A quarter-century ago a West Virginia gunsmith introduced a super-lightweight, bolt-action hunting rifle to the world. The Model 20 rifle built my Melvin Forbes of Ultra Light Arms (ULA) became the Nosler Partition of lightweight hunting rifles. As the Partition offered wide wound cavities and deep penetration, the rifle also was a combination of performance characteristics—light weight and superb accuracy—previously unattainable. These custom rifles come with a custom price but Forbes ultimately hoped one day his rifles would become production guns offered at lower prices.
This almost happened at the turn of this century when ULA was purchased by Colt, which in turn offered the Colt Light Rifle (CLR). The CLR was a mass-produced version of the ULA Model 24. CLR actions were machined by SACO Defense and housed in inexpensive, plastic stocks. Both the ULA and CLR Model 24 were so named because the action, sized for .30-06-length cartridges, weighed 24 ounces. But Colt crumbled. Forbes bought back his company, renamed it New Ultra Light Arms (NULA) and continued to make his custom rifles. And he continued to dream of a high-performance production rifle that hard-working, blue collar hillbillies like him could afford.
The key to the light weight and performance of NULA rifles is partly due to the tight tolerances to which they’re held and partly due to the state-of-the-art, Kevlar/carbon-fiber stock that surrounds the steel. A stock off a NULA rifle weighs less than a pound. It’s virtually unbreakable and through a proprietary, tip to tang bedding process it actually increases the rigidity of the barreled action.
Forbes’ stock is so technologically advanced and misunderstood by others that he has consulted with major manufacturers on how to build their stocks; he even supplies stocks to a respected custom rifle builder. After 20 years, NULA sales stay strong. On the down-side, NULA rifles are not cheap; prices start at $3,000.
A few years back Forbes was approached by defense contractor Titan Machine; discussion revolved around, once again, turning the Model 24 into a production rifle. Research and testing began, and ultimately Titan proved to Forbes it was capable of mass-producing actions to his stringent specifications. Forbes formed a partnership with Titan Machine, and his dream of a production version of his rifle is once again in the works.
This production rifle will be called the Forbes Rifle, and it uses an action that is an exact copy of those built by NULA. These actions are similar in design to a Remington Model 700: they are push-feed and have a plunger ejector, two locking lugs, a tubular body and a recoil lug sandwiched between the barrel and action. A Sako-style extractor, much tighter tolerances and a smaller-diameter action body and bolt are the main differences. Contrary to what you might suspect, the smaller-diameter action is not weaker because wall thickness is still maintained. Nosler used a NULA action in their test lab to fire more than 4.5 million rounds.
Another neat feature is the safety. he closed position; push down on it and you can open the bolt and unload the rifle while it is still on safe. This Forbes-designed, two-position/three-function trigger mechanism is manufactured by Timney for his NULA rifles. The new Forbes Rifle features this unit.
So what are the differences between the more expensive custom rifle from NULA and a Forbes Rifle? Actions of the Forbes Rifles are CNC-machined; the button-rifled, carbon steel barrels come from a different supplier. And, unlike with a NULA, which you can have chambered for any cartridge you want, the Forbes Rifle will initially be available only in .270 Win. and .30-06. Additional chamberings including .25-06 Rem., 7mm Rem. Mag. and .300 Win. Mag. will soon follow.
Options like length of pull, custom stock painting and scope mounting are not an option with the Forbes Rifle either. With it you get all of Melvin Forbes’ ingenuity and experience but you cannot tune the rifle to suit your every whim. However, you will be able to buy a Forbes Rifle off a dealer’s rack without waiting eight months like you would for a rifle from NULA. All parts between a NULA Model 24 and a Forbes Rifle Model 24B are interchangeable. This is good for several reasons. It means that these two actions are one in the same and ultimately it means that when Melvin Forbes decides he would rather play with his grandkids instead of dealing with demanding customers and tinkering with rifles, you’ll have a source for Model 24 parts and, potentially, even service.
I’ve known this project was in the works since the outset but was sworn to secrecy. Ironically, in September I was preparing for a Sweden moose hunt and called NULA to ask if I could borrow a .270. Forbes said, “How bout I let you borrow a special rifle?” As it turned out, the rifle I took to Sweden was the second Forbes Rifle ever assembled. I attached a Nikon African 1.1x-4x-24mm scope and zeroed the rifle with 130-grain Federal ammunition. In Sweden, I found the rifle shot to the same point of impact with 150-grain Norma ammo. This lack of a point-of-impact shift, regardless of bullet weight, is a common characteristic of NULA rifles that carries over to the Forbes Rifle.
The 24B shoots with hunter precision. It has the same balance, the same feel and is just as rugged as any NULA rifle. It also has what few if any other new production rifles have ever been able to boast: a 27-year history of proven reliability and customer satisfaction at the custom level. The best part is you can now own what may be the greatest lightweight hunting rifle of all time. This new Forbes Rifle costs the same as the original ULA rifle in 1985! Reverse inflation? Maybe, but more likely it’s just the result of Forbes not giving up on his dream.
This partnership between Melvin Forbes and Titan Machine comes together in a new company called Forbes Rifle LLC. The interface works like this: Titan Machine out of Westbrook, Maine, builds the actions and does all the metal work to Forbes’ specifications. Forbes builds the stocks in West Virginia and ships them to Maine where they are fitted to the barreled actions by workers trained by Forbes. Then the stocks are painted and shipped to dealers. They should be on shelves by the time this is printed.