Of the numerous, and varied, duties of American Hunter's editors, few are as difficult as reviewing the past year's issues and selecting the firearms, ammunition product and accessory most deserving of a much-coveted American Hunter Golden Bullseye Award.
“This is the 10th anniversary of our Golden Bullseye Award,” said Joe H. Graham, Executive Director of NRA Publications. “It was unchartered waters for us. Now this much-coveted award is a symbol of excellence, innovation and quality in firearms, accessories and related equipment. We congratulate the winners.”
Whereas the Golden Bullseye Award acknowledges the finest products available in the shooting sports, the Golden Bullseye Pioneer Award specifically honors outstanding personal achievement. “The Pioneer Award spotlights the exemplary achievement and cumulative body of work of an individual, members of a team or partnership, or family who were responsible for the development and introduction of shooting equipment that has made a profound, positive and enduring impact on the way Americans shoot and hunt,” said Graham.
NRA Publications will present its annual Golden Bullseye Awards and Golden Bullseye Pioneer Award at an invitation-only breakfast during the 2012 NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits in St. Louis, Mo.
The following products, and their representative manufacturers, received this year's American Rifleman Golden Bullseye Awards.
Rifle of the Year: Winchester Model 70 Safari Express
A dangerous-game gun for $1,349.99? Yep, you get that in spades, because this rifle is also top quality. Today’s Safari Express has evolved considerably since Winchester Repeating Arms introduced the gun and its .458 Win. Mag. for Africa in the 1950s. Through fits and starts, the gun’s production has ebbed and flowed. Just a few years ago, Model 70 production was discontinued. Then recently it was restarted at the Fabrique Nationale plant in South Carolina with new machinery. (FN is the parent of Winchester.)
By the time FN started with new production, the Model 70 had undergone major refurbishments; the Classic model reintroduced controlled-round feed in the early 1990s; the rifle’s over-pressure system was greatly improved; the bolt’s travel in the raceway was smoothed with a better anti-bind feature. Today, FN has added a new MOA trigger system; a better rear sight and a hooded front ramp now sit atop the barrel; and as is proper on a safari rifle, a barrel band sling swivel is present forward of the fore-end.
Fit and finish are as good as any Super Grade model ever produced in Connecticut. “Despite a widely held sentimental worship of the ‘pre-’64’ version, I have no qualms in saying the current Model 70 made by FN in South Carolina is the best Model 70 ever produced,” writes our tester, Cameron Hopkins, in the April 2011 “Hardware.” The gun is available chambered for .375 H&H Mag., .416 Rem. Mag. and .458 Win. Mag., belying the corners cut by FN, and the reason for its low price point. Still, in any given year, few big-bore guns suitable for African dangerous game are produced, making them expensive to not only make but even to buy. It’s nice to find one in the blue-collar wheelhouse every once in a while.
Shotgun of the Year: Beretta A400 Xcel Sporting
When Beretta introduced the Xplor A400 Unico in 2010, many anticipated the company would expand the line much as it did with the A391, and in 2011 it did so.
“… I believe the A400 platform is, in fact, a better shotgun in many respects than the A391,” writes Contributing Editor John M. Taylor in the July 2011 “Hardware.” It’s chambered for 23/4- and 3-inch shells, making it suitable not only for the clays field but the hunting field (though the bright blue, anodized receiver is hardly camouflaged for a duck blind). Innovative features include Beretta’s KickOff3 recoil-reduction system in the gun’s butt; the Blink operating system, claimed to be 36 percent faster than any other semi-auto shotgun; the Gun Pod in the pistol-grip cap, which records temperature, recoil of the last shell and number of rounds fired; and the Balance Cap, which allows the use of three differently weighted caps to adjust balance to personal taste.
Ammunition Product of the Year: Barnes VOR-TX
Barnes, the venerable bullet maker, released its own brand of factory-loaded ammunition in late 2010. It’s a long climb, but many industry experts hope VOR-TX will carve out its own niche in an already crowded landscape, providing hunters and shooters with further choice in factory-loaded ammo.
The VOR-TX line is loaded with Barnes proprietary bullets like the Triple Shock-X, “one of the best big-game bullet designs ever conceived,” writes Field Editor Bryce Towsley in the September 2010 “Hardware.” “Old gray beards like me remember when the only way to get these bullets in cartridges for hunting was to put them in ourselves.” Now all that will surely change. While Barnes bullets are available in Federal loadings, and in select Weatherby and Norma loadings, too, ever since Barnes was sold to the Freedom Group, it’s only a matter of time before those exclusive contracts will expire. Then, loaded ammunition straight from the source will garner more attention.
In 2011, VOR-TX included an initial 12-load lineup ranging from .223 Rem. to .338 Win. Mag., each topped with TSX or TTSX bullets. Standard stuff was and is loaded by Remington (also owned by the Freedom Group) at its Lonoke, Ark., plant. Barnes personnel worked closely to ensure quality control. The plan is to move all production to Utah, the home of Barnes, in the future. For now, Barnes personnel in Utah load the VOR-TX Safari line, introduced in late 2011, in heavy-caliber offerings suitable for dangerous game. Our writer was encouraged by early testing. “I really liked what I found. Accuracy was outstanding, rivaling the best ammo ever tested from any of the rifles I used. Better still, the velocity was very close to what is printed on the box. The uniformity of velocity was also excellent, indicating attention to quality control.”
Optic of the Year: Swarovski Z5 Riflescope
Z5s pick up where Swarovski’s Z6 line leaves off—namely with 1-inch main tubes more acceptable to an American market. But the main feature is wide field of view in both scopes, coupled with either a 6X or 5X zoom range (5X in the Z5). That’s absolutely revolutionary—previously, all riflescopes had at best 3X or 4X zoom. The new zoom factor allows hunters to mount one scope to do it all from 2X-10X, which means the same scope can be used for dangerous game at close range and mountain game at long range. While Z6s are aimed at the European market with 30mm main tubes, Z5s are aimed squarely at the American market with 1-inch tubes and rather slim design. Models include a 3.5X-18X-44mm and 5X-25X-52mm. Both objective bells are still rather large for my liking (a trend European makers still can’t seem to shake), both scopes are nonetheless top-notch and able to do it all.
Gear of the Year: The Gun Tool by Real Avid
For on-the-spot tweaks in the field, the Gun Tool features 18 of the most commonly used long-gun tools. It’s only $25, belying its rather cheap quality. But like we said, it’s for use in a pinch, not on your gun bench at home. If you can take only one tool on a hunt, this might be the one.
Vehicle of the Year: 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland