The hip and happening trend with bolt-action hunting rifles right now is to go cheap, but still go big on performance. It seems like every manufacturer has a low-end price-point rifle, and they all seem to shoot pretty well.
This is not a new concept; decades ago my first centerfire rifle was a Remington Model 788. It was an ugly beast that I loved, and the 788 shot so well that urban legend holds Remington dropped the rifle from production because it was embarrassing the company by outperforming the higher priced Model 700. I bought my "cheap" rifle 46 years ago and am happy to see budget bolt guns have finally caught on.
Browning's hat in this ring is the new AB3 Composite Stalker. This is a light, trim, lively rifle. I am a sound believer that a gun must "feel" right. I don't like clubby rifles, and this one hits the hand like it's ready for action.
Fit and finish do not reflect the low price. The metal has a nice matte-blue oxide finish, and I don't see any of the machining marks often left behind on value-priced guns in the interest of cost containment. On the sample I received for testing, the injection-molded stock is well-fitted to the metal and lacks the ugly gaps common to economy guns. The grip has a palm swell for right-handed shooters, and the stock comes with sling swivel studs. A pebble-textured strip that runs from grip to tip helps you hold on to the otherwise slippery plastic. The fore-end tip is raked back either in the European style or as a tribute to the California rifles of the 1960s, depending on who you ask. Following the straight, classic form, the comb has no embellishments and demonstrates once again that none are needed. The Inflex recoil pad is soft and gooey to help dissipate recoil, but its edges are round to aid in mounting the gun.
Large enough to use with gloves, the trigger guard is made of polymer. So is the trigger, which is a bit disconcerting at first. But then again, polymer triggers have worked well for decades on pistols. Browning advertises the non-adjustable trigger to break at 3.5 pounds. The one on my sample is a bit heavier at 4 pounds, 2 ounces. However, the pull is clean and crisp and a joy to see in a hunting rifle. For years I railed against crappy triggers in hunting rifles while all the gunmakers insisted they could not make a safe one with a reasonable pull weight. Then Savage proved it was possible with the AccuTrigger and forced everyone to follow. For that, I have built a small shrine in my gun vault to former Savage CEO Ron Coburn. With its AB3, Browning proves again that a good hunting trigger can be safe and inexpensive.
The two-position tang safety locks the bolt closed when it's in the "on" position, as should all safeties. Depressing a button just behind the bolt handle allows the bolt to open with the safety on for loading and unloading. Bolts that do not lock closed have been another sticking point for me for years. I have argued it's not that tough to make a gun that locks closed, and most (but not all) companies agree. The bolt-release button on the AB3 is simple genius, and I think perhaps it's time to build another shrine.
The carbon-steel, button-rifled barrel is free-floating, and its crown is deeply cut in what gun companies love to call the "target" style. A deep crown is a good thing on a hunting rifle, as the gun will have a hard life, and it helps protect the rifling. Why is that important? The crown is the last thing the bullet touches in the rifle, and its influence on accuracy cannot be overstated.
For standard cartridges the AB3 barrel is 22 inches long, while the magnum versions of the rifle have a 26-inch barrel. Since the barrel is threaded into the receiver, if you ever wear it out, it can be replaced. This feature is not available on some other budget rifles that use a press fit to join barrel and receiver. The odds of most hunters shooting out a .30-06 barrel are about the same as them getting a date with Kate Upton, but still, it's nice to think it could happen.
The AB3 receiver has the distinctive triangle shape that is the trademark of the Browning A-Bolt family of rifles. It is drilled and tapped for scope mounting. In a bit of departure from the expected norm, the company elected to use the larger, stronger 8-40 screw size. Well done, Browning, well done. The detachable box magazine is a hybrid of metal and polymer. It holds four standard cartridges or three belted magnums in a staggered pattern.
The "fat" bolt is .879 inch in diameter and is matte electroless-nickel plated. While diameter is difficult to measure at the three lugs as there are no opposing sides, it appears to be slightly smaller. This is another ingenious design feature. The AB3 bolt is much like a piston riding in a cylinder, meaning it's smooth with no binding, and it's inexpensive to make. Having the typical Browning three-lug design, the bolt cycles with a short and fast 60-degree rotation. The extractor is a cute little spring-loaded thing that rides in a slot in one of the bolt lugs. It provides a gripping surface that is deceiving at first glance, because it's actually much larger than the stem that slides in the lug. The ejector is a spring-loaded plunger.
The end of the bolt handle can best be described as a flattened round knob. Imagine if you took a round bolt-handle knob, heated it, put it on an anvil and smacked it with a hammer. You would get the handle on the AB3 bolt. The back of the bolt has a red cocking indicator. The bolt stop rides in a slot milled into the side of the bolt. To remove the bolt, push on the spring-loaded stop on the left side of the receiver and pull the bolt out of the action.
I added a Leupold VX-3 scope in Browning mounts to the .30-06 AB3 I received for testing. Shooting at 100 yards between rain squalls, I tried several ammo products from the bench and proved a few things. First, this rifle handles nasty weather far better than me, my chronograph and my ground corncob-filled shooting bags. Second, the gun stays true as the barrel heats up, which is a testament to the barrel and the bedding. Third, with ammo it likes, the Browning AB3 is a pretty good shooter.
I had some Federal Premium Gold Medal Match 168-grain ammo left over from another project. It turned in the best three-shot group at just .8 inch. Three, three-shot groups averaged 1.17 inches. Of course, a match load and a hunting gun are kind of an odd couple, so I switched to 180-grain Remington Core-Lokt Ultra Bonded. That was right behind with a group measuring .95 inch. Three, three-shot groups averaged 1.13 inches, which slightly beat the match ammo. Every gun is an individual, and this one didn't warm up to the Barnes Vor-Tx 150-grain TTSX load. I know it's the gun, as this stuff is extremely accurate in some of my other .30-06 rifles. The best group was still in the ballpark at 1.1 inches, and three, three-shot groups averaged 2.1 inches.
I feel compelled to point out that after testing hundreds of factory rifles over the years, the accuracy of the AB3 with ammo it "doesn't like" still surpasses the best accuracy that a lot, perhaps the majority, of factory rifles could produce just a few years ago. The remarkable thing is the AB3 does it with an MSRP that's less than $600.