The Scout Rifle in New ZealandBy Kelvin Dixon
- 5th Dec, 2019 Dec 5, 2019, 12:00 AM
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Jeff Cooper once wrote: “Personal weapons raised mankind out of the mud and the rifle is the queen of them. A good rifle and the skill to use it well truly makes a man the monarch of all he surveys. It realizes the ancient dream of the Jovian thunderbolt, and as such it is the embodiment of personal power. For this reason it exercises a curious influence over the minds of most men, and in its best examples it constitutes an object of affection unmatched by any other inanimate object.”
To understand the Scout Rifle in New Zealand we first have to understand what a Scout Rifle is. Col Jeff Cooper came up with the concept in the early 80s and held several conferences to discuss its development. Cooper was greatly influenced by men like Frederick Burnham, Chief of Scouts for the British during the Boer War, and the adventurer and author Stuart Edward White who Cooper considered a “certified master of the art” of rifle marksmanship.
Cooper wanted “a short, light, handy, versatile, utility rifle” that was “...a general-purpose rifle, conveniently portable and capable of striking a single decisive blow on a live target of up to 400 kilos in weight, at any distance at which the operator can shoot with the precision necessary to place a shot in a vital area.”
Much like an SUV it’s great at a lot of things but not outstanding at any one thing in particular.
Cooper in conjunction with those at the conferences came up with a definition and a list of features a Scout Rifle should have:
- Weight: 3 – 3.5kg including scope + sling. Should be light and easy to carry. A simple test is to hold rifle at arm’s length for one minute without strain.
- Length: No longer than 1m/ 39in. The rifle should be handy.
- Calibre: .308 Winchester. There are several reasons for this calibre; the first being that the short action leads to a short rifle and the second that it is widely available. 7mm-08 was acceptable for those limited to non-military calibres and the .243 was for those who were recoil sensitive.
- Action: Short action with Controlled Round Feed (CRF). Bolt actions were preferred because they are lighter but levers and semi-autos were also acceptable.
- Barrel: 19in was considered the shortest possible to generate suitable ballistics in a .308.
- Accuracy: Rifle must have practical accuracy of at most 2 MOA.
- Trigger: Smooth, clean, crisp with minimal over-travel.
- Stock: With adjustable length of pull to fit the shooter, preferably synthetic as it’s lighter, with a comb height optimised for snap shooting.
- Muted finish.
- Shooting sling: Ching sling or Rhodesian to give support and make the rifle easy to carry.
- Accessories were not mandatory but considered desirable; Some form of spare ammo on the rifle e.g. butt cuff, stripper clip charging is good but not necessary, lightweight bipod.
- Sights: Ghost ring sights, good for a snap shot and a forward-mounted scope with 2-2 ½ magnification used with both eyes open, again good for snap shooting. The rifle must have iron sights and a forward mounted scope to be a Scout Rifle (this was decided in the 80s, we have come a long way in optics technology since then).
Cooper declared that a “Scout” might properly be termed a carbine if that word had not come to denote reduced power. It is a full-power rifle intended to do as many jobs as any one weapon can.
The Scout scope is synonymous with the rifle. There’s a common misconception that any rifle with a forward mounted Long Eye Relief (LER) scope is a Scout Rifle. As we can see from above there are a number of characteristics that make a Scout Rifle, with Scout scopes being just one.
The problem with this style of optic is that they perform poorly in low light, and with dusk and dawn being the best hunting times many shooters less interested in snap shooting put conventional scopes on their rifles. Another problem is that when the sun is behind the shooter it can reflect off the ocular lens making it difficult to use.
It’s not hard to imagine the snap shot being important to someone hunting dangerous game in Africa but in New Zealand, 30 minutes from the road end during the roar you’re best be taking time to identify your target. Optics have evolved a lot since the concept was born and while LER scopes still have their admirers in the author’s opinion the vast majority of Kiwi shooters would be better served with a modern Low Power Variable Optic (LPVO) or other conventional scope.
“The most important thing about the Scout is that it is a “general-purpose” rifle... Its most outstanding characteristic is handiness.”
Definitions aside a Scout Rifle should be friendly and shootable. Col Cooper himself said, “The natural habitat of the general-purpose rifle is the field, the forest, the desert and the mountain – not the shooting shed with its bench rest. What matters is not what the equipment can do, but rather what it will do in the hands of its operator under field, rather than laboratory, conditions.”
Cooper regularly visited Africa and was a veteran of the USMC who served in WW2 and Korea. He went on to become a leading authority on the defensive use of the pistol; as such he wanted his Scout Rifle to have defensive ability. Having firearms for the purpose of self defence is illegal here in NZ so I won’t go into that other than to mention that the Steyr Scout was a popular alternative in the Maritime Security industry for a number of years.
“Ruger’s Gunsite Scout Rifle has revitalised the concept. These popular rifles are available in many calibres and styles. They were designed with input from Cooper’s Gunsite Academy which is probably the closest you will get to his approval.”
I worked for several companies that had Steyr Scouts in their inventories and I was issued one for several transits. These rifles worked well enough in that role and the fact that they were bolt-actions made them easier to get through customs in certain countries. I think Cooper liked the idea of his rifle being used by Law Enforcement but the truth is in 2019 there are better alternatives for that type of work.
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The main potential uses for the Scout in NZ are hunting, recreational shooting and competition. Now that semi-autos have been banned the Scout Rifle makes a viable replacement. They share many characteristics with rifles like the previously popular AR15. Most of the rifles discussed in this article are available in .223 as well as .308.
In January I competed in the NZ IPSC Rifle Championships in the open manual category with a Ruger Gunsite Scout Rifle (GSR). My observations apply to Scout Rifles in general, especially those with detachable box magazines (DBM). The rifle was light and handy; I found it easy to manoeuvre through the various stages.
The DBM meant I could reload quickly on stages that needed more than 10 rounds and I had plenty to spare on shorter stages. Shooters with internal magazine rifles will have to top up as they go along and a butt cuff would be great for that. The course of fire consisted of twelve stages and needed a minimum of 110 rounds to complete; overall I fired 118 during the two days of competition.
It was a great opportunity to test the Scout concept in a competitive environment. Targets were at ranges from 5-200 metres requiring between 5 and 16 rounds (for manual shooters). Shooters acquire points by hitting different scoring zones on the target. Scores are then decided by dividing that result by the time it took to complete the stage, and points may be deducted for hitting “no shoot” targets.
I did okay on accuracy but was too slow to be competitive; this wasn’t the rifle’s fault – looking back on the video I needed to hustle a lot more! I came third of three in the manual open category and more interestingly 26 out of 37 overall (beating nine semi-auto shooters).
The Scout did well and has a lot of potential for this type of competition especially if the shooter has the skills. I’m not sure that a bolt – action is technically the best choice (the winner of the manual open category had a pump-action rifle) but if that’s your preference a well set up Scout Rifle would be a good choice.
This was my first competition and my performance was less than spectacular, the other two shooters in my category were a lot more experienced and came in 7th and 9th overall, not bad considering most shooters had AR type rifles and it shows what a skilled rifleman can accomplish.
Interestingly this was a situation where a forward mounted scope has some advantages. My hand hit the scope a bunch of times working the bolt rapidly and by the end of the two days was a little banged up. Using a Red Dot Sight (RDS) or LER scope would have helped a lot.
According to the US ROTC 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.” If you replace “reporting” with “acting upon,” that’s a good definition of a hunter.
“One of the things that I like about Scout rifles is that they can be tailored to different situations and they are an excellent base rifle that you can set up how you please.”
For me a firearm is a tool and while I have preferences I don’t see the point in getting emotionally attached to any one in particular. If I can’t use it out on the hills then it holds no interest to me. When we talk about general purpose rifles in NZ, a large part of that is going to be hunting.
One of the things that I like about Scout rifles is that they can be tailored to different situations and they are an excellent base rifle that you can set up how you please. If you’re going bush hunting you can keep it slick and use the iron sights. If you’re going up onto the tops you can put on a long range scope and add a suppressor. It might not be perfect for any given situation but it will be serviceable.
For hunting I prefer a Low Power Variable Optic (LPVO) as they work in a wide range of conditions. You can tailor the magnification to the situation. On my rifle I have a Vortex Strike Eagle 1-8 scope but have also used the iron sights and a 4-16 power scope. The longest shot I’ve taken on goats was just over 200m, but all my shots on deer have been less than 100m.
The quick handling features of the rifle combined with a ten round magazine work great on mobs of goats as they scatter. I am not a great hunter but am fortunate to have access to a sweet spot on a local farm. With good views from my favourite vantage point I can spot animals easily then stalk through the bush to take a shot. The short, easy handling Scout does well in this environment. It also works well when hunting from vehicles.
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When a friend from Australia was over we would drive around the farm and keep an eye out for animals as they came out at dusk or dawn. The rifle was kept close to hand, muzzle down and the muzzle device did a great job of protecting the crown. While not a requirement for a Scout Rifle they are common on a lot of the factory Scouts.
My friend is a big lad but there was plenty of room in the ute for him and the rifle and it never got hung up or in the way on entry or exit. This experience helped to further prove the concept to me and at the end of the trip my friend was thinking about getting a Scout of his own. He has a Ruger Precision Rifle and while it’s great for target shooting it can be a bit of a beast to work with in the field.
Pseudo Scouts are rifles that miss out on one or two features, usually weight, but calibre is another variation. Weight can be a tough one to meet especially on conversions and people often want a light, handy rifle but in a smaller calibre either to fit the intended task better or for a recoil sensitive shooter.
Converting old military surplus rifles into pseudo Scouts is a popular way to extend their working life and a cheaper option than getting the Steyr or going for a custom build. Nowadays there are a bunch of factory rifles that can be had quite reasonably. While none meet all of Cooper’s criteria they are great rifles for a bunch of tasks.
A number of companies are now offering Scout Rifles as standard, the first was the aforementioned Steyr which was designed with Col Cooper’s input and is the only factory Scout that has his stamp of approval; in fact he proclaimed it “...the best personal rifle in the world.” Unfortunately he passed in 2006 and so never saw current crop of Scouts so we don’t know his views on them.
Ruger’s Gunsite Scout Rifle has arguably revitalised the concept. These popular rifles are available in many calibres and styles. They were designed with input from Cooper’s Gunsite Academy which is probably the closest you will get to his approval.
Savage was one of the first companies to offer a Scout although Cooper did not approve of the early rifles. The latest rifle is quite different from their first and just makes weight limit at 3.5kg without a scope. The Accufit stock is adjustable for length of pull and comb height.
“In my opinion Scouts (especially in .223) are a viable alternative to light, quick handling semi-auto rifles like the AR (now banned) because they can be easily adapted to a range of situations.”
Mossberg has also produced a Scout version of their popular MVP line of rifles. While it’s the least Scout-like of the factory offerings it is the cheapest and has a few tactical features that may be of interest.
The Scout Rifle concept is over 35 years old and getting more popular every year. Jeff Cooper wanted a general purpose rifle for times when you could have only one. People might question why bother with one? One advantage is cost; one rifle in a common calibre is cheaper than a suite of rifles, another factor is the iron sights mean the rifle is ready to go out of the box.
Another is familiarity. I’m at the stage now where I don’t want a bunch of different rifles that spend most of their time in the back of the safe. I want a few rifles that I shoot a lot.
In my opinion Scouts (especially in .223) are a viable alternative to light, quick handling semi-auto rifles like the AR (now banned) because they can be easily adapted to a range of situations. They make a good first rifle for new shooters who may not be sure what their preferences are yet, or who want to try different shooting disciplines.
Calibres like .308 and .223 are cheap and widely available in different bullet weights and styles, making them great calibres to shoot and hunt with. They are also useful for those who want to downsize the number of rifles in their safes, replacing several specialist firearms with one that can be tailored to “do it all”.
As they said in the old west “Beware the man with one gun, he probably knows how to use it”.
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