robust, helped by a 21in satin black barrel, the longest of the guns here. Meanwhile, the olive-green stock features an adjustable cheekpiece and lovely recoil pad.
Much like the Timber .308 Win version, the Synthetic Sporter features a top-loading magazine, double stacked for four rounds, a three-position safety and single-stage trigger. Almost every stalker I speak to agrees that this rifle is perfect for smaller deer species, and though I rarely shoot from prone, even I shot good tight groups with this .223. If you do find yourself going after larger species, then the .308 Win is a fantastic alternative.
Savage 110 Lightweight Storm (6.5 Creedmoor)
The Savage 110 is the lightest of the recommendations and comes in at approximately 9lb when scoped with the Bushnell Forge riflescope. This smart bolt- action rifle sports 20in barrels with a stainless-steel finish. The 110 may not be to everyone’s taste, but Savage has built a deserved reputation for accuracy. I was interested to see it in a Creedmoor as this is very much the calibre of the moment, far more so than the ‘Swedish Lady’ in 6.5×55 that is well beloved by me and many other stalkers.
There are features on the Lightweight Storm that I really like. For a start, accuracy is of paramount importance and Savage has never had a problem in that department. The AccuTrigger also gives the user excellent trigger control.
The synthetic stock is fully adjustable and though there is no cheekpiece, the 110 does feature a high comb, a well-defined recoil pad and a safety catch with a positive three-position ‘shotgun’ style. The build quality is solid and I’ve always found that Savage makes the sort of rifles that would give years of trouble-free use.
The top-loading magazine accommodates four rounds, and only once have I experienced any operational difficulties when firing the last round, and the empty magazine resulted in the empty case dropping down, thus preventing the empty case ejecting.
This is highly unusual for a Savage rifle, and certainly a result of plenty of use over the years. The blip notwithstanding, the 110 would make an excellent estate rifle as it is simple to maintain, easy on the laird’s pocket and the candy-twist bolt means it’s also quite a looker.
The Sako 85 has proved itself over many years to be one of the very best on the market. This Finnish manufacturer produces top-quality rifles that are reliable, accurate and good-looking. I have always regarded them as good value for money and many stalkers often start with a Sako, coincidentally often in the .243 calibre.
A Sako and a .243 calibre go together like bread and cheese, and will perform perfectly regardless of what species of deer you stalk. This top-of-the-range rifle weighs in at a touch over 9lb, including the Stalon moderator and Steiner riflescope. This bolt-action rifle also features a 20in barrel and a three- position safety catch.
The Sako 85 is an attractive rifle, sporting a synthetic grey stock with an adjustable cheekpiece and Cerakote coating. In addition, the top-loading double-stack magazine could also be loaded through the action, which is a useful addition and one that helps to justify the price tag. I’m not keen on set triggers, but if there is ever a place for one, it is when the stalker is settled in a high seat. While out in the woods or fields, I actively fear forgetting to unset the set trigger.
Despite this, the Sako 85 is highly accurate and a pleasure to shoot. This is a lightweight rifle in a class of its own.
Haenel Jaeger 10 Timber LX DS (.308 Win)
I was conflicted when considering this Haenel Jaeger for inclusion. Though it does come in at just under 10lb (9.86lb to be precise) this wooden-stocked rifle in .308 Win hardly operates as a traditional lightweight rifle. Given time in the field, I would argue that the Jaeger 10 demonstrates how weight is less important than balance when it comes to stalking. Nevertheless, it is a rifle that has proven to make stalking easier and for that reason it is worthy of this list.
I was tempted to christen this Haenel the ‘chocolate box’ rifle on account of its chocolate-coloured bolt knob. Functional, yes, but as an important visual part of a rifle it was never going to float my boat. I did, however, prefer the dashing gloss-blue barrel and beautiful walnut wood with raised comb and recoil pad.
In addition to the single-stage trigger, there is a set trigger, a three-position, positive safety and top-loading double stack, which performed nicely, though it is tricky to manipulate. Accuracy is also fine, but it is worth taking note of the velocities with some types of ammunition.
If I was opting for a .308 calibre rifle, I would not want to match it with a lightweight rifle. My view is based on experience. Years ago, I had a few shots with a lightweight rifle in .308 and couldn’t get on with it at all. The barrel danced and there was more than enough recoil. Though the calibre has its enthusiasts, I have never wanted to repeat the experience.
I would describe this rifle as pragmatic, but certain features, such as the trigger, are very good and there is no denying that the Haenel pedigree makes for a very useful and reliable stalking rifle.
Lightweight rifles in conclusion
These lightweight bolt-action stalking rifles were technically similar and would provide satisfactory experiences if used with bipods on the hill and if set up and zeroed correctly, so your decision may come down to price. As for me, I have hankered after a .223 for many years, so I was only able to walk away from the Haenel Jaeger 10 Synthetic Sporter because I am a lefty.
Not all stalkers are as hung up on the appearance and feel of a rifle as I am, however, and many go for the one that best does the job. A lightweight rifle simply extends the time that old boys can enjoy something that has been a part of our lives for so long. Not long ago people thought you were getting on at 60, but many 80-year-olds are still at it.