Scout Rifle: Modernizing An Obsolete Concept
Introduction: Sorry, Canada.
To my maple flavored friends I offer my condolences. Swift reactions from one very collected point of power is generally the very thing one would use your newly banned firearms against. Let’s hope some of your measures forbear fruit. We’ll look at the scout rifle concept and see if there’s room for it in such a circumstance.
I write this article from two sad spikes in the category per Google. Shown in a graphic below is the 2015 spike in the United States due to the assault weapons ban (AWB) legislation that was pushed that year. With the outgoing administration sympathetic to the cause, they were trying to ram it through quickly, and many folks thought this legislation had teeth. Luckily it didn’t pass. However, both 2019 and 2020 saw renewed attempts. I’m sure we can expect more.
On the left is a small spike in Canadian searches for the term “scout rifle” right around the same time as the Nova Scotia shooting. On the right you’ll see the 2015 spike in the US from when a second AWB had some real legs under it.
These days Canada is having a similar resurgence in the idea of the Scout Rifle. More so from a lack of options than choice. So I thought I’d put this together. I’ve been a fan of the concept for quite a while and transcribed Art of the Rifle in full to .pdf just so that I could have it on my phone to read. I’ve built a handful of scout rifles, and currently have a new project in the works. This article isn’t going to be an expert account of Jeff Cooper’s ideas. It’ll be some of my learned lessons and recommendations in case you find yourself on this path rather suddenly due to laws, restrictions, or other circumstances.
The Classic Definitions
The scout rifle concept was born in 1997 with the publishing of the book Art of the Rifle by the late Col. Jeff Cooper. The concept was obsolete the very moment the book came out.
Most of us who read TKB are interested primarily in defense when it comes to firearms. The scout rifle was the brainchild of someone who had experience in war, but was much more concerned with large game in Africa and North America. He had a love affair with quality bolt action hunting and it is very evident in his near-prose style of speaking on it.
The idea was a “do-all” rifle. Something that could take an Elk, but also prove useful for picking off the fox that was forcing itself into your chicken coop. And if you had to, in a pinch, be a rifle used for self defense. It was a very cowboy-esque idea of the gun you kept slung on foot or horseback through the wilderness to be the swiss-army-knife firearm used in any and every situation.
By that definition, even in 1997 it would be rather difficult to figure out why a bolt action could ever be considered more versatile than an AR. But keep in mind that the U.S. Assault Weapon Ban passed in 1994, so the book came out at the right time for a public recently starved of the “every-man” rifle. The audience was ripe for such concepts.
Here were Jeff’s criteria:
- Bolt Action: He preferred Mauser Actions for the masses
- Ammunition Feeding: Meaning magazines or stripper clips
- Roughly 7lbs (3.2kg) or less including optic and sling
- .308 WIN, but he also liked 7mm-08 or 350 Rem if one expected large game
- No longer than a 39” overall length, 19” barrel
- Forward mounted, low power optic
- 2 MOA or better accuracy
This is what he considered a good scout rifle. Many guns built in the idea try to follow the above guidelines as if they were gospel instead. The results are often great rifles to shoot. But do these criteria stand the test of time?
Modernizing the Scout Rifle
We’ll go criteria-by-criteria to see what we should keep and what we can toss.
Bolt action: This is obviously the first update most anyone made upon the expiration of the Assault Weapons Ban after 2004. Outside of some inherent reliability concerns that come in with a Gas vs Bolt gun debate, there wasn’t much reason to keep with any system that required manually chambering each round. But we’re here now, in a world where an AWB is becoming a feature of more countries than not. This is where I’ll bring up the Lever Action. Marlin especially is catering to the ban and updated scout rifle market with some of their new offerings. Many find the lever much simpler and faster to operate than a bolt. However, the next concern may be a trade-off.
Ammunition Feeding: Lever gun enthusiasts often must deal with tube-magazines. These are a bit more compact, but harder to load in a hurry. Today there are many magazine-fed bolt action options and that’s the route I would highly encourage everyone to go. Stripper clips aren’t terrible per-se, but they limit your optics option and are slower to operate. I’d still take a stripper clip over a tube-magazine, but modern mag-fed is superior.
Roughly 7lbs or Less: This is going to be a preference concern in my book. I’ve carried rifles on long patrols and know the woes, but that’s for the context of rucking the rifle all day. If you had one at a defensive position and it would only be used there, you can throw some of the weight concerns out of the window. Remember that Jeff wrote the concept mostly about hunting. So the weight concern will be very personal to you and how you plan to use the rifle. If you end up with a larger caliber and this will mostly be some sort of overwatch or tree-stand hunting gun, perhaps the weight could actually be beneficial. Just think about what you need.
.308 Winchester: I think this is still a phenomenal choice for a gun like this because of its widespread nature. Even amidst our current ammo shortage you can still find some on the shelf, and it’s because they make so darn much of it. However, if you wanted to find some other common calibers, there’s really no wrong answer here. These guns are made in 5.56mm, 7.62x39mm, 6.5 Creedmoor, etc. New guide gun offerings give you 338 Federal or 450 Bushmaster these days as well. Really, get what you think you can find the ammo for and whichever round does everything you need it to do.
39” OAL and 19” Barrel: I think the idea of keeping the rifle compact is a good one but I don’t see these measurements as any hard constraint at all. One of the more popular applications today for a scout rifle are to be as quiet as possible. A bolt action 300 Blackout is becoming a pretty popular build for many different gun magazines for a reason. You don’t have the noise that comes with the action of a gas gun and you can keep things pretty small. Most subsonic 300 Blackout loads will complete their powder burn in around 9” of barrel travel. More barrel doesn’t translate to accuracy in any appreciable way, so what would be wrong with a 10” barrel and suppressor on a bolt action made for the round? Absolutely nothing. The same could be said for 5.56mm, wherein the AR world has learned well that more barrel doesn’t mean more accuracy. Why add the weight and size if you don’t have to? Don’t be afraid to go small.
Forward mounted optic: This is a relic purely as most surplus rifles in popular use at the time were stripper clip operated. Mausers, Enfields, Mosins, or even semi-auto options like the M1’s all required some sort of top-mounted clip to feed the rounds into the fixed magazine. This obviously meant you couldn’t mount an optic where we normally see on a bolt action as it would impede feeding rounds. Now that we have detachable magazines we can completely throw those concerns away. Pic rail options are out there for most any production rifle and you can mount anything you want. Target scopes, red dots, LPVO’s, magnifiers. It’s all fair game now. Just like the AR, pick whichever optic is going to be the one you can hit with, afford, and use in your environment.
2 MOA or better: This was a concern with surplus rifles of the day. In 2020 even a $300 Savage Axis can be assumed to be sub 2 MOA with the kind of confidence you could bet money on. Even affordable guns like the Ruger American or Thompson TC Compass routinely perform at Sub 1 MOA with the ammo that the gun likes.
Not Just a Bolt Gun
To show that it’s not just some bolt gun, below you can see two of my rifles side by side.
On the left is the Ruger project. It is much lighter and shorter, equipped with a sling, has an optic with a true 1x zoom, detachable magazines, and is chambered for an intermediate cartridge.
On the right is my Browning elk gun. It wears a heavy Boyds Heritage stock, usually sports a Harris bipod, has a 6.5-20×44 hunting optic, a floorplate 4+1 capacity magazine, and launches 7mm Remington Magnums.
One of these is set up for taking multiple shots in quick succession at any distance. The other is firmly set up to take one, maybe two shots at a considerable distance. One is a scout rifle, the other is a pure hunter.
Here are some modern rifles that enthusiasts of the scout rifle concept have been using as a platform for their builds. Hopefully you can find something in here that fits your budget and is available in your area.
- Savage 110 Scout
- Savage Hog Hunter
- Ruger Gunsite Scout
- The Ruger Guide Gun
- Ruger American Ranch
- Mossberg MVP Predator
- Steyr Scout
- CZ 527 Carbine
- Marlin 336 Variants
- Marlin 1894 Variants
- Winchester Model 84 Variants
Whether you’re here researching ideas for a recreational build or you’re being forced into less optimal options for self defense due to your government, I hope you will leave this article with some new considerations or information. While it was in vogue in the 90’s to slap long eye relief pistol hunting scopes onto a Mauser, these days you can find all sorts of AICS mag fed Rem 700’s with Eotechs on top of the action. They’re all accomplishing the same goals.
Don’t feel the need to be constrained to the old ideas of what a scout rifle was. Because the very goal of the do-all everyman rifle in 2020 is an AR anyway. Jeff’s writings were thoughts, concepts, and guidelines. They aren’t carved into stone and bellowed from a mountain top as some revealed truth from your deity. Make the rifle what you need it to be to accomplish your goals, whether that be smiles on the range or defending your property.