Browning’s X-Bolt shares the accuracy and reliability of the A-Bolt, but offers some significant improvements.
It’s a quarter past dawn, the sun firing the eastern sky in gradients of yellow and orange. Details of my surroundings are gradually being revealed in the growing light.
About a dozen whitetails are gathering around a feeder 100 yards upwind of my natural ground blind. Leaning against the hideout of stacked oak limbs is a trim rifle called the Browning X-Bolt. At first glance, it could be mistaken for the A-Bolt from the same company, but a closer look reveals some radical differences.
It’s mid-December, and the whitetail rut is in full swing in central Texas. Outfitter Richard Key of Key Hole Outdoors has access to 4,200 acres of hunting property near the town of Brady. Immature 8-pointers are common on the low-fence ranch. Key recommends pulling the trigger on a buck with 130 or more inches of antler.
Whitetails have long been numerous in the limestone hills west of Austin. Biologists say the Texas Hill Country — proper name: Edwards Plateau — has more whitetails than any other part of the state, comprising 40 percent of the Lone Star herd. This area of caliche, cactus, live oaks and agarita is one of the best-known deer-producing areas in the United States.
That’s no Texas brag. I’m from this part of the world and took my first whitetail about an hour’s drive from this ranch. But the deer I began hunting avidly almost 40 years ago didn’t grow the large racks the bucks here do today. The difference is effective management of both the deer and their habitat in large chunks across the 35-county area.
Case in point: In two and a half days of hunting, I’ve observed dozens of healthy bucks — animals I would have gladly taken in the “glory years.” I’m astounded at the number of 120-inch bucks I’m seeing. I’ve also let several 10-pointers pass after long minutes of study through the Cabela’s 10x50 binoculars. Key and many other area deer managers supplement the animals’ natural forage with high-protein food year-round. Why wouldn’t they? Deer hunting has become big business in Texas, and the larger you grow ’em, the greater the monetary reward.
Magazine writers Dick Metcalf, Brandon Ray, Dave Scovill and I joined Kevin Howard of Winchester and Cabela’s Joe Arterburn to test the latest Browning and Winchester rifles and 2008 Cabela’s optics. Two of us are hunting with Browning X-Bolts in .308 Win; two are carrying Model 70 Winchesters in .270 Winchester Short Magnum. All are seeing unbelievable numbers of young bucks on different sections of the ranch.
Still unaware of my presence, the whitetails I’ve been glassing since sunup scatter across the flat, nibbling on browse and forbs. One doe is sunning herself in an opening 50 yards to my right. Beyond her is a frisky 8-pointer with tall tines and bases as thick as a broomstick. One of the bucks I’ve come to recognize on my vigils here, he might go 130, but my best guess is 125.
I had to talk myself out of taking him on the first day of the hunt. I didn’t want to burn my only tag early. Also, I was hoping for one of the 140- or 150-class bucks that Key said are occasionally taken on the property.
About 8:30 a.m., a 9-pointer that I don’t recognize emerges from a clump of red cedars. Apparently more interested in breeding than eating, the buck covers ground quickly. One look at his straight, tall brow tines and my heart is palpitating. When he abruptly turns to continue his search elsewhere, my blood pressure spikes. All my senses tell me to shoot, and shoot fast!
The slender rifle comes to my shoulder without a hitch. I snick off the safety, steady the crosswire behind the shoulder and trigger a round before the buck can put any trees or tall grass between us. While the gun’s report is still echoing across the countryside, the deer collapses, felled by a single 150-grain Winchester XP3 bullet.
The X Factor
This was not the first chance I’d had to test the X-Bolt, only the first opportunity to use it afield. Browning unveiled the gun at its Ogden, Utah, headquarters two months earlier. GunHunter staffers Jon Sundra, Clair Rees and I attended the press gathering and burned a lot of ammo getting acquainted with the trim rifle and other new guns at a range behind Browning’s HQ.
Browning firearms manager Denny Wilcox said the X-Bolt will not replace the A-Bolt, which continues to sell well among hunters. Instead, the relationship between the two turnbolts will be similar to that of the Cynergy and Citori shotguns.
Pick up an X-Bolt, and the first thing you notice is how well it handles, not unlike a favorite shotgun. Browning says the stock design is similar to the A-Bolt Micro Hunter’s. The Composite model weighs 6 pounds, 5 ounces in short action, and 6 pounds, 9 ounces in long action. The wood-stocked X-Bolt Hunter is only 3 ounces heavier, at 6 pounds, 8 ounces in short action, and 6 pounds, 12 ounces (long action).
The X-Bolt looks like a refined version of the A-Bolt, with more modern flair without going too racy. I liked the generous checkering around the stock’s grip and fore-end and the slimmer, more rounded fore-end.
That’s not your father’s recoil pad at the end of the buttstock. Browning claims the Inflex Technology Recoil Pad offers the best recoil absorption of any rifle. That’s a difficult thing to measure, but I can say that recoil of our test gun in .308 Win was not punishing in the least. Designers of the pad, made of a proprietary ultra-soft material, say it helps pull the stock comb away from the face, so the shooter feels less kick.
The receiver has a very low profile, thanks to an inverted three-lug system that mates with a bolt ring in the barrel. Browning says it’s the sleekest rifle on the market, with the nearest competitor’s receiver almost 1.5 inches larger.
There’s a two-position safety on the tang, just like the A-Bolt’s. The safety blocks the trigger, sear and striker. One feature you won’t find on the A-Bolt is the bolt-unlock button on the new gun’s bolt shank. Pushing the button allows the user to unload the rifle with the safety engaged. Designers say it’s like having a three-position safety without a third position.
The detachable flush-fitting magazine has a tough polymer exterior. You could probably run over it repeatedly with your truck and it wouldn’t crack. The rotary-feed magazine aligns the topmost cartridge with the center of the bolt rather than pushing it up from the side as traditional box magazines do. The result is improved feeding reliability. Our test gun cycled cartridges smoothly and without jamming. Inside the magazine are two shoulders that hold the cartridge so the tips aren’t damaged upon recoil. Neat!
The magazine-release button will surprise you the first time you use it. It’s a part of the magazine rather than the rifle proper as is usually the case. Press the button, and it stays with your hand as the magazine separates from the receiver. This may seem like no big deal, but it makes loading and unloading the rifle easier. I had no difficulty loading our test gun even in the dark.
The new rifle shares the 90-degree bolt lift of the A-Bolt. The design speeds cycling and keeps the bolt handle away from a low-mounted scope.
The X-Bolt’s Feather Trigger is my favorite part of the gun. It’s one of the best triggers I’ve felt on a factory rifle. I could detect no creep and overtravel. At Browning’s Utah range, I watched other writers trip the trigger and smile. The Feather Trigger comes from the factory set at 3 1/2 pounds, but can be adjusted down to 3 pounds. Both this trigger and the new Model 70 Winchester’s M.O.A. trigger are of the same ingenious three-lever design. However, they are not identical and the parts cannot be interchanged. Lousy factory triggers, it seems, are becoming a thing of the past.
The target-crown barrel is another aid to accuracy, as is the free-floated barrel, created by glass bedding the front and rear of the action. The new super-stable X-Loc scope mounting system, which uses four screws per base instead of two, helps ensure whichever scope you mount on the rifle maintains its zero despite bumps along the trail. The four screws form an X, hence the rifle’s name.
Our test gun turned in 1 1/4-inch groups off a bench during the pre-hunt sight-in session at the ranch. Oddly enough, switching to another box of the same 150-grain .308 Win XP3 ammo with the same lot number had the rifle shooting larger groups and to a different point of impact. I wrote that off as an ammo peculiarity rather than a rifle-accuracy problem. Kevin Howard agreed it was highly unusual; we never figured out the cause. I made sure the cartridges I packed for the hunt were from the first box. The ammo performed to perfection.
Rifle models include the Hunter with low-luster blued steel and satin-finished walnut stock; Composite Stalker with matte-blued barrel, Composite stock and Dura-Touch Armor coating; Medallion with blued steel and gloss-finished walnut stock; and Stainless Hunter with stainless steel metalwork and composite stock.
Available chamberings include .243 Win; 7mm-08 Rem; .308 Win; .25-06 Rem; .270 Win; .270 WSM; .280 Rem; 7mm WSM; 7mm Rem Mag; .30-06 Spfld; .300 Win Mag; .300 WSM; .338 Win Mag; .270 WSM and .325 WSM. Medallion and Stainless Stalker models are also available in .375 H&H with 26-inch barrels.
Like the A-Bolt, the X-Bolt is being manufactured by Miroku in Japan. Suggested retail price of all models is $899 to $1,049. Comparable A-Bolt models list for $712-$919.
For more information on the Browning X-bolt, visit www.browning.com.
This article was published in the July 2008 edition of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.