Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Friday, July 19, 2013

Building a Scout--No--Woods Rifle (Part 1 of 3)

Building a Scout--No--Woods Rifle (Part 1 of 3)

A year ago, I found a copy of Jeff Cooper’s To Ride, Shoot Straight, and Speak the Truth (1988) at a garage sale.  I had on occasion read Cooper’s back-page pieces in Guns & Ammo, finding him consistently provocative, though often wrong-headed. (His opinions reminded me of the quip about the great angling writer E. R. Hewett, that he was always right and occasionally even correct.)  For $1.00, the price was right, so I bought his book and read it, discovering, among other things, that the rather puzzling title derives from a Persian king’s precepts for young noblemen as reported by Herodotus.  

My first reaction to his account of the general-purpose or Scout rifle was that he was trying to create a rifle equally adaptable to hunting, home defense, and military purposes, and thus the equivalent of a jack of all trades and master of none. But I kept thinking that his conception could result in a first-rate hunting rifle.

The previous year, Sturm, Ruger had come out with its Gunsite Scout in .308 Winchester, and after reading Cooper’s book I began to pay attention to reviews of that rifle.  Those reviews tended to praise the Ruger’s reliable 10-round magazine and its attractive flash suppressor.  The contemporary emphasis on large-capacity magazines and flash hiders seems to appeal primarily to military-or-SWAT team wanna-be’s as well as to the (not altogether distinct) segment of the population that believes it needs to be prepared for home invasions by nearly overwhelming forces, not excluding those of the BATFE.  I was uninterested in military applications and skeptical about any rifle’s utility for home defense—if that were a concern, I’d personally opt for a shotgun.  Nevertheless, motivated by some contrarian impulse (perhaps Cooper’s lingering spirit?), I started thinking about what features I would like to have in a handy rifle for hunting.  As I wanted to hunt whitetails in the dense woods of coastal Maine and New York’s Finger Lakes, I would call this more specialized adaptation of Cooper’s concept not a Scout but a Woods rifle. 
 Cooper’s concept of a Scout Rifle owed much to the successive Scout Rifle conferences he convened at Gunsite Academy in Paulden, Arizona, beginning in 1983.  Although Cooper desired to create a general purpose rifle, the dominant emphasis was its suitability for a military scout.  It’s much to the point that Cooper’s notion of a scout’s mission apparently dates back to his own youth in the 1930’s.  According to his friend Robert Boatman, Cooper had always remembered the definition from his high school R.O.T.C. manual: “the scout is a man trained in ground and cover, movement from cover to cover, rifle marksmanship, map reading, observation, and accurately reporting the results of his observation.”  At its core, this notion is as much romantic as it is military, drawing on James Fenimore Cooper’s novels and Stewart Edward White’s popular biography of Daniel Boone, Wilderness Scout, as well as on the lore about scouts like Jim Bridger and Kit Carson.  Another tributary to this romantic myth was the Scouting movement begun by Lieutenant-General Lord Baden-Powell, who in fact had performed reconnaissance scouting against the Zulus.  It is doubtful that anyone actually on a scouting mission ever carried a rifle similar to Cooper’s conception, or, indeed, ever would.  But once we discard this romanticized “scout” application, Cooper’s conception of the general purpose rifle still has some interesting applications for hunting. 
Drawing on the features of two near legendary short rifles, the Mannlicher-Schoenauer bolt action 6.5x54 mm and the Winchester M 94 lever action .30-30, as well as on the Number 5, Mark I, SMLE jungle carbine and the Remington 600, the various Scout conferences Cooper convened came up with broad parameters for this rifle’s Platonic form: no more than one meter in length, and no more than three kilograms in weight.  A meter, of course, is a tad over 39 inches; a kilogram, a bit over 2.25 pounds.  This general-purpose rifle then would have a relatively short barrel of 18-19” and a relatively light weight of just under seven pounds (unloaded, Cooper specified, but with accessories in place).  A bolt action was settled on because of its reliability as well as a perceived lack of need for a scout’s rapid follow-up shots that might betray his position.  The preferred caliber was the 7.62 NATO round, the military version of the .308 Winchester, in part because its cartridge and its bolt action were shorter and therefore lighter than the .30-06’s and in part because that round was available world-wide.            

So far, the Cooper Scout would seem to be only an updated military carbine, and they go at least as far back as the Brown Bess flintlocks that Roger’s Rangers chopped down during the French and Indian War.  What Cooper believed set the Scout apart was its sighting system.  Although Cooper never actually states that his Scout was the very first carbine to have a low-power forward mounted scope, he certainly gives that impression, forthrightly declaring that the forward mounted scope “distinguishes the modern scout rifle from its predecessors” (p. 136).   In fact, as I learned from David Fortier’s review of Ruger’s Gunsite Scout in RifleShooter (May/June 2011), the Germans used throughout WW II just such a weapon, the Mauser K98k short rifle with a low power, forward-mounted scope, the ZF-41.  Following up on this information, I discovered that some 98k’s even had  integrated 25-round box magazines (see Robert W. D. Ball’s Mauser Military Rifles of the World, 3rd ed.).  One would think that at some point Cooper would have acknowledged the existence of these Mauser 98k’s, even if they might not have directly influenced the conception and evolution of the Scout. 

Such an intermediate-eye-relief (IER) scope allows a user to shoot with both eyes open and, in theory at least, thanks to the scope’s low power (less than 3X) to retain peripheral vision as well.  Cooper believed that such an arrangement was the fastest possible for sighting a rifle.  In the event of a scope failing, the conferences also proposed a back-up system of iron sights (which, incidentally, was also a feature of the Mauser 98k with its side-mounted ZF-41 scope just above the typical rear sight).

What are the capabilities of such a rifle?  Here, the Scout conferences fudged slightly, if understandably:  if one factor is the cartridge in front of the bolt, the other factor is the nut behind the bolt.  For Cooper, such a general-purpose rifle should be capable of striking a single, decisive blow on a target of up to 200 kilograms in weight.  On the topic of range, however, the language gets fuzzy: at “any distance at which the operator can shoot with the precision necessary to place a shot in a vital area of the target” (p. 134).  For animals up to 450 pounds, then, and as far away as the rifleman is assured of a one-shot kill.  We are not considering minutes of angle here, therefore, but practical accuracy, be it for human or other animals.

1 comment:

  1. A nice assessment and a good read.

    Fred Johnson