Byron Pace reviews renowned shotgun manufacturer Antonio Zoli’s fullbore offering – an Italian rifle with Scandinavian blood
I knew Zoli made outstanding high-end shotguns, but in the UK, that esteemed name had never really been associated with rifles – until now. There was no question of Zoli’s fine craftsmanship, but it would be very interesting to see how this would translate into producing a hunting rifle.
As I shouldered the Bavarian model for the first time, there was something strangely familiar. I knew I had never set eyes on an Antonio Zoli rifle before (although they were originally launched in 1989), but the lines and build of the action had most definitely crossed my path. It was a moment before it dawned on me. I was holding a Husqvarna 1900.
A quick flick through my book on rifle actions confirmed the origin – an aerial view showing bolt, safety and receiver matched meticulously with the rifle I was holding. Browsing Zoli’s website gave final sign-off of this fact – it described their rifles as based on the old Husqvarna actions.
Renowned for its build quality and strength, the Swedish gunmaker Husqvarna originally built rifles designed around a modified Mauser action. It exported worldwide, providing Smith and Wesson with actions for its rifle debut in 1968. In the 70s the design took a radical departure from its origins, building on Husqvarna’s knowledge base to produce a more refined tool. The modern Zoli bolt-action rifle draws its design and construction almost entirely from these model 1900 rifles, and later series 8000 actions.
The deep blue of the metalwork was the first thing that caught my eye. With a traditional look and feel, the rifle strays from the modern trends of matt finishes, coated metalwork and synthetic stocks – but this is no bad thing. It is a rifle that has its roots firmly in the past, yet is every bit as relevant to the modern hunter as it was 40 years ago.
The stock was relatively plain, with clean chequering cut around the pistol grip and forestock, giving a crisp underhand feel with comfortable dimensions. It shouldered nicely with an endearing familiarity; I was enjoying the return to more traditional roots. Removed from the metalwork, inletting was sealed and finished well, but unlike many new rifles to the market, there was no pillar or resin bedding. Having said that, I believe bedding can be requested on special order, along with a magazine upgrade for the factory floor plate.
The action itself is relatively simple, sporting a machined cylindrical receiver with integral recoil lug. My initial inspection led me to believe that the lug was welded on after machining, though Zoli is eager to point out that it is indeed formed from a single piece of steel. This is always my first query on any action. The modern move away from integral recoil lugs is purely on a basis of manufacturing ease and cost-cutting. It may be hard to quantify the down-range benefits of the integral lug, but there is no doubt that this is the strongest design. With this in mind it is always my preferred choice, although it’s inevitably more important in heavy recoiling rifles.
The bolt locks in place with twin fantail locking lugs, which – bar a slot for a Sako-style extractor – completely encases the case head with a recessed face, in the same way as a Remington or Howa. Easy ejection is achieved by a commonly found sprung plunger, while the bolt glides effortlessly back and forward along the raceways, aided by a protruding guide rib on the right-hand lug. I find the grooved lug on a Howa to be a neater solution, but this works well all the same.
I appreciated the oversized lugs, which provided a large bearing surface to oppose the explosive forces of ignition. The twin lugs are not fancy, but they work. The benefit of more than two lugs is an interesting point for debate, but many gunsmiths accept that it is incredibly difficult to achieve uniform bearing surfaces when employing multiple, stacked lugs. With just two, lapping can easily bring them close to 100 per cent contact with lug recesses – an important factor in an accurate rifle.
Cocking on the rise of the bolt, the handle itself is well positioned for fast operation, swept down and slightly backwards. My only dislike was the unblued finish and less than refined handle to shaft interface – I have never been massive fan of shiny bolts.
With the underside of the shaft recessed along its length, the bolt is removed by fully depressing the trigger with the safety off, dropping the sear through the action. This is similar in nature to Brno CZ rimfires, and although it functions perfectly, this feature could be potentially life-threatening if hunting dangerous game. If, owing to reasons Murphy is all too aware of, the sear sticks down when pulling the trigger, reloading will result with the rifle in one hand and bolt in the other. The likelihood of this happening is tiny, and this rifle is not chambered in truly big game calibres anyway. It is, however, a worthy observation in any case, as this would not be a new story if it happened tomorrow.
Finished with a chunky shroud, the bolt sits nicely in the action, tapering down from the full diameter of the receiver to a narrower rounded end. The only aspect that differs from the original Husqvarna is that the old rifles sported aesthetically pleasing bolt jewelling. It was not just for looks – the process helps to hold oil on the surface, which in turn facilitates smoother cycling.
A set trigger comes as standard, with the non-set option breaking reasonably, while the set trigger was very light indeed. When not cocked there was a little more play in the trigger unit than I would like, but this locked up when loaded. Since the sear engagement doubles as a bolt stop, it does take a lot of punishment, but I think it is substantial enough to withstand anything thrown at it. I did find that where the sear notch married with the trigger, the edges were a little rougher than I expected to see. This didn’t appear to have any major effect on trigger performance.
The safety catch is located to the right of the bolt, in the same place as a Sako, with a simple forward-and-back arrangement. With the rifle on safe the bolt can be removed by depressing a small tab just in front, essentially providing the same feature as many modern three position safeties. Comfortable and quiet to operate, the long, grippy surface rocks firmly back and forward. It won’t be winning any prizes for looks, though – the slightly cheap appearance isn’t really in keeping with the rest of the rifle, which is a shame. To ensure safe functionality of the set-trigger, the design also ensures that it cannot be operated when ‘on safe’, and will automatically disengage if the safety is applied.
On the range the rifle performed admirably. With the light set trigger adjusted it was a pleasure to fire, although the non-set option could do with a little work. Shooting 150-grain Hornady ammo it rattled off groups just over the 1.5in mark at 100 yards with little issue at all. The 165-grain Hornady Performance performed best, tucking three rounds consistently around the 1MOA region. I have no doubt that tuned handloads would pull this in further.
This rifle’s design has stood the test of time, emerging from one of the great European gunmakers. Now, in the hands of Zoli, the modern incarnation makes this great rifle available to hunters the world over once again. With retail prices in the region of £1,665 it goes head to head with industry standards such as the Sako and the increasingly popular Kimber.
I think to compete in this highly competitive part of the market, Zoli should provide its rifles bedded, and possibly with a magazine – both options that are available as extras. It would also be nice if they came factory screw-cut. Having said that, you will be more than satisfied with this rifle as your staple hunting tool. It will invariably provide decades of trouble-free and excellent service given the solid heritage. Not to mention, of course, that it now sports the highly respected Zoli name.