I believe Browning’s X-Bolt hunting rifle line is one of the most underrated on the market. Introduced in 2008, the original Hunter version still represents a great mid-level production rifle at a reasonable price. It also has a few features that are truly innovative.
Today Browning offers the X-Bolt in nearly two dozen variations in an array of calibers. For its latest version, the iconic Utah-based company rolled out what is likely the finest pure hunting rifle to ever be stamped with the Buckmark. It’s called the X-Bolt Pro.
While the original X-Bolt was an evolution of the company’s excellent A-Bolt, the X-Bolt Pro is a deluxe version of the X-Bolt that borders on semi-custom. The Pro’s streamlined design appears modern to my eyes but not abstract as it did back in ’08, so I’ll spare you the description of its aesthetics and get right into the guts of the gun.
In essence, it’s a bolt-action, 6.5-pound rifle featuring a detachable box magazine, true carbon-fiber stock, sporter-weight fluted barrel, innovative trigger and striking bronze-colored Cerakote finish. The rifle is made in Japan by the 124-year-old Miroku company, just as Browning firearms have been since 1977. In terms of engineering and quality manufacturing, Miroku holds its own with anyone, something that’s apparent the moment you heft the Pro.
The X-Bolt’s action is a six-sided, steel affair with the recoil lug sandwiched between the receiver and the barrel. A raceway on the right side of the receiver’s interior accepts a small nodule on the bolt. While it looks somewhat like a wart, the bump prevents the bolt from binding no matter how hard you try to bind the thing. The three-lug, spiral-fluted bolt features a hybrid extractor and a plunger ejector. During testing I had only silky smooth feeding, which is also a product of the rifle’s rotary magazine that does not stagger shells but aligns them with the chamber.
The Pro’s bolt handle terminates in a custom-looking fluted knob while its root houses one of the line’s innovative features: a bolt-unlock button that, when pushed, allows the bolt to open even when the safety is engaged and the bolt is otherwise locked. The safety is tang-mounted so it’s ambidextrous; its movement is minimal so it’s fast and quiet. Finally, a cocking indicator under the rear of the bolt reveals the rig’s status. In total, I think the X-Bolt’s safety system that allows carrying the gun with the bolt locked but also opening the bolt without taking the gun off safe is one of the best currently available.
Browning’s Feather trigger is another innovation. A patented, three-lever design maximizes leverage so pull weight can be kept fairly low while remaining safe if the rifle is dropped. The gold-colored trigger is unique in that it has literally zero creep or overtravel. While it is adjustable, I found that the trigger in my test rifle couldn’t be adjusted for a pull weight of less than 3 pounds, 8 ounces. Not bad, but I wish it were 3 pounds or a whisper under.
Perhaps the Pro’s most distinguishing feature is its ultra-high-end stock. It’s made of a carbon-fiber weave that’s wrapped 360 degrees around a core. The 1.6-ounce job is superior to most other wood, plastic and composite stocks, including earlier carbon-fiber stocks, in that it’s many times more rigid, yet also lighter. That means the barrel will remain free-floated even if you rest the tip of the fore-end on a rock and lean in. It won’t bend. What’s more, it’s filled with compressed foam to muffle sound. The stock supplies the foundation upon which glass bedding material is laid and to which the action is mated, just as with custom guns. Finally, the lithe, straight-line stock features a subtle palm swell and ends in Browning’s Inflex recoil pad that has a mushy interior to mitigate kick. I was glad to have it.
The X-Bolt’s bottom metal is actually metal—as it should be for a $2,000 rifle—though its magazine is made of polymer. It’s the very rigid variety that in many ways is tougher than metal. You might say I’m playing both sides here, but even our troops think polymer detachable box magazines are superior to metal ones because if a thin feed lip of a metal magazine gets dented even slightly, the mag is useless. Polymer magazines also don’t rust. The flush-fitting, nearly seamless X-Bolt mag pops in and out of the gun with ease.
After a quality barrel is rifled, lapping is generally what separates the good ones from the great ones, and that’s exactly what’s done to the X-Bolt Pro’s stainless steel barrel before it leaves the factory. The process smoothes microscopic imperfections in the steel, which leads to a more accurate rifle. The Pro’s muzzle is threaded, and the rifle comes with a muzzle brake and a thread protector. I like the brake for the range and the thread protector while hunting. Unfortunately, though, the barrel’s thin contour does not permit the muzzle to be threaded in any of the common patterns typically used by suppressors and their mounting devices.
Nearly every exterior part, including the stock, is finished in a burnt-bronze shade of Cerakote. This adds cost, but it’s worth it. Cerakote makes the rifle virtually impervious to the elements. The color is the best of both worlds: I’ve noticed it turns human heads but not those of animals.
A custom-like gun has got to shoot or it’s got nothing on many of today’s budget rifles. Considering the Pro’s barrel is only .61 inch in diameter at the muzzle, my guess was groups would open after the barrel heated. That was confirmed, but I rode it hard anyway. Groups started out under an inch and then widened as the barrel became too hot to handle. That’s the tradeoff to the Pro’s weight, reduced in part by thinning the barrel. Frankly, though, this isn’t a target rifle. It’s a sub-inch-when-not-blistering-hot hunting rifle designed to be carried all month in any weather, and then shot with deadly precision when called. As such, the Browning X-Bolt Pro is one of my favorites.