Sako has produced many excellent rifles over the years. There are few hunters around the world who will not be familiar with the brand, and the response is usually the same: ‘Sako makes some great rifles.’
Indeed, even in countries such as South Africa, which holds the Mauser 98 above all others, Sako rifles, both old and new, are beginning to get a foot in the door. They cover a middle ground in the market, providing a rifle well above budget options, yet not in the same price league as a Mauser or Blaser.
Sako started in 1921, originally established to produce rifles for the men and woman of the Civil Guard of Finland. Although its initial focus had been military rifles, the company soon began designing competition and hunting rifles. Having had success with small calibre hunting rifles produced during the Second World War, it also started producing larger bolt-action sporters, launching the now renowned Forrester and Finnbear models. In 1993 development began for a new rifle, based on the premise it should be the “dream rifle for devoted riflemen”. Four years later the Sako 75 was born.
My own experience of Sako came in the early days of my fullbore hunting career. I distinctly remember ogling the Sako catalogue while ordering my first rimfire in the local gunshop, and decided there and then that a Sako was what I wanted. A few years later I parted company with an old Brno .243, which couldn’t hit a barn door at 10 yards, and instead a second-hand Sako 75 found its way into our gun cabinet. It wasn’t in great nick, but shot well enough, and as far as the rifle design was concerned, I was most certainly a fan. Two years later I had a thirst for a 7×57 to take to Africa, and found a very tidy Sako L691, which found its way north of the border. Since then I have also briefly owned the much-acclaimed forerunner to the L591: the Sako Forrester. All of them great rifles, which, for better and worse, have evolved as time has passed. Now, of course, the model 85 is the flagship Sako rifle, which, as with all the other model updates, has changed yet again.
I never had a chance to see the early 85s, although I believe nothing functionally has changed apart from alterations to the synthetic stocks. I had the Finnlight model on test, which is the lightest of the range with a fluted 20in barrel and synthetic stock. Like all other Sako rifles I have picked up, it felt good. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the 75’s wooden stock shape, much preferring the Finnbear era. However, this synthetic offering felt nice in the shoulder, even if the pull length was a little too long for me. As to be expected from Sako, the synthetic material was rigid and robust, covered with a soft-touch finish and rubberised grips where chequering would traditionally be found. One fault on the 75 equivalent was that the rubber did tend to wear and perish in the hands of professionals who put the rifle to work every day. It seems this has been rectified, with a different material and raised finish. Functionally it was good, and one of my preferred off-the-shelf synthetic stocks.
The barrels haven’t changed a great deal over the generations. They are still cold hammer forged and made, as far as I can tell, to the same high standards Sako has always maintained, with close attention to finish and crowning. Having said that, I am aware of a few people who had trouble getting the early Sako 75s to shoot well, but for some bizarre reason this only seemed to be with a few rifles chambered for .243 Win. I wasn’t able to establish the reason for this, however, when re-barrelled they shot like a dream. Thankfully, this problem hasn’t been repeated since.
The trigger is another aspect of the rifle that has altered little over the years despite other major shifts in design. I guess that is a testament to how good the original was. Any tweaks have been minor in terms of functionality and are not worth mentioning. The Sako trigger is certainly one of the best on an out-the-box firearm.
Once we turn our attention to the receiver and action, we do start to see where design alterations have been made. Shifting from the early and arguably best-loved ‘Finnbear’ era, the most frustrating and obvious change can be seen with the recoil lug system. Originally we saw a solid, integral, machined lug, much like on today’s Howa rifle. This was altered in the 591/691, which saw a machined peg sit inside a light alloy lug inside the stock. The 75 was different again, and skipping to the 85 sees a system very similar to the 591/691. It certainly seems to work – although, as I have said before, an integral lug would be far superior, and current trends are merely a way of reducing expense.
The second change is on the bolt itself. Whereas early models locked down with twin lugs and a guide rail, the 75 moved away from this with a stronger tri-lug design. Removing the guide rail also made cycling smoother, and – although I am not completely convinced that three lugs are superior to two – I do like it.
This, like previous designs, was a push feed, lifting each round out the magazine on the forward stroke by simply running it out of the mag shoulder. Here it was effectively in free space until pushed into the chamber, where the extractor claw clipped over the rim edge, and the cartridge head became enclosed.
The Sako 85 takes this a step further, opening up the bolt face on one side to give a semi-controlled feed. It is not fully controlled, as with the classic M98, where the extractor claw has complete purchase on the case during loading and ejection. The new Sako design allows the case to ride up along the face of the bolt, where it is ‘guided’ forward, before the rim slips under the extractor claw.
It has been suggested that this now makes the Sako 85 suitable for dangerous game. However, I would take such comments with a note of caution. In my mind there is still only one action design worthy of putting your faith in on a dangerous game safari, and that is the classic Mauser 98.
In terms of overall finish, the most notable difference is how the rifles are blued, although obviously my test rifle was a stainless model. The early rifles had very deep, beautifully finished metal work, which would knock current models out the water. Having said that, I am not suggesting that today’s rifles are functionally inferior, it is just that the appearance oozed of a higher quality. A high gloss, blued finish is indeed out of fashion now, and for sound reasons.
When it came to the range, it was almost a mundane affair. I was expecting no surprises, and true to form the rifle performed well. Shooting the rifle with a handful of ammo brands, the standard 100-yard groups were at worst 1.6in and at best 0.8in (the latter achieved shooting 100-grain Sako Gameheads). Pushing it out to 200 yards and then 300 yards, suitable optics carried the 100-yard results, although the 95-grain Hornady SST ammunition shone through as a better performer, taking groups just on the three-inch mark at 300 yards.
I like Sako rifles and always have. I may not agree with some of the changes that have occurred through the years, but most manufacturers cut costs with design alterations. This, however, detracts nothing from today’s rifle, which is a good bit of kit. It would be nice to see some of the aspects of the older designs reincorporated in the next model upgrade. Looking to the past for a few prompts, the next Sako could be the best yet – whenever that may be. BP
Models tested: Varmint Laminated Stainless in .222; 85 Finnlight in .243
Price range: £1,645-£2,280
Contact: GMK 01489 587500