A Tale Of Two Rifles
The Forbes .30-06 And Montana XWR .270.
Between mass-production and custom rifles lies a relatively narrow category we might call limited-production rifles. These don’t roll out of factories like Twinkies used to, but they also don’t offer individual-order options. They’re put together with more precision than the “affordable” rifles found racked by the dozen in big-box sporting goods stores, feature above-average barrels and, often, proprietary actions. Naturally, they aren’t as affordable as low-end assembly-line rifles, but don’t cost any more than some high-end assembly-line rifles.
What sort of prices are we talking about? The Montana Rifle Company offers several of what they term “production rifles.” The test rifle was an XWR (Extreme Weather Rifle) in .270 Winchester, with a listed price of $1,199. The Forbes Rifle is a production version of New Ultra Light Arms (NULA) custom rifles. The test rifle was a right-handed model made of chrome-moly steel, listed at $1,399. Both are synthetic-stocked bolt actions, but other than that differs considerably in just about every way. Let’s do this alphabetically and start with the Forbes.
In the mid-1980s a young gunsmith in West Virginia named Melvin Forbes grew weary of trying to turn factory bolt actions into the truly lightweight rifles many of his customers wanted for traipsing up and down steep landscapes. He was also tired of fixing the dimensional flaws of mass-produced actions so his rifles would shoot accurately. He decided to make his own action, both lighter in weight and more precise right from the get-go.
He called his first action the Model 20 because it weighed 20 ounces, almost a pound less than a Remington 700 short action. Forbes accomplished this by keeping steel where it needed to be, in the front end of the bolt and receiver, and eliminating it as much as possible everywhere else, so the action didn’t sacrifice strength for lightness. The strategy worked; Nosler has long used Ultra Light actions in their ballistics lab, and reports they last far longer than any other action they’ve tried.
The Model 20 is a push-feed action with a toggle-style extractor and plunger ejector. Some people say it resembles a slimmed-down Remington 700, but the bolt release resembles the Model 70 Winchester’s, a thin extension of the stop on the left side of the tang.
Forbes also built a very strong yet lightweight synthetic stock, using techniques suggested by friends who worked on Hercules rocket development (actual rocket scientists) with full-length carbon and Kevlar fibers. He also had a machining company produce very light but strong aluminum scope rings he’d designed. That company eventually folded, so today the rings are made by Talley Manufacturing, and are available for many other rifles as Talley Lightweights.
Together the light action, stock and mounts allowed Forbes to use full-sized barrels, improving balance and accuracy while still offering a very light rifle. Unless a customer wants another brand, the NULA rifles feature Douglas barrels, partly because they’re nearby in West Virginia and where Forbes could personally inspect each one. With a 22-inch No. 1 contour Douglas barrel a Model 20 NULA weighs around 4-3/4 pounds.
Eventually several larger Ultra Light actions appeared, all weighing considerably less than standard actions. The 24-ounce Model 24 is for .30-06-sized cartridges, and the Model 28 holds .30-06-length belted magnums. The largest is the Model 40, for rounds such as the .378 Weatherby and .416 Rigby.
NULAs have an excellent reputation for accuracy, most owners reporting 100-yard groups of 1/2 inch or less with handloads. This is partly due to the precision of the actions and good barrels, but it’s also partly due to the stock bedding. The front end of the action is pillar-bedded, and the barrel is full-contact bedded in the very stiff fore-end. Essentially the stock’s stiffness is added to the barrel. The rifles also typically shoot just as well (and to the same place) after the barrel heats up during firing.
NULA’s have long been available in both right- and left-hand actions, with a variety of custom options ranging from stock dimensions and paint patterns to barrel contour and length, but offering those options of course increased the cost. Melvin Forbes eventually decided to offer a production model without the options—the Forbes rifle.
So far the only action available is the right-hand Model 24 in chrome-moly steel, though left-hand and stainless barreled actions should be available by the time this review appears. As this was written the Forbes rifle was chambered in .25-06 Remington, .270 Winchester and .30-06 Springfield, with the .280 Remington and .35 Whelen scheduled to appear soon. A Model 20 rifle is also planned.
The actions are made at a factory in Maine. The stock is the same as the NULA’s but without any options. It’s made in West Virginia and comes painted in a dark gray they call “charcoal.” Douglas couldn’t supply enough barrels, so the Forbes rifles use E.R. Shaw barrels. Shaw completely retooled about a decade ago, and since then I’ve used a number of their barrels from .22 to .30 caliber. The accuracy and bore smoothness has basically been equal to the Douglas barrels used during the same period.
The test rifle was a .30-06, a very handy deal because for the last 15 years one of my primary hunting rifles has been a NULA Model 24 .30-06 with a 24-inch No. 2 Douglas barrel. I’d ordered a 13-1/2-inch length-of-pull, the LOP of the Forbes stock. Essentially the Forbes .30-06 was a production version of my custom NULA, so it was easy to make comparisons between the production and custom rifles.
About the only measurable difference between the two rifles was the muzzle diameter, 0.615-inch on the 24-inch Shaw barrel of the Forbes versus 0.600-inch on the 24-inch No. 2 Douglas barrel of the NULA. Otherwise the production rifle has the same blind magazine, plus Melvin Forbes’ version of the 3-position safety on the right side of the tang: When you push directly down on the top of the safety lever when it’s in the rear (safe) position, the bolt can be opened. Otherwise the bolt handle is locked down. The Timney trigger broke consistently at 2 pounds, 12 ounces, without any perceptible creep.
The first job was to mount a scope, and a proven 3-9×40 Leupold VX-2 volunteered, since it was lying around loose after use on a couple of other rifles. With the scope in Talley Lightweight mounts the rifle weighed 6 pounds, 7 ounces, exactly the same as my NULA .30-06 with a 6×42 Leupold FX-III in steel detachable Talley rings. The steel rings weigh a couple ounces more than Talley Lightweights, but the 6×42 is also a couple ounces lighter than the 3-9×40, so the Forbes rifle weighs just about exactly the same as my NULA.
I didn’t work up a handload specifically for the Forbes, instead shooting factory and handloaded ammo proven accurate in other .30-06 rifles. The first group at 100 yards, shot with Hunting Shack ammunition loaded with 185-grain Berger VLDs, measured 0.73-inch, just about what the same load shoots in the NULA, and follow-up groups did just as well. Like most NULAs, it shot just as accurately with the barrel hot. Groups with the other ammo averaged just under an inch. I’m confident some handloading would result in 3-shot groups around 1/2 inch, just as it did for the NULA.
The Montana XWR is built around their proprietary 1999 controlled-feed action, a combination of the best features of the pre-’64 Model 70 Winchester and the 98 Mauser. The trigger, 3-position safety and bottom metal are basically the same as in the Model 70, but the bolt release is in the same place as a 98 Mauser’s, on the left rear of the receiver, a very trim toggle that works by pushing on the rear end.
The front action screw is behind the heavy recoil lug, as in the Model 70, rather than screwing directly into the lug as in the 98 Mauser. The inside of the front of the receiver, however, is like the 98 Mauser’s, with an inner collar in the so-called “C-ring” configuration: The right side of the collar is milled out to accommodate the extractor, so if a cartridge case leaks most of the powder gas escapes along the extractor, away from the shooter’s face. In addition, the bolt shroud also fully covers the left bolt raceway, deflecting any gas that might escape there. Essentially the Montana action copies the gas-venting of the original 98 Mauser action, a much superior system than the almost non-existent gas handling of the pre-’64 Model 70.
It’s an excellent action. For the last decade I’ve owned a custom 7×57 made by Serengeti (now Kilimanjaro) Rifles on the “short” Montana 1999 action. Like the XWR it also has one of the Montana company’s own button-rifled barrels. The 7×57’s action has proven extremely smooth and reliable on numerous hunts from Canada to Africa, and the barrel has always been very accurate.
The XWR’s action was very smooth, right out of the shipping case, and the rifle also proved quite accurate. As with the Forbes .30-06, I didn’t work up a handload, instead firing a variety of factory and handloads that worked in other .270s. The most accurate load turned out to be a RWS factory load with their 130-grain H-Mantle bullet, grouping around 0.75 inch, and as with the Forbes Rifle the overall average of all the ammo was just under an inch.
Aside from the controlled-round action of the Montana rifle, it varied in a number of other ways from the Forbes rifle. The obvious difference was weight. For my tests the Montana company mounted a 4.5-14×40 Leupold VX-3 in Leupold Dual Dovetail mounts, and with the scope the rifle weighed an ounce over 9 pounds. For open country or stand hunting a 9-pound rifle isn’t any real burden and holds very well. The XWR is also available in several .300 and .338 magnum rounds, where many shooters would appreciate the weight.
The stock is a Bell and Carlson synthetic, featuring an action-length aluminum bedding block epoxy-bedded at the recoil lug and for the first inch or so of the barrel channel. The 24-inch barrel is free-floated—and correctly, with just enough space to allow the barrel to vibrate without touching the barrel channel. I’ve run into a bunch of factory and custom rifles where the barrel could tap the fore-end, resulting inerratic accuracy. The trigger broke crisply at 3 pounds, 3 ounces.
One minor difference between the rifles was hot-barrel accuracy. When I shot the Montana more than three times without allowing the barrel to cool down, groups opened up noticeably—but this isn’t a big deal on a hunting rifle. After all, how often do we shoot more than three times at any big game animal?
As with the Forbes rifle, the fit and finish on the XWR was excellent. Close examination of the bolt heads of both rifles also revealed the lugs had been lapped for 100-percent contact, unheard of in mass-produced rifles. In fact, over the decades I’ve encountered several factory rifles where one lug didn’t make any contact at all. The Forbes and Montana actions are also precisely made in every other way, essentially being “blue-printed” during manufacturing.
Over the past decade I’ve used the Serengeti 7×57 and NULA .30-06 for more of my big-game hunting than any of the rest of my rifles, since they’ve both proven to be highly reliable and accurate. The Montana XWR and Forbes Rifle appear to be just as reliable and accurate, but at a much lower price!
By John Barsness
The Hunting Shack, Inc.
4406 Rathbun Ln.
Stevensville, MT 59870
RUAG Ammotec USA, Inc.
5402 E. Diana St.
Tampa, FL 33610
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