The A-Bolt rifle combines advanced features with the elegance of yesterday’s best.
By Ralph M. Lermayer
Anyone who has held or admired the better bolt-action rifles made before 1960 is immediately aware of a difference — a big difference — between those magnificent examples of riflemaking skills and those of today.
This is not meant in any way to criticize modern rifles. They are precisely what shooters have demanded: lighter, stronger, accurate, no-frills descendants of their predecessors. But the early rifles had a heft, feel, meticulous attention to fit, finish and detail, painstaking wood selection, precision hand checkering, and silky-smooth functioning and other qualities not found today.
They were heavy, often exceeding 10 pounds without a scope, and we demanded lighter. Our preference drifted to composite stocks, and the manufacturers responded. Computer-driven machinery all but eliminated the need for the tedious and expensive hand-fitting vintage rifles demanded, and the ever-present price point has made hand labor a thing of the past.
We look at today’s rifles as tools first, putting more priority in performance than appearance. Most manufacturers had to evolve with market demands, and you’re hard-pressed to find performance, value for the dollar and yesterday’s craftsmanship qualities in modern guns, but there is one that delivers it all: Browning’s A-Bolt.
Browning’s first “High Power” bolt-action rifle was released about 1959. It was a Belgian-made FN (Fabrique Nationale) Mauser patterned after most of the Mauser clones of the day. It was an elegantly handcrafted rifle. The stock was of select walnut, and a hooded front sight and a fully adjustable rear sight were standard. A hinged floorplate was included as well.
Options ran from .222 Rem on to .458 Win. Recoil pads were included on the magnum calibers only. Depending on how much engraving or special rosewood grip caps and fore-end tips you wanted and could afford, choices included standard Safari, Medallion Grade or the top-end Olympian. These were, and are, stunning examples of gunmakers’ skills, prized by those who own them. But the market changed, and Browning had to follow.
In 1977 the imported FNs were dropped for a newer in-house design, the BBR. Browning designers used the basic design of the Mauser, but significantly changed its function. First, nine locking lugs replaced the FN’s two. The bolt throw was changed from the long 90-degree of the Mauser to a short 60-degree throw. This was faster and made it easier to clear scopes with large rear bells. A sliding safety was added to the tang, and the gun was sold without metallic sights. The new rifle had the hinged floorplate, but now included a detachable magazine. Spare magazines could be snapped in quickly.
The redesigned Monte Carlo stock was intended for the almost universally accepted telescopic sights. An 8-inch-long aluminum channel strengthened the stock in the forearm, preventing warping, and full free-floating between the barrel and stock was standard. In a break with tradition and in the interest of cost, the American walnut stock had a sprayed-on, high-gloss urethane finish — an “improvement” I’ve always despised. Caliber options ran the complete gamut, but there was only a single model - the Browning Bolt Action Rifle. This was not Browning’s best effort.
Designers gave minor changes to the trimmed-down Lightening Bolt in 1982. It retained the nine lugs and anti-warp fore-end, shed a few ounces, but remained the company’s only bolt gun until 1985, when Browning tasked designer Joe Badali to build a better rifle. What emerged is the Browning A-Bolt we know today. It is one of the best factory rifles ever made.
Birth of the A-Bolt
There were many good features in the forerunners to the A-Bolt. Badali retained the 60-degree bolt throw, but slimmed down the bolt and went from nine small locking lugs to three massive ones. The rear of the firing pin, visible in the back of the bolt shroud, was painted red and extended. Now you could tell at a glance if the rifle was cocked and ready to fire.
He added a patented cartridge depressor that held the cartridges in the magazine level and did double duty as a bolt guide. There was also a redesigned magazine follower that kept even pressure on the cases when the magazine was full or nearly empty. Both added up to smooth feeding and positive ejection. The extractor was repositioned into the locking lug where it didn’t weaken the bolt.
Changes were subtle but important. With the new design, the trigger pull could be adjusted without removing the rifle from the stock. Simply remove the trigger guard to expose the adjustment. Once zeroed, the trigger could be tweaked without upsetting the point of impact.
Gone was the aluminum stiffener, and the stock contour changed to a more classic design. Glass bedding was added around the recoil lug. A satin finish, dull matte bluing and fully functional recoil pad topped off the new rifle. The receiver was trimmed, lines were smoothed, and a flat-milled upper end and sides made scope installation a breeze.
The A-Bolt of 1985 was near perfection in every detail, but most importantly, it reeked quality. Just pick one up, and you know you have a solid rifle in your hands. It delivers that pre-60 feeling with all the modern touches.
In the Field
Over the years, I’ve done many write-ups and tests on an assortment of A-Bolts in a wide variety of old and new calibers. Some were walnut stocked, others composite, but all proved reliable and superbly accurate. I’ve even been invited on more than my share of hunts for everything from whitetails to water buffalo where a loaner A-Bolt was provided. Unfortunately, after every event or test, the rifles had to be returned, but there is one I will never turn loose.
It is a walnut-stocked A-Bolt Hunter, an early prototype built to test the then-brand-new .300 WSM. It was sent here when my wife, Laura, drew a once-in-a-lifetime New Mexico oryx tag. Ammo was very limited, and only one box of 180-grain Fail Safe was available. After bore sighting, it took four rounds to set it 3 inches high at 100 yards. The next round killed a magnificent oryx bull at 175 yards. The next two rounds each dropped a bull elk. I returned the rifle, but kept the remainder of the ammo.
An invitation to hunt tough Texas nilgai sent the same rifle back here. One round from the original box of ammo showed it to still be on target. The next two each killed a nilgai — a cow at 60 yards and a bull at 240. That year, the rifle took another small bull elk at 225 yards, one more 180-grain Fail Safe gone. The next two rounds from that same box of ammo stopped a charging 2,500-pound water buffalo at 30 yards in Australia. Thirteen rounds fired, seven left in the original box, and over 3 tons of meat hit the ground. That rifle wasn’t going back. After all, I still had seven rounds left!
When Texas was still part of Mexico, the Mexican government lent the town of Gonzales, Texas, a cannon to keep marauding bandits at bay. Just days before the war between Texas and Mexico broke out, the Mexican government thought it would be a really good idea to get that cannon back. The citizens of Gonzales set up the cannon overlooking the only crossing on the Guadalupe River the Mexican soldiers could use, charged it and sent this message: Come And Take It! It was the first fight of the Texas Revolution.
The cannon still sits in the town square, and the community holds an annual “Come and Take It!” celebration every year. When Browning’s Scott Grange called for that A-Bolt rifle back, I sent the same message. They agreed to sell it to me. We’ve since named the rifle “Gonzales.”
It’s been around the world. Whether taking cool and deliberate long shots or jamming shells in the chamber in a frenzy, it has never let me down. It holds its zero with tenacity in cold and damp or hot and dry conditions. Gonzales wears a Weaver 3-10x Grand Slam, has had a recoil pad fitted, and now shows more than its share of bumps and bruises, but I would not hesitate to grab it and run (along with that box of shells) for any game, anywhere. That’s the real test of a great rifle and a testament to the A-Bolt’s design.
Today’s A-Bolts run the gamut from light predator rigs to heavy-barreled varminters. Listing them all would take more space than some phonebooks. Blued or stainless, wood-stocked, composite or even thumbhole laminate can be had from the basic A-Bolt Hunter, on through the upscale White Gold or Medallion Grade. Most can be had with a plain barrel, metallic sights or Browning’s accuracy-tweaking, adjustable BOSS muzzle.
Caliber options run from .223 to .375 H&H, including all the Winchester Short magnums. In that caliber roundup is the new .325 WSM, a factory cartridge loaded with 180- to 225-grain bullets that may be the single most versatile and efficient cartridge Winchester produces. It’s a perfect marriage to the reliable A-Bolt design.
Soon, I’ll be making my first trip to Africa. I’ll be taking game ranging from 200 to 800 pounds, including eland, kudu, gemsbok and a host of smaller deer-sized plains critters as well as the odd warthog and hyena. Care to guess which rifle is going? Yep, it’s Gonzales. I guess I’d better pick up another box of shells. Maybe not. I’m only taking seven trophies.
Reprinted from the August 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.