Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sons of the scout rifle

Col. Jeff Cooper was an enthusiastic booster of several innovations in guns and shooting. Notable among them was the 'scout rifle,' short, light and yet powerful and accurate -- a .308 carbine. Bolt action, because a field-tough .308 autoloader action was heavy. A bolt action can be built very light for the power it commands, and still be very durable.

What I want to look at in this posting is what has become of the scout rifle concept in the thirty or so years since Cooper dreamed it up, and where we go from here in the search for an even better all around rifle.

Cooper thought the scout an ideal general purpose rifle, useful for just about anything you would need a high powered rifle for, and exceptionally convenient. His idea did not catch on like wildfire. Just two manufacturers offer scout rifles, Steyr Mannlicher and Savage. Ruger has lately dropped out of the race. Some custom gunsmiths will build you a bespoke scout if you like. Here is what a scout looks like, in case there is still someone who has not seen one:
Article continues below the illustration

What the shooting public does not greatly care for is the forward mounted telescope. The things people don't like about it, as compared to an aft mounted scope, are its narrower field of view and greater chance of glare problems if the sun is low and behind you. The glare problems can be addressed with a lens shade on the back end of the scope. The small field of view is not really a problem if you understand the idea behind the scout scope.

The forward mounted scope works well if you use it as follows: Eyes up and looking downrange, you occlude your target with the rear of the scope. You can do this quite easily because your left eye can see where the target is and your right eye knows where the scope is. If you do it right, the target will be within the field of view somewhere, and probably toward the center, near the crosshairs. Because the scope covers up less of the terrain than it would if mounted aft, it's a simple matter to put the scope upon what you want magnified. The system is a decent compromise between speed and precision and does not need batteries.

As that may be, a red dot sight is faster and a conventional scope allows more magnification and provides a bigger field of view for a given magnification. So, while the scout scope has its adherents, it's safe to say the idea hasn't taken the shooting world by storm.

Another aspect of the scout rifle that has not caught on is the Ching sling. This, I am sure, is simply because many shooters do not understand just how a shooting sling can help them. The Ching sling is a remarkably convenient way to do it if you are going to use a sling as a steadiness aid, not just a carrying strap. You can loop up in no time. Cooper claimed that a sling improved hit probability by about 30%, but I have been unable to find out how he derived this figure.

All the other scout rifle ideas have stood up very well. They have caught on even among some who say they do not care for scout rifles. You can now get commercial, off the shelf bolt action carbines, lightweight  and short barreled, in high powered calibers, from numerous manufacturers. Thirty or more years ago they were unusual; there was the Remington 600 and 660, the Mannlicher-Schönauer and that was about it. The industry's bread and butter item was the full length sporter.

Cooper looked into the future with an imperfect crystal ball. The scope and sling he favored did not catch on in a big  way. But he was right in a general sense. Short, light, powerful, accurate, quick, handy--all these scout rifle qualities caught on. People started discussing the high powered, high precision carbine in earnest at the same time Cooper made the scout rifle a hot topic. In that sense, we can think of most of today's bolt carbines as 'sons of the scout.'

Ironically, many lightweight rifles people bought because they didn't quite like the scout rifle really are scouts, under Cooper's definition, or nearly so. The definition does not actually require that you mount the scope forward, or even that you use a scope. It does not even require a fast recharging system like interchangeable magazines or stripper clips. These are recommendations but not definitive requirements. It is only usage that has defined the term 'scout rifle' to mean something configured like the rifle shown above, with the scope up front. So the last laugh goes to the Colonel; the dissenters are not disagreeing nearly so much as they think. For example, the spiffy little Ruger Compact carbine fits within the scout rifle definition if you add, say, a Ching Safari sling.

It may be my own crystal ball has a flaw in it, but my guess is the bolt action lightweights will eventually face competition from short and light self-loaders. The AR-15 and comparable actions were not considered when the scout rifle was planned, because they did not fire sufficiently powerful cartridges. Cooper referred to the AR-15 in .223 as the "poodle shooter."

But progress has not been idle in the world of .223-length autoloaders. Newer cartridges up-gun this class of rifles. Some examples are the 6.5 Grendel and the 6.8 SPC. While not the equals of the mighty .308, they are of more general usefulness than the .223. The Winchester Super Short Magnum (WSSM) family of cartridges shows even more promise. On the downside, none of these cartridges is as yet in large scale distribution. You can get .308 cartridges easily in many countries; that was a key reason the scout's standard and recommended chambering was .308.

Per Cooper: " of the qualities of the scout rifle should be its adaptability to readily obtainable ammunition. Therefore the scout, as I see it, is a 308. Certainly there is plenty of 223, 30 Russian-short and 30-06 ammunition obtainable worldwide, but the carbine cartridges are underpowered and the 30-06 calls for a long action..." Use of a readily available cartridge certainly makes sense. Your general purpose rifle cannot serve any purpose at all if you cannot load it.

As for sights, the forward mounted scout scope is a good system, but we would today be quite within our rights to insist on red dot sights. They are now vastly more durable and brighter than in years past, the batteries last much longer and we now have a very good idea how well the dot sights perform in the field--including combat. Nearly everyone who has used a good dot sight (and there are some abhorrently bad ones on the market at present) likes the dot, if he is shooting at close to moderate distances. The "heads up" effect of looking at the target with both eyes, while the sight adds an aiming pip to your natural view of your surroundings, is very easy to like. Your situational awareness is enhanced and accuracy is quite good. 

For the future, then, I would say a short action (.223 length) autoloader with a high performance cartridge is a likely successor to the scout, a grandson if you will, and the Buck Rogers optics are in the cards too. Just what form this general idea will take is uncertain as yet. That the future 'grandson of the scout' will have interchangeable box magazines seems a near certainty. The far forward mounting of the optic will not be necessary, since the dot sight lets you pick up the dot faster if it is mounted closer in, and once you have the dot, aiming is simply a matter of steering it onto your target. The sight should, though, be mounted far enough forward that it cannot possibly hit you in the eye when the rifle recoils.  I would like the new rifle to be a bullpup--more barrel length for a given over all length, thus more ballistic efficiency from a short rifle. 

There are many problems to solve before such a rifle is fully practical. Not least of these is large scale international distribution of a new cartridge and, also, the batteries for the fancy sight. For now, the  scout rifle or one of its immediate progeny will do fine.

Note:  Thanks to Steyr for permission to use their illustration.

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