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Gun reviews: Steyr SM12 stalking rifle

Steyr SM12 stalking rifle

Manufacturer: Steyr Mannlicher

Here’s one for the traditionalists who appreciate old-world looks and quality but like the advances in technology that produce better accuracy, longevity and reliability in modern firearms.

The Steyr SBS system, with its three-position safety, was one of those Marmite moments: you either loved or hated it.

I’m not sure why people got all het up about it, as it offered a dynamic range of options that you didn’t have to use if you didn’t want to.

Anyway, with the new SM12, Steyr has opted to make it simple.

The same accuracy, action and quality remain, but the safety mechanism has undergone a total redesign and, personally, I think it’s for the better.

You now have a very tactile, simple, no-nonsense, yet very safe, cocking and de-cocking system, which gives instant feedback about whether the gun is loaded, cocked or safe.

The barrel length varies depending on the calibre. The standard action size takes calibres from .243 up to 9.3x62mm, so it’s realistically a long action.

These use a 22in barrel, whereas the magnum calibres sport a longer 25in barrel to accommodate the large calibres’ velocity potential.

Steyr says the new barrel profi les have been “optimised”, matching the lengths of the barrels with their contours and the calibres they use.

In this way, accuracy is said to be “optimised”. The same cold-hammered, twisted-barrel exterior finish remains, with an overall hard, matt finish that matches the action.

Open sights are fitted, but are really redundant unless you are using the .30-06, 8x57mm or 9.3x62mm as a close-range boar gun.

The barrel has a match-recessed, crowned muzzle to ensure maximum accuracy potential, but is not threaded for a sound moderator.

Outwardly, the action is very similar to the older SBS system, which is still available, and both models will run side by side.

You still have the receiver drilled and tapped for scope mounts, and a small ejection port for spent cases to emerge.

The bolt is unchanged except for the handle, which now sits closed in one position and cannot be lowered further to lock tightly, as with the SBS system.

The bolt body is 7.75in long and has a plunger-type ejector and claw-type extraction fitted into the bolt head.

This, in turn, locks up into the receiver with two large forward lugs and two small lugs behind these, just to make sure.

This area is where the biggest change has taken place. Gone is the multi-positioned safety catch with roller top-catch and in its place is a simpler and easier to use single-action safety.

Now called the hand-cocking system (HCS), it does look similar to a Blaser unit, which is a good thing, to my mind.

You can now cock and decock the action just by using the safety catch.

Push the lever forward to cock the system and a red dot will appear on the rear tang, while the rear of the firing pin will protrude a bit from the bolt sleeve. You can now fire.

Within the safety catch is a small, square button; depress this slightly and the catch will slide rearwards and, in so doing, release the tension on the firing pin and thus de-cock the rifle.

This means that the SM12 can be cocked or de-cocked with a cartridge loaded in complete safety.

The trigger is a set unit, so you can push the trigger blade forwards to activate it for a very light trigger pull.

The single-stage or direct trigger is actually very good, so I see no need to use the set trigger feature, however.

The magazine has a four-shot capacity in the .308 Win model tested or three rounds in a magnum round.

The mag is detachable and made from polymer resin, using a double-stack system of feeding, and is retained by twin-release catches on both sides of the mag body.

The 22in barrel gave healthy velocities with the factory .308 Win loads, and accuracy too was good for a sporter-weight rifle.

The SM12 liked the Hornady Super Performance loads using 150-gr SST bullets, achieving 2,798fps velocity and 2,608ft/lb of energy.

Accuracy at 100 yards for three shots averaged 1.25in.

The Winchester Ballistic Silver Tips also gave good velocities at 2,701fps and 2,431ft/lb energy, and clustered three shots into 1.5in.

With the reloads, I tried some light bullets in case readers fancied using the SM12 as a dual-role rifle for vermin.

The 110-gr V-Max bullets from Hornady achieved 2,911fps with a load of 46.5gr of Vit N135 powder and grouped at the 1in mark.

The most accurate were the Nosler 150-gr Ballistic Tips with a load of 46gr of Varget powder for 2,747fps and 2,514ft/lb.

Three shots grouped into just 0.75in.

I did try some heavier 170-gr to 200-gr bullet weights, but this SM12 preferred the lighter 150-gr.

You see a lot of “walnut” stocks these days that are, frankly, a bit dry and lacking in colour.

They’re often not very well oiled in the traditional way, and it’s clear that little thought has gone into the choice of the timber used.

Thankfully, Steyr has kept the standard line of a European sporting arm but tweaked it to suit most shooters’ tastes.

The quality of the wood is good: it’s deep, rich walnut and is figured throughout, and the rosewood-tipped Schnabel fore-end is slender in gait and finished off with some attractive fish-scale chequering for a great look and comfortable feel.

The cheekpiece has a twin fluted design and a Bavarian semi-humped profile but, whereas this Teutonic look normally means that the cheekpiece or comb is rather low for scope use, the comb has been raised on the new SM12 so you have far better scope use but still retain the classic looks.

The sling swivels are not quick-release, which is a shame, but the solid rubber recoil pad finishes off a very attractive stock indeed.

Those wanting a very typically styled European rifle but without the foibles of older designs, and who also require and expect top-notch performance, will find the new SM12 pretty damn close to fulfilling those requirements.

I do like the stock design with fluted cheekpiece yet a high comb for scope use, and the walnut is lovely and tactile with that traditional oiled finish.

The action is as smooth as ever and the hammered barrel gave good hunting accuracy, as one would expect.

The revamped safety is better and simpler to use but, then again, I like the old SBS system.

To be able to cock and de-cock the trigger mechanism in one movement is very handy indeed, and just where you want it with your thumb as control.