Rifles for the Backpack Hunter

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posted on August 5, 2017
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Gun, scope, ammo: Balance durability, reliability and performance with minimal weight. I’ve hunted with 4-pound rifles and 10-ounce scopes. Forget the standard warning about a sub-8-pound rifle being inaccurate from field positions. A dozen ultra-light rifles have shot accurately for me and taken mountain game out to 450 yards. You’ll almost always have time to grab a steady rest, a pack, boulder, bipod …

Don’t worry about losing a bit of velocity to short barrels. Stubby 18- to 20-inch barrels are a delight to carry in brush, woods and rocky areas. They’ll sacrifice 100 to 200 fps velocity, which amounts to maybe an inch of additional drop at 300 yards with most cartridges. Know your trajectory curve and you can compensate with a BDC reticle, turret dialing or old-fashioned holdover, especially if you use a laser rangefinder to pinpoint distance.

With some ultra-light rifles, you get under 5.5 pounds with 22-inch barrels. My Rifles Inc. Strata weighs less than 5 pounds with a 23-inch barrel. It groups three quick shots into .5 MOA. Short-action cartridges save a bit of weight, as do lighter bullets. Twenty rounds of 200-grain .300 Win. Mag. loads will weigh about 5 ounces more than 20 rounds of 140-grain 7mm-08 Rem. loads. This might seem like nothing, but 5 ounces here and there soon add up to a couple of pounds.

Magnums aren’t really necessary for taking elk, moose or even bears. Short-action 6.5 Creedmoor, 7mm-08 Rem., .308 Win. and .338 Federal will do the job. The bullet is way more important than the launch pad. Recoil in sub-6-pound rifles is remarkably well controlled by synthetic stock materials and straight-line stock designs, but additional relief can be had from muzzle brakes. Most recoil-sensitive shooters are pleasantly surprised at how effectively most ultra-light rifles modulate kick.

Hollow, synthetic stocks are rugged and waterproof, but not all are lightweight. The lightest I’ve found is 11 ounces. Some go 30 ounces. Shop carefully. You can knock a few ounces off scope mounts with one-piece aluminum rings like Talley’s at 1.5 ounces each.

A scope doesn’t have to zoom eight times from 3X-24X. It doesn’t need a 56mm objective, target turrets, parallax adjustment or an illuminated reticle. It doesn’t have to weigh 24 ounces. I’ve prowled wilderness mountains from New Zealand to Siberia with 10- to 13-ounce 2X-7X and 3X-9X scopes with 28mm-36mm objectives and haven’t yet missed a shot because I couldn’t see reticle on target. My 2X-7X-33mm Leupold VX-2 has endured rain, snow, heat, cold, dings and bumps while pinpointing rams out to 400 yards for one-shot kills and never failed. Strong, small, light, tough and consistent: That’s what you want in a backpacking riflescope.

Ultra-light rifles from several manufacturers are chambered for a wide range of cartridges. Short actions are lighter than standard actions, of course, and push-feed actions are usually a little lighter than controlled-round feed. You should be able to find something to fit your biases.

Kimber Model 84L Montana
The 84L Montana is chambered for .25-06 Rem., .257 Roberts, .270 Win., .280 Ack. Imp., .30-06 Sprg. Controlled-round feed is delivered by a Mauser claw extractor. Pillar and glass bedding ensure accuracy and strength. All this sits in a package that weighs 5 pounds, 10 ounces; measures 43.75 inches long; and costs $1,427.

Weatherby Mark V Ultra Lightweight
The Ultra Lightweight with its six- or nine-lug bolt is chambered in 11 calibers including .240 Wby. Mag., 6.5-300 Wby. Mag., .30-06 Sprg., .300 Win. Mag. It balances well in the hand because it’s so light (5.75-6.75 pounds) but it’s still guaranteed to shoot sub-MOA. LXX trigger is adjustable. MSRP is $2,300.

Winchester Model 70 Featherweight Compact
The Compact’s stock with a 13-inch length of pull and its 20-inch barrel are attractive to anyone who values weight and handling. Famous, pre-’64 controlled-round feed is mated to an adjustable M.O.A. trigger. Chambered in .22-250 Rem., .243 Win., 7mm-08 Rem., .308 Win., it weighs 6 pounds, 8 ounces and costs $1,009.

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