Steyr Mannlicher is often a name associated with legendary rifles of old – but the newer Steyrs shouldn’t be overlooked, as Byron Pace finds out
My introduction to Mannlicher rifles set the standard for how I would judge all rifles from that moment on. The Mannlicher Schönauer was a legendary piece of engineering with a magnificent history and hunting pedigree. This rifle, in the hands of ‘Karamojo’ Bell, reputedly accounted for 1,011 elephants during the era of the great ivory trade.
Today’s Steyr Mannlicher Classic is touted as a direct descendent of the Schönauer. However, the new model is no modern version of the classic 1903 model. The rifle bolt may look the same, and it still sports the distinctive tool marks on the barrel from the cold hammer forging process, but the quality and impeccable engineering of the 1903 model has the edge on today’s rifle. Getting my hands on one of the old rifles from that iconic era is high on my list of desires.
That may be a negative note on which to introduce the Steyr Mannlicher, but don’t let this insight into the ‘old world’ discourage you from looking at the modern rifle. When stacked up beside comparable offerings in today’s market, the current Mannlicher is probably one of the prettiest rifles around. It shoots like a demon, too.
This review will proceed from the inside out, putting the rifle together piece by piece to get a full picture of how it fares. Conducting all reviews in this fashion should provide interesting comparisons in terms of build quality and design when different models and manufacturers are presented side by side.
With this in mind, I reached for the hex-headed keys to remove the stock from the action. My first surprise was not finding a fixing point to the rear of the trigger guard, leaving two bolts to the front. When I removed the well-machined trigger guard assembly, it became clear that a lot of time had been spent fitting it precisely to the stock, including recessing the rear lug slot.
With that, the action could be removed from the stock, exposing the fixing methods from the inside. I was initially impressed by the aluminium pillar bedding, which is becoming the norm with factory rifles. On closer inspection, however, two issues became apparent. Firstly – and this is relatively minor – the resin used to fix the pillars in place hadn’t been completely cleaned off, resulting in an uneven bearing surface for the action to fix down onto. Obviously the pillar bedding aims to achieve improved accuracy over a standard fixing, and I doubt the resin overspill will have made a jot of difference here. It is merely an attention to detail that should have been picked up on.
My second observation was a bit more practical. The rear pillar is bedded in an incredibly thin inlet of the stock, with very little ‘meat’ to provide strength. If there had been a third rear fixing behind the trigger guard this would have been of little consequence, but as I alluded to earlier, this is not the case. With the leverage of the barrel and action on these stock fixings, any kind of substantial fall with your rifle could land you with a cracked stock.
The stock itself is really quite stunning. The overall shape was incredibly pleasing, with the slim forestock and Schnabel tip drawing your eye down the aesthetically mesmerising barrel. The well-textured and deep chequering was comfortably positioned, and the proportions made the rifle come to the shoulder positively.
At the heart of the action is a chunky bolt with four locking lugs and the classic ‘butter knife’ bolt handle. In my eyes, it is one of the most beautiful bolts ever to grace a rifle (although the Schönauer’s was slightly nicer). The parallel pairs of forward locking lugs provide an incredibly positive and strong lock-up. Setting it apart from most manufacturers, the Mannlicher’s lugs are recessed, protruding only as far as the overall diameter of the bolt itself and allowing the receiver to be machined uniformly along its entire length. The end result is a 70-degree throw and a bolt that glides effortlessly, aided by the corrosion-resistant and polished nickel-plated finish.
The practical application of the rifle has been thought of here too, as ice grooves on the top and bottom of the bolt help ensure faultless operation in freezing conditions. They also act as grime channels to allow smooth reloading even when dust and dirt have found their way into your rifle. Case extraction is carried out by the archetypal plunger and sprung claw, and a user friendly design allows for easy field stripping.
The trigger is at the heart of every accurate rifle, and the Mannlicher doesn’t disappoint here. The standard trigger is a little on the heavy side and cannot be adjusted for pull weight, releasing the firing pin with what I would describe as an adequate break. However, the real treat comes once the set trigger is engaged. With the safety on the first position, you can gently push the trigger forward until it clicks. With that, the trigger is ‘set’.
The barrel carries the characteristic and beautiful spirals courtesy of the cold hammer forging process – a method that produces some incredibly hard-wearing barrels. However, there is a theory that barrels produced by this method are not as inherently accurate as the alternatives. For hunting purposes this is merely academic – it will likely only be noticed by benchrest shooters. Indeed, when I had the chance to take it to the range, there was no denying the accuracy of the set-up. Topped with a Zeiss Duralyt scope in 3-12×50 (a truly superb piece of kit for the money) and 100-grain Federals, it got me on zero with three shots. The following three nestled into 0.8in. Not bad for a rifle straight out the box.
The Classic is often described as a ‘gentleman’s rifle’, and I certainly wouldn’t disagree. Its beauty and operation speak for itself, but I would stop short of suggesting this particular model was a professional’s choice. The issue with the stock fixing mentioned at the start of the article would concern me, especially in the heavier calibres and for serious rough hunting. I wouldn’t want my life to depend on it, anyway. Having said that, most amateur stalkers will never have any issues with it.
The rifle in this review was borrowed from my mate Martin Hodge just after he bought it. Here is an account, in his words, of the first successful hunt with the rifle in the beautiful surroundings of the Cairngorms at the end of the doe season.
“Carrying my new Steyr Mannlicher .243 Win, with a clip of Federal Power Shok 100-grain, we started to climb. And climb. And climb. At the top we glassed several likely does, but a swirling wind carried our scent towards the parting animals. We pressed on across the next ridge, traipsing through patches of snow occupying the hollows among the heather. After an hour and a half we spotted a small group about 400 yards away. Keeping the uneven ground between us and the deer, we stalked carefully towards them, belly slithering the final 50 yards into position.
“At 100 yards I managed to get a nice broadside shot, nestling the fine crosshairs up the inside leg. After a couple of wobbly steps, she fell down in the heather. I was a happy man.
“After a well-tutored DSC gralloch and inspection (I’m doing Level 2), we loaded the roe sack and headed back down the mountain for a well-earned couple of drams. Compared to lowland stalking, hill roe are really hard work and challenging to stalk, but well worth the effort. My new rifle performed faultlessly. Its lightness and manoeuvrability were a joy on the harsh hill. I look forward to the next outing – maybe a trophy next time.”