Once upon a time not so many decades ago I was a lot more of an outdoorsman than I am now. I fished nearly every day, and hunted whitetail deer in the swamps and woods of eastern North Carolina as frequently as I could. By necessity I was sometimes relegated to hunting from a tree stand or ground blind, but what I enjoyed most was still hunting.
Ghosting along the edges of swamp thickets required good eyes, patience, a feel for prevailing winds, and soft feet in order to see the deer before the deer heard, spotted, or scented you. The post WWII .30-’06 Remington 721 I carried on these forays belonged to my father. It was mounted with a department-store 3-9×40 Tasco scope and a padded nylon sling. It was solid from a treestand or ground blind, but was a little too long and a little too heavy for long stalks, with an annoying tendency to seemingly snag on every briar or vine.
At roughly the same time I was stalking deer in the Carolina swamps, Jeff Cooper was developing his concept of a short, light, fast-handling rifle that would excel in field conditions such of these.
Flash forward almost 30 years.
Today Cooper’s concept of a scout rifle is well-documented, if not completely understood in a tactical-rifle-focused world. Fortunately for me, Gunsite Academy hosted the first Scout Rifle Conference since the 1980s just two weeks ago, and I was privileged to be one of a half-dozen firearms journalists invited for the five-day event.
The first three days of the scout rifle conference were focused on training, with a fourth day dedicated to a friendly competition to put the rifles and 19 shooters through their paces. The fifth day was an opportunity to try our guns and gear from different manufacturers in the morning, followed by a conversation period where the participants could tell manufacturers what they liked about their products, and where they thought there was room for improvement.
I was one of seven conference participants shooting the Steyr Scout. It was paired with a Burris 2-7×32 Scout Rifle Scope and low rings (more on that later), with 155-grain BTHP Hornady American Gunner .308 Winchester ammunition. The other major rifle manufacturers represented were Ruger, with four Gunsite Scouts, Mossberg with six MVP Scout, a Savage 11 Scout, a Brockman’s Rifles-customized Winchester Model 70, and a Merkel RX Helix. almost everyone ran low-powered, extended eye-relief scopes, though Monte Long of XS Sights used his company’s iron sights, and Andy Langlois of Andy’s Leather used a micro red dot.
Our Rangemaster, Il Ling New (above), also brought her personal scout rifle, built from a Remington Model 7.
Mario Marchman and Gary Smith were the other two Gunsite instructors working with our group. Scout rifle expert and gun writer Richard Mann did most of the work in pulling the event together, and was nice enough to bring a number of his personal scout rifles for us to gawk at during the trip.
What is a scout rifle?
When Col. Jeff Cooper was hashing out his concept of the scout rifle, he was envisioning a hard-hitting, lightweight, fast-handling rifle for field use primarily in the Americas and Africa. It needed to be light and compact to be carried long distances sometimes in heavy brush. It needed to use a common but hard-hitting caliber that could be resupplied throughout the world, and it needed to be rugged and capable of a snap-shot on man or beast in a compressed amount of time.
A lot of people hear of the concept of a scout rifle and get hung up on the idea of a scout rifle being something for a military scout/sniper in the late 20th century, which is decidedly not the case. It was instead inspired by military and frontier scouting traditions dating back to the late 19th and turn of the 20th centuries, and instead of a weapon designed for interpersonal conflicts, it was primarily designed as a wilderness rifle for men who moved lightly through rough country, sometimes for days or weeks on end.
Cooper had a rather lengthy list of criteria for scouts, and as the concept matured over time, some of those criteria (such as the ability to take stripper clips) were superseded by others (detachable magazines). The basics, however, have remained the same.
- 1 meter or less in length
- Chambered in .308 Winchester (or at least uses the .308 as a parent case)
- 18-20 inch barrel
- good trigger
- light weight (ideal was 3 kilos or 6.6 pounds with sights, scope, and sling; max was 7.5 pounds with sights, scope, and sling)
- low-mounted, long eye relief optics with low magnification, mounted forward of the action
- ghost-ring rear sight, and a post front sight
- CW or Ching sling
- flush-mounted sling swivel sockets (no protruding hardware)
We started the first day with a welcome to Gunsite Academy for that who had not attended previously, where we went over site and safety rules, met our instructor cadre, and got a crash course on the scout rifle concept and what Col. Cooper was attempting to accomplish with his “one rifle” solution. After that, we hit the range was to check our rifle zeros to see if they’d shifted in travel. I discovered that the low rings I had been sent for the 2-7×32 Burris scope were too low. The scope was touching the barrel, and I didn’t have backup rings. Fortunately, Mike Nischalke of Steyr Arms had a backup Leopold 1.5-4×28 scope scout with pre-mounted rings. I got it zeroed, and was quickly back in business.
We jumped right into on the second day, making snap-shots from 25 yards as a warm up. Cooper believed that a good scout rifle shooter could make a shot on a 4″ target at 25 yards in less than 1.5 seconds from an offhand ready position.
From the warm up, we went through the various intermediate positions.
- braced kneeling
- squatting (“rice paddy prone,” one of my personal favorite positions for intermediate range shots on level ground)
We also talked about both the standard prone position and the flattest and the lowest and most stable of all field shooting positions, Hawkins prone (below). In Hawkins prone, your support side hand grabbed the sling at the front sling swivel and makes a rest for the barrel, while the butt of the riflestock is on the dirt, snugged into your shoulder. Rumor has it that the position was created by a World War I sniper in the trenches of France trying to keep as low as possible to keep from attracting the attention of enemy snipers.
The support-hand Hawkins position turned out to be a valuable technique when we hit Gunsite’s infamous Scrambler. The Scrambler is a (typically timed) field problem course. There are seven positions and seven targets, and you can fire up to twice on each to make your hit.
I don’t have any video of someone shooting the Scrambler with a scout rifle, but I do have video of my Townhall Media colleague Katie Pavlich make the run with an AR-15, which should give you an idea of the kind of intermediate field shooting positions the Scrambler is designed to induce.
Our group—all the Steyr shooters—then rotated over to the York range to do a “guide/hunter” drill.
We were paired up, and one shooter played the role of the hunter, while other other played the role of the guide. We would walk towards a steel target, and then drop into an intermediate position when the instructor’s shot time buzzed. The “hunter” had one shot to get a hit on target. If the “hunter” missed, the “guide” had to immediately get a hit with 1-2 follow-up shots. If we missed all three shots on the pepper popper, we had to conclude that the lion/tiger/bear/oh my had successfully made it’s charge, and we we being ripped into tasty bite-sized pieces.
We concluded the day with a a drill where we approached a fixed target front 35 yards away, and when we reached the 25 yard line, we had to make a quick hit from all three sling positions:
- African Carry (5 shots)
- American Carry (5 shots)
- European Carry (5 shots)
If you’re not familiar with the three different positions, you’re in luck. Our Scout Rifle Conference rangemaster, Il Ling New demoed, these three positions during a series of videos she did for Ruger when they launched their Gunsite Scout Rifle last year.
Day Three of the conference turned out to be much more dynamic day, where we had moving targets, turning targets, and another one of Gunsite’s legendary field courses, the Vlei.
We’ll dive into Day 3 of the Conference and the Scout Rifle competition in Part 2.